Oct 27, 2017

From the LOC vaults: American Labor short MILLIONS OF US (1935)

By guest bloggers Tanya Goldman and Spencer Nachman

Millions of Us (1935) is an early example of American labor-left filmmaking that experiments with enacted forms, anticipating Frontier Films’s renowned People of the Cumberland (1938) and Native Land (1942). Produced surreptitiously in Hollywood in 1934-5, the film dramatizes the plight of millions of unemployed workers amidst the Depression. This message is filtered through the story of a single “forgotten man” who walks the streets in desperate search of a job. Driven by hunger, he contemplates becoming a scab. A union man intervenes, coaching him to recognize common interests with his brethren. He is ultimately converted to the cause of trade unionism.

--> Millions of Us: Visualizing the protagonist’s conversion to labor unionism and the power of mass action.

This ostensibly straightforward narrative belies the film’s melding of modernist visual style and social realist reportage. Co-director Jack Smith is a pseudonym for Slavko Vorkapich, a Serbian émigré who arrived in Hollywood in the early 1920s and distinguished himself as a master of montage. Working for multiple studios, he created striking, frenetic montage sequences for a number of silent and sound films, including Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe. (Several of his silent and pre-code montage works and experimental shorts are featured on the Unseen Cinema DVD collection). Vorkapich went on to chair the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts.

Like many in Hollywood at the time, Vorkapich was aligned with the Left. He served, for example, on the National Advisory Board of the Film and Photo League, a loose collective of radical filmmakers in New York, Detroit, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and several other urban centers committed to documenting the era’s labor unrest. In this context, a film like Millions of Us is an obvious extension of these activities. Yet, Vorkapich’s earlier experimental work suggests that his sympathy for the downtrodden predated the mass breadlines of the early Depression. In 1928, he co-directed The Life and Death of 9431: A Hollywood Extra, an experimental short with Robert Florey (best remembered for directing Marx Brothers film The Cocoanuts and studio B-films such as Murders in the Rue Morgue). The Life and Death of 9431 shows the rapid demise of a Hollywood hopeful in a heavily Expressionist style. Arriving at the Studios, the wide-eyed extra enters the casting system, the number 9413 stamped on his forehead. He soon begins his hopeless job hunt amidst an inhospitable landscape of “no casting today” signs. Dreams dashed, his humanity is only restored in death. In its dour story and disorienting visual design, The Life and Death of 9431 presents a California nightmare.

 The Life and Death of 9431: The Hollywood hopeful is just a number.

The California in Millions of Us is also a nightmare of unemployment signs. The film opens in an alleyway on a woman in rags before cutting to newspaper headlines of mass unemployment. The camera then moves to the unnamed man sleeping outside on a brick ledge with a newspaper as his pillow. He is our protagonist. As he sleeps, he dreams of food—a roast, an egg on a frying pan, coffee, and loaves of bread are all superimposed over his face. His dream continues as he sits at a table ready to eat but, in a terrifying turn, his plate slides across the table to the waiting hands of a man in fancy dress. Of this opening sequence, Charles Wolfe observes that the “impressionistic montage establishes a transient’s hallucinatory state of mind.” In creating this opening scene, Vorkapich’s singular touch is particularly evident.

 Millions of Us: Dreams of Food

The man awakens and proceeds to drag himself through the gritty urban streets in a quest for work. “No help needed” signs pepper his journey. As he walks, he encounters another homeless vagrant sitting in the sidewalk, social realist imagery that anticipates the downtrodden men depicted in Lionel Rogosin’s On The Bowery (1956). Our protagonist stares longingly into the window of diner. A kindly old woman from a Catholic mission eventually offers him assistance. But he arrives only to discover the shelter is closed for the night. Yet another institution unable to help in his time of need.

Millions of Us: California's gritty streets and empty promises

The next segment begins as our threadbare protagonist stumbles upon a group of men sitting idly in a park. Up until this point, about five and half minutes into the film, the only sound has come by way of an orchestral score. But here, for the first time, words are spoken—though not by our protagonist, nor the scores of forgotten men around him in the park. Instead, it is a radio broadcast of a speech delivered by a capitalist, whose stentorian voice espouses platitudes of American rugged individualism that are entirely at odds with the reality of the millions of unemployed:

“America has been called the land of opportunity and justly so. Where else in the world does the great opportunity for honest work exist in such a boundless degree as in America?...Yes, my friends I say to you that a real willingness to work has never gone unrewarded (that is for long)…Fellow citizens the period of Depression is a thing of the past….The opportunity is here my friend. For those who have the courage to reach out and grab it. To seize it in their hands and drain from it the fine, full measure of sturdy American effort.

These lines, of course, ring hollow to the men sitting in the park, and again, merely affirm the establishment’s lack of sympathy for America’s unemployed. The film’s political stance in unmistakable.

Dejected further, our protagonist leaves the park. He soon finds himself standing idly outside a grocery store watching as bags are loaded into the car of wealthy shopper. A single apple falls out of a bag and roles to his feet. He considers taking it until he meets the glare of a uniformed police officer. The film fades to black.

Finally, the protagonist stumbles upon a “help wanted” sign—but picketers surround the hiring office. He pauses and contemplates. Will he become a much-maligned scab? Luckily, before he crosses over to the dark side, the union intervenes, welcoming him to their camp and offering him a meal. Now, finally part of a community, labor is given a voice, literalized as synchronized dialogue begins. The union leader stakes his plea for broader working class solidarity and its desire for basic human rights. “You and me,” he says:

“Millions of us who want three square and a job. Who want a chance to work so we can send our kids to school, so we can have a roof over our head. Millions of us getting together. That’s the answer! We want man-sized chunk of everything our hands of made. And just think buddy: that’s the whole cock-eyed country…Every rivet and bolt and brick rivet. You betcha! Your hands worked and scrapped. Who gets the gravy? Not you or me.”

The union man’s rationale converts the protagonist to the cause. He picks up a sign and joins the fight. Of the sequence, Charles Wolfe writes: “The final segment, the unemployed worker joins a union and his envisioned fantasies are replaced by lip-synchronized dialogue and his possession of a new collective, public voice.” This new collective is visualized in the film’s final image (featured above), footage of marching union men superimposed on a close-up of the protagonist’s face. This closing image encapsulates the power and solidarity of the working class mass.

Millions of Us: The protagonist finds solace with his working class brethren.

Upon completion, the film entered the nontheatrical labor screening circuit and the very act of showing the film became a deeply politicized, incendiary act. In Ohio, a planned CIO screening was blocked by state censors, as was an intended screening at an art house in Pittsburgh. These episodes prompted the film's distributor Garrison Films to contact Morris Ernst Leopold, a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Millions of Us is an intriguing early work in the history of American documentary and labor left filmmaking, and demonstrates the shared solidarity among artists and organized labor during the
Red Decade. Under Vorkapich’s deft hand, the film demonstrates traces of modernist impulse within the decade’s iconic social realist aesthetic. Its post-production life reveals the politicized nature of film distribution. At the very least, it is certainly a film worth a look for film and history buffs alike.

This guest post was written by Tanya Goldman, a PhD Candidate in Cinema Studies at New York University and IndieCollect’s inaugural Scholar-In-Residence during the 2016-17 academic year, and Spencer Nachman, a sophomore at NYU who interned at IndieCollect during the spring 2017 academic term.



Charles Wolfe, “Straight Shots and Crooked Plots: Social Documentary and the Avant-Garde in the 1930s,” in Lovers of Cinema: The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919–1945, ed. Jan-Christopher Horak. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996.
This essay is also reprinted in The Documentary Film Reader: History, Theory, Criticism, edited by Jonathan Kahana for Oxford University Press, 2016.

Millions of Us is held at the Library of Congress. You can stream the full film here