• Frontier Films Production
  • 1937
  • 20 minutes
  • Directed by Sidney Meyers ("Robert Stebbins") and Jay Leyda ("Eugene Hill")
  • Assisted by Elia Kazan and William Watts
  • Photography by Ralph Steiner
  • Narrated by Richard Blaine
  • Sound Editing by Helen Van Dongen
  • Commentary by Erskine Caldwell [Assisted by Ben Maddow ("David Wolff")]
  • Music by Alex North
  • Choral arrangements and introductory music by Earl Robinson
  • Conducted by Elie Siegmeister

  • People of the Cumberland


    In 1932 a group of teachers aware of the horrible conditions in the Cumberland organized the Highlander Folk School, under the direction of Miles Horton. Produced with the cooperation of the Highlander Folk School and the People of Cumberland, Stebbins and Hill take cameras to the Plateau of the Cumberland, the ruined badlands of a forgotten people. The film demonstrates a new beginning for the coal miners and mill workers and the advantages of labor unions. "Get wise! Organize!" is its main theme.

    Like Native Land, this combination documentary of re-enacted drama and actual footage shows the poverty-stricken, uneducated community struggling to become an efficient, productive society through education and the labor movement. "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!"

    However, "there were powerful forces that still denied the right of these people to a happy life." Union members were hunted down and murdered. A labor rally proves that Americans are too tough to be frightened, believing that "it's a new kind of independence day. No more terror, no more insecurity, no more gangsters, no more fear in the streets." Displaying dancing, boxing, tug-of-wars, and hog calling between scenes of poverty and death, the film ends with a plea for "a new kind of America," symbolized by the national flag and projects like the TVA, with narration stating: "The bad lands remain. The people must be fit. No more routine of birth and death and scurvy. The land must give life. Youth takes over. A new generation of American children of union men in a union town. The people stand together. A new kind of power. A new morning for America, for the hope of the Cumberland."

    People of the Cumberland


    Alexander states that "People of the Cumberland follows the pattern of other Frontier films. The first fourth of the film constructs the impoverished Cumberland environment, the following third presents Horton's answer to that environment." 1 An outline of the overall structure follows: 2

    Section Subject Subdivisions Mode
    Devastation Mountains, Valley Descriptive Syntagma
    Organization Highlander Folk School: community, Nationwide unionizing, ACWA, square dancing Bracket Syntagma, Ordinary Sequence
    Threat Hired thugs, UMWA, Murder or organizer The Scene
    Triumph Labor rally, Recapitulation Bracket Syntagma, Ordinary Sequence, Descriptive Syntagma

    The film begins with descriptive syntagma and narration setting the scene for the land of the forgotten people. A scene is placed midstream that dramatizes the murder of Barney Graham, president of the Wilder miners' union, on April 30, 1933. The other events and people are actual, including square dancing, fair games, and a Fourth of July rally held on July 5, 1937 in La Follette, Tennessee.

    The bracket syntagmas are not as varied such as those presented in The City, yet the film jumps from shots of the Cumberland people, to the land, the graves, and the children. The production begins at the local level, but soon moves to encompass labor movements nationwide. The third dramatic section breaks from the documentary tone of the work, building to a climax, and then relaxing the viewer with calm cries for a better life for the people.

    Campbell writes that the contrast between the dramatic and documentary, the structure of sections charged with negative and then positive feelings, is a trend in Frontier productions. 3 This dialectic is present in many films other than People of the Cumberland but the overall feel of the film is quite calming and reflective. As Alexander critiques,

    [People of the Cumberland] does not have the same pressure of necessity in development, music, or narration, quite the same compactness as Heart of Spain. Still it is remarkably tight, engaging, and warming, and I think perhaps the best gauged of all Frontier Films to reach its audience. It remains a film of subtlety and high skill, one of the best progressive films produced in the thirties.

    The City Native Land Power and the Land People of the Cumberland Valley Town The Spanish Earth Heart of Spain Return to Life China Strikes Back Films

    1 Alexander, William. Film on the Left. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press., 1981. (174).
    2Campbell, Russell. Cinema Strikes Back: Radical Filmmaking in The United States 1930-1942. Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1978. (224).
    3Campbell. Cinema. (224).