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The Whistle at Eaton Falls

by Glenn Erickson May 15, 2021

It’s another CineSavant Revival Screening Review of a show not presently available on disc: not an old favorite, but something we admittedly never heard of … a marvelous 1951 film that’s seemingly been hiding under the carpet for sixty years, despite being directed by Robert Siodmak and starring Lloyd Bridges, Dorothy Gish, Carleton Carpenter, Murray Hamilton, Diana Douglas, Anne Francis, Ernest Borgnine and Arthur O’Connell. At first we fear it will be another angry midcentury indictment of free enterprise … but it becomes something else entirely. The unusual near- neorealist picture was filmed on location in a New Hampshire mill town; it is newly restored and hopefully destined for Blu-ray soon.


The Whistle at Eaton Falls
CineSavant Revival Screening Review
Not on Home Video
1951 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 96 min. / Richer Than the Earth / Not Yet On Home Video
Starring: Lloyd Bridges, Dorothy Gish, Carleton Carpenter, Murray Hamilton, James Westerfield, Lenore Lonergan, Russell Hardie, Helen Shields, Doro Merande, Diana Douglas, Anne Francis, Anne Seymour, Ernest Borgnine, Arthur O’Connell, Parker Fennelly, Donald McKee.
Cinematography: Joseph C. Brun
Film Editor: Angelo Ross
Art Director: Herbert Andrews
Original Music: Louis Applebaum
Written by Lemist Esler, Virginia Shaler original story suggested by and developed from the research of J. Sterling Livingston story treatment by Lawrence J. Dugan, Leonard Heideman additional dialogue Leo Rosten
Produced by Louis de Rochemont
Directed by
Robert Siodmak

We’ve been keeping an eye out for hard-to-see movies for roughly sixty years now, and yet it’s great that something special can sneak when we’re not looking. Turner Classic Movies just held its May 2021 TCM Film Festival on television for the second year in a row, due to the pandemic. They re-premiered several classic movies, but with very little promotion. I had never heard of 1951’s The Whistle at Eaton Falls and I don’t think many other people have either. I DVR’d it only because Spectrum cable’s brief description said it was directed by the very familiar Robert Siodmak. It’s a marvelous find for a fan of postwar movies, and it wasn’t even presented with a host introduction.

The movie is something special, a real revelation. It’s apparently been MIA almost since it came out. I suppose it must have been syndicated to television because I found it in a 1997 Leonard Maltin … 2.5 stars, kids. The original distributor of Eaton Falls let the rights revert back to its producer, the famous Louis De Rochemont of the March of Time newsreels and the features The House on 92nd Street, Boomerang! and Lost Boundaries, just to name three. Later on, De Rochemont also produced a couple of genuine 3-Panel Cinerama features, a connection that helped make possible the recent restoration of The Whistle at Eaton Falls. I’ll get into that a little below.

 

Eaton Falls is a surprisingly positive movie about a labor clash. It’s not very violent and it isn’t a gangster movie. The livelihood of an entire New Hampshire town is put in jeopardy because a plastics plant may have to close. The screenplay doesn’t simplify the complexities of labor-management problems, and the personal conflicts that arise are entirely credible. Adding to the fresh, non-Hollywood approach is a remarkable cast that features several acting favorites early in their careers, such as Ernest Borgnine, said to be fresh out of the Navy. The beautiful favorite Anne Francis looks like a teenager. De Rochemont also tapped a number of Broadway actors that didn’t have extensive film careers.

Who will pay their wages?  Who will feed their kids?”

Here’s a non- spoiler description of the film through its characters, not the storyline. When a shoe factory closes, Doubleday Plastics is the only employer left in Eaton Falls. Old man Daniel Doubleday finds that he can’t compete too. He buys new mold machines but the numbers say that he still has to lay off half of his workers. When Doubleday’s wife Helen (silent movie legend Dorothy Gish) takes charge she hires Brad Adams (Lloyd Bridges) to be the new plant manager, even though he’s the president of the labor local: Helen wants to keep the plant running somehow, through labor-management cooperation. Brad finds out for himself that he can’t make everyone happy — Doubleday is underbid for a big Navy contract and there seems to be no way to cut costs. When he is forced to shut down the plant for an undisclosed period of time, some of Brad’s old union friends turn against him.

 

Eaton Falls is an excellent early film role for feisty Murray Hamilton (the mayor in Jaws, Mr. Robinson in The Graduate).  He’s Brad Adams’ main nemesis, an antagonistic union blowhard. Russell Hardie (a general in Fail Safe) plays Dwight Hawkins, a manager who wanted the big job; he goes to a competing company and schemes to sabotage Brad, with the help of a ‘mole’ he left behind in Doubleday’s front office. Brad’s more faithful colleagues are played by a very young Arthur O’Connell (Picnic, The Circus of Dr. Lao), James Westerfield (On the Waterfront, Wild River) and Ernest Borgnine. This is the second feature film appearance of the great Borgnine, who makes an excellent impression with only a handful of dialogue lines.

Brad Adams’ wife doesn’t realize that her new standard of living hangs by a thread. She’s played by Diana Douglas (of The Indian Fighter), at the time married to Kirk Douglas. Film favorite Doro Merande has a non-comic role, while several stage notables make rare film appearances. Lenore Lonergan plays a pro-union firebrand; she was in the original Broadway cast of The Philadelphia Story and is memorable in William Wellman’s Westward the Women (1951). Broadway actress Helen Shields (Liliom) has a small part in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man. Anne Seymour had roles in All the King’s Men and Pollyanna.

 

Musical favorite Carleton Carpenter had just appeared in five MGM pictures in less than a year, but was discovered in de Rochemont’s earlier Lost Boundaries. Here he’s an art department guy whose imagination helps find the solution to Doubleday’s problems. Carleton’s girlfriend is played by a very young Anne Francis, already something of a veteran at age 20.

Director Robert Siodmak was most noted for the film noir classics The Killers and Criss Cross, but he got his start back in Germany with the naturalistic docu-romance People on Sunday. Producer Louis de Rochemont had already shown a proclivity for socially sensitive subject matter, and the style of Eaton Falls seems to place Italian neo-realism in a provincial Americana,  Our Town– like setting. In Eaton Falls everyone knows everybody else’s business. A relaxed narrator guides us through travelogue images of what looks like an ideal community — threatened by economic change. The semi-documentary approach gives us ordinary Americans dealing with day-to-day issues of subsistence. It was filmed almost entirely in real mill towns of New Hampshire: Dover, Exeter and Portsmouth. Eaton Falls looks authentic from the sidewalks up.

 

At first The Whistle at Eaton Falls feels similar to several angry films noir of 1949-1950 with axes to grind about injustice both racial and economic: Try and Get Me!, The Lawless and De Rochemont’s own Lost Boundaries. Shows of this kind attracted the attention of ambitious HUAC watchdogs, who saw that some directors, writers, and actors were blacklisted, and prevented from working.

The surprise with The Whistle at Eaton Falls is that it is not a tragedy or a cry of protest. With the help of a loyal group of workers, Brad surmounts Doubleday’s economic dilemma by gambling on a technical innovation. It isn’t exactly rocket science, but it gives Doubleday a penny-shaving edge and saves the livelihood of hundreds of employees. Unlikely as it sounds, cooperation keeps Eaton Falls on the map. Even in the musical comedy The Pajama Game, the ‘union victory’ is really sort of a one step forward, half-a-step back deal.

The Whistle at Eaton Falls does not fall into the pessimistic trap of noirs that wail that ‘the system’ is doomed. It also avoids Hollywood’s fairy tale approach to social issues. Pulling the company out of trouble requires more than good intentions, or ‘faith in human nature.’ A smart calculation and some luck come into play as well. There’s no phony Frank Capra wave of populist benevolence — Capra’s key ‘social’ classics really hold the average ‘little people’ in contempt. Eaton Falls doesn’t even think that things can be reconciled, even if Brad is too decent to lash out at his enemies.

  Actor Lloyd Bridges was said to have undergone ‘graylist’ problems for a few years. His excellent work here, expressing quiet exasperation and then overwhelming joy, would later be echoed by his own son. In Francis Coppola’s Tucker: The Man and His Dream, Jeff Bridges seems to be channeling his own father’s acting style from 38 years before. The pessimistic Preston Tucker is defeated in his attempt to start a car company, despite making a competitive product. Coppola preaches that the country is a closed shop that stifles real competition. The Whistle at Eaton Falls says some of the same things. It doesn’t pull its punches, but it also doesn’t condemn ‘the system’ outright. The reality is that everything changes, and one has to be clairvoyant just to keep up. Eaton Falls doesn’t distort the problem in either direction, which is why it feels so good. Knowing its ‘social noir’ roots, I half expected the hero to end up dead in the gutter.

Some industrial dilemmas must find workable solutions, and we’re happy to hear of one. Frankly, any workable fix for a major social problem these days seems impossible, which a story like this one very welcome.

By 1951 ‘social issue’ films were beginning to fade as audience bait. The political climate turned sour as well. Writing about Cy Endfield, author Brian Neve said that a theater owner showing Endfield’s downbeat Try and Get Me! reported viewers walking out convinced they’d seen an ‘anti-American’ movie. I also think that The Whistle at Eaton Falls’ initial release momentum could have been killed by the influence of one negative review: Bosley Crowther’s dismissive put-down in the New York Times, from October 11, 1951. Crowther’s descriptor terms for Eton Falls include “fuzzy and superficial,” an “overheated discourse,” and an “illusory deadlock out of melodramatics and sentiment.”  Crowther offers faint praise for Siodmak’s direction and the realism of the real New England locations, but thinks the film’s argument is simply wrong-headed. Having a ‘new invention’ save the day doesn’t convince him, when innovation is one of the few ways that an old-style business can be saved. Crowther slams “the inertia of unemployed people in what is admitted to be a land of general prosperity,” and wonders why the townspeople don’t just leave town to find jobs somewhere else. In other words, Crowther doesn’t acknowledge that working Americans should care about saving their communities. Eaton Falls’ New York run at the Victoria in Times Square lasted just two weeks.

 

The Restoration

Where the heck did this mystery film come from?   I looked, and it’s indeed listed in Andrew Sarris’s American Cinema. Although TCM didn’t even give its premiere a host introduction, the pristine print was followed by restoration credits, the main name being David Strohmaier. Since I recently talked to Mr. Strohmaier about his present restoration work on the Cinerama feature The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, I asked him for an interview.

Before David Strohmaier made the Cinerama restorations his life’s work, he had already clocked a full career as a Hollywood film editor. He made contact with the de Rochemont estate when restoring producer Louis de Rochemont’s Cinemiracle feature Windjammer: The Voyage of the Christian Radich. Although originally released by Columbia, ownership of The Whistle at Eaton Falls soon reverted to its independent producer. The de Rochemont heirs wanted to license it to TCM, but the only video transfer they had was a poor 16mm telecine. David went to work, first accessing some materials donated to a college in New Hampshire. But everything needed was on deposit at the Library of Congress: a duplicate nitrate negative, a safety print and an optical track. David Strohmaier remembers that librarian Larry Smith was eager to see the restoration happen as Eaton Falls was a personal favorite.

Shipping the nitrate negative to Fotokem in Burbank was impractical, but David found that the safety print was in mostly good shape. Everything was converted to digital files. Reel 5 and part of reel 4 were damaged, so those sections were scanned from the nitrate negative back in Washington, and re-integrated into the picture. The optical print was scanned and the track cleaned up by a company called Audio Mechanics.

David shared some of the digital work with his associate Tom H. March, of Calgary, a former Canadian broadcast engineer. The two of them finished the job together. Seen on TCM, The Whistle at Eaton Falls looks pristine, as if it had been filmed yesterday. I would have to be told where damaged sections have been replaced. David re-composited the original trailer as well, using the trailer’s audio track.

One interesting detail from David Strohmaier: in a montage of Eaton Falls family life a baby is prominently shown. David was told that the baby is either Jeff or Beau Bridges, and since Beau was born much earlier it looks like baby Jeff wins bragging rights. The IMDB already has movie star baby Jeff appearing months earlier, in 1951’s RKO release The Company She Keeps.

Will there be a Blu-ray of The Whistle at Eaton Falls? The AFI states that the disc company Flicker Alley funded the restoration, but no disc release has yet been announced. The film will soon be showing online through the AFI Silver Virtual Screening Room, in a DC Labor FilmFest.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


The Whistle at Eaton Falls
Not on Home Video
Reviewed: May 11, 2021
(6499eato)CINESAVANT

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.