Labor on Film: Screenings in Solidarity

For May Day, the international holiday commemorating the working class everywhere, what follows is a rough chronological selection of films in their honor. This list is composed of fiction and nonfiction films, and is an offering, by no means complete.  Labor and Hollywood have a long history – mostly off celluloid. There were violent battles outside studio gates in the 1940s, and today, Hollywood is one of the most unionized of industries.

Before or after the Richmond May Day Rally & Parade for Workers’ Rights at 3:00 p.m. on Sunday, May 1 in Monroe Park (Main and Laurel Streets), we invite you to head down to Video Fan, pick out one of these great films (though you won’t find all of ’em there), and host a small May Day labor on film watching party.

Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory, Loading the Boiler, Drawing out the Coke (Lumière brothers, c. 1895-96, France). One of the earliest documentaries in existence – then referred to as “actualities” performed by working people – one shot, one reel, no edits. The filmmakers’ father owned the factory in the title, but we’re barred from its interior. Kino put out a great box set called The Movies Begin, available for purchase via the link or at VCU Libraries.

A Visit to the Peek Frean and Company’s Biscuit Works (c. 1906, Great Britain). Supposedly the first documentary ever filmed inside a factory, workers turn out tins and tins of cookies. The link above is to the British Film Institute’s Screenonline. It doesn’t look like we can access the film, but you can read a little more about it.

Corner in Wheat (D.W. Griffith, 1909, US). Roughly based on the bread riots of the turn of the century, Corner in Wheat is a striking expose of corporate manipulation at the expense of the consumer and the producer/farmer. Fortunately, karma intervenes. This short is included in the Kino title, Griffith Masterworks: Biograph Shorts, and is in the VCU Libraries collection.

Strike (Sergei Eisenstein, 1922, USSR). Just a few years ahead of his groundbreaking film, The Battleship Potemkin (1925), Strike is a chronicle of a proletarian strike violently squashed by the factory owners, the police and the Tsar’s own agents. Noted for the metaphoric slaying of an ox, before the massacre of the strikers. Image Entertainment released Strike on DVD in 2000; VCU Libraries has the 2008 version released by Triad Productions Corporation.

Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1926, Germany). More than science fiction, this a treatise on the eternal struggle between capital and labor. Once seen, the viewer never forgets the worker-drones’ heads down march to work in the fiery underground of Lang’s futuristic nightmare. Happily, love and a growing social awareness intervene.

À Nous la Liberté/Liberty is Ours (René Clair, 1931, France). Clair’s charming, cinderella story – an escaped convict becomes a factory mogul – bursts when a cellmate, in line for employment, recognizes him. Later, on the lam, the factory is left behind to the workers’ collective, living an idyllic existence on the fringe of nature and technology.

Our Daily Bread (King Vidor, 1934, US). Despite his studio credentials, Vidor (The Crowd) couldn’t get this one made in the depths of the Depression so he financed it out of his own pocket. A utopian view of a farming collective, composed of diverse specialists, that finds a way to employ themselves. The final ten minutes is an euphoric montage, almost religious in tone, as the struggling farmers triumphantly divert water to their crops.

Modern Times (Charles Chaplin, 1936, US). With this release, there were no more ambiguities about Chaplin’s cinema – his political heart was there on the silver screen for all. He’d met Ghandi on tour in England, and he’d resolved to try to say something among the laughs. Countless memorable sequences with “The Tramp” run amok in the Industrial Age.

You Can’t Take It With You (Frank Capra, 1938, US). Capra finds a comfortable vehicle in the Hart-Kauffman play, with memorable roles by Lionel Barrymore, as the downright practically anti-American patriarch who rejects a 9-5 lifestyle and encourages the same from his resident pack of anarchistic-firework-producing in-laws, and Jean Arthur, hoping to bridge the social strata by marriage to her corporate boss’s son, Jimmy Stewart.  Capra was America’s most popular/populist director of the 1930s – Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town – and this reminds us why. A personal favorite as we put the play on in my high school – part of my political education! By the way, the link above takes you to the Turner Classic Movies webpage for You Can’t Take it With You — if you have TCM, they are playing the film on Thursday, May 5, 8:45 a.m.

John Grierson and the GPO documentaries (c. 1930s, UK). As a government funded agency whose mission it was to produce documentaries on various aspects of British life, (re: working life) Grierson, Basil Wright and associates produced scores of films, including Nightmail, a study in efficiency and teamwork of postal employees carrying mail nightly from London to Glasgow, with rhetorical voice-over poetry from W. H. Auden – a fascinating piece of government propaganda.

The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford, 1940, US). Well, of course the ending of Steinbeck’s novel is omitted – it could never have worked then, or maybe even now – but it still splits some hairs and lands pretty solidly (albeit sentimentally) on the left. Henry Fonda as Tom Joad realizes the balance of things and sets out to right them – in fact his speech to Jane Darwell (Ma Joad) near the end even hints at a universal consciousness. Imagine that.  Perhaps most memorable is John Carradine as Casey, who dropped his Bible on the way to social enlightenment. Steinbeck in his early works was quite critical of capitalism, and, though he may have mellowed in latter years, he was reportedly very happy with Ford’s version. In addition to Video Fan, this one is available via Netflix streaming.

Salt of the Earth (Herbert Biberman, 1954, US). Collectively produced by a blacklisted Hollywood crew, the film was harassed from the beginning by right-wingers in Congress and Hollywood – in fact, processing and editing had to be done secretly, and then only two theatres screened it.   Based on a real miners’ strike, this film breaks ground as domestic issues compound and the wives carry the strike through to a new contract.  With Will Geer, aka Grandpa Walton, as the Sheriff pawn of the corporation. Yes, Grandpa was a Communist.  A feel good movie from the Left!

Harlan County USA (Barbara Kopple, 1977, US). One of the greatest American documentaries period – but also a record of both a specific strike in Kentucky in the early 1970s, and the history and legacy of the United Mine Workers. Like Salt of the Earth the women take the lead with questions regarding indoor plumbing and decent housing, overlapping with the strikers on issues regarding safety. Academy Award Winner for Best Documentary, 1978.

Norma Rae (Martin Ritt, 1979, US). America’s favorite gal, Sally Field, won an Oscar for her portrayal of Norma Rae, who risks marriage, family and community opinion as she fights for workers’ rights in a North Carolina textile factory. Ron Liebman plays the union organizer, with whom she has a platonic relationship (re: an education on labor issues and a skinny dip in the local swimming hole). Nicely directed by Ritt, another blacklisted director who sells the story on a personal level that makes the union’s fight believable, vital, and winnable. Based on a true story.

Matewan (John Sayles, 1983, US). One of writer-director Sayles best films (Return of the Secaucus 7, Eight Men Out) and only his third, Matewan is a dramatic version of a bloody coal mining strike in Matewan, Kentucky. Like most of Sayles films, this one shows his eye for natural dialogue and behavior and a penchant for stories that invite a social discourse.

Working Girls (Lizzie Borden, 1987, US). Her follow up to Born in Flames, Borden’s deglamorizing exposé of a middle-upper class brothel in NYC garnered an X rating for Miramax, who released it. The debunking comes through humanization of the players and, like Godard’s My Life to Live (1963), shows that prostitution is still the hardest working metaphor for capitalism in cinema.

American Dream (Barbara Kopple, 1990, US). A prolonged strike against a Hormel meat packing plant is the dramatic stuff of this documentary – family members pitted against one another and a national representation unable to avert disaster for the local. A little technical at times, but a real education in what happens in backroom in labor negotiations. Oscar winner for Best Documentary, 1991.

Roger and Me and The Big One (Michael Moore, 1989 and 1998). A champion of topics ignored by big media, Moore manages to focus not only on an issue film-to-film, but also connects the dots in the bigger workers’ picture. Beginning with the United Auto Workers in Flint, Michigan in the 1930s in Roger and Me to his interview with the CEO and founder of Nike who declines to match Moore’s own pledge to the depressed school districts of Flint with a $20,000 donation in the latter film.

Michael Jones has worked a lot of low-paying jobs – packing apples, digging graves, painting houses and a stint at the revered, now-defunct Biograph Theatre, where he made $2.25 as an usher in the 1970s. 

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1 Response to Labor on Film: Screenings in Solidarity

  1. Rick Tudor says:

    Hi Mike,

    Nice piece. I’d never heard of the “Lumiere Factory” or “A Visit to the Peek Frean…” films.

    Hope you’re well. And solidarity, brother.

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