Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Cult Movie Project #18 (of 200) :: Rising Up, and Pushing Everything Up with Them as They Go in Herbert J. Biberman's Salt of the Earth (1954)

On December 3, 1947, after ten screenwriters and directors were cited for contempt of Congress, all taking the Fifth and refusing to answer questions for the House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) as they tried to root-out communistic influences in popular media, a group of Hollywood executives (-- including Louis B. Mayer, Harry Cohn, Samuel Goldwyn and Albert Warner), backed by the MPAA, issued what would come to be known as the Waldorf Statement, which essentially terminated the offenders and barred them from any industry jobs "until such time as he is acquitted or has purged himself of contempt and declares under oath that he is not a Communist." But they didn't stop there, adding, "We will not knowingly employ a Communist or a member of any party or group which advocates the overthrow of the government of the United States by force or by any illegal or unconstitutional methods ... To this end we will invite the Hollywood talent guilds to work with us to eliminate any subversives: to protect the innocent; and to safeguard free speech and a free screen wherever threatened."

Thus, the Blacklist was born; and in June, 1950, after a pamphlet called Red Channels was circulated around Hollywood, fingering "Red Fascists and their sympathizers", an additional 150 names were added to the list, who found themselves out of a job and barred from any form of employment in the entertainment field.

Herbert Biberman was one of the original Hollywood Ten, and while some of his contemporaries fled to Europe (Ring Lardner Jr., Albert Maltz), or kept working in Hollywood, ghost-writing through the use of fronts (Dalton Trumbo), or eventually caved and started naming names (Edward Dmytryk), Biberman stayed true to the cause, citing his constitutional rights. After serving his time in Federal prison, Biberman was determined to keep working and, perhaps, in a blatant show of defiance, decided to actually make the kind of film he and the others were being unjustly persecuted for: “a crime to fit the punishment.” Thus, scratching together funds from several other Blacklistees and sympathizers, Biberman founded Independent Productions Corporation. Now all he needed was a story to produce.

Meantime, Paul Jarrico, one of those later casualties of the Blacklist, fled with his family to the deserts of New Mexico to escape the public eye. There, he met Clint and Virginia Jencks, a couple of labor organizers who were trying to unionize a group of exploited mine workers, currently mired in an interminable strike near the Mexican border. The Jarricos visited the miners, and even spent some time on the picket lines. They were also well aware of Biberman’s ambitions and felt they had found the perfect story for him to film.

Biberman agreed, and contracted Michael Wilson, another victim of the Blacklist, to write the screenplay for what would eventually become, after several harrowing twists and turns, with resistance from nearly every front, Salt of the Earth (1954). Wilson was another one of those ghost-writers, who would secretly pen the scripts for epics like The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and seemed an odd choice for this kind of intimate and well-grounded tale. But he accepted the challenge and, like Jarrico, spent time with the miners and their families, mostly Mexican-Americans, who were striking over equal wages and safety concerns.

As for the film itself, I think its true spirit animal is John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940), subbing in minority miners for displaced Okies. But lensed with a documentarian flare, what it really feels like is one of those vintage anti-drug / horrors of sex / road safety screeds -- at least to the eye. But the film is a lot more complicated than that. For on one hand you have the miners fighting tooth and nail to unionize against the faceless mining company, which plays the Anglos against the Chicanos, because that song will ALWAYS remain the same, but these very same men refuse to let their wives get involved, preferring a more traditional role for the womenfolk, or add their list of demands for better living conditions to the manifesto; at least initially.

For as the film progresses and the strike drags on indefinitely, the company counters every move made with injunction after injunction, forcing the wives and children to take over the picket lines when the husbands were forced to stand aside or face real jail time for defying that stack of court orders. And for over a year, these families faced severe food-rationing, forced evictions, a biased police force, and the constant threat of “scabs” and strike-breakers taking over the mine. And despite turning the heat up a little too high on a few melodramatic moments to make sure everyone gets this, it is this gender-reversal that gives Salt of the Earth its true power, making it an extremely empowering feminist picture.

To add even more verisimilitude to the proceedings, Biberman quickly abandoned the idea of having his wife, Gale Sondergaard, whose lost film career was collateral damage for Biberman’s Blacklisting, play the female lead and narratrix, Esperanza Quintero. Feeling this miscasting would “undermine the social justice aspects” of the film, the producers recruited Rosura Revueltas, a Mexican actress, who had grown up in similar circumstances in a similar mining town. To play her husband, they cast non-actor, Juan Chacón, who was the president of the fledgling union that had won the strike just months before filming began. And playing the organizers who rallied the miners were the Jencks themselves. In fact, Biberman only cast five professional actors for the whole film, filling out the vast majority of the roles with locals found in Grant County, New Mexico, many of which had actively participated in the inspirational strike. Thus, the only familiar face is Will Geer, who plays the vile and bigoted Sheriff. A long time liberal (and later star of The Waltons TV series), Geer had also made the Blacklist. In return, he founded the Theatricum Botanicum in Los Angeles to give his fellow victims an outlet for their creativity and agreed to be in Biberman’s film, feeling it was an important tale to tell.

And it was a tale that almost didn’t get told. As the film was being shot near Silver Springs, a concerned school teacher sent a letter to Walter Pidgeon, then president of the Screen Actors Guild, about what a bunch of godless Commies were up to in her hometown. Pidgeon then forwarded the letter on to the FBI, who immediately dug into the financing of the film and eventually deported Revueltas back to Mexico for her involvement, and the HUAC commission, who immediately denounced the proposed film for its communistic sympathies just as The Hollywood Reporter charged it was made "under direct orders of the Kremlin."

With the public now stirred up over content that didn’t even exist, several rounds of gunfire riddled the sets, equipment was constantly sabotaged, and a small airplane would occasionally buzz the location and disrupt several shots. And it didn’t end once Salt of the Earth wrapped. Through threats and machinations of several studio heads, no lab would develop the film; and even when that was finally managed on the sly the editing process was done in secret and in several rotating locations (including the women’s restroom in an abandoned movie theater) to prevent the footage from being seized and destroyed before it could be finished.

Despite a call by the American Legion for a nation-wide boycott, Salt of the Earth did manage a premiere in New York City, but that was about it because no one else would dare show it for fear of repercussions. After that, the film languished for almost a decade until its rediscovery in the more liberal minded 1960s, where a once reviled film was now championed as a bold statement on ethnic and gender equality. And finally, in what can be best described as an irony of ironies, Salt of the Earth was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 1992. And so, just like the strikers, Biberman and company eventually won the day.

Officially, the Blacklist ended in 1960 when Dalton Trumbo received full screen credit for his work on Spartacus (1960). Unofficially, its effect still lingers to this very day. Don’t believe me? YouTube Elia Kazan’s life-time Academy Award presentation in 2008 and check out the audience’s cool reaction to it. Sadly, back in 1954, after she was detained by immigration before voluntarily agreeing to be deported back to Mexico, Revueltas' part still wasn’t completely filmed. But with the use of stand-ins and some secret clandestine filmmaking south of the border, several needed inserts were finished. When word of this leaked, Revueltas was a victim of a severe backlash and was never allowed to work as an actress again on either side of the border. This is too bad because if her outstanding performance, here, is any indication of her talent, her loss was also ours.

As conceived, Salt of the Earth was intended to be a primal scream in the wilderness against the hypocrisy of the conspiring forces who wrought this ruin and who sought to censure and censor in the name of freedom. Something unglamorous and a subject matter Hollywood would never touch. Those few critics who did see it in 1954 couldn’t understand what all the frothing hub-bub was about, finding a film that wasn’t “anti-American but pro-human.” And though small in scale, focusing on several individuals and their constant struggle to be recognized as something more than cogs in a machine, Salt of the Earth shows that when enough people stand together for what is right, no matter what the odds, they can accomplish something truly heroic.

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“Today Salt of the Earth has lost none of its impact; Norma Rae (1979), with similar themes, may be commendable, provocative progressive film, highly controversial by Hollywood standards, but by comparison to Salt of the Earth it is timid and gimmicky; the emphasis is on performance rather than themes; it is a celebration of the individual rather than the people; it is targeted for a liberal middle-class audience. The striking people in Salt of the Earth advocate reform (as did their real life counterparts) rather than a revolutionary takeover of a mine – a bone of contention for some radicals – but for most moviegoers with political orientation no American narrative film is more inspiring and emotionally satisfying than this remarkable 1954 film."

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The Fine Print: Salt of the Earth was watched via Alpha Video's DVD. What's the Cult Movie Project? That's 18 down, with 182 to go.

Salt of the Earth (1954) Independent Production Company (IPC) / P: Paul Jarrico / AP: Jules Schwerin / D: Herbert J. Biberman / W: Michael Wilson / C: Stanley Meredith, Leonard Stark / E: Joan Laird, Ed Spiegel / M: Sol Kaplan / S: Juan Chacón, Rosaura Revueltas, Will Geer, Henrietta Williams, Mervin Williams


Spuddie said...

Got to say, there is always a good time to reference the film books by Danny Peary. The guy was like the imdb of the pre-internet days. Man, there are so many films I rented just because they were referenced in his Cult Movies series.

W.B. Kelso said...

They and he definitely molded me into the film fan I am today. Thanks for commenting!

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