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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 Chacn and Clinton Jencks participated. Chacn, who played "Ramn," 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, Chacn 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 "Ramn" 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 February 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 February 25, 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 March 6, 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 March 2, 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 March 8, 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 March 15, 1954 Los Angeles Times 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, Path 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 July 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 Variety 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 March 14, 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 March 15, 1954 Daily Variety 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 June 1954, according to Motion Picture Herald, 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 May 24, 1959, New York Times 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 Path Laboratories, among others, with an "illegal conspiracy" to prevent production, distribution and exhibition of the film. The suit was appealed several times. Finally, in November 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.