Before seeing this film, which stars Henry Fonda and Pat O’Brien, I don’t suppose I’d ever thought about how dangerous life was for early power workers. This gritty Warner movie brings home the risks, beginning with a voiceover tribute to all the linemen who travelled across America in the early years of the 20th century to string up the electric wires.
I was reminded of The Crowd Roars, an early 1930s Warner movie about racing drivers, because the power workers in this film are also shown as being under great stress and living under the shadow of death. There’s also the same feeling of impermanence and constantly moving on to another job – and the fear of settling down and marrying today, in case you die tomorrow.
However, unlike racing drivers, the linemen aren’t glamorous figures – except to the eyes of farm boy Slim (Fonda), who longs to leave the plough and join their daring ranks. They’re presented as firmly working-class – and delighted to be in steady work and earning a good salary. All the banter and cameraderie on the building sites seem to ring true, with the drinking and gambling sessions in the evenings to let off steam. I was quite shocked at the lack of safety precautions, with no sign of hard hats (were they invented then?) or adequate safety harnesses. If these men fall from the scaffolding, they plunge to the ground – and if they drop a hammer or a wrench, they probably hit a workmate on the head.
(The part of this review behind the cut includes spoilers and another picture.)
This is very much a buddy movie. Gruff old hand Red (O’Brien) takes Fonda – supposedly a teenager although he was in fact in his 30s, and looked it – under his wing, and teaches him to be the perfect lineman. Soon the two are inseparable and have a bond to one another which goes way beyond their loyalty to bosses or other colleagues, and even beyond romantic love. There is some rivalry between them over a woman – nurse Cally (Margaret Lindsay) – but it’s made plain that their friendship with one another goes far deeper than their feelings for her.
A lot of the dialogue is a bit corny and the plot is predictable at times – but, as with the Warner prison movie 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, the visuals are the most powerful part of this film. I’m sure the shots of the men balancing on high power lines in raging winds are the moments that will stick in my mind.