CARTHAGE, Mo. —
A 74-year-old labor film that kicked open a hornet’s nest in the Tri-State Mining District when it was released in 1940 is among 25 films chosen recently for the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
“Men and Dust” was produced and directed by Lee Dick, a pioneer in documentary filmmaking, and was written and shot by her husband, Sheldon Dick. The couple examined conditions in the lead and zinc mines, and silicosis among miners and their family members. Much of the film was shot at Picher, Okla.
The Library of Congress adds 25 films to the National Film Registry every year. They are chosen for their “great cultural, historic or aesthetic significance.” Films added in 2013, along with “Men and Dust,” include “Judgment at Nuremberg,” “Mary Poppins,” “The Magnificent Seven,” “Pulp Fiction” and “The Quiet Man.”
In making the announcement, the Library of Congress called “Men and Dust” a “stylistically innovative documentary and a valuable ecological record of landscapes radically transformed by extractive industry.”
Ed Keheley, who is writing a history of the Picher Mining Field, said the film began with the formation of the National Committee for People’s Rights in 1939 in New York City.
“This was a progressive committee, some would say left-leaning, that was concerned about how people were being abused by business,” he said. “This led to the creation of the Tri-State Survey Committee.
“They sent a team out here for several months to look at the Picher Mining Field. They went into homes. They saw the horror stories of poor housing and silicosis.”
Keheley, who lives near Picher and was active in the recent government buyout and relocation of residents there, said the team produced a 143-page report on worker conditions in the mining field. The report was picked up and cited by Walter Winchell, a popular newspaper columnist of the day. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt wrote about it in her “My Day” column. Newsweek and Time also covered the report.
The report would eventually lead to the production of the film.
“It put the Picher Mining Field and silicosis and tuberculosis on the national scene,” Keheley said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “It was the biggest thing to happen in the entire history of the Picher Mining Field. The report and film are very accurate with respect to what was going on in the mining field at that time in history.”
The film was narrated by Will Geer, who eventually would go on to play Grandpa on the television series “The Waltons.”
The film decried the attitude expressed in the film of “less taxes, more jobs ... whatever helps business helps you.”
At the time, according to the film, miners in the corners of Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma were making 13 to 14 cents for every 1,650 pounds of ore loaded, or about $2.16 per day in 2013 dollars, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. At the time, the miners were generating 10 percent of the nation’s lead, used in everything from batteries to paint, and 38 percent of the zinc.
Many of the miners and their children were suffering from silicosis, a scarring of the lungs that the film described as “preventable, but not curable.”
Although it is less than 17 minutes long, the documentary’s impact would reach as far as the White House. Daniel Friedlaender, a Temple University film professor who has studied “Men and Dust,” was unavailable for comment Tuesday, but in 2012 he made a presentation about the film and its filmmakers at a New York University symposium.
According to Friedlaender, Eleanor Roosevelt was so moved during a private screening of “Men and Dust” that she sent Frances Perkins, then the U.S. secretary of labor, to Joplin in 1940 to investigate the mines. Perkins toured the mines and saw what was characterized as the district’s “worst” living conditions in Picher. She would participate in the Tri-State Silicosis Conference at Joplin’s former Connor Hotel.
Evan Just, then the secretary for the Tri-State Zinc and Lead Ore Producers’ Association, was critical of the film, which had been shown around the area before the conference. He said it was part of a “smear” campaign led by labor organizations. He claimed that part of the documentary was faked, including scenes that purported to show dust from the mines and chat piles; Just said that was actually footage from the Dust Bowl the previous decade.
“Men and Dust” is well-known within academic film and labor circles, but not among the general public, Steve Leggett said Tuesday. Leggett is program coordinator for the National Film Preservation Board, which makes recommendations to the librarian of Congress, who ultimately chooses the films for the registry.
“You really weren’t getting criticism of industry at the time” the film was made, Leggett said.
He said “Men and Dust” was one of the first films to make the case that something needed to be done about the mining conditions in the region.
Leggett said adding the film to the National Film Registry will allow the Library of Congress to work to preserve it “so it will be around hundreds of years from now.”
Said Keheley: “I’m personally delighted that it is ending up there. It’s an appropriate place for that film.”
THE FILM ADVOCATED four points it said would help the miners and the community:
• A FEDERAL workers’ compensation law.
• FEDERAL MINIMUM STANDARDS with “teeth” for working conditions in the mines.
• CHEAP HOUSING to move families away from the chat piles.
• A REGIONAL SANITARIUM to provide care for afflicted miners.