#165) Men and Dust (1940)

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#165) Men and Dust (1940)

OR “Mine Over Matter”

Directed by Lee Dick

Written by Sheldon Dick

Class of 2013

The Plot: Part documentary, part tone poem, “Men and Dust” is an examination of the life of coal miners in the tri-state area (Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri). The film looks at what the effect of mining has on the health of not only the miners, but of their families and fellow townsfolk.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls this “a stylistically innovative documentary and a valuable ecological record”. Also included is an essay by film lecturer Adrianne Finelli, who according to this also lives in the Bay Area. Hey Adrianne, wanna grab coffee and talk classic movies sometime?

But Does It Really?: This is an historical yes, primarily for its frank (albeit artistically manipulated) depiction of life in a mining town. It’s an interesting time capsule of an era and its liberal beliefs, plus an introduction to the works of Lee & Sheldon Dick. It gets a pass from me.

Everybody Gets One: Very little is known about director Lee Dick (Mary Lee Burgess), apart from her being married to writer/cinematographer Sheldon Dick. Sheldon was already an established photographer by 1939, having done several assignments for the Farm Security Agency. An assignment in Joplin, Missouri inspired Sheldon to make this film. The FSA did not support this decision, so Sheldon financed the whole thing himself.

Wow, That’s Dated: This thing has New Deal, Dust Bowl-era leftist filmmaking written all over it.

Other notes

  • I know it’s the print’s fault, but that is a quick title card.
  • Sheldon isn’t the writer, no sir. He’s the “Director of Commentary” (a title I’m pretty sure belongs to Kevin Smith).
  • They keep saying that America is “the richest country in the world”. Give it a few decades, that’ll change.
  • There’s so much Dust Bowl devastation I keep expecting Roy Rogers to show up and sing about it.
  • The film has four different narrators! Three of them (Storrs Haynes, Robert Porterfield, Eric Walz) have languished in almost total obscurity, while the fourth (Will Geer) seems to be permanently stuck in the Dust Bowl era.
  • Good thing the health and safety of our nation’s miners isn’t a major problem anymore, right? …Right?

Legacy

  • Sheldon and Lee Dick separated at some point following “Men and Dust”. Lee’s life afterwards is not prominently documented, but we know that Sheldon married his third wife in 1950, and that definitely did not end well.
  • “Men and Dust” was supported by labor unions across the country, and private screenings led to revised laws and safety regulations within various mining communities. Now that’s change I can believe in.

Further Viewing: Fellow NFR entry “Harlan County U.S.A.”, Barbara Kopple’s documentary on the struggles of coal miners in the ‘70s. Keep fighting the good fight!

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