Book Censorship Explored Through A Bette Davis Film

stormcenterClicking on Turner Classic Movies the other day, an unfamiliar film starring Bette Davis crossed the screen. It had been on for at least 20 minutes, and I hate entering a film after it’s begun, but it caught my attention because Davis was a small town librarian who apparently was in trouble for defending the right of a book about Communism to remain on the shelf. A small group of men, the town’s city council, were discussing the reasons the book had to be removed from the library. They sited outraged letters sent from a small vocal group of citizens who feared and hated anything that smacked of that form of government. They used soft persuasion,  a nice lunch, and what they considered the rightness of the situation, in attempting to bring Davis around to their way of thinking. They succeeded. She agreed to remove the book. Upon taking the volume from the shelf and trying to decide what she was then going to do with it, she reneged. She simply couldn’t figure out how one disposes of a censored book.

Naturally, this doesn’t go down well with the city council, who hold a meeting regarding her insubordination. Davis explains her reasoning. She tells how the sight of  Mein Kampf  makes her ill, but that it remains upon the shelves because people needed to read the dictator Hitler’s words and understand what a threat he really was. That to ban the book would be giving it more power than it deserved. She detests Communism, but feels the book must be available for the same reasons.  She boldly states she’s not afraid of Communism. That wanting to censor the title was exactly what the Soviet Union would do with a book about the US and capitalism, they would never allow their people the freedom to read what they please. We Americans must show the world we can allow these freedoms and remain strong.  Brian Keith, the most vocal and opportunistic of the council questions her patriotism by pointing out some groups she belonged to during WWII that were Soviet sympathizers. They were fronts for the Communist Party, he insists. She explains the fact of our being allies with Russia, and declares as soon as she realized the groups were no longer about what she believed they were when she joined, she left them. The council insists that it’s only this one book, what’s the big deal? She passionately asks– what happens the next time some small group of people dislike something within the library? And the time after that? If you give in to one demand, it follows that any book could be challenged and then removed for fear of repercussions. She doesn’t budge. She will not remove the book.

After she retreats from the meeting, Keith demands she be fired. His political career and that of the others are at stake. After 25 years as head librarian, she was to be removed because a book may cause people to think. And because a few extremists were more vocal than the majority. Davis becomes a pariah in her own hometown where everyone has known her since goodness knows when. She’s shunned, ignored, insulted, and emotionally beaten down. The one attempt by a local minister to gather supporters to her cause dies a quick death when the people who attend to discuss the situation realize they will be guilty by association. They cannot afford to be viewed as Communist sympathizers.

I was greatly surprised by this film. Made in 1956 during the very frigid beginnings of the Cold War and when the US was the most paranoid over Communist sympathizers, I would have never dreamed a film of this sort would have been able to be made. That it not only was made, but stayed on point and strong, is a small miracle. As in usual Hollywood style, there has to be some kind of over the top drama, and they provide that with the character of a little boy whose love for the written word becomes twisted after overhearing his father and others discuss Ms. Davis as being a horrible dangerous individual. He had worshiped Davis before her firing, but afterwards becomes obsessed with riding the library of these dangerous books. Although they use a child as the domestic terrorist, it still rings true. How many times have individuals acted upon various mantras and caused chaos, violence, and sometimes death? It’s not unfathomable that the mind of a person could be so warped that burning the library to the ground seems like the only answer to their dilemma.

The sad reality that hit home–this film could have been produced today, with the same issues, only a different subject. Maybe radical Islam? How terrorists are made? Osama Bin Laden’s autobiography? Or even Water For Elephants, if one man had his way. Any book at any time can be challenged. And they are. All over the country, for various reasons–too sexually explicit, too violent in content for children, fictional books on witchcraft will cause devil worship, too politically incorrect etc., etc. Both ends of the political spectrum are culprits. No one ideology reigns supreme when it comes to censorship.

In the end, the library is burning down, with close up shots of titles. The film is effective. Seeing Alice in Wonderland, Tom Sawyer, the dictionary, the Constitution, and finally, the Bible all go up in flames makes its point.  In removing one title, you are jeopardizing the sanctity of all books. Even the ones the protestors love themselves. And that should be enough for those who demand a title be removed to stop short and think–but what if someone doesn’t like MY choice in reading?  It should be enough, but sadly never is.

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Discussion

  1. Dana

    Thank God for the wisdom of our Founding Fathers. We are a nation of laws, a Republic, governed by democratically elected law makers. Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s classic “The Oxbow Incident” depicts extreme, but, believable consequences when mob rule takes over, hence; the importance of laws.
    As a conservative I do a little censoring in my inventory offered for sale. The hypocrites Al Franken or Michael Moore will never be available in my store. However, Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Mein Kampf, Chairman Mao and even Margaret Sanger are on my shelves, all espousing ideas directly opposed to my beliefs. Know thy enemy.
    Ted Turner and Jane Fonda are from my favorite people, but, TCM is one of my favorite channels. I hope to have the opportunity to see this movie soon.
    Dianne, from some of your past columns, it is obvious that you and I are diametrically opposed in our political beliefs, however; it seems we are in agreement on our contempt of censorship, and, as a USAF combat veteran, I believe I have effectively demonstrated my determination to defend both your and the rights of all Americans to free expression.

  2. Shelley

    I’d never heard of this movie before: remarkable. Just last night I was reading an old Roger Ebert review of Bette Davis, and he points out that it almost seems a relief when she “graduated” from playing younger women to playing older ones. Her power and her charisma really came into play then.

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