The Passaic Textile Strike (1926)
by Alice W. Campbell, VCU Libraries
The Passaic Textile Strike is a 1926 American silent film directed by Samuel Russak, and produced by Alfred Wagenknecht. The film’s photographers were Lester Balog, Sam Brody, and William Schwartfeller; the title cards were written by Margaret Larkin. Most of the acting was done by the Passaic strikers themselves. While the narrative is fictional, the film was intended to be a truthful representation of conditions and so may be compared to a modern docudrama.
The film was produced to raise public awareness and financial support for the 1926 Passaic Textile Strike in Passaic, New Jersey. Its first showings were to strikers in September 1926 at Belmont Park, Garfield, New Jersey. Robert Wolf, writing in The Daily Worker (October 18, 1926), declared, “They were packed into Belmont Park…as far as I could see the only reason there weren’t sixteen thousand instead of ten was that there wasn’t room.” He continued,
The movie itself was a first-class professional production, even to the usual amount of hokum. Before the strike drama there was a prologue, which, as far as hokum was concerned was just a little bit bigger and better hokum than almost anything I have ever seen on the screen before. I suppose the producers wanted to make us feel at home. It was just as well. Before the stark realism of the mass drama, something was needed to put us into a movie mood….
Altogether the Passaic Strike picture is a promising contribution in American history, to working-class propaganda, to the methods of conducting strike relief, and to the creative development of the newest and most American of the arts (Wolf, 1926, October 18).
Beginning in October 1926, the film was shown to the general public in Passaic. It then toured the country, accompanied by Communist activist speaker Ella Reeve “Mother” Bloor, who appeared in it. In its November 26, 1926 issue, The Daily Worker proclaimed The Passaic Textile Strike “the most inspiring labor picture ever produced.”
The opening credits of The Passaic Textile Strike read:
The Passaic Textile Strike . The Battle for Life of the Workers who make the cloth that clothes you. Begun: January 25, 1926. To End: When Victory is Won. An International Workers Aid Picture. This is the story of 16,000 unorganized workers who went on strike against merciless wage cuts–and found their strength in the Union they built to carry them on to Victory.
The Prologue is introduced:
To show the life they live, the Passaic strikers have played for you this simple story of the Breznac Family [which is any family of textile workers], who came to America, the Land of Promise, only to find industrial oppression and bitter struggle. The players lay no claim to art, except as art is compounded of simple truth. The incidents are just the common facts of the textile workers’ lives, empty perhaps of those flaming passions seen so often on the screen, but full of the actual tragedy of deadening labor and despairing struggle.
In Behind the Mask of Innocence, a study of silent films of social conscience, British film historian Kevin Brownlow writes extensively about The Passaic Textile Strike. “It is a ‘mass film’ in true Communist style, the first such film ever to be made in America.”
When individuals are picked out, they are likely to be hectoring orators or demonstrators displaying their wounds to the camera….When faces are shown they are included in groups–batches would be a better word–posed as if for the standard group photographs of the time. Even so, the faces are extraordinary. They belong to another world, another age–ancient, gnarled, peasant faces. The presence of these almost-old people from Central Europe, some still wearing traditional peasant clothes, gives the film a poignant sens of reality no reconstruction could achieve (Brownlow, 498).
Originally seven reels long, The Passaic Textile Strike was once thought to have survived only in fragments. However, in 2007 the Communist Party, USA donated a complete copy to the Taminent Library at New York University. That copy is now preserved at the Library of Congress. Two excerpts from The Passaic Textile Strike are included below.
The Prologue from The Passaic Textile Strike (1926). This work may also be viewed through the Internet Archive.
Reel 5 from The Passaic Textile Strike (1926). This work may also be viewed through YouTube.
For further Reading:
International Workers Aid: Passaic Textile Strike, 1926, MoMA Exhibit
Browlow, K. (1990). Behind the mask of innocence. (pp. 498 – 508). New York: Knopf.
The Passaic Textile Strike, 1926. AFI Catalog of Feature Films.
“The Prologue” from The Passaic Textile Strike (1926). The National Film Preservation Foundation.
The Daily Worker newspaper published by the Communist Party USA
Wolf, R. (1926, October 18). Now Showing — All-Star Cast. The Daily Worker. p. 6.
Cleveland to See Big Labor Movie of Famed Passaic Mill Strike. (1926, October 21). The Daily Worker. p. 5.
Denver Assembly to Sponsor Showing of ‘The Passaic Strike.’ (1926, November 6). The Daily Worker. p. 5.
Show Passaic Strike Picture in Newark This Friday Night. (1926, November 26). The Daily Worker. p. 2.
How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Campbell, A. W. (2017). Passaic Textile Strike (1926), film. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from http://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/organizations/labor/passaic-textile-strike-1926-film/
Resources related to this topic may be found in the Social Welfare History Image Portal.