Without Warning
Melinda Barlow/University of Colorado at Boulder


Once in a Lullaby (Josh Minor, 2008)

It hit. Hard. Late at night. Some thought it sounded like a freight train; others assumed it was a low-flying jet. One woman recognizing the familiar roar simply said “It’s a wind acomin.’”

People lit out for storm cellars, dove under beds, cowered in back rooms, ducked for cover. The air was dead still and full of dust; many could not breathe. Some were pummeled by hail and debris. One man went to sleep and woke up in the street, unclear how he got there. Another, returning from an errand in his car, never made it inside because “the house started leaving.”

Buildings cracked open, windows flew out, the water tower toppled, and the grain elevator collapsed. A telephone operator died at the switchboard. The most famous photograph shows a pickup truck, stripped of everything but its frame and tires, tipped on end, wedged up a tree. The driver was found dead a quarter mile away.

A police chief saw it coming and tried to radio ahead, but the town did not have a police radio then. A train engineer spotted it and blew his whistle as an alert. “We’re all going to be blown away,” one woman cried, “I wish I could call everyone and warn them.”

On May 25th, 1955 at 10:35 p.m., a tornado three-quarters of a mile wide blindsided Udall, Kansas, a small town twenty-five miles southeast of Wichita. Within minutes 80 people were dead and 270 were injured. 192 buildings and 170 homes were destroyed. Although severe weather warnings had been issued in the morning and afternoon, more heavy rain prevented the National Weather Service in Wichita from detecting the approaching funnel, and the weather bulletin issued from Kansas City expired at 10:00 p.m. A television station reported that severe weather had passed.

Now considered an F-5, the highest and most dangerous rating on the not-yet-established Fujita scale for measuring tornado strength, the twister that tore through Udall at 300 miles per hour is still described as the deadliest in Kansas history. ((The facts herein, including the remarks made by survivors, come from multiple accounts of the tornado that struck Udall, Kansas in May of 1955. Some facts occasionally differ (e.g. death toll vs. number of survivors). See the following for more information: http://www.crh.noaa.gov/ict/udall/udall.php; http://www.kshs.org/kansapedia/udall-tornado-1955/12225; http://www.cityofudall.com/history-of-udall.htm; http://eldoradofd.com/1955-udall-tornado-survivor-who-is-she/; http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1408292/posts.))

What a nightmare.


Title Credit from Star 34 (Herk Harvey and Arthur H. Wolf, 1954)

Learning about Udall landed me back in Kansas, where I was born, both the Sunflower State of myth often made to stand for all that is wholesome and decent and ordinary in mid-20th century American films, and the dark and bleak Kansas of Truman Capote, Herk Harvey and Salman Rushdie, a place of apprehension and imagination, where Dorothy Gale’s Auntie Em anxiously watches the sky, and great whirlwinds arise. Star 34—“the 34th State in the Union, with the 34th President, and a star in its own right!”—as enthusiastic easterner Bill Asher, played by Harvey, puts it at the end of the eponymous industrial film made by the Lawrence-based Centron Corporation in 1954, Kansas is also home to Holcomb, the village on the high wheat plains of the west, a lonesome area, writes Capote, that “other Kansans call ‘out there.’” ((Truman Capote, In Cold Blood (New York: Vintage Books, 1965), 3.))That Kansas, and what happened there in November 1959, has something in common with the Kansas that Rushdie, in his compelling essay on The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939), calls “that great void,” ((Salman Rushdie, The Wizard of Oz (London: British Film Institute, 1992), 21.)) and that Harvey as Asher (the same Harvey who would direct the cult horror film Carnival of Souls [1962], shot in Lawrence and at an abandoned amusement park in Utah), when told he must visit there in order to qualify for an inheritance at the outset of Star 34, calls “nowhere.”

As Rushdie points out, Kansas gets but a few pages at the beginning and end of L. Frank Baum’s book (1900), and this puts to the lie the “conservative little homily” ((Ibid., p. 56.)) “there’s no place like home” with which the film ends. Because both book and film linger in Oz, Rushdie sees it as Dorothy’s real home, and Fleming’s film as a paean to the human dream of leaving, a dream “at least as powerful as its countervailing dream of roots.” ((Ibid., p. 23.)) This is a persuasive idea, one that questions Baum’s claim in his Introduction to have written a “modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heart-aches and nightmares are left out.” (( L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Chicago: George M. Hill Company, 1900), 5.))

Once in a Lullaby (Josh Minor, 2008) also upends this claim, reversing the chronology of Fleming’s iconic film, distilling its underlying darkness into a glowing five-minute gem of condensation and displacement, described by Minor as a “dream gone wrong.” ((Josh Minor, description of Once in a Lullaby.)) In his film’s opening images, Dorothy is already in Oz, already dreaming. Glinda never appears, and Dorothy never leaves, although the glistening orb that heralds the arrival and departure of the Good Witch in the original serves as the vehicle of transport for our entry into and exit from Dorothy’s anxious unconscious imaginings. By saturating the black-and-white sequences which take place in Kansas with extraordinary colors, transforming the Technicolor which is Oz into an even more lurid and spectacular realm, and adding a score of reverberant chimes and ambient drones, Minor creates the unsettling sensation of being trapped in a nightmare that never ends. Backlit by a gold and amber sky resembling smoldering embers, the famous tornado snaking through the prairie never looked so menacing.


Annie Strader, Christine Owens, and Emily Bivens in Warning Signs II (The Bridge Club, 2014), detail

How to read the sky? What are the telltale signs of an oncoming F-5? How to analyze the data, alert the public, take precautions, and survive, a tornado or any other calamity, atmospheric, personal, or otherwise? In “Warning Signs II” (2014), a performance by The Bridge Club at the Ulrich Museum of Art in Wichita at the end of April, in tornado season, Emily Bivens, Christine Owen, Annie Strader and Julie Wills donned their familiar wigs, this time wearing black shifts, and stood sentinel in the Museum’s courtyard, frequently gazing skyward while performing a series of mysterious tasks. ((For more on The Bridge Club, see Melinda Barlow, “When Sleepers Wake and Yet Still
Flow, 20.01 Volume 20 (July 2014), and Melinda Barlow, “The Guise of Good Behavior,” in The Bridge Club (art catalog), (Berkeley: Edition One Books), forthcoming, 2014.

One woman traced and simultaneously erased locations in an atlas with sandpaper-tipped gloves; another held a cone to her mouth filled with a recording of wailing wind, sending out a symbolic siren sometimes drowned out by the real gusts picking up during that late April evening. Together the women measured and created radiating lines with chalk dust, then partially removed them with spoonfuls of water.


Emily Bivens in “Warning Signs II” (The Bridge Club, 2014), detail

Later, a miniature storm projected on the side of “The Trailer,” its pink and yellow clouds punctuated by tiny forks of lightning, offered a safe, beautiful, luminous souvenir of a potentially threatening situation. Like the volunteer network of “experienced observers at their stations, watching” in the industrial film Tornado (Calvin Productions, ca. 1955), the members of The Bridge Club searched the sky for clues of forces that cannot be controlled, that might strike without warning.


Candace Hilligloss as Mary Henry in Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962)

An inexplicable force takes hold of Mary Henry in Carnival of Souls, one that sometimes makes her feel that she no longer exists, and has no place in the world. Unaware that she has driven off a bridge in a drag race, and may or may not be dead, she emerges from a river unsure what has happened to her, and the women she was with. A church organist who takes a job in Utah, insisting that she is never coming back to the town in Kansas where she went to school, her move out of state is haunted by a white-faced ghoul simply called “The Man” (Herk Harvey), who somehow appears instead of her reflection in the windows of both her car and new rooming house (really located in downtown Lawrence, so in some sense Mary never leaves).

In one stunning nocturnal sequence, when The Man disappears, Mary suddenly sees herself, split, her furrowed brow attesting to what she does not understand, the doubling of her image a striking visual reminder of her schism with the world. No wonder she tells a fellow boarder who doggedly pursues her that it is at night when “fantasies get so out of hand.” Her solution to this problem? “Let’s have no more nights!”


Candace Hilligloss as Mary Henry in Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962)

But daylight can be full of equally strange occurrences, as her stroll through an abandoned amusement park on the shores of the Great Salt Lake makes clear. One part of this sequence potently evokes her predicament: walking through a Rotor ride long without motion, an aperture-like structure turned on its side, she is, dead still, at the center of a vortex, no longer living, possibly dreaming, the I of a storm who does not survive. ((Bruce Kawin provides an illuminating reading of the film in his essay for the Criterion DVD of Carnival of Souls released in 2000. He describes Mary Henry as a “liminal protagonist” characteristic of the horror film, one who has “gone wrong, and the world with her.” See Bruce Kawin, “Carnival of Souls.”))


The Clutter House at night in In Cold Blood (Richard Brooks, 1967)

None of the Clutters survive the ravage wreaked upon their home in Holcomb by Dick Hickock and Perry Smith in the dead of night on November 15th, 1959. Driven by distinct yet related dreams—Hickock by the fantasy of a perfect score, a farmer with a big spread and a safe full of cash, Smith by the promise of buried treasure, nurtured in his childhood by his rodeo performer father—the two have-not ex-cons touch down in the mythic heartland of Kansas (“the land of wheat, corn, Bibles, and natural gas,” in Hickock’s phrase) and kill all four family members in cold blood.

Why do they do it? This is what troubles Alvin Dewey, chief investigator on the case, and a fictional reporter named Jensen who serves as his foil in Richard Brooks’ 1967 film, otherwise fairly faithful to Capote’s true crime non-fiction novel published two years earlier. “A violent, unknown force destroys a decent, ordinary family. No clues. No logic. Makes us all feel vulnerable, frightened,” says Jensen to Dewey as they ponder the reasons for the crime. Perry Smith likewise questions his own motives and marvels at the inexorable unfolding of events, fuelled by his, and Hickock’s, lethal lack of control: “The whole crazy stunt had a life of its own,” he tells Dewey, “Nothing could stop it.” The shot following the final off screen shooting of young Nancy Clutter vividly brings this to life: a tumbleweed whirls at incredible speed past the killers’ car outside the Clutter house on that dark and windy night.


Robert Blake as Perry Smith in In Cold Blood (Richard Brooks, 1967)

The black hole at the center of all dark depictions of Kansas, Richard Brooks’ film, shot on location at the former Clutter home by veteran cinematographer Conrad Hall, achieves its visual apotheosis in the scene just prior to Smith’s execution, during a long poignant monologue he delivers to a priest. Here, Hall exquisitely captures the tormented murderer’s internal divide in the famous shot reflecting the rain outside the window onto Smith’s cheek, thus allowing him to release the tears he feels but cannot unleash as he mourns, with understandable ambivalence, the loss of his abusive, alcoholic father, that “poor old man and his hopeless dreams.”


William Holden as Hal Carter and Kim Novak as Madge Owens in Picnic (Joshua Logan, 1955)

In the dreamy heat of a Kansas late summer night, darkness can also unleash illicit desire, and this is precisely what happens in Picnic (Joshua Logan, 1955). Based on William Inge’s 1953 Pulitzer Prize winning play, the film was shot on location all over Kansas, including Halstead, Nickerson, Sterling, and Salina, starting on May 16th, 1955. When the historic tornado hit Udall nine days later, the cast and crew were 75 miles away, in Hutchinson, and the entire shoot was interrupted almost daily by hailstorms and wailing tornado warnings, meaning that the steamy final scenes at the picnic were completed on a Hollywood soundstage rather than in situ. ((Rosalind Russell, who plays aging grade school teacher Rosemary Sydney in the film, campaigned for the Kansas Disaster Relief Fund established after the catastrophe, and a street in Udall was renamed for her as a result.))

Nonetheless, everything in this film is hot as soon as drifter Hal Carter (William Holden) comes to the fictional town of Salinson, and although slightly misleading, one of the film’s tag lines captures the tornado-like velocity of his effect on every woman around him, including Madge Owen (Kim Novak): “From the moment he hit town she knew it was just a matter of time.” Well, not quite. Madge eyes Hal with shy interest, to be sure, but so does her sister, mother, boarding house owner Mrs. Potts, and aging grade school teacher Rosemary Sydney, and indeed, one of the most amusing riffs in the script is the number of times Holden as Carter is forced to take off his shirt, so that all of the women in the vicinity may ogle him even more.


William Holden as Hal Carter and Kim Novak as Madge Owens in Picnic (Joshua Logan, 1955)

Before Miss Sydney famously tears that shirt in a fit of drunken rage, Hal and Madge do a remarkably sexy dance on a platform by the river, strung with colored lanterns, beautifully shot by James Wong Howe. All the more erotic for the mood of yearning that courses through its classic mid-50s restraint, the “Moonglow” dance number, played out to a sultry jazz standard transformed by composer Morris Stoloff, serves as a tantalizing prelude to the startling shot of Hal and Madge after the picnic, in a tortured embrace on the banks of the river, punctuated by the roar of an oncoming train. The Production Code Administration required that any suggestion that Hal and Madge had slept together after the picnic be cut, but this image stands in for what could not be shown, allowing it to explode through sexualized mise-en-scène. The shot thus provides a libidinous example of what one writer, in a broader exploration of the value of darkness and a need for sensitivity to nocturnal rhythms, evocatively describes as “the singing and blooming of the night.” ((Akiko Busch, “The Solstice Blues,” The New York Times, June 20th, 2014, I am indebted to this lovely rumination on the value of night for my own closing meditation in this essay.))


Once in a Lullaby (Josh Minor, 2008)

We need the night. We need its obscurity, ambiguity, and shadow-filled beauty. Our souls and skins crave moonglow. We also need the night’s uncertainty, perhaps even its anxiety, and we always need to dream. And maybe, like Dorothy at the end of Once In a Lullaby—hand in her mouth, orb in her eye, coming and going in a world of clashing colors—sometimes we even need to be at odds with ourselves, if we land in a dream gone wrong.

We pick up. Move on. Put down new roots. Leave again. Return once more. Feel the winds of change and try to read the signs as we become more attuned to the meteorology of memory.


Family photograph, found in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 2007

Lawrence, Kansas. Where I was born. This photograph, its own strange rainbow.

For my mother and father, and what began in Kansas, and my whole family, found.

Image Credits:
1. Once in a Lullaby (Josh Minor, 2008).
2. Title Credit for Star 34 (Herk Harvey and Arthur H. Wolf, 1954).
3. Annie Strader, Christine Owens, and Emily Bivens in “Warning Signs II” (The Bridge Club, 2014), detail. Photo credit: Matthew Weedman/Artisan Photo.
4. Emily Bivens in “Warning Signs II” (The Bridge Club, 2014), detail. Photo credit: Matthew Weedman/Artisan Photo.
5. Candace Hilligloss as Mary Henry in Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962).
6.Candace Hilligloss as Mary Henry in Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962).
7. The Clutter House at night in In Cold Blood (Richard Brooks, 1967).
8. Robert Blake as Perry Smith in In Cold Blood (Richard Brooks, 1967).
9. William Holden as Hal Carter and Kim Novak as Madge Owens in Picnic (Joshua Logan, 1955).
10. William Holden as Hal Carter and Kim Novak as Madge Owens in Picnic (Joshua Logan, 1955).
11. Once in a Lullaby (Josh Minor, 2008).
12. Family photograph, found in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 2007.

Please feel free to comment.