Sunday, March 16, 2014

Salt of the Earth

A Group of Copper Miners Near Hanover, N.M. (photo compliments of Juana Sierra, one of the picketing wives)

SALT OF THE EARTH        A                       
USA  (94 mi)  1954  d:  Herbert J. Biberman

Have you been to a movie this week? Are you going to a movie tonight, or maybe tomorrow? Look around the room. Are there any newspapers lying on the floor? Any magazines on your table? Any books on your shelves? It’s always been your right to read or see anything you wanted to. But now it seems to be getting kind of complicated. For the past week, in Washington, the House Committee on Un-American Activities has been investigating the film industry. Now, I have never been a member of any political organization. But I’ve been following this investigation and I don’t like it. There are a lot of stars here to speak to you. We’re show business, yes. But we’re also American citizens. It’s one thing if someone says we’re not good actors; that hurts, but we can take that. It’s something else again to say we’re not good Americans! We resent that!
—Judy Garland, 1947, speaking on the coast-to-coast radio program called Hollywood Fights Back!

Essential viewing, the lone film to fight back against McCarthyism, made by blacklisted filmmakers *after* being blacklisted, as this historical gem from 1954 is the only film in U.S. history to be blacklisted itself, not fully released in American theaters until 1965, a rousing effort and a genuinely inspiring film, where the director Herbert Biberman was one of the Hollywood Ten who were cited in 1947 for contempt of Congress and blacklisted after refusing to answer HUAC questions about their alleged involvement with the Communist Party.  Biberman and the other nine were given jail sentences of 12 months while also banished from the film industry, where a group of studio heads met and declared they would no longer employ anyone suspected of being a communist or belonging to organizations having communist sympathies.  Hundreds in the film industry suddenly found themselves out of work and unemployable.  Many people on the blacklist simply believed in civil rights, but that was decidedly “Un-American” in this postwar Red Scare.  While the committee was ostensibly seeking proof into alleged communist propaganda and influence in the Hollywood motion picture industry, finding little evidence, they instead cast a broad net of fear and condemnation largely based on unsubstantiated rumor and hearsay, where artists were forced to name names or face jail sentences, fear tactics more typical of the communist methodology.  The East German Stasi secret police in the 70’s and 80’s became experts at it, where as many as two million informants were used, infiltrating every aspect of East German life, where spouse’s often spied on one another and an entire nation lived under fear, or the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 60’s which alleged that bourgeois elements were infiltrating communist society, insisting that those revisionists be removed and sent to re-education camps, where literally millions were subject to public humiliation, arrest, and torture, including seizure of their property.  Based upon public denunciations of alleged traitors, children often denounced their own parents, family members, or neighbors, as a large segment of the population was systematically displaced.  While not on such a massive scale, a similar method was used by witch-hunting congressmen, who were basically anti-Semitic and anti-labor and wanted to purge all liberal thought from American culture. While liberal ideas certainly influence films and literature of every era, in hindsight it’s incredulous to think so many in positions of power actually believed people were attempting to smuggle communist ideology into Hollywood screenplays, where the prevailing fear was rampant.   

Forming a group called the Independent Productions Corporation, the idea for the film came from blacklisted screenwriter and film producer Paul Jarrico who took his wife and son to New Mexico, spending time at a ranch outside Taos with union organizers Clint and Virginia Jencks who informed them about a zinc miner’s strike in Grant County in the southwest portion of the state, eventually joining the picket lines.  With fellow blacklisted friend Michael Wilson writing the screenplay, spending three months living with the primarily Mexican-American miner’s families, what he discovered was that Mexican miners were forced to live in unsanitary conditions while performing the most dangerous work, subject to more frequent accidents while earning half the pay of their white Anglo counterparts.  So the primarily Mexican-American miners went on strike at the Empire Zinc Mine & Mill demanding safer working conditions and equal pay, creating an especially tense and violent atmosphere between Anglos and Chicanos.  While the film is blisteringly realistic, shot in the Italian neo-realist style of Rossellini resembling a non-fiction documentary, yet it’s a fictionalized composite of real events based on what actually happened, partially funded by the miner’s themselves and their union, the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, Local 890, who are credited as producers in the film, who themselves had been expelled from the CIO in 1950 on charges of Communist domination, where the script was continually updated and revised based on input from the local miners, where most of the roles are played by the miners themselves and local Anglos working alongside blacklisted actor Will Geer as the troublesome sheriff, Grandpa from the popular television series The Waltons (1971 – 1981), one of only five professional actors.  It’s the only major American independent feature made by communists, where Jarrico later reasoned that since they'd been drummed out of Hollywood for being subversives, they'd commit a crime worthy of their punishment by making a subversive film.  The narrative thread provided throughout is by Rosaura Revueltas, a highly successful Mexican film star who was herself born in a mining town in northern Mexico, very familiar with the circumstances, playing the fictional character Esperanza Quintero:

How shall I begin my story that has no beginning?  My name is Esperanza, Esperanza Quintero.  I am a miner's wife.  This is our home.  The house is not ours.  But the flowers... the flowers are ours.  This is my village.  When I was a child, it was called San Marcos.  The Anglos changed the name to Zinc Town.  Zinc Town, New Mexico, U.S.A.  Our roots go deep in this place, deeper than the pines, deeper than the mine shaft...

Her broken English is highly effective, as it’s a perfect balance to the dirt poor setting, with families living in tiny identical houses owned by the mining company, where this kind of hard scrabble life eking out a bare-bones existence has rarely been portrayed with such authenticity.  Esperanza’s husband is played by real-life Union Local president Juan Chacón as Ramon, whose grandfather once owned all the land in the region, but here they’re just like everybody else where all the men work in the mines.  After a series of routine accidents in the mine, causing additional hardships because only miners manned by Mexicans are ordered to work alone and not in teams, where all pleas to the boss fall on deaf ears, as the one argument the company can make to the white Anglos is that they have it better than the Mexican miners, so a systematic anti-Mexican prejudice is clearly built into the status quo, where they are the only families living in unhealthy sanitary conditions.  After yet another accident when the men are ordered to return to the mines, they refuse, calling a strike vote, demanding equal parity with the Anglo workers.  While this is a demand the company never intends to meet, they refuse to even negotiate with the striking miners, allowing the strike to drag on endlessly for months, where the sheriff, at the behest of the company, would round up the picket line ringleaders and arrest them, often beating them up as well, hoping non-union replacement workers (scabs) would be able to break through the picket line afterwards, but after a few fights with scabs where only the striking miners are arrested, the scabs, usually brought in from out of town, are more reticent to try again.  There’s one particularly intense crosscutting sequence that’s far ahead of it's time, going between Esperanza giving birth (without a doctor, who would not cross the picket lines) and her husband not being able to help her because the police are beating him up in the back of the squad car.  When a ruling comes down from the court ordering them back to work, in accordance with the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, their only choice appears to be either to capitulate to the bosses and end the strike or go to jail.  In one of the more powerful moments of the film, Frank Barnes (Clinton Jencks), the international union representative, indicates this is a democratic union and the members will have to decide for themselves what course of action to pursue.  This is a chilling moment, rarely seen in other pro-union films, especially considering the staggering effect of democracy on those blacklisted. 

What follows is unprecedented in any other film of its era, as the wives of the miners come to the union meeting and volunteer to man the picket lines, claiming the law only pertains to the miners, not their wives.  Most of the men are against the idea, believing women belong at home with the children, which certainly reflects the “backward” attitudes of the times, where men, including respected strike organizer Ramon, treat their wives like second class citizens.  The union doesn’t allow non-members to vote, so after a lengthy and somewhat indecisive debate by the members, they adjourn into an all-inclusive community meeting on an issue that affects every single family and vote to accept the idea, as it’s better than the men going to jail.  The Women’s Auxiliary Committee quickly gets organized and takes action to form a new picket line, often looking after their children while picketing.  Even so the men, as well as the police, think they’ll quickly fold, but they stand firm, even when approached by scabs, surprisingly holding their own without their husband’s intervention, which would mean immediate arrest.  Many of the men feel useless at home with the children, and tend to go out drinking at night, or disappearing altogether on alleged hunting trips, where the marriages are strained, but others, faced with the drudgery that is women’s work, including laundry, cooking, cleaning, and child care, discover a newfound respect for their wives.  Esperanza is hesitant at first, pregnant with their third child, but the idea of saving her family by assuming greater responsibilities helps her grow more confident over time, where she takes ownership of her role not only in the family but in the community, where women’s equality is one of the essential forces that sustains the striking families over a 14-month period of food rationing, police brutality, trumped up charges, forced evictions, and strained home lives, made even worse when no doctors are allowed into the community, even for childbirth.  In fact what stands out today is the film’s depiction of women as brave and unyielding, taking nothing from anyone, where included in their conscious raising awareness is an idea of what could be achieved by working together.  No longer seen as an extreme leftist propaganda film, instead, it’s a surprisingly realistic look at the inequalities mining workers faced, not to mention a behind-the-scenes history lesson on the politics of the time.  The social realist film carries tremendous weight in its feminist, pro-labor views, causes that are just as relevant today, where the message for exploited workers is in the power of joining together, where it’s equally important to get the support and involvement of the larger affected community.    

Because of the unvarnished depiction of human lives, expressed with moral conviction and a sense of urgency, the film has a rare and unusually profound strength, showing historical precedent and the importance of truly independent American filmmaking.  The film was immediately denounced by the U.S. House of Representatives for its communist sympathies, with film critic Pauline Kael calling it simplistic and “as clear a piece of Communist propaganda as we have had in many years,” the American Legion called it “one of the most vicious propaganda films ever distributed in the U.S.” while The Hollywood Reporter claimed the film was made “under direct orders from the Kremlin.”  In fact it’s a movie where the Hollywood industry and the FBI did everything they could to insure it was never made, as described in James J. Lorence's 1999 book, The Suppression of Salt of the Earth: How Hollywood, Big Labor, and Politicians Blacklisted a Movie in Cold War America, and Biberman’s own book Salt Of the Earth: The Story of a Film, 1965.  During the shooting, production was hampered when they were unable to hire a union crew, as Roy Brewer (Roy M. Brewer : Biography), head of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, and one of the chief cooperating witnesses at the HUAC hearings in identifying and denouncing communists within the industry (eventually naming over 150 anti-American subversives in his pamphlet Red Channels), refused to allow union personnel to participate, so the all-union crew largely consists of blacklisted members and black technicians who were otherwise unable to obtain work within a white-only industry, while other professionals were reasonably afraid they would be blacklisted for working with communists.  Brewer told reporters that he and other union officials, including Walter Pidgeon, president of the Screen Actors Guild, had been trying to halt production of the film for over a year.  Since the shooting took place during the Korean War, conservatives on the right were convinced the film was a Stalinist conspiracy to encourage the strike in order to hinder the mining of precious metals needed in the production of weapons needed for the war.  Vigilantes disrupted the production, shot at the filmmakers’ cars, and attacked some of the crew, including Clint Jencks, while town merchants wouldn’t do business with them.  The union hall in nearby Bayard was set on fire and the union hall in Carlsbad was burned to the ground, while Anglo cast member Floyd Bostick’s home was also destroyed by fire.  The FBI arrested and deported the film’s star Rosaura Revueltas on a technicality as an “illegal alien” midway through shooting, as her passport had not been stamped at the border, requiring a production team to shoot footage illegally in Mexico, where they allegedly filmed her voiceover narration, while billionaire RKO chief Howard Hughes banned laboratories from processing any post-production footage, so the filmmakers were never able to see the rushes, where editing reportedly took place in the ladies room bathroom of the closed but still standing Rialto Theater in South Pasadena.  Once completed, premiering at an independent theater in Yorkville, New York, and at the Grande Theatre in New York City, unionized projectionists were directed not to screen the film, while the FBI inspected license plates of any cars parked in the lots of the 12 theaters nationwide that eventually did show the film, languishing unseen for ten years until resurrected during the rebelliousness of the mid 1960’s, eventually selected into the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 1992. 

From The Suppression of Salt of the Earth: How Hollywood, Big Labor, and Politicians Blacklisted a Movie in Cold War America, by James J. Lorence, 1999:

[I]n the final analysis, then, Salt of the Earth remains an enduring document of Cold War America and an emblem of determined independence.  A film little seen in its own time has become a symbol of an alternative vision of America in the 1950s, a view that emphasizes conflict and confrontation. The Salt story challenges the consensus view of race relations, gender roles, and class harmony and signifies a historical counter-trend, which existed side by side with a ‘culture of conformity.’  The age of McCarthy and ‘the Committee’ also produced the dissent of the Salt group and its supporters among the friends of intellectual and artistic freedom in a nation under siege.  For all the vicissitudes of its troubled history, Salt of the Earth remains a fragile, celluloid monument to that culture of resistance.

From the IMDb discussion forum, by hezmodo» Sat Aug 26 2006 01:42:26

My grandmother, Virginia Derr Jencks Chambers (Ruth Barnes), who died in 1991, wrote this in the 1980's (I think). The typo's are hers, by the way, as she typed it on a manual typewriter. This may answer some of the questions by some of the posted discussions. I am open to PM's if anyone has additional questions.
"Salt of the Earth grew out of an explosive mixture: Mexican-American nationalism, working class consciousness, cultural workers of middle-class intelligentsia who refused to be relegated to decay and who wanted to give film goers a radical view of life and, finally, a blacklisted union thrown out of the CIO, besieged by the U.S. government which willingly did the work for the great metal mining giants of this country. SALT grew out of anti-communist hysteria in Washington and the militancy of a section of the American working class. It was conceived in 1950, filmed in 1953, shown a year or two later and has been blacklisted with the U.S. commercial film market ever since.
Herbert Biberman, one of the Hollywood Ten who had spent a year in prison, as well as Paul Jarrico and Michael Wilson, two blacklisted writers, after meeting members of the Local 890, Int’l Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, located in Bayard, New Mexico, talked to other black and graylisted artists in Hollywood about making such a picture. Their goals were:
1. Put to work those among them who were unable to work because of political views and/or accusations.
2. Make a contribution to a culture of reality and hope, counteracting the deluge of *beep* coming from Hollywood at this time.
3. Show political identification and sympathy between the working class and intellectuals of the left.
4. Demonstrate to the powerful Hollywood movie makers that the Left-Liberal artists had unity, a degree of power, and were not helpless in the face of the terror waged against the Left in the U.S.

After approaching Local 890 leadership they went to Denver to talk with Mine’s top people. IUMM&SW at that time was still a very powerful organization, still with locals in Canada, fraternal ties in Mexico. It had been expelled from the CIO in 1947 (?) as communist-dominated and the even more powerful union, the Steelworkers, which in the early 30’s had been organized itself by Communists, awarded itself the jurisdiction of Mine-Mill’s 130,000 members. This led to the end of this historic union, a union which grew out of the Western Federation of Miners. By 1965 (date?) all of Mine-Mill was in Steel; however, before the pact was signed Mine-Mill was able to win a number of concessions for its locals and its staff—so while wounded almost to death, there remained enough power to exert pressure after almost 15 years of facing the government in the form of arrests, “fellow” raiding unions, and the strength of companies such as Kennecott, Phelps-Dodge, American Smelting and Refining, Anaconda, U.S. Refining and Smelting, etc.
In the hope that the film might help and could do no harm the officers agreed in 1952; the event to be documented through a semi-fictional story was a strike by one unit of Local 890, an amalgamated local, against Empire Zinc. The unit was less than 200 people against a small piece of a huge cartel represented by John Foster Dulles, an attorney for the cartel. The strike started in October 1950 for parity in the district; in June, the woman, almost all Mexican-American, took over the picketlines after a local court gave the company an induction. Waves of arrests and violence follows: the press of the company followed the strike and the valiance of the women won much support through-out the country. A tiny strike caused the NY Times to send a reporter to Silver City, New Mexico ----.
Mike Wilson, one of Hollywood’s top talents but then blacklisted, came to the picketlines in November, 1951. He stayed around for some weeks, just observing, departed, and returned six weeks later with what became essentially the SALT script. However, upon the return, a group of union men and women gathered in a tiny living room and upon Mike’s request read and criticized the script, suggesting some significant changes. The changes were made, in the next year. Later the film crew arrived in Silver City and set up, warmly welcomed by business people, aware of the dollar potential. There is no question that the community was puzzled by why a Hollywood group had come to make a picture for that communist-union bunch in their midst, which had such a radical history. But pride and money won and for about one month the townspeople could not do enough for the crew.
But within less than a month the situation changed. Victor Riezdl (spel?) a venomous, anti-union, anti-“red” syndicated columnist, ran an article attacking the film makers and Mine-Mill and the continuing strike within Local 890. It was picked up by Walter Pidgeon and John Wayne, members and officers of a crypto-fascist “artists” organization, AWARE, which then demanded that the House Committee on UnAmerican activities pillory those associated with the film. AWARE was the response of the Hollywood right wing to opportunities afforded by McCarthyism and HUAC. Many people lost their livelihoods through the attempts of AWARE.
At this point a cresendo of hate was launched from Washington, D.C., through the HUAC and the press. The Catholic church in spot radio announcements told its followers they would be excommunicated if they persisted in helping make the film. The local vigilantes started a series of violent attacks on the union families and film people, beatings and smashing of equipment. The vigilantes were mostly businessmen, some foremen and company people, and ranchers, and they were assisted by the Silver City Press and El Paso Times (150 miles away) both carrying editorials and huge headlines calling for the reds to be run out of the Silver City area. There was an attempt to burn the union hall, a successful effort to burn the home of one 890 member, an Anglo, especially hated. The phone calls to the Jencks home, hate-filled and anonymous, came at all hours. In increasing cresendo of hate and violence until the New Mexico governor sent in state police to quell the storm.
Rosaura Revueltas, the star or SALT and Mexico’s leading actress who was flown from Mexico City to Juarez, crossing the border by bus at El Paso to work in the film, was pre-emptorily picked up in the midst of making SALT, hustled back to El Paso, locked up, and deported within a few hours for having crossed the border illegally – despite the fact that her papers were in order. This made innumerable problems in completing the picture – but all were solved by patching and planning.
The tension held constant for about two weeks but soon after that a few friendly small businessmen, two sympathetic priests and the head of the Highway Patrol – who had grown up in SC [Silver City] and was a very unusual Anglo because he truly like the Mexican people -- all these met with the film people and union leaders and said the situation was out of hand – that the crew must finally leave or lives would be lost. By then the local radio station had public announcements on the half hour on quotes from HUAC re Mine Mill etc., along with the threat of excommunication from El Paso. The Press daily called for violence. The entire scene was one of great terror. It became impossible to buy gasoline at stations, food for necessities. The union leadership and the Hollywood people were outcasts in a small area where everyone knew each other. Soon after the warning and demand – because those sympathetic felt that they could not hold back the flood – the film crew and actors left in small convoys at night, silent and unannounced, fearful of the black unoccupied roads before them. And the union people were left alone to do what they could. Even so, no one – then – among the hundreds who had given time and help in making the picture and any regrets. They did not get to see the fruit of the labor until almost two years later when cars drove into a local drive-in, the only place that would show it, and union people communicated their emotions over scenes in the movie by blowing their car horns! Two families from the Hollywood area joined in the celebration: a gripsman and a carpenter.
After the crew left another event too place: within a few weeks Jencks was arrested by the FBI, barefoot, playing ball with his children at the dinner hour. The charge was perjury of the noncommunist affidavit of the Taft-Hartley law, $10,000 bond, put up some hours later by IUMM&SW out of Denver, its headquarters.
The situation became untenable for either working or living and so early in June, 1952, Jencks together with his family was transferred to Denver to service mountainous locals in that area and to prepare for trial. From public records of the Health, Education and Welfare Committee of February, 1952 it became obvious why the arrest had been made; for in that time the public relations representative for Empire Zinc had appeared before a subcommittee on labor and demand that the communists making the movie, agitating in Grant County, New Mexico, be stopped. He was specific about Jencks, as well as a few others. Approximately two weeks later his wishes were met. The film crew was disbanded and Jencks had been arrested – a few days before the statute of limitations on his Taft-Hartley affidavit would have expired.
Because there was an agreement and conspiracy between the film industrialists, especially that great anti-communist Howard Hughes, the U.S. Dept of Justice and FBI and HUAC and Senate Sub-Committee on Internal Affairs (the McCarran Committee), along with the Motion Picture Film Operators Union – one of the most corrupt and degenerate company unions this nation has ever seen – the makers of SALT and unbelievable difficulty in getting the film printed, spliced and edited. Pieces of the work were farmed out to a score of print labs all over the LA area and editors were asked to do what they could at night with these bits and pieces. It took almost a year to get one print.
Finally, there was a big movie-type preview in NYC, which cost the desperate filmmakers a lot of money they no longer had. Juan Chacon and Henrietta Williams were guests, coming from Bayard. TIME magazine, the Nation and a few other publications gave favorable reviews but the political climate was such in 1953-54 that professional people were afraid to come too close; in addition, it soon became impossible to see the picture. Between the film projector’s boycott, and that of the distributors who would threaten a theatre owner that he would get no more movies if he tried to show SALT. The cooperation of the FNI was almost superfluous in getting rid of SALT. On occasions there was a tiny art of film house where the owner ran the project and was not dependant on Hollywood films (Paramount, Fox, MGM, Warners, etc.) the FBI would make its warning visit.
This blackout continued until the early 60’s, approximately ten years, although SALT had been acclaimed abroad, winning honors in France and Scotland, being dubbed into other languages, including Chinese. However, it took the student movement, the fightback against HUAC in SF [San Francisco] and Berkeley, the rising women’s movement, Viet Nam, La Raza, Black Panthers – all, all the great human movements associated in the United States with the 60’s to bring SALT to life in America. It served many aspects of these movements: class, national oppression, women, minorities, revolution – and best of all, humankind through love, a demonstration of the best in all of us.
With all its flaws – and they are there – SALT turned out to be far more meaningful than its creators could ever have hoped.
Almost universal in its appeal, creation of disparate forces, this film will continue to make a statement to and about our country for years to come."

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