Long before "Norma Rae", filmmaker Louis de Rochemont dramatized NH labor unions in "Whistle at Eaton Falls."
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Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Louis de Rochemont could smell a good story. His 300 short "March of Time" newsreels were seen by millions of movie-goers each month beginning in the 1930s. De Rochemont had even smuggled footage of Hitler out of Germany in 1940. But after World War II, de Rochemont wanted to make feature length films, and he wanted to make them in New Hampshire.
With a three picture contract from Columbia, de Rochemont came home to make the kind of movies he liked. They would all be based on true stories, and when possible, filmed near his ancestral home in Seacoast, NH. Shot mostly around Portsmouth, his 1949 story of racial discrimination in NH, "Lost Boundaries", was a critical and a box office success.
The first truly maverick film producer, de Rochemont was interested in labor unions and their endless battles with the forces of management. As always, he drew his plot directly from real life, this time a case history in the files of a Harvard professor. It was the story of a blue collar labor leader who suddenly found himself appointed president of a failing New England factory.
The conflict was ready-made for the big screen. Forced to close the plant in order to save it, the hero wrestles with his conscience and with residents of the factory town. De Rochemont, in turn, wrestled with his journalistic need to present both sides of the story, and his producer's need to sell movie tickets. So the story includes a little love interest, a little song and dance, a car crash and even a murder. The script by his Academy Award-winning wife Virginia, plays today like melodrama meets industrial training film. Still, the characters, with bits parts played by Seacoast residents, are strong and the plot rings true. There is an unrelenting authenticity to de Rochemont's "nonfiction film" work.
This time the producer combined pieces of Dover, Exeter and Portsmouth, NH into the fictional town of Eaton Falls. De Rochemont populated Eaton Falls with an impressive professional cast, most of whom had or would star in notable motion pictures. They included 20-something Hollywood actor Lloyd Bridges, silent film legend Dorothy Gish, a very young Anne Frances, and an untested new actor just out of the Navy named Ernest Borgnine.
Historically, the film is a valuable celluloid record of life in this NH region, wedged between the Great War and the Cold War. The Cocheco Mill, where much of the filming took place, today is an office building. The factory owner's home, the once grand Sawyer Mansion, was long ago replaced by a Howard Johnson's, which has since given way to a Burger King.
Distributed by Columbia Pictures, "Whistle at Eaton Falls" is currently unavailable except on a few 16mm copies in private hands and library archives. Thanks to television, three of the key actors are remembered for their starring roles in "Sea Hunt" (Lloyd Bridges), "McHale's Navy" (Ernest Borgnine) and "Honey West" (Anne Frances). Here, thanks to the Portsmouth Public Library, are some of the movie publicity stills originally released by Columbia, presented on the Internet for the first time.
By J. Dennis Robinson
MOVIE PUBLICITY PHOTOS
Click on thumbnails to see original 1951 film stills from Louis de Rochemont. For more on the actors check the Internet Movie Database.
For a complete list of cast members go to Cast & Crew (click here) in movie summary.
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