Storm Warning on the Waterfront

As Emina Melonic recently noted, the 1951 motion picture “Storm Warning, starring Ronald Reagan, Ginger Rogers, and Doris Day, is indeed an anti-Communist film, though audiences might not have been on to it. That is also true of a better known film from 1954, a winner of eight Academy Awards, written and directed by former Communists. 

In “Storm Warning,” the proxy for the Communist Party is the Ku Klux Klan. In “On the Waterfront,” it’s a corrupt union run by mobster Michael J. Skelly, also known as Johnny Friendly and wonderfully played by Lee J. Cobb. The longshoremen must play “deaf and dumb” or the mob will bump them off. A crime commission is investigating and a priest, played by Karl Malden, urges the men to testify.

“Now boys, get smart,” Father Barry explains. “Now getting the facts to the public, testifying for what you know is right and against what you know is wrong. And what’s ratting for them is telling the truth for you. Can’t you see that?”

Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) has information about the murder of fellow longshoreman Joey Doyle, but resists the call to testify. That changes after the mob takes down Terry’s brother, Charlie the Gent, played by Rod Steiger. If Terry wants to fight the mob, Father Barry says, he should testify before the crime commission. Terry testifies and that leads to the showdown scene. 

“You ratted on us Terry!” yells Johnny Friendly. 

“From where you stand, maybe,” Terry shoots back. “But I’m standing over here now. I was rattin’ on myself all those years and I didn’t even know it. You’re a cheap, lousy, dirty stinking mug and I’m glad what I done to you.” Terry turns to his union brothers watching the standoff.

“You hear that? I’m glad what I done. And I’m gonna keep on doing it.” The communists knew what it meant, and in Elia Kazan: A Life, published in 1988, the director was still exposing them and clearing up any doubts about the movie. 

On the Waterfront was my own story,” Kazan wrote. “Every day I worked on that film I was telling the world where I stood, and my critics to go and fuck themselves.” 

Kazan came up through the New York theatre scene, dominated by the Communist Party USA, funded and controlled by the Soviet Union. Kazan rejected Party control and made a name for himself directing films such as “Gentleman’s Agreement” released in 1947, the year the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HCUA) held hearings on Hollywood. 

During the 1930s and 1940s, the Communist Party dominated the backlot unions and talent guilds alike. As “On the Waterfront” screenwriter and former Communist Budd Schulberg recalled, the Party was “the only game in town.” 

In the 1947 hearings, the “unfriendly witnesses” were pared down to 10, with Stalinist writers Dalton Trumbo and party straw boss John Howard Lawson leading the pack. The friendly witnesses included Ronald Reagan, later to appear in “Storm Warning.” Elia Kazan did not testify until 1952, and by then the scene had changed. 

Stalin had taken over Czechoslovakia, launched a purge of writers and artists, and ratcheted up anti-Semitism in the USSR and captive states. In his 1951 HCUA testimony, director Robert Rossen (“All the King’s Men”) said the victims of recent show trials in Czechoslovakia were “all hung for being Jews and nothing else. I don’t think they were traitors to the Soviet Union.” 

Kazan recognized that, like the Ku Kluxers in “Storm Warning,” the studio Stalinists wore masks. “Secrecy serves the Communists and is exactly what they want,” Kazan testified in 1952. “The American people need the facts, and all the facts about all aspects of Communism to deal with it wisely and effectively.” To make his case, the director even took out a notice in the New York Times. As Marlon Brando put it, he was “glad what he done,” and he kept on doing it. 

So did Ronald Reagan, and “Storm Warning” has another backstory. 

The character Cliff Rummel is played by Lloyd Gough, a dutiful member of the Communist Party. In his 1951 HCUA testimony, Gough took the Fifth Amendment on questions such as who played the lead in “Body and Soul,” the 1947 film in which Gough also appeared, directed by Robert Rossen. 

Gough went on to play Communist writer Herb Delaney in Woody Allen’s “The Front,” released in 1976. Gough was married to actress Karen Morley, the Communist Party actress who helped recruit Sterling Hayden. Morley can be seen in “Scarface,” “Pride and Prejudice,” and “M,” a 1951 remake directed by Joseph Losey, another Hollywood Stalinist. 

In 1952 HCUA testimony, Morley also took the Fifth Amendment. In 1954 the actress ran for Lieutenant Governor of New York with the American Labor Party, a Communist Party front that opposed the Marshall Plan, NATO, and backed the North in the Korean War. 

Karen Morley can also be seen in episodes of “Kojak,” “Kung-Fu” and “Police Woman.” If the actress ever had second thoughts about the Communist Party USA, she kept them to herself. In 1999 Morley said Elia Kazan “was awful and is awful,” and that was still the Party line. 

Like Ronald Reagan, Elia Kazan took a stand against the studio Stalinists, therefore nothing he did was any good. Watch Kazan’s films and Reagan’s performances and judge for yourself.

“There’s more to this than I thought, Charlie,” Terry Malloy said in “On the Waterfront.” “I’m telling you, there’s a lot more.”

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About Lloyd Billingsley

Lloyd Billingsley is the author of Hollywood Party and other books including Bill of Writes and Barack ‘em Up: A Literary Investigation. His journalism has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Spectator (London) and many other publications. Billingsley serves as a policy fellow with the Independent Institute.

Photo: Marlon Brando and director Elia Kazan on the set of 'On the Waterfront' 1954. (20th Century-Fox/Getty Images)

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