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Banned film brings tears, laughter, solidarity

November 24, 2014
By

Sixty years after it was blacklisted Salt of the Earth shows to a full house in a small BC town

Castle Theatre marquee - Salt screening - 16 November 2014Blue skies brightened the crisp Sunday afternoon in mid-November 2014 when I arrived at the old Castle Theatre in Castlegar, British Columbia, carrying a copy of the banned 1950s film Salt of the Earth. It was the day after a local election and I expected post-election hangovers would probably keep all but ardent churchgoers in bed. Snow was in the forecast. Skiers would be pleased up on storied Red Mountain in Rossland. Hockey moms would be rushing their sons and daughters to the rink.

Odds of many people attending a showing of what the United States Government once considered a subversive film were not good. A few dozen might show. Maybe I’d be sitting alone in the darkened theatre where I had seen so many films growing up in the small West Kootenay town.

Would anyone be interested in an old black and white movie about a strike at a zinc mine so far away that had lasted for 15 months? I wondered. Who would come to see the spouses and mothers of the striking miners take over the picket lines, go to jail, and eventually beat the corporation to achieve better housing conditions and other equalities with the Anglo workers at the mine?

It had been a gamble bringing the 60-year-old film about a New Mexican strike to rural BC, though it had seemed like a natural to me – a historic old movie played previously in the same old theatre. But it looked more and more like I might lose as the sun broke out on Sunday, 16 November 2014.

Down the street, a group of striking city workers was angry that the former Castlegar mayor and council had won back their seats in the election the night before. With snow in the forecast and temperatures dipping to minus 12 the picket line was bone-chilling cold and strikers stoked a barrel fire to keep warm. They took encouragement from the honking horns of supporting motorists and I hoped they took some on learning that Salt was to show down the street a day later. Again, it seemed a natural moment to share the story of a victorious strike as a gesture of support.

The local newspapers and radio stations had broadcast the film event the week before and ads had been placed in both the Castlegar News and the Trail Times. An article announcing the showing had appeared in both papers. So that might bring some filmgoers to the old Castle Theatre. Maybe even someone who had seen it at this same theatre in mid-December 1954 would come to see it again.

In those Cold War days, the Liberty and Strand theatres in nearby Trail had refused to show it after hearing that Salt had been banned in all but 13 theatres across the United States during the witch-hunting McCarthy era. Even members of the projectionist’s union, led by arch anti-Communist Roy Brewer in Los Angeles, had refused to show it under threat of being expelled from the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts (IATSE).Women pickets walking - Castlegar city workers strike - 17 November 2014

Back then, the red-baiting local press had hammered Salt across North America from before it was even released in March 1954. Was there still a residual effect of growing up in a community that encountered the same stifling propaganda barrage that led to years of political intolerance?

In fact, Trail, Castlegar, Nelson and environs were a political hotbed in those days. Local smelter workers were members of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, the supposedly “Red” union that had sponsored the making of Salt. Some of them were Communists. Others were members of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, the CCF later to become the NDP. Several were members of both. But perhaps the bitterness of those old battles on the left would keep them away as well.

It was too late to turn back. The show would go on. If nobody came at least I would have the pleasure of seeing one of the 100 films that the Library of Congress saw as worth preserving. Even if only a few friends came, we would watch history being made on the big screen.

As it turned out, my doubts were unfounded. As the doors to the beautifully refurbished theatre opened, they did come. And they kept coming until they almost filled the 200-seat theatre to see a movie that had suffered the worst suppression of any ever to come out of Hollywood.

Castle theatre lobby - Salt screening - 16 November 2014Most of those who came had never seen or even heard of Salt. Fewer still had heard about the group of blacklisted filmmakers known as the Hollywood Ten who made the film. Neither had the theatre managers who commented later that this was as big an audience as they’d ever had.

One woman in the audience had seen the film in 1954 and was thrilled to see it again six decades later. With her was the widow of Buddy Devito, a life-long fighter for social justice and former mayor of Trail that had died a few weeks before. The showing was dedicated to him.

Before the film started, three speakers offered some background on the film. Katrine Conroy, the local member of the legislature who had given early and strong support to the showing, talked about the local election results and the importance of political action. Selkirk College historian Duff Sutherland told the audience what McCarthyism looked like in the Kootenays. Takaia Larsen, also from Selkirk and author of Sowing the Seeds, a book about women war workers in Trail, spoke about what the film meant to the cause of women’s rights.

Then the music, a selection of 16 “Songs of Resistance” compiled by local music lover Robert “Bo Diddley” Melnick, was faded out. Tunes by Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Hazel Dickens, Emmylou Harris, Arlo Guthrie, and the Rolling Stones, were replaced by the drumbeat from the opening scenes of Salt.

As the action unfolded, the audience applauded, they laughed and there was more than one teary eye in the crowd. There were cheers when the women took to the picket line after the company won an injunction stopping the men from doing so. Boos when the cops, led by Will Gear, the grandfather in the TV series The Waltons, tried everything possible to end the strike.

The final victorious scene brought loud applause and an attentive audience waited for reaction. It came as people commented. Steel Worker leader Steve Hunt suggested that things are not much different today and that the film was an inspiration to people to fight back. (He and other Steel Workers, along with international Steel president Leo Gerard, gave a powerful boost to the showing.) A postal worker seconded Hunt’s view and urged the audience to support the striking members of CUPE Local 2262 at city hall.

Castlegar News article croppedPerhaps most poignant was a statement by Cheryl MacLeod, newly elected leader of the Kootenay District Council of the Canadian Union of Public Employees. “I have never in my life,” she began in an emotional voice, “never been more proud to be a woman trade unionist than I am at this moment.” That brought more applause and nods of approval from others from Salt supporting unions, including the carpenters, the Kootenay Labour Council, the Selkirk College faculty union, and USW Local 480.

Earlier, videographers had captured the scene, asking people why they came. Now they asked what they thought of Salt. The responses were uniformly favourable. A 15-year-old student was impressed to see the women fight back. A retired historian recalled the struggles to oppose the repression of the era. A journalist noted that it was yet another inspiring corner of Kootenay history. A former union representative who had driven from Grand Forks about 65 kilometers away, said it needs to be shown again and again to get people to vote for progressive candidates.

Trail Times ad cropped

Ads like this one appeared in local media

In the end, people exited the Castle Theatre and walked into a sunny snowless day. They carried commemorative buttons, T-shirts and a short booklet recalling the history of Salt. They went home having seen a little-known event in their community’s history. And they left having made a little history of their own by coming to see Salt of the Earth.

***

Watch for Remembering Salt, a short historical video to be released in 2015 that will recall the events of the 1950s that inspired the showing of Salt at the Castle Theatre in 1954.

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One Response to Banned film brings tears, laughter, solidarity

  1. Michael MacIsaac on November 30, 2014 at 12:48 pm

    Great work Ron.

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