Slim (1937) is a hymn to the workingman, the kind of quiet and laudatory look into a segment of our working population that we don’t see in too many films today, but were a staple of the Great Depression when work was scarce, and valued, and interpreted on screen as the subject of tales of great heroism, social comment, and inspiration. The job was the journey, the quest, the challenge, and the actors—even the biggest stars of the day—remarkably secondary to that.
Today we mark the upcoming Labor Day with a gang of hardworking average Joes who build towers for electric lines. Henry Fonda is the farm boy who looks admiringly skyward at these daredevils and wants to join them in a job he sees as glamorous and full of adventure.
Pat O’Brien is the veteran lineman, a man with a mysterious past, who travels from job to job in what he calls a “tumbleweed life” and takes the young Fonda under his wing.
J. Farrell MacDonald is the boss on one jobsite—who, despite his years, looks pretty fit in a poolroom brawl scene, and Stuart Erwin is the comic relief, a shiftless fellow with lots of tall tales. In a very brief cameo, we see Jane Wyman as his girlfriend. John Litel gets a small role as one of workers.
Margaret Lindsay is a Chicago nurse, Cally, who once treated Mr. O’Brien after a terrible work-related injury and is in love with him and pining for the day when he gets all this dangerous “tumbleweed” life out of his blood. When O’Brien and Fonda visit and they paint the town red as a threesome, Miss Lindsay falls for young Mr. Fonda instead. Together, they toast, “To a long, hard life and a quick checkout.”
When Fonda gets hurt on the job, Miss Lindsay sells the expensive bracelet O’Brien bought her, to pay for Fonda’s medical bills in this world without medical insurance.
It’s a fairly simple story, but the real “electricity” in this film comes from some quite lyrical and really exciting camera images: Fonda climbing the metal tower for the first time, holding on for dear life at the top, almost sick from the dizzy height—a new perspective on the flat Midwest land for this former farm boy. The men wear battered fedoras, apparently unconcerned about the wind taking their wide-brimmed hats.
There’s a couple great shots of the men around the tower saying their lines, another shot climbing, while in the background, coincidentally, a massive locomotive plows by, pulling freight in a juxtaposed image of industrial America; electrical power and steam power.
Shots of an electric substation during a blizzard, spitting off sparks from wires downed by the storm, and the men having to climb the icy towers to repair them. The body of one unlucky man falling to his death, electrocuted when he becomes ensnared in “hot” wires.
A carefree auto trip through Chicago where Fonda, and we, gawk at the enormous buildings which O’Brien reminds us would not be possible without electricity and the work that he and Fonda do.
The film is valuable for what exists between the “lines.” This was an era when only about 10 percent of the rural population during the Great Depression had electricity. Fonda’s farm, where he lived with an aunt and uncle, likely had none. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s infrastructure projects sought to remedy that, and in the process, created tens of thousands of jobs. His public works projects saved a generation from starving, and brought the United States a wealth of new construction that benefited generations to come.
Though the movie is not specifically an homage to FDR, but rather to the linemen, we cannot help but note the hat-tip to the government in an era where private industry was not always necessarily stepping up to the plate. The intro narration is typically poetic, but nonetheless true:
“Mankind’s control over the natural forces of electricity...the very air we breathe is harnessed and made subservient...the power that girdles the globe...and annihilates distance and gives him control of time and space.
“…without the courage and the fidelity of the men who labor at all hours and in all weather to keep aloft the lines that bring us our electrical supply, this era of miracles would not have come to pass.”
The voiceover guides us over broad empty prairie and a cityscape at night with the dotted lights of windows in skyscrapers against a black sky.
The electricity that makes this possible, “…runs our factories and trains, the current that lights our great cities stands obedient, ready to answer the pull of a switch.”
To all of our linemen, and to workers everywhere: Happy Labor Day.
Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star.
by Jacqueline T. Lynch
The first book on the career of actress Ann Blyth. Multitalented and remarkably versatile, Blyth began on radio as a child, appeared on Broadway at the age of twelve in Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine, and enjoyed a long and diverse career in films, theatre, television, and concerts. A sensitive dramatic actress, the youngest at the time to be nominated for her role in Mildred Pierce (1945), she also displayed a gift for comedy, and was especially endeared to fans for her expressive and exquisite lyric soprano, which was showcased in many film and stage musicals. Still a popular guest at film festivals, lovely Ms. Blyth remains a treasure of the Hollywood's golden age.
The eBook and paperback are available from Amazon and CreateSpace, which is the printer. You can also order it from my Etsy shop. It is also available at the Broadside Bookshop, 247 Main Street, Northampton, Massachusetts.
If you wish a signed copy, then email me at JacquelineTLynch@gmail.com and I'll get back to you with the details.
My new syndicated column on classic film is up at http://go60.us/advice-and-more/item/2047-everybody-comes-to-rick-s, or check with your local paper.