It seems impossible to separate Ronald Reagan’s life as an American president from his life as an actor, whose career in cinema and television spanned from 1937 to 1964. Although he has been dismissed (mostly by the leftist Hollywood establishment) as a “B-movie” actor, Reagan’s talent is on full display in a variety of his films. His presence made an impact and this is especially visible in Stuart Heisler’s 1951 film, “Storm Warning.”
Reagan plays Burt Rainey, a district prosecutor in the small town of Rock Point. (It’s unclear where the town is located, but it’s suggested that it might be in the South.) His paths cross with Marsha Mitchell (Ginger Rogers), a traveling clothes model who decides to take a detour to Rock Point. Marsha’s intention is to visit her newlywed sister Lucy (Doris Day), and her new brother-in-law. The trip is a much needed break from Marsha’s job.
Marsha arrives in Rock Point in the evening, which sets the course for the entire film. There is something unusual and even fishy about this town. All the stores and services appear to be closing early and abruptly. Marsha barely has a chance to check in her luggage before she is quickly ushered out.
As she walks through the darkened streets, one light after another turns off. She is a woman exposed, completely vulnerable to the outside elements. There is a great sense of unease and dread, in which the anxiety has almost supernatural suggestions. Where can she go? How can she get out of this twilight zone and find her sister?
Despite this, Marsha still exhibits independence and strength, and keeps walking. But then, she hears a noise coming from the police station. A group of hooded men drag an already beaten man onto the street and shoot him. They are members of the Ku Klux Klan and are hiding their true identities. One member appears to be frightened by the event and takes off his hooded mask. Marsha witnesses all of this but the Klansmen are not aware of her presence.
The man who removed his turns out to be none other than Marsha’s new brother-in-law, Hank Rice, and one of the conflicts in the film arises from the uncertainty about whether Marsha will testify against him and the Klansmen.
Law and order are fragile in Rock Point. The Klan controls the population and Burt Rainey’s is a lonely voice trying to preserve order and obtain justice. When he arrives at the scene of the crime, he already suspects who the guilty party is, but he doesn’t have any witnesses willing to come forward and testify.
Rainey questions a few possible witnesses but he gets the same response: nobody wants to name names. The Klan terrorizes the town’s inhabitants and forces them to be part of the corruption by remaining silent about the crimes committed. Marsha’s eyewitness testimony offers the only possibility that Rainey can effect any change. This interior conflict of Marsha’s over the question of loyalty and to whom one owes it is the central theme of the film, but there is also the question of Rainey’s loyalty and the courage it takes to go against the town in which he was raised. For him, there is something higher than loyalty to a place and people, and that is loyalty to truth and justice.
Although the film suffers from a slightly predictable script, its cinematography is beautiful and intense, with heightened contrasts between dark and light that create an ever present uncertainty and existential dread. Images are often foggy (a diner lit up in the night at which Marsha tries to get assistance), crisp and defined (Reagan’s face and a slightly tipped hat when the camera first introduces him), and inhuman and shaded (a meeting between Hank Rice and the Klan leader, Charlie Barr).
“Storm Warning” lends itself to several different interpretations. Although the film is using the Klansmen as the villains, they are a strangely sterile force in the film. Their whole existence in this film is divorced from the racism and traumas that plagued black Americans. Rather, they purport to “protect” the town from outsiders and their only visible victim is Walter Adams, a journalist who was working to uncover their activities.
“Storm Warning” is better viewed as an anti-Communist film. The Klan in the film is a stand-in for the Hollywood Communists, who used coercion tactics to keep people silent during the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings. Reagan, among many others, was a “friendly witness.” In fact, Reagan was always very much involved in the well-being of his fellow actors, and instead of only being an observer, he took his citizenship and duties quite seriously.
Lloyd Billingsley in his excellent account of Hollywood’s affair with Communism, Hollywood Party, shows how Reagan and a few others addressed the coercive and terroristic tactics of the Communist Party against those who were willing to testify. Reagan and other anti-Communists “signed a public statement titled ‘You Can Be Free Men Again!’ to let others know if they broke party ranks they would not stand alone.”
“It takes courage and desire and time,” the document reads, “for an American to work free of the tentacles of the Communist Party. And it takes help. But there is a way out. To any Communist Party member who may be seeking that way, we say: ‘You too can be free men again!’”
Hollywood may have enjoyed uncommonly sunny weather compared to the rest of the country, but a cloud of fear and coercion was always hovering above. People didn’t know who they could trust, and it created a culture of paranoia. Reagan didn’t see this primarily as a political problem but, even more, recognized it as an existential problem for actors in that environment. He was the president of the Screen Actors Guild, and took his duties in that capacity seriously. Ultimately, he was a reluctant witness.
In a memo dated September 2, 1947, from the House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities, we find a description of Reagan, which indicates his commitment to American ideals. It also, and more importantly, shows the depth of Reagan’s thought process and complete lack of ideology. It reads:
This individual [Ronald Reagan] is presently President of the Screen Actors Guild. He has no fear of any one, is a nice talker, well informed on the subject, and will make a spendid [sic] witness. He is of course reticent to testify, because he states that he is a New Deal Liberal, and does not agree with the number of individuals in the Motion Picture Alliance. I believe we straightened out a number of his differences, in that he felt [Adolphe] Menjou and some of the others referred to him, Reagan, as a man who had been Leftist and then reformed. Reagan resents this very much, as he states he never was a Leftist, that actually he got tangled up with a few committees that he thought were alright, but it took him some time to learn they were not. As soon as he discovered that fact, he got out of them.
What’s fascinating here is that we see Reagan’s determination to do the right thing. His conscience matters, and he clearly deliberated very carefully about what he should do in these instances. Another significant component is Reagan’s rejection of any ideology. He rejects any attempt at being pigeonholed and used by the committee. In other words, he is a free man, his own man, and recognizes there is nothing worse than a free human being in the eyes of an ideologue.
In “Storm Warning,” Burt Rainey gets justice in the end, but not without paying a price. Marsha’s reluctance to testify costs her, too, but the mask of ideology is not only lifted; it is destroyed.