Carson and Barnes Circus, in the 1960s

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Sunday Morning, Looking Back: When Hollywood Came to Santa Rosa, I Made a Movie with Bette Davis

This originally appeared on November 25, 2008


While they cluttered the library grounds with poles and cables, platforms and light fixtures and smoke machines, I felt a rare privilege that magical October evening walking around the premises, eager and ready to be a part of it all. What chaotic excitement! Trucks loaded with costumes and props and tools along the street. People from Hollywood everywhere, walking this way and that with all sorts of things they needed to do their jobs. Ramps being laid out over which cameras would roll ...

They were shooting a film starring Bette Davis, at a time in her life when she was struggling to revive a foundering career. She had accepted a very daring role and threw herself into it full force.

“Santa Rosa library to burn for movie” headlined the Press Democrat. That’s the scene they were getting ready to shoot. About this movie then titled The Librarian, we were told very little. Nobody suspected that right under our innocent eyes the first-ever overtly anti-McCarthyism Hollywood film was being made.

My mom, my sister Kathy and I had each been given slips to appear as “extras” in a crowd scene, for which we were each to receive $3. And when finally it came time to assemble on a grassy area outside the entrance to the town’s Carnegie-endowed library, at last, my great moment was at hand!

So, okay, yes (pardon my shamefully deceptive headline up there), this was not really a film about Bette Davis and me. But hear me out, please; it was a film in which my mug, at least (I assumed), would show up when the movie came to Santa Rosa sometime in the future.

The city had dispatched three fire trucks and 12 fireman to serve as extras in the mock blaze. The towns’ residents had been warned well in advance not to mistake a movie fire for a real one and rush to their telephones in a mass panic.

A man with a bullhorn gave us some directions, none of which I can remember. Nice man, though. Then a hushed silence fell over the outdoor set, and I noticed figures in the near darkness moving about — Bette Davis in a dark brooding coat getting out of a car and walking up to the front steps, and a man, probably the tall gaunt actor Paul Kelly, meeting her and their exchanging a few words. We couldn’t hear what they said. “Cut!” shouted the man with the bullhorn.

He told us to stand by. They wanted to do another take. And then another. And then, all too soon, all of the temporary magic it had taken them so long to assemble melted suddenly away — like a circus vanishing down the tracks into a lonely stealing night.

When Storm Center(the film’s ultimate title) came to town the following year, I don’t know if I even saw it. If I did, it must not have impressed me any more than it had the critics. In hazy (or romantically self-misleading) recall, I can almost see myself with friends at the California Theatre watching the film and anxiously waiting for the library to go up in flames so that we could study the faces in the crowd, hoping to find some of our own.

In my mom’s diary for Thursday, October 6, 1955, she wrote “Kathy, David and I went down to the library where Columbia pictures is working. David got right up in front —should be seen in picture if they show that section.”

So, after all these years — hoping and waiting for Storm Center to be shown somewhere — it has never been released in VHS, is rarely shown in revival houses — Turner Classic Movies, God bless them, is at least showing it. This Friday at 4:30 AM. Okay, TCM, no problem. Not for the chance to see myself in the only movie in which I (maybe) ever appeared.

Storm Center was harshly dismissed by reviewers pounding away at overly simplistic scripting. The Legion of Decency of the Catholic church resisted the film because of what it deemed its "pro-Communist" leanings, although it did not outright condemn the film but established a separate classification for it. At the Cannes Film Festival in 1957, however, Storm Center was awarded the Prix de Chevalier da la Barre, cited as “this year’s film which best helps freedom of expression and tolerance.”

The film dramatizes the rising tension between the city council and librarian Alicia Hull, played by Davis, when she is pressed to withdraw a book titled The Communist Dream from the shelves.

Today glancing at film websites, I am surprised to discover so many positive reviews from film buffs who believe that Storm Center got a terribly unfair rap. On IMBd, the movie is treated like a misunderstood genius. “Masterpiece underestimated by everyone including Bette.” writes one. “This great film compares favorably with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, claims another.

Perhaps Senator Joe McCarthy’s HUAC hearing silenced, as well, a number of film critics who otherwise might have viewed Storm Center in a more appreciative light. Now I will get to see, at last, for myself.

My most vivid memory of those three weeks when Columbia Pictures spread its props and people, its cables and light fixtures across town, was an afternoon when I was walking down Fourth Street in the direction of the library. Quiet afternoon. Up the street passing me very slowly came a black Cadillac inside which I saw Bette Davis sitting in the back seat all to herself, looking regally ahead, as if she could hear and see a cheering Grumman’s Chinese Theatre opening night crowd.

Except that, on that quiet afternoon five hundred miles north of the shadowland of illusions, the entire crowd of gawking spectators consisted of only -- me. I have never forgotten that majestically revealing moment. It helps one stay humble.

[Photos, from top down: A scene from the film; Bette Davis confers with Santa Rosa's actual librarian Ruth Hall; Davis being interviewed by Santa Rosa Press Democrat Women's Editor Roby Gemmell; Davis being handed the first honorary membership card into the Sonoma County Humane Society by Michele Lahtinen]

A review of the movie, which I saw recently on TCM:


Perhaps all that Storm Center lacked was a more openly supportive press. Fifty two years later, I was finally able to watch the movie when TCM aired it early one morning. And what an impressive revelation if is. Although maybe far from the “masterpiece” that some contemporary movie buffs believe it to be, I was struck by Storm Center’s courageous if theatrically rough treatment of its central issue. Bette Davis turns in one of her most controlled and sympathetic performances — ever. This is a far better film than critics gave it credit for, full of intelligence and insight, even if Freddy’s reaction to the librarian he idolizes getting fired for her Red-tainted background is a bit over the top. But what an over-the-top-moment it is when he lashes out angrily at Hull during a children’s wing dedication ceremony, calling her a communist and telling her to get out. An unforgettably powerful scene, and what follows is a harrowing climax through the imagery of shelf after shelf of great books going up in flames. This civic disaster brings the community to its senses. The city fathers rehire the librarian they so shamefully disgraced, and she resolves to rebuild the library.

11.25.08

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

SHOWBIZ DAVID..MY MOTHER AND WIFE WERE ALSO IN THAT FRONT ROW..I DID SEE THE MOVIE AND IT SHOWED CLOSE-UPS OF THEM..WOULD LIKE TO FIND A COPY OF STORM CENTER..ANY IDEAS??

Showbiz David said...

Yes, I see that dvd copies are for sale on the internet. Go to google and enter "Storm center" in the exact phrase line, and "dvd sale" in the line above. This will pull up at least two links to sellers of a dvd! Most interesting that your wife and mother were in the very front row. If it's the scene I'm thinking of where the camera panned the faces, those faces were full of emotion. I found my own face a few rows back. Best of luck. The movie has a lot to offer; I think the critics were unfair in dismissing it so.

Lisa said...

I have a Sonoma County movie location contest at
http://sonomaonthecheap.com/2009/03/sonoma-countys-movie-locations-contest/#more-658

This is a great story, can we link to it? Better yet, come to that link and comment on the posting with this link and people will be able to read this and you'll be entered to win prizes...

Showbiz David said...

Lisa, I would like to cooperate, but I am not sure what I can do to make it easy for people to link directly to the story. Maybe I could redate it so that it appears closer to the more recent postings. E-mail me, if you wish, at
davidnow@juno.com
David