Saturday, August 16, 2014

Plaza Classic Film Festival: Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves


By now, I am convinced that the Plaza Classic Film Festival does have themes emerging from the selected films.  Perhaps they are unintentional, but if not, then they are a series of extraordinary coincidences.

Today at the Philanthropy Theater I saw two films which dealt with the growing role of women in American society in the Twentieth Century.  One is a very serious drama, the other a comedy with dramatic overtones.  However, both in their way explore the difficulties of being a woman in a man's world, how they had to confront the dismissive thinking of their male counterparts, and how both rose to the challenge to become stronger people.

The first film, Salt of the Earth, is based on the true-life story of a strike of Mexican-American miners in New Mexico in the 1950s.   I'd say it's very true-to-life, particularly in how the Mexican-American male thought whatever they did was 'man's work', while all the domestic matters were 'women's work'.  As far as the men were concerned, they were the ones who brought home the bacon and fought the fights.  Women shouldn't even be at the meetings, let alone vote.

I remember seeing a documentary about the Chicano political movement (which, despite being Mexican-American myself, would be far too bourgeois to participate in), and in it, the women complained bitterly about not being included in the struggle for equal rights.  The men, true to form, were both shocked and contemptuous at the thought that 'las mujeres' would want or even need to find their own voice in the movement.

After the screening for Salt of the Earth, Elisa Sanchez, daughter of a striking miner whose story makes up part of the events in Salt of the Earth, spoke.  She cleared up some details about the movie: for example, she said that there was a Women's Auxiliary to the Union in 1948, rather than it being created during the strike.  She also remembers that children marched in the picket lines (though on the weekends, for school, as second-class as it might have been, came first).  "I'm the legacy of what they did", she said.  "It's my story.  It's my people." 

She also stated that there was a tiny amount of funding for Salt of the Earth from actual Communists, like Lorenzo Torres, who if memory serves correct was fictionalized in the film.  She makes it clear though that she and I believe her family were not aware he was a Communist until his death and that she and her family were nowhere near being Commies. 

About the one detail that I think she got wrong involves Salt of the Earth's screenwriter, Michael Wilson.  Wilson had been blacklisted as a Communist during the "Red Scare" of the 1950s.  Sanchez stated that Wilson had written Lawrence of Arabia but not credited for it.  Wilson wrote an early draft for Lawrence, but Lawrence's director, David Lean, had playwright/screenwriter Robert Bolt rework the Wilson screenplay. 

Wilson, however, did co-write the screenplay for The Bridge on the River Kwai, which won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar.  However, due to the blacklist, Wilson was not credited for it, the Oscar going to novelist Pierre Boulle, whose novel the film was based on.  Given that Boulle did not speak English (let alone write it), it did make for a bizarre situation.  That wrong was corrected with the Academy acknowledging both Wilson and Carl Foreman, another blacklisted writer, with the Oscar posthumously, and credits now read "Screenplay by Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, based on the novel by Pierre Boulle" rather than "Screenplay by Pierre Boulle, based on his novel." 

The second film, A League of Their Own, is a sharp contrast to Salt of the Earth.  While the former was a strong (though perhaps heavy-handed) drama, A League of Their Own was meant as a comedy.  It tells the story of the All American Girls Professional Baseball League, which was created during World War II to keep baseball in the public eye while many of the Major League's best players were off to war.  While it is a comedy and has a lot of laughs, thanks to a real all-star cast (and perhaps Madonna's best work on film along with Evita), I freely confess that while I laughed at A League of Their Own, I also did cry a little.  It is filled with joy and sadness: the player who learns before a big game that she is now a widow, the final confrontation between the Keller Sisters and their reunion at the Baseball Hall of Fame. 

I found myself emotionally moved by A League of Their Own, much more than I thought I would be.  That's the greatest in the film: it made me care about these women: their hopes, fears, aspirations, and determination.  Many men, including their own manager, thought women shouldn't be in baseball, or as Tom Hanks' character so famously says, "There's no CRYING in baseball!"

It's curious that both Salt of the Earth and A League of Their Own touched on women going into 'a man's world' and showing men a thing or two about doing it right.  The former appealed to my mind, the latter to my heart.  I was more touched by the girl baseball players (even being called the "Girls League" shows that it was not 'real baseball') than I was by the miners.  That isn't to say I wasn't touched by what the miners had to go through.  It's just that Salt of the Earth was dangerously close to being propaganda, and that kept me a bit removed from it all: the 'evil' capitalist oppressing the minority proletariats.  A League of Their Own, however, used humor and heart to tell its equality story.  Salt of the Earth may be good for you, but A League of Their Own is the one people will love.  Salt of the Earth will be merely respected.

As if to tie it all together, right after A League of Their Own, I went a block down to Southwest University Park to see the EP Baseball Game in their first of a four-game series against the Memphis Redbirds (which EP lost 2-1). 

The Plaza Classic Film Festival has one more day, and with that, one more movie.  Safety Last! will be the only movie I've seen before, and I won't need to review it.  However, a chance to see Harold Lloyd is one I can't miss.  I admire and respect Chaplin.  I think Keaton is a genius.  However, I have a special place in my heart for Lloyd.

The Silent Comedy Trinity

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