Storm Warning (1950): Heisler’s Small-Town Racial Melodrama, Starring Ginger Rogers, Doris Day, and Roland Reagan

The small-town melodrama Storm Warning is notable today for its racial issues, but at the time, it got attention due to its pairing of two major actresses in lead roles, vet actress Ginger Rogers with young actress Doris Day, soon to become a major star.

Storm Warning

Theatrical release poster

Rogers plays Marsha Mitchell, a model who decided to visit her younger, newlywed sister Lucy Rice (Doris Day), who lives with her husband in a small town. The town is unnamed, which means the story could be set anywhere.

Inadvertently, Marsha becomes a witness to the beating and the shooting of a man at the hands of the KKK.
To her horror, Marsha soon discovers that the whole town is controlled by a vigilante group, and that her loutish brother-in-law Hank (Steve Cochran) is, unbeknownst to her sister, one of the group’s leading members.

Ronald Reagan, before embarking on a spectacular political career, plays Rainey, the District Attorney, who ultimately breaks the stranglehold of the hooded terrorists.

Thematically, some scenes in the film, with the triangle of two sisters torn by their differing feelings and conflicting reactions to a bruttish man recall Kazan’s far superior “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

As written by Richard Brooks and Daniel Fuchs, “Storm Warning” begins extremely well, detailing tensions within the young marriage, and in the town as a whole, before deteriorating into a simplistic agit-prop piece, including a court room trial. The scene in which, the DA walks into one of the KKK meetings and calmly identifies each one of them by name, is particularly disappointing.

The movie is functionally (but no more) directed by Stuart Heisler, who imbues the story with elements of film noir; a good deal of the yarn is set at night. I can only imagine what a director like Joseph Losey could have done with similar material.


MPAA Rating: PG
Running time: 93 Minutes.

Produced by Jerry Wald
Directed by Stuart Heisler
Screenplay by Richard Brooks, Daniel Fuchs

Music by Daniele Amfitheatrof
Cinematography Carl Guthrie
Edited by Clarence Kolster
Distributed by Warner Bros.

Released: January 17, 1951 (Miami Beach); February 10, 1951.
On DVD: Feb 5, 2008


Ginger Rogers as Marsha Mitchell
Ronald Reagan as Burt Rainey
Doris Day as Lucy Rice
Steve Cochran as Hank Rice
Hugh Sanders as Charlie Barr
Lloyd Gough as Cliff Rummel

Marsha Mitchell (Ginger Rogers), a traveling dress model, stops in the town of Rockpoint to see her newlywed sister, Lucy Rice (Doris Day). Within minutes of entering the town she notices unusual behavior by the townsfolk, such as dozens of people closing up shop and getting out of sight. As she walks down the almost-pitch-black main street, she hears loud noises coming from the police station. She hides but sees a drunken KKK mob, beating and berating a man whom they had just broken out of jail. The man untangles himself from their clutches, and he starts to run but goes only a few yards before someone in the mob twice fires a shotgun, killing him by striking him in the torso and the head. The mob, confused, approaches the fallen man, arguing among themselves. Marsha, hiding around a corner from the crime scene, gets a good look at two of the men, who have removed their hoods during the fiasco.

After the mob quickly leaves the scene, Marsha runs to the nearby bowling alley, where her sister works. Lucy quickly notices the shocked and horrified look on her sister’s face and inquires. Marsha tells her about the murder she just witnessed, which causes Lucy to tell her about the undercover work of Walter Adams, whom, she believes, must have been the slain man. She explains that Adams arrived in town recently and got a job with the phone company, but he was secretly a journalist, writing critical material about the town’s klavern. The police decided to put an end to his reporting and arrested him on a false charge of driving while intoxicated.

Lucy takes Marsha to her home and encourages her to tell her husband, Hank, about what Marsha saw. However, there is a problem: As soon as Marsha meets Hank, she recognizes him as one of the two men who removed their hoods. Within minutes, while Marsha and Lucy are alone (at least she thinks they are alone), Marsha tells her sister that her husband was one of the Klansmen. Hank, eavesdropping, with a clear look of guilt on his face, denies everything. However, he’s not able to hold his own against Marsha’s insistence, so he confesses. He sobs and says that he was drunk and was forced to go with the other men to the scene, and did not intend for the man to die. All they wanted to do, according to Hank, was to talk to the guy and persuade him to leave and to stop criticizing their town. Hank then desperately tries to persuade Marsha to keep her mouth shut for the sake of his life and his marriage to her sister, who is pregnant. Lucy forgives her husband and decides that he was simply a part of something beyond his control. Marsha, still viewing him as a vile person, reluctantly agrees to leave town and “forget” about the incident.

District Attorney Burt Rainey (Ronald Reagan) arrives at the murder scene and asks the police about how they could let a mob break through their doors and kidnap one of their prisoners, reminding them of their duty to protect the inmates. They claimed that they were simply outnumbered; Rainey, however, feels skeptical of that excuse, and he suggests that they were accomplices. He then arrives at the bowling alley and questions Charlie Barr (Hugh Sanders), the Imperial Wizard of the town’s KKK, but he gets no answer. He then learns about Marsha and requires her to meet him in his office the next morning. Many townsfolk try to dissuade Rainey from investigating the case, for fear of his destroying the town’s reputation and economy.

At Rainey’s office he questions Marsha and gets a half-truth – that she saw Klansmen but did not get a look at their faces because of their hoods. Rainey feels satisfied, and he believes that the mere fact of her having seen Klansmen is enough to bring them down. He hands her a subpoena for the inquest, which will take place that afternoon. Under pressure from both her sister and the Klansmen, she decides to lie in court, allowing the coroner’s jury to decide that Adams died at the hands of one or more assailants unknown.

The KKK and sympathetic locals celebrate at the bowling alley, while berating their opponents. Marsha, disgusted, packs up, planning to leave town. However, Hank, drunk, corners her, asking her repeatedly why she dislikes him. He then becomes violent and tries to rape her, but Lucy’s arrival interrupts him. Lucy denounces him, and Marsha claims that she she will turn him in to Rainey and the police. Furious, he kidnaps her and takes her to the KKK rally, where whipping begins.

The police arrive and Barr orders his men to hide Marsha. Rainey ignores Barr’s warning and finds Marsha weeping, in the custody of Klansmen. He then confronts Barr and demands answers. Desperate, Barr names the murderer as Hank, who steals a sidearm, condemns everyone, and shoots his wife. A cop then shoots and kills Hank. Scared and disillusioned, the rest of the Klansmen flee the scene, leaving Barr to fend for himself. The police arrest Barr, and the film ends with Lucy’s dying in Marsha’s arms and Rainey’s comforting Marsha.