Film Threat archive logo


By Phil Hall | November 14, 2008

BOOTLEG FILES 259 “People of the Cumberland” (1937 pro-union propaganda short).

LAST SEEN: Available at online vide sites.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: I am not aware of its video release.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A seriously obscure title.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE : It is possible, but not likely at the moment.

“People of the Cumberland” is probably among the most obscure films to be featured in this series – I only first learned of it a few weeks ago, and only then I stumbled over it by accident. But as with many obscure films, it has a strange and fascinating history that deserves attention.

This 20-minute film was the product of Frontier Films, a collaborative effort of left wing creative artists who sought to use motion pictures as a vehicle to spread their political messages. The group had its genesis with the the Worker’s Film and Photo League, a Communist organization created in 1930, which later transformed into Nykino in 1935, before becoming Frontier Films in 1936. The group’s members included prominent independent and avant-garde film leaders of the 1930s, including Willard Van D**e, Paul Strand and Leo Hurwitz.

Frontier Films wanted to depict aspects of American life where left-of-center political input saved the day. In the case of “People of the Cumberland,” that meant the arrival of labor unions. Although Frontier Films operated without the blessing or backing of any specific union, its pro-union message was loud and clear – or, in the case of this film, it was condensed into the succinct slogan “Get wise, organize!”

“People of the Cumberland” boasted a strong talent roster. Direction was shared by well-known indie filmmakers Sidney Meyers and Jay Leyda (who worked under the pseudonyms of “Robert Stebbins” and “Eugene Hill” – it is not clear why they did this), and a young Elia Kazan was billed as assistant director (some sources incorrectly state that Kazan was the film’s director). Ralph Steiner handled the cinematography, Erksine Caldwell wrote the narration and Alex North created the music score.

The film takes place in a depressed, isolated, half-forgotten corner of Tennessee. The local coal mining industry has wrecked the land and left town, leaving the miners and their families to barely fend for themselves on land that cannot grow food. Many people trek to another part of the region, where jobs exist for men in the coal mines and women in the mills. However, this new influx of workers is accompanied by a pair of allies.

The first ally is the Highlander Folk School, which was founded in 1932 by Miles Horton. The school served a dual purpose of adult education – with a focus on re-establishing and reinforcing the local culture – and political organizing via union organization. That’s where the second ally for the new residents comes in: the labor unions, who argue for strength in numbers and a sense of fraternity (or, perhaps more appropriately, comradeship). Or as narrator Richard Blaine proclaims: “There’s a new spirit in America. Men and women are more than machines! They’ve got a union coast to coast! The People of the Cumberland are not alone!”

“People of the Cumberland” offers a strange mix of P.O.V. pushing through straightforward non-fiction filmmaking, clumsy dramatic re-enactments, and loopy agitprop. To its credit, the film works in detailing the horrendous living conditions of the rural Tennesseans, who barely survive in ramshackle huts that lacked electricity, running water and other basic amenities. The level of poverty captured by the camera is staggering, and for that reason alone the film needs to be rediscovered by today’s generation (who, most likely, are completely unaware of this aspect of American history).

However, the film undercuts itself by relying on several scenes where blatantly staged actions are used to convey the political message with a heavy hand. One sequence has a group of farmers who pause from their harvesting to define what union membership means for them. It is difficult not to pick up the unusually crisp and clear Broadway-style diction offered by these alleged salt of the earth types. Later on, the recreation of the assassination of a labor organizer is presented in a hammy gangster flick set-up, complete with film noir-style narration as the doomed hero prepares to meet his bullet-based end.

The film also puts an abnormal emphasis on the supposedly “fun” aspects of union membership – including the fact that so many people are already union members (strength in numbers, baby!) and the staging of yippie-skippie fun events by the union boosters, including two different square dance evenings and a Fourth of July picnic that comes complete with hog calling and obstacle course races.

It is difficult what impact, if any, “People of the Cumberland” had on American audiences. Its 20 minute length could have easily enabled it to be programmed into the short subjects section of the movie bills for the era. Yet its blatant pro-union message probably limited its release – audiences went to the movies to be entertained, not lectured. It is known that Frontier Films actively pushed its films through non-theatrical channels to unions, schools, community groups and anyone who would be interested in its mission. Frontier Films continued after this production with more politically charged films, graduating into feature films with “Native Land” in 1942 before disbanding.

“People of the Cumberland” seems to have fallen off the proverbial radar. A found a copy of the film in an online video site, and I assume this is a dupe. I’ve never seen this film included in any public domain film anthology, and prints are in circulation, so there is the possibility this is still copyright protected.

In any event, “People of the Cumberland” is an intriguing curio of a bygone political period. If you seek it out, prepare to be amazed and delighted by its efforts.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. ant meeks says:

    thanks for the interesting article. i have a 16mm print of this film.

  2. ab says:

    Any idea where I can view this film? Thanks.

Join our Film Threat Newsletter

Newsletter Icon