The following essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to The Classic Movie Blog Association’s Fall 2017 blogathon. Banned and Blacklisted focuses on banned films and blacklisted actors, writers, directors, and other participants in the motion picture industry, and will be underway from November 15-19. For a list of contributing blogs and the subjects discussed, click here.
The New Mexico town is officially known as San Marcos…but it has acquired the nickname “Zinc Town,” owing to the large Delaware Zinc mine that provides much of the employment for San Marcos residents. A good portion of the mine’s workforce is comprised of Latino-Americans, and while they have been unionized, they struggle constantly against the capricious whims of their Delaware bosses. Case in point: the company has instituted a policy whereby the miners are no longer paired with a “buddy”—the miners must work on their own, which increases the likelihood of accidents. The miners express this concern to the higher-ups, but their advice goes unheeded.
A miner is eventually injured due to Delaware’s negligence, so the union announces they will go on strike for better working conditions. The strikers are effective at maintaining solidarity with their picket line (scabs are scared off by the union’s formidable numbers), but the company has a few aces up its sleeve—and effectively play one of those cards by getting a court injunction enjoining the union from picketing. The strike just may be lost…but at a union meeting, a miner’s wife points out that the language in the injunction says nothing about wives joining the picket line. Despite much resistance, the miners’ wives (who formed a ladies’ auxiliary during the strike in support) take up their husbands’ positions on the picket line…and while they eventually bring Delaware’s management to the negotiating table, they also learn that they are strongest when they embrace equality: at work as well as in the home.
Inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 1992, Salt of the Earth (1954) is an incredible film. At the time of its release, it was a celluloid rarity: a motion picture that is unabashedly pro-union, and while there have been movies of a similar stripe released since then (Norma Rae, Matewan, etc.), Earth stands head and shoulders above the competition because of the unique circumstances under which it was produced. It was created during the McCarthy era, at a time when many of the individuals involved with the film were blacklisted in the industry for their political beliefs.
The director of Salt of the Earth (and member of the infamous “Hollywood Ten”), Herbert J. Biberman (whose previous films included Meet Nero Wolfe and The Master Race), joined forces with producer Paul Jarrico (Beauty for the Asking, The Face Behind the Mask) and Paul Lazarus to form the Independent Production Company, a small studio whose films would be financed by individual contributions and would provide work for those denied employment in Tinsel Town. Michael Wilson (winner of a Best Screenplay Oscar for 1951’s A Place in the Sun) wrote the film’s screenplay, based on a real 1951 mineworkers strike in New Mexico (that lasted thirteen months), and Earth would be scored by another blacklistee, composer Sol Kaplan. The project was conceived as “a crime to fit the punishment”; if these four men (among others working on the film) were considered Communists—why not go balls out? The production would be sponsored by the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, who had also been tarred with the same “Red” brush as their Hollywood compadres (the union was ejected from the CIO for purported Communist leanings).
Targeted at the time of its production as an anti-American film by various personages such as RKO head Howard Hughes and actor Walter Pidgeon, Salt of the Earth will no doubt surprise those who experience it for the first time. While the picture was born out of a political struggle, it’s not at all subversive (the characters in the film seek not overthrow but reform) but rather pro-human in its tone, emphasizing the necessity of dignity. Earth avoids speechifying, presenting its protagonists in a sympathetic light and resisting the urge to make them epic figures (their heroism is conveyed in the strength of their numbers and not in just one individual). The movie doesn’t hesitate to educate its audience, however; it underscores that the villain of the movie is discrimination. The striking Latino workers are pitted against their Anglo counterparts by the mine’s bosses, who give the Anglo miners far superior working and living conditions (they have indoor plumbing, while the Latino miners must depend on heating outside water for cooking and bathing). (Not coincidentally, they’re also the same men who wrangled the land from the workers in the first place.) In turn, the male miners square off against their wives in frustration.
This last aspect of the film is what makes Salt of the Earth so refreshingly contemporary today; it was one of the earliest movies to anticipate the women’s liberation movement in the late 1960s. Critic Ruth McCormick observed: “There has been no other film made for theatrical distribution in this country that deals as basically, and as thoroughly, as Salt of the Earth with the issue of women’s liberation, from the politics of housework to the myth of male supremacy, the ways in which class society divides the sexes by creating false antagonism between them.” The movie’s main protagonists, Esperanza (Rosaura Revueltas) and Ramon Quintero (Juan Chacón), are already experiencing difficulties in their marriage…but their union (no pun intended) will be strengthened by both the strike and Esperanza and Ramon’s political awakening. Esperanza understands that when she stands in solidarity with her husband as an equal, joining him on the front line, that she is a strong, liberated individual (she has that sensational line: “I want to rise. And push everything up with me as I go.”). Ramon, scared and confused at first by the changes in Esperanza, will come to learn that he need not fear his wife…that she is an asset, not a threat. (There’s a nice bit of symbolism in that their political “education” is presented in a cross-cutting of scenes where Esperanza is in labor with their third child and Ramon experiences “sympathy pains” as he’s worked over by a pair of goons in the back of an automobile.)
The production history of Salt of the Earth was an outlaw one. The picture employed a crew of blacklisted technicians denied membership in the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE), the union run under the iron fist of Roy Brewer. Brewer, whose right-wing politics made IATSE a segregated organization (blackballed African-American technicians would also work on Earth), also made certain that IATSE projectionists refused to show the film once it was completed (it ran in a total of thirteen theatres after its premiere in 1954). Eight Hollywood labs refused to process the film, so the filmmakers were forced to use subterfuge (they got some of Earth processed under a dummy title, Vaya Con Dios) with an anonymous lab technician sympathetic to the movie. Editing was done in secret locations, including the ladies’ restroom in a vacant theatre. Somehow Sol Kaplan managed to cobble together a full orchestra for Earth’s score, which is most impressive for an independent production. Filmed in Silver City, New Mexico—where the locals welcomed the filmmakers with the warm welcome of a swift kick in the Charlie Browns—the movie itself has a neo-realist, semi-documentary feel that aids its storytelling immeasurably.
A large percentage of the performers in Salt of the Earth were amateurs; Juan Chacón, who portrays Ramon, was moonlighting from his job as a Local 890 President (he’s a little stiff at times…but quite effective). Of the professional actors in the film, the most recognizable face is Waltons grandpa Will Geer, as the sheriff who jails many of the picketing women (he comes to regret this decision when they besiege him with cries of “The formula! The formula!” after Esperanza’s infant child rejects the milk provided in the pokey). Biberman had originally wanted to cast his wife Gale Sondegaard as Esperanza (she decided it would be best to refuse the role, being Caucasian) but instead went with Rosaura Revueltas, a well-known movie star in her native Mexico. Because immigration officials had neglected to stamp her passport upon entry into the U.S., she would later be detained in El Paso…and Revueltas elected to return to her home country to avoid a long trial. Some of her scenes in Earth required a double, and a few more were shot upon her return to Mexico under the guise of being “test scenes” for future films (she also did the film’s narration while in Mexico as well). Salt of the Earth was Rosaura’s only American feature film, and for a time in her native country she suffered from a similar blacklist (she only made three Mexican films in the 1970s), forcing her to become a dance teacher and yoga instructor.
Despite its spotty run in the U.S., Salt of the Earth became a hit overseas, playing to SRO crowds in France, mainland China, and the Soviet Union; producer Jarrico later mused “it has been seen, probably, by more people than any film in history.” The movie entered the public domain in 1982 (which is why you can find it on YouTube), but its National Film Registry status means that whenever it airs on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ you can watch a very nice print (TCM will show Earth on November 20 at 8pm as part of their tribute to The Hollywood Blacklist this month). There are budget versions of the movie available on DVD (Alpha Video), of course, but if you can track down a copy of the 1999 Pioneer/POP disc (it’s available at Organa.com) it’s well worth the extra gitas (there are nice bonuses, including production stills, a photo gallery, and a short film on The Hollywood Ten). (It’s recently been released to Blu-ray, too.) Since reading about this groundbreaking movie in Danny Peary’s Cult Movies 2 in my formative movie-obsession years, I was anxious to seek it out (I bought the 1999 release from an online place that was going out of business) and I’ve watched it many times since—it’s simply remarkable filmmaking.