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Master Hands was selected for the 1999 National Film Registry of “artistically, culturally, and socially significant” films.
Molten metal flowing into a mold spells out the film’s title in heat and light. A full symphony orchestra plays a score adapted from Wagner’s Die Walkre. Negative and positive film sandwiched together (a rare effect in the 1930s) casts a surreal filter over workers filing into the factory. This is high drama, pretentious filmmaking and one of the most impressive records of mass production ever made.
1936, the year that Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times and Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will were produced, was also the year of Master Hands. Produced ostensibly as a tribute to the “master hands” of the Chevrolet craftsmen, Master Hands looks much more like management’s own tribute to itself — the designers of the system of mass production.
Embodying a genre that might be called “capitalist realism,” this featurette uses the representational methods of the Soviet and German cinemas to strengthen its vision of American enterprise. From Thirties Soviet socialist realism Master Hands borrows a concern for presenting masses of mobilized workers, a fascination with larger-than-life machines, and a sense of economic emergence through technology. From the Germans, and specifically from fascist representation, it appropriates the mythology of the four elements (showing how earth, air, fire, and water are all part of automobile manufacturing) and adapts Wagner’s music which, in its original form, portrays the foundry of the gods. Valuing intuition over interpretation, it avoids even narration except for one bit near the beginning:
“From the master hands of the toolmakers –
to the hands that master the great machines –
come the tools and patterns and dies…
and then the great factories start.”
Nonetheless, its producers were documentarians enough to show something of the Flint factory’s actual nature. While the machines and assembly lines are all presented heroically, the “human element” appears guarded, fatigued and vulnerable to accident. A long look at the faces of workers shown in the film reveals how the stresses of their jobs have made them look much older than their years. Among industrial films, it is a rare example of cinéma vérité, I think: an unusual instance in which truth resides in the image itself, regardless of its maker’s intentions.
Strikingly, the filmmakers take pains to skirt the major issue affecting both workers and management in the Chevrolet plants — that as Master Hands was being shot, the factories were contested territory.
Master Hands is a glimpse of the last year when management ran the plant according to its own rules. In the Central States, automobile production had recovered from its Depression slump by the mid-Thirties, and a long accumulation of grievances led auto workers to form a solid (and secret) organization. Late in 1936, Chevrolet workers, first in this Flint factory and later throughout Michigan and the United States, “sat down” on the job, stopping production, sequestering key tools and dies, and occupying factories to enforce their demands for union recognition. This legendary strike forced the company to recognize and bargain with the United Auto Workers, which resulted in better wages, benefits and greater dignity for the workers of America’s key industry.
This shift in power changed the automobile industry forever and stimulated labor solidarity and organizational activity throughout the U.S.
Later in the Thirties it was revealed in congressional hearings that one out of every ten workers in the Flint Chevrolet plant had served G.M. as a confidential informant about union activities. It’s fair, then, to assume that one out of every ten people shown in Master Hands was receiving secret payouts from the company… and who is to say how many others were secret UAW organizers?
Finally, above and beyond the fascinating circumstances surrounding its making, Master Hands is simply an amazing film. Many sequences stay in my mind: casting engine blocks in sand; the engine inspector with a long ear tube listening to the sound of piston in cylinder; the winding of red-hot springs; auto frame assemblers standing inside their machines as they work; the gigantic room filled with vehicle frames in rhythmic motion as they are assembled; the 750-ton stamping presses; and the final moment of the movie, when the hands of a tweed-jacketed suburbanite take the wheel and the car, leaving behind its dirty and tired makers, magically drives away into a country wonderland.
Producer: Jam Handy