Wednesday, March 04, 2009


Full disclosure: The first job I ever applied for, at the tender age of 16, was at a public library. I didn't get it. But all through my school years (elementary through grad school), I loved libraries and in all my years at OSU, I spent more time in libraries than I did in campus bars. I've always been a reader, I worked for many years in bookstores, and now, in middle years of my life, I'm finally working at a library--though since my degree isn't in library science, I dare not call myself a "librarian" under pain of condescending looks from my colleagues. There aren't many movies about librarians; THE MUSIC MAN, GOOD NEWS, DESK SET, PARTY GIRL, and IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (if you count the 3-minute sequence of Mary Bailey as an old-maid in the fantasy Pottersville sequence) are all I could come up with. STORM CENTER used to show up on TV on weekend afternoons in the 60's but it's much harder to come by today, so I was ecstatic when it showed up on TCM's schedule recently. It's a pretty drab affair, but for librarian-movie fans, it's a must-see.

[Spoiler Alert!!] Bette Davis is, yes, a maiden lady librarian in a small town (actually, if I recall correctly, she was married but her husband died young). She loves her job and has a good relationship with the town's kids, especially little Kevin Coughlin who loves books even though his dad isn't so happy about that. One day, the city council finds out that the library has a book on Communism on its shelves and they ask Davis to pull it from the collection. At first, she agrees to, but then realizes that once such censorship starts, who knows where it will end, so she puts it back on the shelves. Council member Brian Keith finds some information showing Davis once belonged to a Communist front group, and he threatens to smear her with it. Little Kevin becomes upset, avoids Davis, and starts having bad dreams about snakes slithering out of book pages. Eventually, things come to a head when Davis is forced to leave her job just as the library is about to break ground on a new children's wing. Some well-meaning friends get Davis to attend the ceremony, but little Kevin winds up causing a big scene, and that night, he sets the library on fire.

The idea of a movie about libraries and the First Amendment is an interesting one, but it's not exactly an inherently exciting topic, and the muddled script doesn't help. For starters, it mixes the issues of censorship and McCarthyist witch-hunting, giving neither issue a full airing. None of the characters here are three-dimensional, especially the boy's hateful father (Joe Mantell). Davis's assistant (Kim Stanley) is sympathetic to her concerns, but is Keith’s girlfriend and has no qualms about continuing to date him even as his actions are ruining Davis' life. Davis is lifeless (perhaps that's what she thought librarians were like); the best performances are from Paul Kelly and Edward C. Platt as friends of Davis' who do their best to stand by her, and by 10-year-old Coughlin. This is by no means a bad movie, but nowadays it comes off like a particularly slow-paced Lifetime TV movie, which is not a plus. [TCM]

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