Only now does it occur to me... I never thought I would see Hollywood dancing legend Ginger Rogers being brutalized by members of the Ku Klux Klan...
...and that said tableau would not be "kitschy," but instead would function as a small part of a wider, more profound, and all-too-relevant whole.
Stuart Heisler's STORM WARNING (1951) is a noir-ish message picture and a late entry into the "B-movies depicting the dangers of hate groups in America" genre, which includes films like BLACK LEGION (1937), NATION AFLAME (1937), and LEGION OF TERROR (1936).
Ginger Rogers plays a dress model who's passing through the small town of Rockpoint, USA to visit her newlywed sister (Doris Day). That the studio chose Ginger and Doris to portray key figures in a serious assessment of American hate groups (which is, for the record, not a musical in any way, shape, or form) feels like kind of an artistic coup. [If you'd asked me two weeks ago if there existed a movie where Ginger Rogers was bullwhipped by Klansmen, I would have been incredulous. Even now, I can barely conceive of the idea.] In any event, Ginger is in town for approximately three minutes when she witnesses the Klan murdering a journalist.
For a film about the KKK, the aspect of racial prejudice exists mostly as an implication; we only explicitly see the KKK harming white people who threaten to expose or destroy them. It is an obvious blind spot for the film, but as far as old Hollywood goes, the fact that they are willing to spend 93 minutes attacking a hate group instead of 165 minutes glorifying it (see: 1915's A BIRTH OF A NATION, among others) shows definite progress.
When she goes to tell her sister about it, she recognizes her new brother-in-law as one of the Klan murderers. Using a melodramatic framework that recalls the Blanche DuBois/Stella/Stanley Kowalski dynamic in a STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE,
Doris Day as the suffering, dutiful wife, darkened by the shadow of her abuser (Steve Cochran)...
a man who uses power dynamics and outright intimidation...
...to extend his sphere of abusive influence, illustrated through Elia Kazan-esque theatrical blocking.
Ginger struggles between the ideas of spilling what she knows to the relevant authorities and lying to protect her sister's domestic purgatory. And did I mention that the relevant authority in this instance––the district attorney who's trying to destroy the Klan once and for all––is portrayed by none other than an eyebrow-indicating Ronald Reagan?
Facing external threat and familial guilt, Ginger stays quiet for a while, and the film takes advantage of her uncertainty to twist the knife; laying out an excellent case for why hate groups must rely on secrecy, the threat of violence, the silence of the good, and the indifference of the rational.
Here's a Klan member condescendingly explaining all the "good" they do:
And here's two Klansmen fearing what will happen if Ginger testifies:
And here's national press coverage illustrating the depth of the mistrust of outsiders and intellectuals, a sentiment that boils down to––"don't tell me what to do in my backyard, especially if they're lynching people in my backyard."
When Ginger refuses to testify and it looks like the case is all but lost, the locals cheer Reagan's defeat from outside the courthouse. Then we're privy to a stirring, Capra-style plea on behalf of rationality and tolerance:
All of this builds to a vivid conclusion, rife with madness and Klan imagery.
Films like this ought to be in the dust-bin of history, to be extracted for purposes of derision, at how uncivilized we used to be. They used to burn books? They used to collect in mobs and wear bedsheets and follow tyrants? They needed to be told that was wrong? What a quaint, dumb, superstitious and intolerant people! And yet STORM WARNING has outlived this movie-of-the-week shelf life. It says, in vanilla terms, and with the most vanilla stars imaginable––Doris Day, Ronald Reagan, and Ginger Rogers, for godssake!––the vanilla message that kindness and moral responsibility are American qualities, and that narrow-mindedness, harassment, lying, and intimidation are anti-American. But these days, that feels like a "contentious" message. The hoods have come off, and the Klansmen are emboldened to ply their poison trade by daylight, and under more innocuous flags. The image in the film that sticks with me is this; a fleeting shot of a child whose parent has dressed them up in Kiddie Klan gear:
This image, and the film that contains it, is a 66-year-old plea. To quote Ronald Regan's D.A.: if the good do nothing, "They're gonna rip up the old laws and make new ones. They're gonna do every rotten thing they can think of doing..."