Drama in the Making

MGM's The Valley of Decision

It has been a long time, in the United States, since the members of either major political party have paid much attention to men who make things in the great factories of the world. When I was born, Detroit was a muscular city, the fifth largest in the nation, turning out cars and trucks by the millions. Where would you look for tires and rubber, if not to Akron? And Pittsburgh, the city of the three rivers, a port city more than two thousand miles by water from the sea, was the city of steel, its iron coming by way of the Great Lakes from Michigan and Minnesota, and its coal coming from the apparently inexhaustible mines of the mountains nearby. There was smoke, sure, and there was pride. The Pittsburgh man could say, "The next time you cross a bridge, think that the river below you might as well be our Allegheny."

I doubt that Hollywood nowadays is any more interested in industrial matters than most politicians are. Industry is too masculine, perhaps. Who wants to descend into the fire, the steam, and the sweat of a foundry?

But it was not always so. Industry, as it must be and not in a utopian dream, brings us almost immediately into dramatic conflict and potentially tragic compromises. We have the human will against the tough resistance of brute matter. We have great machines that both extend the power of man and threaten to obliterate it. We have men risking life and limb, so that others can sleep on a train—or eat beans from a can. We have immense outlays of capital, and the immense expenditure of human labor. We have the great boon of commodities that bring ease and sometimes even beauty to our lives, at the cost of smoke and sludge belched into the air or leached into the water, while the flares of the furnaces make the city seem devil-driven through the night.

Being in Charge & Caring for Men

The Valley of Decision (1945) is an excellent example of what Hollywood could once do, when so many of its directors, writers, and actors came from the working class, and knew by observation or by the memories in their muscles what it was to farm, to fish, to fight in war—or to make steel. If you expect it to show the usual conflict between poverty-crushed labor and fat greedy capital, perhaps you want to check out some propaganda, and not an honest work of human art.

The time is the 1870s, when the industrial states were flooded with immigrants from northern and central Europe. The bullhorn for the unhappy steelworkers, Pat Rafferty (played by Lionel Barrymore, who by this time was confined to a wheelchair), is an old Irish immigrant who lost his legs in a terrible accident at the mill. He is a naturally benevolent man warped by hatred and vindictiveness.

His imagined enemy is the mill owner, William Scott (Donald Crisp, the essential patriarch; see him as the heroic coal miner in How Green Was My Valley). Scott lives in a mansion now. But he is the son of another Irish immigrant, his father, who came to America with nothing, and who by hard work and much good fortune built up the Scott Mills. Nor has Mr. Scott forgotten Rafferty. We learn that he provided him with a monthly pension equal to his pay when he was crippled for life.

What is at stake for Scott, his wife (Gladys Cooper), and the most loyal of his four children, his son Paul (Gregory Peck), is the very question: What does it mean to be in charge of making things, and to care for the men who do the grueling work? The film begins and ends—I will not give away the ending—with an offer to the Scotts, to sell the mill to the "big fish," Andrew Carnegie. Mr. Scott turns down the first offer, despite its generosity, because the mill is a part of him, and though he is a "little fish," and though he cannot claim to make nearly as much steel as Carnegie makes, he can claim to make better steel, even the best in America.

That is when Paul comes back from Europe—not from a grand tour for the rich boy, but from a survey of German steel mills—with the idea of the open hearth, for mixing a wide variety of ingredients to produce steel fit for all kinds of purposes. It will be hugely expensive, and there is no guarantee it will work. But Mr. Scott, a proud and courageous man, tells him to go ahead.

Love, Labor & Conflict

Meanwhile, Rafferty's lovely daughter Mary (Greer Garson, with a delicate Irish brogue) has taken work as a servant in the Scott mansion. There, by her efficient work and her intelligent treatment of the two youngest of the Scott children, Ted (Marshall Thompson), who likes to live it up too much, and Connie (Marsha Hunt), a girl with a soliciting eye, she wins the trust and friendship of Mrs. Scott, and the interest of Paul. Unlike some of the people with whom the Scotts associate, Paul is no snob. He and Mary fall in love. But a young society woman (Jessica Tandy) has other things in mind. We are not easy sentimentalists here.

The film does seem to argue that you cannot be both a snob and an excellent industrialist. You need to get your hands dirty in the work. In fact, the massive hearth Paul plans to build requires the knowledge and the efforts of the chief engineer among the workers, Jim Brennan (Preston Foster), who boards in the Rafferty house after Mary leaves. Brennan is in love with Mary, too, though she looks upon him only as a good and long-time friend.

Paul does not know of that love. Day after day, night after night, he and Brennan and a couple of the most capable steelworkers sweat over the plans, the models, and the experimental machines, suffering one failure after another, to the tune of $650,000—an immense sum in that time.

Nor are all things well at the mill; talk of a strike has swept across the city, and the Scott Mill is not deaf to it, though Scott himself has the reputation of a fair man and an honest employer. Of course, the crippled Rafferty is oil to the fire.

The men do strike, and Paul, caught in the middle and urged by the woman he loves, tries to arrange a meeting between his father and the workers, on a bridge over the river. His brother Willie (Dan Duryea), who never has had anything to do with the works or the men, is bringing strike-breaking thugs from Detroit, while Ted is sent to the train station with a message to order them to stay away. But while Ted waits, the bar at the train station is open, and he cannot resist the call of drink.

I am not going to reveal what happens; it is not a plot by Hollywood formula. If for nothing else than for the brilliant cast, The Valley of Decision is well worth your time. But it delivers much else besides, asking important questions about factory ownership, labor, responsibility, and the common good. Christians need to raise those questions again. No one else is doing so. 

is a Distinguished Professor at Thales College and the author of over thirty books and many articles in both scholarly and general interest journals. A senior editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, Dr. Esolen is known for his elegant essays on the faith and for his clear social commentaries. In addition to Salvo, his articles appear regularly in Touchstone, Crisis, First Things, Inside the Vatican, Public Discourse, Magnificat, Chronicles and in his own online literary magazine, Word & Song.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #58, Fall 2021 Copyright © 2024 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo58/drama-in-the-making


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