History Piece

The Making of Power and the Land (1939-1940)

In Power and the Land, Ivens shows the Parkinsons working hard to accomplish their daily tasks. The light of the day was the kerosene lamp. Every morning, Ruth has to fill and clean the lamps. Even so, it was difficult to read by the flickering light of a kerosene lamp. In one scene, Hazel, her own eyes tired from sewing in the dim light, pushes the kerosene lamp across the kitchen table so that Ruth and Bip can more easily see their school work. And then there was wash day when water had to be hand pumped, carried into the house, and heated over a fire in large kettles. In Power and the Land, Hazel and Ruth are shown ladling this hot water into pails that they carry out to the back porch and pour into a wash tub. Hazel then scrubs the clothes by hand on a washboard. Once the wash has been dried on the clothes line, her task is still not done. Hazel is next shown ironing with the heavy hand irons that had to be heated on the wood stove. Although the film does not use the term, many farm women called these irons “sad irons.”

Life on the farm was also hard on the men in the family. In the darkness before dawn, Bill and his sons have to walk to the barn by the light of a kerosene lamp. By that same flickering light, they milk the cows. Once the milking is done, the Parkinson boys labor to pump enough water by hand to cool the fresh milk. On a hot summer day, the milk could spoil. In one scene, the milk truck driver hands Bill a note that his previous shipment was rejected by the creamery. Folding up the note and putting it in his pocket, Bill instructs his sons to feed the sour milk to the pigs. The milk check, the narrator (William Adams) notes, will be a little less that month. Life and tedious and life was hard. Without electricity, wood had to be sawn by hand, tools had to be sharpened by hand or with a foot-powered grinding stone, and there always was the endless pumping of water for the livestock and household needs.

But change was coming for the American Farm. One of the critical scenes in Power and the Land has Bill’s neighbors coming over to help cut the corn. Bill and his neighbors, sitting around the water pump, talk things over in the “country way.” The power companies, the film’s narrator intones, “say it costs too much, say a lot of things.” “The power company won’t do it,” the narrator continues, “but I hear there is a new kind of power – government power. I heard there is an agency -- Rural Electrification.” Bill and his neighbors next meet in the local school house, organize a cooperative, borrow money from the REA, and bring power to their farms. In the concluding segments of the film, two REA linemen come into the kitchen as Hazel is preparing the evening meal. One of the linemen flips the new light switch on and off. As one of the linemen is explaining the dials on the stove, Bill comes in the back door and casually throws his hat over the no-longer needed kerosene lamp. He and one of the linemen admire the pies that Hazel is putting in the new electric oven.

After listening to the latest forecast on their new radio, Bill goes down in the basement to check on the new electric water pump. Thanks to this pump and an electric water heater, Bip is upstairs taking a shower in the new bathroom. Bill himself goes up to wash his hands in the new sink. In the meantime, Ruth, having put ice cube trays in the new refrigerator, now starts ironing with the new electric irons. As the film ends, it is dark outside. Bill, returning to the house after coming in the barn, stops momentarily on the back porch and turns the switch off and on. As he glances back toward the barn, there appears to be a glint of satisfaction in his eyes. Bill then walks into the now well-lit kitchen where his family is sitting down for an evening meal -- prepared with the latest electrical appliances. As he surveys the family scene, he and Hazel give each other a sly smile. They know that life will now be better on the Parkinson farm!

© 2005 Ephraim K. Smith

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