AFI Catalog of Feature Films
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Salt of the Earth
Director: Herbert J. Biberman (Dir)
Release Date:   1954
Premiere Information:   World premiere in New York and Yorkville, NY: 14 Mar 1954
Production Date:   20 Jan--6 Mar 1953
Duration (in mins):   94
Duration (in feet):   8,320
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Cast: The Professional Cast: Will Geer (Sheriff)  
    David Wolfe (Barton)  
    David Sarvis (Hartwell)  
    Mervin Williams (Alexander)  
    Rosaura Revueltas (Esperanza Quintero)  
  The Non-Professional Cast: E. A. Rockwell (Vance)  
    William Rockwell (Kimbrough)  
    Juan Chacón (Ramón Quintero)  
    Henrietta Williams (Teresa Vidal)  
    Angela Sanchez (Consuela Ruiz)  
    Clorinda Alderette (Luz Morales)  
    Virginia Jencks (Ruth Barnes)  
    Clinton Jencks (Frank Barnes)  
    Joe T. Morales (Sal Ruiz)  
    Ernest Velasquez (Charlie Vidal)  
    Charles Coleman (Antonio Morales)  
    Victor Torres (Sebastian Prieto)  
    Frank Talevera (Luis Quintero)  
    Mary Lou Castillo (Estella Quintero)  
    Floyd Bostick (Jenkins)  
    E. S. Conerly (Kalinsky)  
    Adolfo Barela (Alfredo)  
    Albert Muñoz (Vicente)  
    And other brothers and sisters of Mine-Mill Local 890    
    Alford Roos (District Attorney)  

Summary: Thirty-four-year-old Esperanza Quintero, who is pregnant with her third child, lives in Zinc Town, New Mexico, a mining town owned by Delaware Zinc. Esperanza's husband Ramón, a miner, narrowly escapes a catastrophe when he lights dynamite that has a defective fuse. When Ramón later objects to the dangerous working conditions, company man Barton replies that Ramón can easily be replaced by "an American." That night, Esperanza complains to Ramón that she must chop wood for hot water five times a day, while the Anglo miners' homes have hot running water. Ramón, however, insists that safety at the mine is their most important concern. One day, a group of women decides to picket at the mine for more sanitary conditions. As they try to convince Esperanza, who is reluctant to get involved, to join them, an alarm sounds at the mine. Ramón tells superintendent Alexander that the accident would not have happened if conditions were better. Barton accuses Ramón of lying, and when Alexander orders the men back to work, they strike. That night, a few of the women, including Esperanza, attend the union meeting, and one suggests that the strikers also demand sanitation and plumbing for their houses. The men, however, table the discussion. As the men begin picketing outside the mine entrance, out-of-town strikebreakers are recruited, but they turn back when they see the size of the picket lines. After his son Luís and a friend spy some "scabs" at the mine, Ramón chases them, and when he discovers that one of them is a Mexican American whom he knows, he spits on the man and is arrested. As Ramón is beaten by bigoted police, Esperanza goes into labor. Despite the sheriff's refusal to send for a doctor, she delivers a healthy boy. Esperanza waits to christen the baby until Ramón returns from jail. That night, while all the strikers celebrate at the Quintero home, Ramón is criticized for his distrust of whites, but takes the union leader, an Anglo named Frank Barnes, to task for not having learned about Mexican culture. Barnes admits he was at fault, but criticizes Ramón's paternalistic view of women, until his wife Ruth points out his own deficiencies. By the seventh month of the strike, money and food are running low, and some families leave, but soon aid arrives from workers around the country. When the sheriff delivers a Taft-Hartley injunction ordering the striking workers to stop picketing, Barnes explains that if the men obey the order, the strike is lost, as scabs will move in as soon as the picket line is gone. If they defy the order, however, they will be arrested and the strike will be broken. As the men argue, one of the wives suggests that the women take over the picketing since the order applies only to striking miners. The idea is greeted with laughter and then debate. Esperanza insists that the women be allowed to vote along with the men, and the motion narrowly passes. Women from all around the area join the wives of the strikers, while the men watch from the side, but Ramón forbids Esperanza to participate. When a fight breaks out between the deputies and the women, Esperanza passes the baby to Ramón and with a shoe, knocks a gun from an officer's hands. Temporarily defeated, Barton calls off his men. Esperanza now joins the picket line, taking the children with her. After further efforts by the police fail to dislodge the women, Hartwell, a company official from New York, asks the sheriff to arrest them. The Mexican-American scab points out the leaders and includes Esperanza, who brings her baby and little girl to jail with her. When the baby refuses the milk the sheriff provides, the women start to chant. Ramón and Luís retrieve the children. Seeing the determination of the women, Ramón begins to do the housework and realizes the validity of the women's complaints. After four days, Esperanza and the other women are released from jail. Ramón insists that the women have no chance of winning, but Esperanza contends that they can outlast the company and criticizes him for treating her as the bosses treat him. On a hunting trip, Ramón thinks about Esperanza's words. Later, the company obtains an eviction order against the striking miners, and begin their efforts with Ramón and Esperanza. As the women gather outside the Quintero home, the sheriff and his men remove their belongings. The men return from a hunting trip and join the women, and as word spreads, workers and women gather outside the Quintero house. When Ramón understands that the company has resorted to the evictions because, as Esperanza predicted, they cannot fight the picket line, he suggests that Esperanza take their belongings back inside. The other women follow her, and the sheriff, who does not want the women in his jail again, leaves with his men. After Alexander and Hartwell decide to settle the strike, Ramón thanks the "sisters and brothers" and publicly praises Esperanza for her dignity and determination. She now knows that they have won something the bosses cannot take away, which they can leave to their children, the "salt of the earth." 

Production Company: The International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers  
  Independent Productions Corp.  
Distribution Company: Independent Productions Corp.  
  IPC Distributors, Inc.  
Director: Herbert J. Biberman (Dir)
Producer: Paul Jarrico (Prod)
Writer: Michael Wilson ([Wrt] by)
Music: Sol Kaplan (Mus)
Production Misc: Sonja Dahl (Staff exec)
  Adolfo Barela (Staff exec)
Country: United States
Language: English

Copyright Claimant Copyright Date Copyright Number
Independent Productions Corp. 8/3/1954 dd/mm/yyyy LP3558

Physical Properties: Sd:

Genre: Drama
Sub-Genre: Social
Subjects (Major): Mexican Americans
  Sexual equality
  Strikes and lockouts
  Trade unions
Subjects (Minor): Childbirth
  Family relationships
  Mine accidents
  New Mexico

Note: Independent Productions Corp. was incorporated in 1951 by Simon Lazarus, Herbert J. Biberman and Paul Jarrico to employ blacklisted filmmakers. Writer Michael Wilson based the film's story on a 1951-52 strike by the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers against Empire Zinc, a subsidiary of New Jersey Zinc, in which Juan Chacón and Clinton Jencks participated. Chacón, who played "Ramón," was president of Local 890 of the UMMSW and worked for Kennecott Copper Corp. at the time of filming. Jencks, who performed the role of "Frank Barnes," was an international representative of the union. Many of the other characters were also played by miners and their families.
       In an article, Chacón wrote about the unequal treatment of Mexican American miners: "The companies built houses for the Anglos while we were given shacks....the miners who spoke Spanish would be put to work as 'helpers' to the 'skilled' Anglos--doing the same work for which the Anglo was paid twice as much....separate pay windows, separate washrooms, the separation even in the movies." According to Biberman's book about the making of the film, the role of "Esperanza" was intended for his wife, Gale Sondergaard, and the part of "Ramón" was also to be played by a non-Hispanic actor, but the filmmakers changed their minds when they realized that they subconsciously believed Hispanics were incapable of portraying leads.
       Contemporary news items add the following information about the production: In Feb 1953, during filming, California Republican Representative Donald Jackson, a member of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) from California, declared that the picture was "deliberately designed to inflame racial hatreds," and was "a new weapon for Russia." Jackson claimed that "in one sequence, two deputy sheriffs...proceed to pistol whip the miner's very young son." Wilson countered that "there is not one shred of truth in [Jackson's] description of the subject." He called the film "pro-American in the deepest sense. It...depicts honest working men and women of our country in a light most Hollywood films have ignored....It stresses brotherhood and unity." Jackson named investors in the film and portrayed them as having ties to the Communist party. He singled out Biberman, Sondergaard, Jarrico, Wilson and actor Will Geer, who had all been hostile witnesses before HUAC. Lazarus was called to testify before Jackson's committee in 1953.
       A UMMSW representative denied that the picture was being made "under Communist auspices," and added that Sondergaard was not connected with the film. He also noted that no "violence against any young Mexican-American boy" is depicted in the film, as Jackson claimed. After Jackson's denunciation, Roy M. Brewer, head of the American Federation of Labor Film Council and the international representative of IATSE, 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. Later, Jackson submitted a request to the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Commerce and the Attorney-General to find legal means to ban the export of the "propaganda film."
       On 25 Feb 1953, Mexican actress Rosaura Revueltas, who played "Esperanza," was arrested and held without bail because her passport had not been stamped at the border. In response, Jorge Negreta, president of the National Association of Actors of Mexico City, threatened to bar Hollywood actors from Mexico unless Revueltas was permitted to finish the film. SAG then stated that the actress was working for "a non-union company not signatory to our contract." Biberman and Jarrico countered that every member of the crew carried a union card (although not from IATSE unions for the most part) and that they had hired people who had been effectively blacklisted by IATSE, including four African Americans, the assistant to the director, an assistant cameraman and two technicians, excluded under IATSE's Jim Crow policies. On 6 Mar 1953, Revueltas returned to Mexico, and her last scene was filmed near Mexico City. Her voice-over narration, modern sources note, was also taped there.
       On 2 Mar 1953, the film's cast and crew were met by a citizen's committee in Central, NM, and ordered to leave town. The following day, in Silver City, NM, the company was warned to "get out of town...or go out in black boxes." Jencks was beaten and shots were fired at his car while it was parked outside his home. When the company did not capitulate to the demands, there was a "citizens' parade" led by a sound car blaring, "We don't want Communism; respect the law; no violence, but let's show them we don't like it." The UMMSW, which had been expelled from the Congress of Industrial Organizations for alleged pro-Communist leanings, responded that "we have the right to make and complete our movie." Then on 8 Mar 1953, the union hall in Bayard, NM was set on fire, and the union hall in nearby Carlsbad was burned to the ground, according to Biberman's book. Biberman also notes that cast member Floyd Bostick's home was destroyed by fire. A 15 Mar 1954 LAT article notes that the majority of the film was shot on a New Mexico ranch owned by Alford Roos, who also appeared in the picture.
       In his book, Biberman states that before filming began, Lazarus asked Brewer to supply a union crew for the film. Brewer refused, stating that he would not allow union members to work for blacklisted filmmakers. Afterward, according to Biberman, Pathé Laboratories in Hollywood refused to process their exposed film. Consequently, the filmmakers were unable to view the rushes. Soon other technical companies followed suit. According to a modern source, Howard Hughes of RKO stated, "If the motion picture industry--not only in Hollywood, but throughout the United States--will refuse these skills [processing, dubbing, editing, etc.]...the picture cannot be completed in this country."
       In Jul 1953, Brewer asked Film Council members and other studio workers not to work on the film, calling it "one of the most anti-American documentaries ever attempted." Before a preview screening in New York, IATSE projectionists refused to run the film, provoking Var to comment that "IATSE like any other organization is entitled to its opinions and prejudices, but in this instance...the precedent is a bad one." The editorial added that IATSE opposition would make the picture seem more important and powerful than it was. Finally, on 14 Mar 1954, Salt of the Earth had its premiere at an independent theater in Yorkville, NY, and at the Grande Theatre in New York, also a non-IATSE house. Although an extra detail of police was assigned to the neighborhood in Yorkville, no trouble was reported.
       A 15 Mar 1954 DV article noted that both the New York Mirror and The Journal-American , owned by William Randolph Hearst, ignored the film's opening. (According to modern sources, the film had its premiere at the Sky-Vue Drive In near Silver City and played there for three weeks.) Chicago screenings were canceled in early Jun 1954, according to MPH , after protesting projectionists failed to show up for work. The picture was never generally released in the U.S., modern sources state, although it appeared occasionally in theaters in New York, Los Angeles, Berkeley and San Francisco.
       Salt of the Earth was received favorably overseas and won the grand prize at the Prague Film Festival. Revueltas also won an award for her portrayal of Esperanza. She was blacklisted by the Mexican film industry after her work in the picture, modern sources note, but continued to act in the theater in East Berlin and Havana. On 24 May 1959, NYT reported that the United States Information Agency had provided Congress with a list of eighty-two movies that the agency refused to show overseas. Among them was Salt of the Earth . In the article, Republican Representative Frank T. Bow of Ohio stated that such films created a false picture of the United States. The film was re-released in 1965.
       In a 1953 anti-trust suit, Independent Productions Corp. and IPC Distributors, Inc. charged Brewer, Jackson, Hughes, RKO and Pathé Laboratories, among others, with an "illegal conspiracy" to prevent production, distribution and exhibition of the film. The suit was appealed several times. Finally, in Nov 1964, a Federal Court jury found in favor of the defendants, now reduced to twenty-five. A documentary titled A Crime to Fit the Punishment , about the making of the film, was released in 1984 and was directed by Barbara Moss and Stephen Mack. 

Bibliographic Sources:   Date   Page
Box Office   17 Apr 1954.   
Box Office   23 Nov 1964.   
Daily Variety   25 Feb 1953.   
Daily Variety   3 Mar 1953.   
Daily Variety   21 Jul 1953.   
Daily Variety   8 Mar 1954.   
Daily Variety   12 Mar 1954.   
Daily Variety   15 Mar 54   p. 1, 3.
Daily Variety   3 Jun 1958.   
Daily Variety   28 Sep 1959.   
Daily Variety   4 Apr 1960.   
Daily Variety   4 Nov 1960.   
The Exhibitor   24 Mar 54   p. 3720.
Film Daily   13 Nov 1964.   
Harrison's Reports   12 Jun 54   p. 96.
Hollywood Citizen-News   24 Feb 1953.   
Hollywood Citizen-News   5 Mar 1953.   
Hollywood Citizen-News   7 Mar 1953.   
Hollywood Citizen-News   21 Jul 1953.   
Hollywood Citizen-News   15 Mar 1954.   
Hollywood Reporter   27 Feb 1953.   
Hollywood Reporter   2 Mar 1953.   
Hollywood Reporter   29 Jul 1953.   
Hollywood Reporter   22 May 1959.   
Los Angeles Daily News   25 Feb 1953.   
Los Angeles Daily News   26 Feb 1953.   
Los Angeles Daily News   27 Feb 1953.   
Los Angeles Daily News   3 Mar 1953.   
Los Angeles Daily News   21 Jul 1953.   
Los Angeles Examiner   14 Feb 1953.   
Los Angeles Examiner   25 Feb 1953.   
Los Angeles Examiner   1 Mar 1953.   
Los Angeles Examiner   5 Mar 1953.   
Los Angeles Examiner   9 Mar 1953.   
Los Angeles Times   15 Feb 1953.   
Los Angeles Times   25 Feb 1953.   
Los Angeles Times   2 Mar 1953.   
Los Angeles Times   3 Mar 1953.   
Los Angeles Times   4 Mar 1953.   
Los Angeles Times   15 Mar 1954.   
Motion Picture Herald   20 Mar 1954.   p. 28.
Motion Picture Herald   5 Jun 1954.   p. 26.
New York Times   11 Mar 1953.   
New York Times   15 Mar 1954.   p. 20.
Time   16 Mar 1953.   
Variety   25 Feb 1953.   
Variety   29 Jul 1953.   
Variety   17 Feb 1954.   
Variety   3 Mar 1954.   
Variety   17 Mar 1954.   
Variety   3 Jun 1958.   
Variety   6 Apr 1960.   
Variety   18 Nov 1964.   

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