When director Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront opened in 1954, critics and audiences hailed the gritty movie about Hoboken dockworkers and applauded Marlon Brando’s performance as the ex-boxer who ‘coulda been a contender.’ At the next Academy Awards ceremony, On the Waterfront won Oscars for best film, best director, best actor, and best supporting actress.
Another movie about beleaguered workers opened to quite a different reception that same year. Like Kazan’s film, Salt of the Earth was based on an actual situation, in this case a mining strike in New Mexico. Both movies were shot on location with the participation of those who had lived the real stories. And both movies shared a history in the Hollywood blacklist. There the similarities ended. Kazan and his writer, Budd Schulberg, had both named names — identified movie people they said were Communists — when questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
Some saw their movie, in which Brando’s character testifies against the racketeers who run the docks, as an allegory in support of informing. The people behind Salt, in contrast, were unrepentant blacklistees whose leftist political affiliations derailed their careers during the Red scares of the 1950s. On the Waterfront was a hit and is remembered as a classic film. The makers of Salt of the Earth struggled to find theater owners willing to show their incendiary movie.
It required a great deal of optimism to make a left-leaning movie like Salt of the Earth in the early 1950s, but director Herbert Biberman was, by many accounts, a great optimist. The director of now-forgotten films such as Meet Nero Wolfe and The Master Race, Biberman had helped found the Screen Directors Guild, which later became the Directors Guild of America. He was also a Communist and one of many movie professionals who found inspiration in the Soviet Union — or at least what dictator Joseph Stalin allowed the world to see of the Soviet Union. Throughout the 1930s, the Communist Party USA remained active in Hollywood, establishing guilds to give writers and actors bargaining clout against the studios, and fighting against Fascism abroad by championing the Spanish Republic and rallying against the Third Reich. Stalin’s pact with Adolf Hitler in 1939 disillusioned many a Beverly Hills Bolshevik, though some, like Biberman, remained unswayed.
When the United States entered World War II in 1941, the Soviet Union became an ally, and Hollywood began to make movies that celebrated our newfound comrades. Those films returned to haunt the movie industry when World War II ended and the Cold War pitted the United States against the Soviet Union. Suddenly the U.S. government began casting a critical eye on the movie industry, and HUAC began investigating Communist influences on the silver screen.
HUAC’s most visible targets were the so-called Hollywood Ten, filmmakers the committee charged with contempt of Congress in 1947 after they refused to answer questions about Communist affiliations. In 1950 the Supreme Court declined to consider the filmmakers’ appeals, and the Hollywood Ten began serving their sentences. Herbert Biberman, 50, served six months at a federal institution at Texarkana, Texas. Incarcerated with him was another of the Ten, writer Alvah Bessie. Compared to the ebullient Biberman, Bessie was a dour cynic. He cringed at Biberman’s incessant good manners and his penchant for preaching politics to guards and prisoners, but he did have to admire Biberman’s dedication to his beliefs, especially when he learned that the director had offered to serve six extra months to get Bessie released earlier.
In 1951, HUAC increased the pressure on the movie industry with a new batch of subpoenas for Communist Party USA members, past members, and even non-affiliated liberals. The studios fell in line and expanded their unofficial blacklist. Actors, producers, directors, and other industry professionals whom the studios deemed tainted by leftist beliefs suddenly found themselves unemployable. Biberman, fellow Ten member and producer Adrian Scott, theater owner Simon Lazarus, and blacklisted screenwriter Paul Jarrico saw possibilities for that discarded talent. They teamed up to form Independent Productions Corporation and set out to find a story to tell.
Jarrico found the subject matter while on a family vacation in New Mexico, where he heard about a mining strike in Grant County. The strikers were predominantly Mexican Americans, members of the Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers, a union the Congress of Industrialized Organizations (CIO) ejected in 1949 for alleged Communist influences. The strikers demanded that the Empire Zinc Corporation give them the same benefits and wages it gave the region’s Anglo miners.
‘The central issue, really, was dignity, equality, being treated like anybody else,’ remembers Clinton Jencks, a decorated World War II veteran the union sent to help out Local 890. He found that company housing for Mexican Americans lacked indoor plumbing and that the company organization was stacked in favor of Anglo workers. ‘They had separate change rooms, separate payrolls, separate places to eat your lunch, strict locks on promotions with all the better jobs reserved for Anglos,’ Jencks says. ‘We eventually broke all that down, but it was very consciously being used as a way to keep people fighting each other instead of the company.’
The strike nearly collapsed after eight months when Empire Zinc opened the mine to scab labor and obtained a court injunction prohibiting union pickets on company property. Then the wives and mothers of the union’s Ladies’ Auxiliary circumvented the injunction by marching in place of the men.
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