If you didn’t know better, you might think Storm Warning was a musical once you found out that Ginger Rogers and Doris Day are two of the leading stars, along with Ronald Reagan, but it is actually a grim film noir.
The movie opens with Marsha (Ginger Rogers) and Cliff (Lloyd Gough) on a bus. They work as a team for a clothing manufacturer, where he is a salesman and she is a model. They are supposed to meet some buyers the next day, but she says she is getting off at Rock Point to see her sister and will catch up with him the next night, which means she won’t be there to model the clothes as she is supposed to. She tells him to show them the clothes on hangers.
In real life, stealing a little time from the boss is no big deal, something most people have done at one time or another. In a movie, however, it often happens that people are punished severely for a mere peccadillo, and so we get a slight sinking feeling at this most venial of sins. But it gets worse. She starts taking samples out of Cliff’s suitcase to give to her sister, whom she has not seen in two years, as a belated marriage present. This means she is not just stealing time from her boss, but dresses as well. Furthermore, she is putting Cliff on the spot. “What will I tell the home office?” Cliff asks, knowing he has to account for every item. “Tell them you ran into Jesse James,” is Marsha’s flip answer. In other words, she is not saying that she intends to reimburse the company as soon as she gets her next paycheck.
At this point, we might be wondering if they are in some kind of romantic relationship, in which case it might make sense that she would expect the man who is in love with her to cover for her. But the movie nips that in the bud. It is immediately made clear in their conversation that Cliff has been pursuing Marsha for some time, but to no avail, and she is firm in telling Cliff that it is time for him to give up. In short, she is imposing on a man whom she will not even go to dinner with.
When the bus pulls into Rock Point, Cliff gets off with Marsha just to stretch his legs. He refers to the town as a “dead end,” as a “wilderness,” but she defends it as a place where the people are nice and everyone goes to church, something her sister must have told her in a letter, since Marsha has never been there before. It is indeed isolated. While on the bus, they passed a billboard stating that Rock Point was a community of American homes and ideals, with “American” in large print, bookended by two American flags. Such fervent patriotism is always ominous.
Marsha heads to a payphone to call her sister to come pick her up. She tells Cliff to give her a nickel, which he does. He tries to buy a pack of cigarettes at the counter, but is told to use the machine. Apparently cigarette machines were new at the time, because Cliff comments that the way things are going, pretty soon they won’t need people. He returns to the phone booth just as Marsha hangs up. Because no one answered the phone at her sister’s house, Marsha retrieves the nickel, and, with Cliff standing right there, she opens her purse, holds the nickel about six inches over the opening, and drops it in, ostentatiously not returning it to Cliff. She could have simply slipped the nickel into her purse while still sitting in the booth, but the movie is going out of its way to make sure we notice this business about her keeping it.
But she’s not done. She turns to Cliff and tries to bum a cigarette. As it is a fresh pack, Cliff has trouble removing one cigarette, and because the bus is about to leave, he ends up tossing her the whole pack as he gets aboard. She is stealing time from her boss, she stole some dress samples, she kept Cliff’s nickel, and now she even has the poor guy’s only pack of cigarettes, all in the space of ten minutes. Taking it all together, we see that Marsha is the kind of woman who, because she is attractive, believes it is her prerogative to take advantage of men, even men she has no interest in romantically.
None of this had to be in the movie, and it did not get in there by accident. The script could have been written differently, in which she simply tells a passenger she happens to be riding with that she is going to see her sister, after which she gets off the bus and uses her own nickel to make the call. The pack of cigarettes could have been left out entirely. Instead, script was written to make it clear that Marsha is a bit of a chiseler, and that she thinks she can get away with it on account of her looks. In real life, such women do. But this is a movie, and all that follows is punishment for her sins.
As soon as the bus pulls out, businesses start closing and turning off their lights. Marsha finds herself on a dark, deserted street. She starts walking in the direction where she believes her sister is working, when she witnesses a man being murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. While hiding in a dark doorway, she sees two of the Klansmen who, thinking they are unobserved, remove their hoods. Only later does she realize that one of the men, Hank (Steve Cochran), is married to her sister Lucy (Doris Day).
It turns out that the man who was murdered was a reporter from out of town who was secretly investigating the Klan. When it was discovered what he was doing, he was arrested on a trumped up charge, after which the Klan broke him out of jail intending to lynch him, but in a moment of panic, Hank shot him as the reporter tried to escape. Later, the county prosecutor, Burt Rainey (Ronald Reagan), reveals that other such incidents have occurred, always when someone from out of town starts snooping around.
In other words, we most emphatically do not see the Klan doing anything bad to African Americans. Later in the movie, at an inquest, we do see a few such African Americans in the crowd outside the courthouse, but that is the extent of their presence in the movie. The only people intimidated in this movie are journalists from out of town and all the white citizens of Rock Point who do not belong to the Klan. Apparently, when this movie was made in 1951, dramatizing the Ku Klux Klan’s mistreatment of blacks was thought to be too controversial, notwithstanding the fact that intimidating the black race was the Klan’s main reason for existing in the first place. Perhaps the producers were afraid that showing the Klan mistreating African Americans would have angered southerners, who would have boycotted the movie, assuming theater owners would have agreed even to show it. In other words, it was all right to make a movie showing that the Ku Klux Klan is evil, but not to make a movie showing that it is wrong to keep African Americans in their place.
Furthermore, the people who made this movie are at pains to insist that the Klan is guilty of corruption and income tax evasion. In other words, it would not do to portray the Klan as composed of people who are sincere in their racist beliefs, who lynch people to preserve the Aryan cause of white supremacy. Instead, the Klan is portrayed cynically. Some naïve bumpkins might actually fall for all that stuff and nonsense about white supremacy, but they have been duped by the men at the top who care only about lining their pockets. In other words, instead of tackling racism head on and asserting that it is evil, this movie takes the easy way out. It avoids any explicit mention or depiction of racism and simply faults the Klan for being a racket. Apparently, the fear is that if the Klan is portrayed as composed of people who sincerely believe in the cause of white supremacy, including and especially its leaders, people in the audience might start wondering if there is something to it.
A similar way of presenting the Klan occurred in the earlier movie Black Legion (1937). Actually, the movie is not about the Klan per se, but rather it is about a similarly robed and hooded organization in Michigan. Again, the victims of this vigilante group are all white: they are foreigners from countries like Poland and Ireland, thought to be taking jobs away from Americans of white, Anglo Saxon, Protestant heritage. And again, while the rank and file are true believers, their leaders are corrupt.
In any event, Marsha gets caught in an Antigone situation, where she must choose between duty to her family and duty to the state. Because Lucy is pregnant and refuses to leave Hank even when she finds out that it was Hank who pulled the trigger, Marsha remains loyal to her sister and refuses to tell what she knows on the witness stand, not only refusing to identify the two men who removed their hoods, but also refusing to say that the men were dressed in the robes and hoods of the Klan.
Earlier, the leader of the Klan in that town, Charlie Barr (Hugh Sanders), in pressuring Marsha to keep her mouth shut, tries to tell her about the good that the Klan does, saying, “Without us, a girl like you wouldn’t be safe on the street at night.” The implicit threat he is referring to is that of a black man raping a white woman. It is ironic, then, that after the inquest, Hank tries to rape Marsha, reinforcing the point that what white people really have to fear in that town is the Klan.
The attempted rape is discovered by Lucy, who decides leave Hank, freeing Marsha to tell what she knows, now that she no longer has to protect her sister. But Marsha is kidnapped and whipped by the Klan until Lucy brings Rainey and some detectives to rescue her. Hank tries to shoot Marsha but kills Lucy instead, whereupon a detective kills Hank. Charlie Barr is arrested, and the rest of the Klansmen flee the scene in a panic, leaving us with the impression that this is the end of the Klan in that town, punctuated by the collapse of the burning cross.
As the movie comes to an end, we can only hope that Marsha has learned her lesson and will not take advantage of Cliff in the future.