A Storm Warning Named Desire? Maybe a Movie Called Wishful Thinking…

I stumbled across Storm Warning (1951) on dvd during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. I was bemused by the fact that screenwriters Richard Brooks and Daniel Fuchs set their ugly little tale during the Christmas season. A valiant but clumsy attempt by Hollywood to deal with the Ku Klux Klan, in the alternate universe of this movie, neither racism, anti-Semitism nor anti-Catholicism are part of the KKK’s credo. Yet this film, directed by Stuart Heisler, contains a strikingly similar situation to that of A Streetcar Named Desire, with Doris Day as the bovine newlywed, Ginger Rogers as the sensitive visiting sister, and Steve Cochran as an even more base, vulgar and violent Stanley Kowalski type. Actually, Cochran‘s vivid portrayal makes Kowalski look like David Niven by comparison to him.

 

Interestingly, at the same time that Storm Warning was being made at Warner Brothers Studio, Tennessee Williams‘ oh, so similar and far more original play A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) was also being filmed at the same studio under Elia Kazan‘s direction. One wonders if the plot dynamic just made its way by osmosis into the script of Storm Warning or if Williams just turned a blind eye to this sincere form of flattery as long as the WB checks cashed. While I have some real qualms about this movie’s effectiveness and honesty, this parallel of the film to “Streetcar”, along with some “different” casting choices, (two musical comedy stars in a heavy drama), the presence of a future president in the cast, and one wonderfully yet repellent performance made Storm Warning enjoyable for me.

It may seem odd to see Ginger Rogers in a straight dramatic role, but she seemed to play several of these in the early ’50s during a transitional part of her career. Rogers‘ best moments come when she is silent, watching the Klan at work and glaring at Cochran accusingly. She and Doris make creditable looking sisters, btw. Doris is quite believable as a not very bright girl with very limited experience in the world outside of her small town. Her plight is complicated by her pregnancy and her blindness to the culpability of her beloved lummox. Doris Day, as noted by James Cagney when he worked with her in Love Me or Leave Me, might have made a good dramatic actress, and in this movie she is thankfully without her patented cuteness, shrill hysteria (though she has plenty to be upset about), and heavy breathing emotion. In other words, she does a decent job playing a credible, limited human being.

Excellent character actor Ned Glass, who was to be blacklisted shortly after appearing as a studio hack in the costume dept. in The Bad and The Beautiful, puts in a nice turn as one of the few sympathetic men in Storm Warning. He plays a decent but morally weak and intimidated proprietor of a bowling alley with a bar attached to it.

Think of the shabby charm of Road House (1948). Then re-imagine it in a really poor town, without any nice guys like Cornell Wilde or gals as tough and sharp as Ida Lupino. This recreation center, teaming with sweaty, screaming and ghastly people, seems to be something that might have sprung from the imagination of Hieronymus Bosch. Though Glass is clearly one of the few Jewish townspeople, there were no direct references to this obvious fact. The film only presents him as one of the few likable guys in a sea of troglodytes.

The plot is quite straightforward. Ginger Rogers, a traveling model, stops in the tank town where her sister Doris lives to meet her new brother-in-law Cochran. As soon as Ginger leaves the bus station, however, she witnesses the murder of a reporter at the local jail by the hooded members of the Klan. I won’t spoil the rest of the well-done parts of the story if I tell you that Ginger is compelled to bear witness about what and whom she has seen that night.

The seedy town is beautifully photographed by Carl Guthrie on location in Corona, CA with wet streets, really ugly, dramatic crowd scenes in the courtroom and the rec center mentioned earlier. Though the occasional black citizen appears as an extra in crowds–thrown in for reality sake, I guess–the movie pulls its punches when it comes to dealing with the real significance of the Klan. The violence of the organization is vividly rendered, particularly in one ghastly sequence in which Ginger is whipped, but it seems a bit dishonest to gloss over what it really stood for.

One other spurious note: though the townspeople talk about how they don’t like it when outsiders from New York or Washington or Points North stick their nose into their business, no one has a Southern accent. The only clue that we have that the town is probably in the South is on the bus at the very beginning of the movie, when the next stops called out as Birmingham and Mobile. It’s also obvious that there’s no hint of cold weather, even though we know it’s a not very merry Yuletide.

Ronald Reagan, in the last days of his Warner’s contract, plays a prosecuting attorney trying to find a witness to the Klan’s latest outrage. Despite a part that might have given him a chance for some effective drama, he plays his DA as blandly as possible. Normally, I’m probably one of the few who like Reagan’s mild demeanor and bland presence in movies. He at least makes for pleasant company on screen, but here–faced with an intimidated populace without any moral spine–he acts as though he’s the captain of a football team that has failed to make a crucial field goal, disappointing him and showing a lack of school spirit. I wonder if Reagan thought that the rather socially timid script was “too radical” or if he had just lost interest in attempting any characterizations by this stage of his career?

Reagan‘s character, while miffed about the lack of a sense of duty among his neighbors, insists on characterizing the Klan as a moneymaking gang whose main activity is intimidating outsiders, making it sound like the Mafia. As the McCarthy clouds gathered portentously from Washington to Hollywood, I guess the political winds were blowing briskly to the right by the time of Storm Warning, making the creators a bit timid.

Surely, by the 1950s, it would hardly seem controversial to make a movie that showed the Ku Klux Klan for what it was—not simply a criminal organization seeking economic domination, but as American as Birth of a Nation (1915), which showed D.W. Griffith‘s belief in the “positive side of the KKK”, and is reportedly the most profitable picture ever made, prior to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).

Even a politically conservative studio, MGM, only a year before Storm Warning, had produced a movie with a similar story element. The gentle, picaresque Stars in My Crown (1950), directed by Jacques Tourneur, had cast a meditative eye on a pastoral community where, among other things, Joel McCrea, as a gun-toting yet gentle preacher, had stood up to a Klan gang threatening a freeman (Juano Hernandez, as the soul of patient dignity). Perhaps any potential controversy was mitigated by Stars in My Crown taking place in the late 19th century, allowing audiences to cling to the illusion that such things happened “back then, not now.” Still, in the years just prior to this movie’s production, Intruder in the Dust, Pinky, No Way Out, and Gentlemen’s Agreement had all dealt with racism and the psychological and physical violence that often accompanies it in contemporary terms, with varying degrees of success.

Looked at in this context it seems odd that one of the most socially aware studios, Warner Brothers, should pull its punches on this topic. Warners had explored the sinister racist nature of such organizations in a lively earlier movie called Black Legion (1937). That film had showed the corrosive effect of a nativist gang on a hapless bluecollar worker Humphrey Bogart and gave the actor one of his first opportunities to play a character with some depth.

In the usual brisk, ratatat WB style, the programmer had outlined the protagonist’s disintegration as a person as he became more involved with “The Black Legion”. As in Storm Warning, the group grew out of economic tensions being exploited by the higher ups, but the ugliness of racism toward “foreign born” workers was much more vividly and directly a part of the story in the Bogart film.

In contrast to the earlier film, in Storm Warning we are not given the luxury of seeing Cochran‘s character descend into his personal hell. His character dwells in the lower depths already when we meet him, looming over a Klan victim’s body. The only change that he experiences is when he realizes that his rationalizations and sexual power over his wife (Doris Day) is no longer effective. His character is pathetic, but since he’s played by one of the best villains of the film noir era, rivaling only Dan Dureya in sheer ability to portray a fascinating yet vile sort, he is worth a few choice words.

Cochran‘s greasy-haired, lustful and none too hygienic character of Hank Rice is so completely repellent in his well-played bully part, I wonder if this part might have marked the real end of the actor’s career hopes to play anything other than a scuzz. Honestly, his work is so indelibly vile, I don’t know how casting directors in the ’50s could’ve thought of him as anything but a heavy after this part. Actually, seeing him play this über-baddie made me realize how few chances he had to play a guy who didn’t leave a trail of slime behind him. One was in a lovely, forgotten film that he helped make, called Come Next Spring in ’56, with the fine Ann Sheridan as his co-star in a different part for her as well.

Depicting the return home of a hard-drinking n’er do well to the struggling but stable family that he left 12 years before, it is rueful and quite honest in its depiction of the couple’s situation. Unfortunately, this movie seems to be lost in the vaults of the Paramount library, according to some sources. Another time that Cochran had a chance to play a likable fellow was in Michael Curtiz’ Jim Thorpe, All American (1952), when Cochran played a college classmate of the lead, Burt Lancaster. Cochran’s character is a bit of a braggart initially, but turns out to be a loyal friend to Thorpe, though one wishes that Steve had a chance to do more.

Perhaps that was part of the appeal of Cochran‘s foray into Italian cinema in the ’50s. One of the few times I can think when he played a sympathetic guy was in director Michelangelo Antonioni’s Il Grido (1957), when he played a slow-witted factory worker in Italy wandering through a lonely rural landscape of the Po Valley after his lover (Alida Valli) had rejected him. Unable to effectively communicate with his American actors, Betsy Blair, in her memoir “The Memory of All That: Love and Politics in New York, Hollywood, and Paris”, remembered Steve Cochran and her trying to make heads or tails out of Antonioni‘s enigmatic comments to them about the film. While the movie has a hypnotic, desolate rhythm and is quite poetic at moments, Cochran’s plight, while touching, is never developed as dramatically as it might have been. In retrospect it seems like a warm-up for the director’s equally enigmatic but more widely acclaimed L’Avventura(1960).

For the real, undeniable Steve Cochran persona on screen, you’re probably better off looking for some key ’40s movies. In The Best Years of Our Lives (1945) his opportunistic boytoy for Virginia Mayo in post war Boone City is a nice contrast to her tightly wound Dana Andrews husband. Lolling around their cramped apartment, with his leg over the arm of the chair, his patent leather hair dangling over one eye, he’s a repellent, over ripe creep, a near occasion of sin looking for a bed to flop in—but memorable? You bet!

Another movie that gave Cochran an opportunity to play a slimeball with a great deal of relish, was White Heat (1949)—again cheating with Ms. Mayo, and trying to crowd James Cagney at his craziest, for crying out loud. As I mentioned, his characters weren’t too bright, even if they had a sensuously vulgar appeal.
My favorite Cochran appearance is probably in The Chase (1946), based on one of the brilliant Cornell Woolrich‘s darkest and squirreliest stories, The Black Path of Fear. Cochran plays, of course, a strange, very bad man, who slaps around manicurists, humiliates minions, (among them Peter Lorre), and, of course, manipulates others, including Robert Cummings as his chauffeur, who finds himself literally leaving the driving up to his boss, thanks to a nifty little back seat gadget device.

Mulling over the career of Steve Cochran, I’d say that the forties were his personal High Renaissance, while the fifties went rapidly from his earthily Baroque portrayals, as in Storm Warning, to such dramatically Rococo vehicles as Carnival Story (1954), a woozy love story that owes much to De Mille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, without the budget or the care that went into that earlier spectacle. Forming his own production company in 1954, Cochran worked steadily, had lots of flashy and some famous girlfriends, made some great and many almost unwatchable movies, until he met his own mysterious end in 1965 off the coast of Guatamala, on his yacht, with three hapless girls as crew. Despite all this, he was, and remains, eminently likable, even in the mixed success of a film such as Storm Warning.

18 Responses A Storm Warning Named Desire? Maybe a Movie Called Wishful Thinking…
Posted By MikeJ : January 10, 2008 12:41 am

Reagan playing a DA? His administration had thirty two criminal convictions, the most in history. Playing someone on the right side of the law must have been a stretch for someone as crooked as Ronnie. And opposing the Klan? It’s a pity he didn’t feel that way when he kicked off his campaign for president in Philadelphia, MS, where white supremacists murdered civil rights workers.

Posted By MikeJ : January 10, 2008 12:41 am

Reagan playing a DA? His administration had thirty two criminal convictions, the most in history. Playing someone on the right side of the law must have been a stretch for someone as crooked as Ronnie. And opposing the Klan? It’s a pity he didn’t feel that way when he kicked off his campaign for president in Philadelphia, MS, where white supremacists murdered civil rights workers.

Posted By Al Lowe : January 10, 2008 1:38 pm

I have a tape of "Come Next Spring," which co-stars Walter Brennan and Sonny Tufts. Music is by Max Steiner and the title song, co-written by Steiner, is sung by Tony Bennett.The opening words narrated by Steve Cochran, as he walks down a dusty road, are: "This story takes place in Arkansas. It is a proud state."The story is set in 1927. I wish I could say I was impressed by it. Yes, Cochran tries to ingratiate himself with the family he alienated. Of course, there is the inevitable misunderstanding and it is eventually resolved.You give it an A for effort, not for achievement.I think of Cochran as a victim of the times. The big studio system was coming apart and Warner never really tried to make him a star. He played a villain opposing Gary Cooper in "Dallas" and of one of Joan Crawford's boyfriends in "The Damned Don't Cry."   He was certainly unlucky, if not damned.

Posted By Al Lowe : January 10, 2008 1:38 pm

I have a tape of "Come Next Spring," which co-stars Walter Brennan and Sonny Tufts. Music is by Max Steiner and the title song, co-written by Steiner, is sung by Tony Bennett.The opening words narrated by Steve Cochran, as he walks down a dusty road, are: "This story takes place in Arkansas. It is a proud state."The story is set in 1927. I wish I could say I was impressed by it. Yes, Cochran tries to ingratiate himself with the family he alienated. Of course, there is the inevitable misunderstanding and it is eventually resolved.You give it an A for effort, not for achievement.I think of Cochran as a victim of the times. The big studio system was coming apart and Warner never really tried to make him a star. He played a villain opposing Gary Cooper in "Dallas" and of one of Joan Crawford's boyfriends in "The Damned Don't Cry."   He was certainly unlucky, if not damned.

Posted By ken123 : January 11, 2008 8:00 pm

Moira,Thank you for excellent review of " Storm Warning " and of Steve Cochran. I have never een " Storm ", but I have already order " Black Legion " which a a minor classic IMHO.I ts's attack on racism and hatred is something to behold.

Posted By ken123 : January 11, 2008 8:00 pm

Moira,Thank you for excellent review of " Storm Warning " and of Steve Cochran. I have never een " Storm ", but I have already order " Black Legion " which a a minor classic IMHO.I ts's attack on racism and hatred is something to behold.

Posted By moira : January 13, 2008 12:30 pm

Hi MikeJ,I understand that the mention of Ronald Reagan's name will stir antipathy in readers, but his presence in this film, as in several others, (esp. King's Row (1942) & Prisoner of War (1954), are in part of interest to me because they have an added resonance due to his political role later in life. Given the scope of any blog devoted to classic film, and the fact that history, however unfortunate cannot be changed, I've concentrated on my reaction to the film and what I've learned about the political and cultural atmosphere in which the movie was made. I will leave any re-examination of the man or his actions for others in the plethora of  venues examining that side of life. Nevertheless, I appreciate your response to my blog piece, which attempted to describe a portion of the  interesting aspects of this type of film. HI Al Lowe, Thanks so much for the feedback on Come, Next Spring(1956), which unfortunately I haven't seen since the late '70s. I think that my fondness for the film was shaped by my abiding penchant for Ann Sheridan as well as my amusement with Cochran and his often haphazard career. I'm not sure if Steve Cochran had come along a decade earlier in the studio system if he would have had more chances to play central characters in movies. Since he first acted in movies in the mid-40s, he had what many would consider an enviable career playing a variety of men who were a complex and entertaining mix of rogues, occasional flawed good guys and outright knaves. I've seen The Damned Don't Cry (1950) and found Cochran to be a wonderfully repellent character who was probably the best actor in that deeply cynical film.Ken,I'm delighted to hear that Black Legion (1937) is about to be released as a dvd, since it still has some powerful moments. In addition to the good part played well by Bogart, any movie that gave Joe Sawyer a chance to shine is okay by me!   

Posted By moira : January 13, 2008 12:30 pm

Hi MikeJ,I understand that the mention of Ronald Reagan's name will stir antipathy in readers, but his presence in this film, as in several others, (esp. King's Row (1942) & Prisoner of War (1954), are in part of interest to me because they have an added resonance due to his political role later in life. Given the scope of any blog devoted to classic film, and the fact that history, however unfortunate cannot be changed, I've concentrated on my reaction to the film and what I've learned about the political and cultural atmosphere in which the movie was made. I will leave any re-examination of the man or his actions for others in the plethora of  venues examining that side of life. Nevertheless, I appreciate your response to my blog piece, which attempted to describe a portion of the  interesting aspects of this type of film. HI Al Lowe, Thanks so much for the feedback on Come, Next Spring(1956), which unfortunately I haven't seen since the late '70s. I think that my fondness for the film was shaped by my abiding penchant for Ann Sheridan as well as my amusement with Cochran and his often haphazard career. I'm not sure if Steve Cochran had come along a decade earlier in the studio system if he would have had more chances to play central characters in movies. Since he first acted in movies in the mid-40s, he had what many would consider an enviable career playing a variety of men who were a complex and entertaining mix of rogues, occasional flawed good guys and outright knaves. I've seen The Damned Don't Cry (1950) and found Cochran to be a wonderfully repellent character who was probably the best actor in that deeply cynical film.Ken,I'm delighted to hear that Black Legion (1937) is about to be released as a dvd, since it still has some powerful moments. In addition to the good part played well by Bogart, any movie that gave Joe Sawyer a chance to shine is okay by me!   

Posted By cgeye : January 15, 2008 12:23 am

I fondly remember Steve Cochran in his role as a sideman in Danny Kaye's pictures:  WONDER MAN, THE KID FROM BROOKLYN, A STAR IS BORN…. Cochran plays the guy who looks like he should be with Mayo, except that natural heelness gets in the way.   

Posted By cgeye : January 15, 2008 12:23 am

I fondly remember Steve Cochran in his role as a sideman in Danny Kaye's pictures:  WONDER MAN, THE KID FROM BROOKLYN, A STAR IS BORN…. Cochran plays the guy who looks like he should be with Mayo, except that natural heelness gets in the way.   

Posted By keleigh : March 29, 2008 10:36 pm

You need to have lived during the 50s and 60s to realize the tremendous chance the studios were taking then even though by the standards of today the movie might fall short in its portrayal of the KKK, it was risky then.  This began the chipping away of a very powerful organization in the South at that time.  They were the law and the jury!!

Posted By keleigh : March 29, 2008 10:36 pm

You need to have lived during the 50s and 60s to realize the tremendous chance the studios were taking then even though by the standards of today the movie might fall short in its portrayal of the KKK, it was risky then.  This began the chipping away of a very powerful organization in the South at that time.  They were the law and the jury!!

Posted By keleigh : March 29, 2008 10:37 pm

You need to have lived during the 50s and 60s to realize the tremendous chance the studios were taking then even though by the standards of today the movie might fall short in its portrayal of the KKK, it was risky then.  This began the chipping away of a very powerful organization in the South at that time.  They were the law and the jury!!

Posted By keleigh : March 29, 2008 10:37 pm

You need to have lived during the 50s and 60s to realize the tremendous chance the studios were taking then even though by the standards of today the movie might fall short in its portrayal of the KKK, it was risky then.  This began the chipping away of a very powerful organization in the South at that time.  They were the law and the jury!!

Posted By chris Souter : June 15, 2009 12:19 pm

always pleased to find another writer who appreciates Steve Cochran. Hopefuly, ala are aware by now, tha his last film Tell Me In The Sunlight, which he cowrote and directed has been released and currently available on Amazon. Also, Il Grido has been beautifully remastered and released on Steve’s birthdate May 25th, on DVD in the Masters of
Cinema series in the UK.
Steve greatest love was probably his boats, and he is buried in Monterry Ca. where he used to hang out with some of the Steinbeck crowd. I recently visited the gravesite, he is the only actor buried thare; along with many Cannery Row characters. A great spot, away from Hollywood, for a talented man, who was never really appreciated by Hollywood.

Posted By chris Souter : June 15, 2009 12:19 pm

always pleased to find another writer who appreciates Steve Cochran. Hopefuly, ala are aware by now, tha his last film Tell Me In The Sunlight, which he cowrote and directed has been released and currently available on Amazon. Also, Il Grido has been beautifully remastered and released on Steve’s birthdate May 25th, on DVD in the Masters of
Cinema series in the UK.
Steve greatest love was probably his boats, and he is buried in Monterry Ca. where he used to hang out with some of the Steinbeck crowd. I recently visited the gravesite, he is the only actor buried thare; along with many Cannery Row characters. A great spot, away from Hollywood, for a talented man, who was never really appreciated by Hollywood.

Posted By bunnybuntales : June 27, 2009 6:34 pm

You’re so lucky you get to be the official TCM blog. Just logged in because I saw Reagan in Dark Victory. I’ve seen him in Bedtime for Bonzo, John Loves Mary, Knute Rockne All AMerican, Boy Meets Girl, and This is the Army. He was a good actor but no Jane Wyman. LOL

I’m so jealous of you. My blog is bunnybuntales.wordpress.com

Posted By bunnybuntales : June 27, 2009 6:34 pm

You’re so lucky you get to be the official TCM blog. Just logged in because I saw Reagan in Dark Victory. I’ve seen him in Bedtime for Bonzo, John Loves Mary, Knute Rockne All AMerican, Boy Meets Girl, and This is the Army. He was a good actor but no Jane Wyman. LOL

I’m so jealous of you. My blog is bunnybuntales.wordpress.com

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