A few years prior to Joris Ivens’s stunning Power and the Land (1940), a documentary about New Deal rural electrification, Warner Bros. released Slim, written by William Wister Haines from his 1934 novel, about two power linemen, seasoned Red and his surrogate son, orphaned farm boy Slim—itinerants, moving from construction site to construction site. A graduate of Joe E. Brown comedies, director Ray Enright does a light, quick job of juggling Depression Americana, Leftist sentiment about workers, a romantic triangle (both Red and Slim are in love with the same woman, a nurse), a touch of melodrama about a lineman who, jealous of Red, tries to make a work “accident” happen to him, and a couple of good doses of heartstopping excitement, including a conclusive one in which linemen work near “hot” wires in order to restore power that has been knocked out by a snowstorm. Indeed, Slim might best be described as a mix of prose and poetry: a perilously above-the-ground actioner and an anthem to labor. (A stirring preface dedicates the film to power linemen.) There is also comic relief provided by Stu Erwin, whose girlfriend is played (briefly) by a young, beauteous Jane Wyman.
All the major and major minor characters are exceptionally decent. Pat O’Brien plays Red (a nickname of no discernible origin), Margaret Lindsay plays Cally, the nurse, and J. Farrell MacDonald plays Pop, the boss of the crew to which Red initially and ultimately belongs—the man who hires Slim. An accident creates the opening that permits the boy’s hiring; a fatal accident enables his promotion to lineman. Another fatal accident reconciles even Cally to the dangers involved. She will no longer try to dissuade Slim from the noble labor he loves to perform, despite all the risks. In the lead role, Henry Fonda is achingly decent, honest and honorable—a kid one really roots for.
Enright’s camera assumes all necessary positions to convey the danger of the work these men do. I have outlined the film’s text; but the view that the film provides of how unprotected these workers once were creates for us, seventy years later, a meta-text as well: praise for the intervening union activism that brought a measure of safety and sanity to the high-risk job. Text and meta-text easily absorb one another.
Something else is implicit that ennobles the film and gives it gravitas: a sense of shared community. We watch the men work, and it is for their fellow citizens that they do this work. The agency of this connection is the woman who runs the boarding house where the crew is staying at the time of the final job. She wants her lights back on! And thanks to Slim and company, she will get her lights back on.
The closing image of a lineman mounting a pole to help get this job done is heart-walloping.
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