One of the Hollywood Ten (2000)
Herbert Biberman had a minor career in Hollywood before being hauled before the House of UnAmerican Activities Committee in 1947. His wife Gale Sondergaard enjoyed much more success, winning the first ever Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1937 for her film debut in Anthony Adverse, before going on to appear in over thirty films in ten years. Yet she too fell foul of HUAC and was also blacklisted. Unable to find work in tinsel town the couple set out, along with fellow travellers Michael Wilson and Paul Jarrico, to make an independent film in New Mexico. Salt of the Earth, which depicted a miners’ strike, was an earnest yet wearisome film. The same may be said for this biopic about its making.
After a newsreel of the 1937 Oscars fades to a re-enactment of the ceremony, One of the Hollywood Ten jumps ahead to the end of WWII (courtesy of another newsreel) to land at the crux of this story. Many of Hollywood’s leftist cohort have been subpoenaed to appear before the HUAC to declare whether or not they are, or have ever been, a member of the Communist Party. Among those found in contempt for not answering, Biberman and fellow director Edward Dmytryk were sentenced to jail for six months. Upon release, Dmytryk recanted and named names. Biberman stayed true to his ideals and never worked in Hollywood again.
Salt of the Earth presented a lifeline… of sorts. Produced, directed and written by victims of the blacklist, the production was only able to cast five professional actors due to their association. This was overcome by casting the miners who had been the story’s inspiration. Yet when news of the movie’s production leaks to the press, FBI agent Riffkind travels to New Mexico to deport the lead actress, burn down the miner’s homes and employ hired guns to steal the film.
Herein lies the major weakness of the biopic. In depicting these events, which actually occurred, writer/director Karl Francis adopts an overly simplistic approach which is further undermined by Víctor Reyes’ intrusively dramatic score. After opening the film by mocking Triumph of the Will, Francis proceeds to provide his own piece of propaganda, thereby reducing the impact of an extraordinary chapter in cinema history. I’m also not convinced that the highly mannered acting of Jeff Goldblum is suited to the biopic genre, whereas Greta Scacchi simply flounders.
It is worth noting that despite their performances in Salt of the Earth, the five professional actors employed on the film found work hard to come by afterwards. Will Geer, who portrayed the sheriff, was already on the blacklist. David Wolfe would soon join him, necessitating a move to England and a name change to enable him to continue working. Mexican actress Rosaura Revueltas was deported back to Mexico mid-shoot, where the blacklist followed her. The remaining two, David Sarvis and Mervin Williams, never worked in film again.
as Herbert Biberman
as Gale Sondergaard
as Rosaura Revueltas
as Juan Chacón
Biberman and Dmytryk did not serve their sentences at the same facility. Biberman spent six months in the minimum-security Texarkana prison alongside fellow defendant Alvah Bessie. Dmytryk was imprisoned for four and a half months in the federal camp at Mill Point, West Virginia.
Though an end title states that Gale Sondergaard did not find work as an actress until after Herbert's death, she in fact resumed her film career two years before Biberman passed away, appearing in her husband’s last film Slaves. She also appeared in several television programs including 'Get Smart', 'Night Gallery' and 112 episodes of the daytime soap ‘The Best of Everything’.