- Bette Davis and the Cold War Career Women in Storm Center (1956)
Librarians in film and television often occupy the position of, at the very least, mildly antisocial hideaway. In recent popular culture, the profession appears in the form of the bookish scholarly hero (as in the character of Giles from Buffy, the Vampire Slayer (1992 film and 1997–2003 television series) or the character of Flynn Carsen from The Librarian (2004–2008 television films and 2014–2018 television series). Beyond these male figures, the librarian can also signify social isolation and loneliness when associated with women. In the film It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), the otherwise buoyant and graceful Mary (Donna Reed) transforms into a dowdy librarian in the dismal alternative reality created by an angel who is sent to rescue her husband from suicide. The librarian, such a film implies, is sterile and agoraphobic, fated to become the lonely “old maid.” Consigned to the back shelves of any narrative that requires decisive agency, this image of the librarian fits sexist mid-20th-century American notions of gender and professional identity. But can the woman librarian signify something more, a power unreckoned by her society?
When the film Storm Center debuted in 1956, centering on the story of a librarian who resists censorship, the July issue of Library Journal offered not one but three reviews of the Bette Davis vehicle. Two of the reviewers— women librarians—admired Davis’s performance of their profession. Charlotte Bilkey Speicher writes, “Bette Davis gives an interesting and compelling performance,” while Marilla Waite Freeman states, “If ‘Storm Center’ has the high success that we hope, it will be in no small degree because of the intelligence with which Bette Davis, one of the screen’s notables, has interpreted the role of libraries and librarians in the current struggle for freedom and thought.”1 In the months before its release, many American librarians were well aware of the production. In the June 16, 1956, issue of The Saturday Review, a series of stories on the state of American libraries featured an article on the film.2 Also in June, there was a special prerelease screening of the film at the summer ALA conference, with the event prefaced by a letter by Davis expressing her hope that she had “reflected accurately” the “dedicated services” of librarians.3 Earlier, in March of that same year, Daniel Taradish, the film’s cowriter and director, and producer Julian Blaustein had spoken at the February midwinter meeting of the American Library [End Page 15] Association (ALA) before production completed. The film had been amply supported by its producers and its star. Yet responses to it from the ranks of librarians themselves ranged from one librarian lauding Davis for elevating the profession “to the level of accomplishment for which we have striven for 75 years” to a male librarian attacking the film’s presentation of women librarians, who, he suggests, in real life can be “just as conservative as any other group” and therefore are often not the agents of liberty whom Speicher had admired. Still, among these responses, another woman librarian exuberantly lauded Davis’s characterization as refreshingly complex in being “neither drab nor stylish or young or old, hurt as we all are by ostracism but very proud, [and] finally in a crisis coming through.”4
Given Storm Center’s subject matter, the attention paid to the film by librarians is not surprising. The production was a passion project for Taradish, who worked five years to bring to the screen the story of a widowed librarian, Davis’s Alicia Hull, stripped of her job and ostracized by her community after refusing to remove a work of communist propaganda from her shelves. The real-life Oklahoman librarian Ruth Brown, fired in 1950 for circulating supposedly subversive materials, loosely inspired the screenplay.5 Yet Taradish and cowriter Elick Moll devise their story as a larger allegory for the paranoia and political exploitations of the era. The film features an unscrupulous Joseph McCarthy-like member of city council, Paul Duncan (Brian Keith), exploiting Hull’s principled stance for political gain by smearing her World War II-era Popular...