The (partially) radical librarian on film

Movie posterThe first event of the Radical Voices season is a film showing of Storm Center, starring Bette Davis as a public librarian whose position is threatened by her support for intellectual freedom. Released in 1957, it is generally regarded as the first mainstream film to resist what has come to be termed ‘McCarthyism,’ and the enforced eradication from American political and cultural life of all those perceived to be sympathetic to communism. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the political climate of the time, the director, Daniel Taradash, despite having previously won an Oscar for the screenplay of From Here to Eternity, found very little work in Hollywood after the film’s release.

For a librarian, the film is also a rather striking instance of the profession being portrayed in a positive, indeed even heroic, light. Film audiences are more accustomed to librarians, and especially female librarians, as timid, thwarted and largely misanthropic. Perhaps exemplary here is Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life!, where once the central character, George Bailey, is temporarily granted his wish that he had never been born, he is allowed a glimpse of what would have happened to his wife, Mary, in such a scenario. Deprived of the marital joy which George can deliver, Mary has become a clearly unhappy spinster librarian, hugging books to her chest for comfort and protection, and terrified by the world at large and men in particular, running screaming from George when he speaks to her.

Such reductive and ultimately offensive stereotypes are very revealing of the sexual politics of their culture, and Storm Center at least partially resists them in its portrayal of a professional and principled woman. However, it cannot quite escape the conviction that a woman’s identity is best defined, if not ratified, by her sexual relationship to men, as is seen by certain changes to the biography of the librarian on which the film is based, Ruth Brown (1891-1975). Brown similarly found herself hounded from her job for supplying subversive materials, but while she remained single and declared herself more than once to be married to her library, Taradash is clearly uncomfortable with such a heroine, and his script emphasises the central character’s worldly experience by somewhat clumsily stressing that she is a widow.

The screening will be preceded by a brief introduction from Richard Espley, Head of Modern Collections, which will explore the actual life of Ruth Brown, and what Taradash’s other omissions from and embellishments to her life reveal.