Salt of the Earth – Read about an American Banned Film
When director Elia Kazanâ€™s On the Waterfront opened in 1954, critics and audiences hailed the gritty
movie about Hoboken dockworkers and applauded Marlon Brandoâ€™s performance as the ex-boxer who
â€˜coulda been a contender.â€™ 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
Kazanâ€™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 â€” identified movie people they said were
Communists â€” when questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Some saw
their movie, in which Brandoâ€™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 â€” 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. Stalinâ€™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.
HUACâ€™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 filmmakersâ€™ 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 Bibermanâ€™s incessant good manners and his penchant
for preaching politics to guards and prisoners, but he did have to admire Bibermanâ€™s dedication to his
beliefs, especially when he learned that the director had offered to serve six extra months to get Bessie
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 regionâ€™s Anglo miners. â€˜The central
issue, really, was dignity, equality, being treated like anybody else,â€™ 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. â€˜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,â€™ Jencks says. â€˜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.â€™
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 unionâ€™s Ladiesâ€™ Auxiliary circumvented the injunction by marching in place of the men.
Jarrico was invigorated by what he had seen. The filmmakers had found their story. Biberman would
direct and Jarrico would take on the role of producer, as Adrian Scott dropped out due to illness. Jarrico
asked his brother-in-law and fellow blacklistee, Michael Wilson, to write the screenplay. Wilson traveled
to Grant County and attended union meetings, visited the minersâ€™ homes, and watched and listened as
the strike unfolded.
It was a violent time. â€˜The company would hire guys who were out-and-out gunmen and send them over
to the sheriff and the sheriff would deputize them,â€™ says Jencks. At one point the sheriff locked up 45
women and 17 children, an action that appalled New Mexicoâ€™s governor. In late summer, strikers
descended upon three carloads of strikebreakers nearing the company entrance. The scabs attempted
to push their cars past the picketers and knocked down three women. A strikebreaker shot into the
crowd, wounding a picketer in the leg. News of the confrontation flashed through the mining district.
Nearby mines emptied as their workers went to bolster the picket line.
The strike was settled on January 21, 1952. The company agreed to higher wages and insurance benefits
but denied the unionâ€™s demand for paid holidays and remuneration for all time spent underground.
Although it wasnâ€™t part of the settlement, the company soon provided hot running water for the minersâ€™
For Wilson, the strike provided an opportunity to tell a story that wove together the struggles of
Mexican Americans, labor, and women. He saw the dramatic potential to examine how the mineworkers
reacted when their wives took over the picket lines and they had to sit on the sidelines. And he wanted
to tell the story from the participantsâ€™ point of view and use their feedback to fine-tune his screenplay.
So when he finished his script treatment, Wilson took it to Grant County. People there objected to one
scene where the main character had an extramarital fling and another in which he purchased whiskey
with his last paycheck. Wilson cut the scenes. They were perfectly acceptable as drama, he explained to
his partners, â€˜But weâ€™re dealing with something else. Not just people. A people.â€™ As Wilson labored to
complete a final script over the next year, he had union members and their wives look over all his drafts.
In the meantime, Simon Lazarus began the process of assembling a crew. When he approached Roy
Brewer, head of the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees Union (IATSE), Brewer, not
surprisingly, refused to cooperate. â€˜There has been a real Communist plot to capture our unions in
Hollywood,â€™ he had told HUAC in 1947. Furthermore, Brewer warned Lazarus that further association
with the blacklistees would finish the theater ownerâ€™s career.
Producer Paul Jarrico, a diehard Communist whose optimism may have even surpassed Bibermanâ€™s,
remained undeterred. He was not someone who would back down from a fight, as Howard Hughes, who
owned the RKO studio, learned when he removed Jarricoâ€™s writing credit from The Las Vegas Story.
Jarrico sued him but lost. (He finally received the credit, posthumously, in 1998.) So despite Brewerâ€™s
stand, Jarrico began scouring the country for craft people willing to ignore industry edicts. Some were
blacklistees, others were documentary filmmakers who wanted to break into features, or greenhorns
eager for experience.
Finding a cast would be equally difficult. Anglo actors such as Will Geer and David Wolfe, both
blacklisted, signed on as the sheriff and the chief foreman, respectively. The lead roles proved more
difficult to fill. The filmmakers first cast a blacklisted white actor for the role of the striking miner,
Ramon, and picked Bibermanâ€™s wife, blacklisted actress Gale Sondergaard, as Ramonâ€™s wife, Esperenza.
Realizing the hypocrisy of this casting, they started looking for Mexican-American actors, with no luck. In
Mexico, the company found award-winning actress Rosaura Revueltas, whose young career included
only a few films. They signed her to play Esperenza. But when the production arrived in Silver City, New
Mexico, in January 1953, it still lacked a male lead.
Clinton Jencks remembers the communityâ€™s initial response to the Hollywood attention. â€˜They found it
hard to believe that their lives were interesting enough to make a movie,â€™ says Jencks. â€˜I think we
romanticized the Hollywood people, and the Hollywood people romanticized us.â€™ Some locals pitched in
to help build a mine faÃ§ade on the ranch of Alford Roos, an elderly independent mine owner,
archeologist, explorer, writer, and rifle-toting Mohammedan with Jeffersonian political leanings. Roos
rented his land to the filmmakers for one dollar. Many other locals found roles in front of the camera.
Biberman hired the Roderick brothers, two lanky white miners from another union, to play redneck
deputies. Local 890 vice-president Ernesto Velasquez portrayed a union official. Jencks played the Anglo
representative from the unionâ€™s headquarters, his real-life role, and his activist wife, Virginia, played her
counterpart on screen. The production cast other members of Local 890 as miners and their wives.
Juan Chacon was the unionâ€™s newly elected president, and both Revueltas and Bibermanâ€™s sister-in-law,
Sonja Dahl Biberman, suggested that the director consider him to play Ramon. The director thought that
â€˜Johnnyâ€™ Chacon was too gentle, too small, and too shy for the part, but he let him audition. Chacon
gave an unimpressive reading, but the women insisted he had potential. With only three weeks left until
shooting, the exasperated director finally decided to take a chance and cast Chacon as Ramon.
Throughout the shooting, Biberman marveled as Chacon grew into the part of Ramon. â€˜We found we
didnâ€™t have to â€˜actâ€™,â€™ Chacon would later write about the experience. â€˜El Biberman, as we came to call
him, was happiest when we were just ourselves.â€™ In the first scene Biberman shot with dialogue, Jencksâ€™
character restrains Ramon from attacking the foreman. The material touched sensitive nerves, and
Biberman let the tension build. Afterwards, if Biberman still doubted that Chacon could get into
character, Jencks had the bruises to prove he could.
At the end of January, the miners and their wives flocked to Silver Cityâ€™s theater to watch the first
â€˜rushes,â€™ and they laughed and applauded at their images on the big screen. Yet even as the movie
progressed, storm clouds were forming. A Silver City schoolteacher wrote to Walter Pidgeon, president
of the Screen Actors Guild, and expressed concern that a Communist film company was manipulating
the local Mexican Americans. Soon the media and the government began scrutinizing the maverick
movie troupe. Columnist Victor Riesel pointed out the productionâ€™s proximity to the Los Alamos atomic
research facility. Congressman Donald Jackson said the film was â€˜deliberately designed to inflame racial
hatreds and to depict the United States of America as the enemy of all colored peoples.â€™ It was, he said,
â€˜a new weapon for Russia.â€™
The critical reaction created problems. PathÃ© Laboratories suddenly refused to process the daily rushes,
so Biberman could no longer review each dayâ€™s work and had to print scenes blind. Immigration officials
came for Revueltas â€” they had sudden concerns about her passport â€” and deported her back to
Mexico. Biberman had to use a stand-in for some sequences, but he still needed the actress for voiceovers and frontal shots. Eventually, Revueltas recorded narration under clandestine circumstances in a
dismantled Mexican sound studio, and the crew shot final footage of her in Mexico and then smuggled it
like contraband over the border.
â€˜Itâ€™s Time To Choose Sides,â€™ read a headline in the Silver City Daily Press. Late one night in early March,
someone fired shots into Clint Jencksâ€™ parked car. The next day two carloads of troublemakers broke up
the filming in front of the union hall. Jencks emerged from the fracas with a black eye, and the violent
crowd nearly destroyed the camera. That night the vigilantes selected 10 emissaries to relay an
ultimatum to the movie people: If they did not leave by noon the next day they would leave in black
boxes. The sheriff was forced to call in the state police, who kept the peace as the crew finished the final
scenes. Several weeks later someone burned the home of one of the filmâ€™s Anglo miners.
The film was still far from completed. Now the laborious job of post-production â€” the assembly and
polishing of the film â€” began, and the movie industry made the process more difficult by throwing up as
many roadblocks as it could. As Howard Hughes explained in a letter to Congressman Donald Jackson,
the studios could effectively kill the picture if they denied the production access to the facilities they
needed â€” to edit, dub, score, and otherwise prepare the movie for theaters.
Biberman and Jarrico refused to quit. They found a company willing to process the film after several labs
refused, and they recruited an editor and installed him in a house in Topanga Canyon, north of Los
Angeles. The editor, who had worked only on documentaries, proved unsuitable. Worse, the tin-roofed
editing quarters became so hot the film began to shrivel. As the filmmakers scrambled to find another
editor, they moved operations into the ladies room of an empty theater that Simon Lazarus owned in
Pasadena. After firemen came snooping they relocated again, this time to a vacant studio in Burbank. By
the time it was finished the film used four editors, one of whom was an FBI informer.
By the beginning of 1954, the moviemakers had turned their raw footage into a movie. The next hurdle
would be finding theaters to show it. Roy Brewer, the anti-Communist head of the IATSE, represented
projectionists, and he was hardly likely to steer Salt on to movie screens. As he wrote to Congressman
Jackson, â€˜The Hollywood AFL Council assures you that everything which it can do to prevent the showing
of The Salt of the Earth will be done.â€™ In New York City the production found a theater owner whose
projectionists belonged to a different union. After much persuasion he agreed to host the filmâ€™s
opening. Salt of the Earth premiered at the Grande Theater on March 14, 1954, to mostly positive
reviews. The New York Timesâ€˜ Bosley Crowther wrote that â€˜an unusual company made up largely of
actual miners and their families plays the drama exceedingly well.â€™ While several found it unfairly pro-
labor, few saw it pro-Red, save a young writer named Pauline Kael, who wrote that it was â€˜as clear a
piece of Communist propaganda as we have had in many years.â€™
Communist or not, lines such as â€˜This installment plan, itâ€™s the curse of the working man,â€™ indicate the
shortcomings of writing for â€˜a peopleâ€™ instead of people. In his account of the blacklist era, writer Stefan
Kanfer referred to Wilsonâ€™s â€˜clanking, agitprop prose.â€™ In some scenes the shortcomings of an
inexperienced crew and amateur cast are obvious. Elia Kazan may have named names, but with On the
Waterfront he also made the superior picture. Salt ran at the Grande for nine weeks, taking in a morethan-respectable $50,000, and opened in another dozen or so American theaters. The film was warmly
received overseas, especially in France, and it won the grand prize from the Paris Academy of Film. Salt
also triumphed at its premiere in Mexico City, where audiences considered Rosaura Revueltas a star. In
1956 the film company filed an anti-trust suit charging more than 100 industry figures with conspiracy.
That done, Biberman and Jarrico resigned from the company to move on to other work. After eight
years of litigation, they lost their suit.
Today the movie is largely forgotten, but the passions and upheaval behind its creation have refused to
completely die away. When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced it would give
director Elia Kazan a lifetime achievement award at the 1999 Academy Award ceremonies, it reopened
wounds that had not yet healed. In the end, Kazan received his award without incident.
Many of the people blacklisted never found work in movies again. Some writers found employment by
working under pseudonyms or having acceptable writers â€˜frontâ€™ for them. Michael Wilson won Oscar
attention for his scripts, even though his name did not appear on the final films. In later, friendlier years
he would get credit for writing Friendly Persuasion and for his contributions to The Bridge on the River
Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia.
Biberman developed land in Los Angeles and wrote a book, Salt of the Earth: The Story of a Film,
published in 1965. He directed one more movie, Slaves, a poorly received variation on Uncle Tomâ€™s
Cabin. He died of bone cancer in 1971.
Jarrico wrote scripts in Europe and returned to the United States in the late 60s, his Communist years
long behind him. â€˜Iâ€™m probably the only writer who has been blacklisted on both sides of the Iron
Curtain,â€™ he said. He found television work and wrote films such as The Day That Shook the World. He
also fought to get blacklisted writers the screen credits denied them. He died in 1997 in an automobile
accident near Ojai, California, at the age of 82. The day before he had received honors at a star-studded
Beverly Hills soiree entitled â€˜Hollywood Remembers The Blacklist.â€™
This article was written by Steve Boisson and originally published in the February 2002 issue of American
History Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to American History (Links to an external site.)
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