The complete plot summary of Louis de Rochemont's 1951 docu--drama about an explosive wildcat strike in small town NH.
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Whistle at Eaton Falls (1951)
A young union leader is appointed president of a failing New England plastics factory just as automation threatens to cut the labor force in half. The small town of Eaton Falls, NH is trapped between tradition and progress. With 90 days to bankruptcy, it will take a lot of Yankee ingenuity to prevent the showdown between wildcat strikers and factory management.
THE WHISTLE AT EATON FALLS
The film opens with exterior shots of a Seacoast NH mill town as the narrator with a New England accent says: "More than half the people of the USA live in small towns, places no larger than ours -- Eaton Falls, New Hampshire...But you never know how tightly chained you are to a town until real trouble sets in, like that morning last fall when our whistle didn't blow."
The Granite State Shoe Company in Rockingham County has gone out of business. Local workers complain that the owners will just move to a place with cheap labor and no unions. The factory whistle is moved to the only surviving factory -- Doubleday Plastics, a converted textile mill making "fancy things" like plastic buttons, combs and toothbrush handles. A drama in real life, the narrator says, was taking place, especially for Brad Adams (Lloyd Bridges), president of the local plastic workers union.
Abner Doubleday (Donald McKee) calls his key people into a meeting to tell them the company is headed for trouble. Prices are too high. The competition is killing them. Doubleday has decided to install new semi-automatic machines that will increase production 30%. Brad and Bill Street (Ernest Borgnine) love the plan until they learn that one man must now run two machines. Brad will not agree since men will be laid off. "I can't buck the future," Mr. Doubleday says. He has invested all his personal wealth in the company, he says, but agrees not to lower wages and to hire the men back as soon as profits are up again.
"I won't let my men lose their jobs to prove a theory," Brad says.
Mr. Doubleday Dies
At a Halloween party Brad's best friend Joe London (James Westerfield) suggests that workers may be able to reduce factory costs internally with labor saving methods. In another room, young would-be-ideaman Eddie Talbot (Carlton Carpenter) is wooing Joe's teenage daughter Jean (Anne Frances). He'll come up with an idea to make the company profitable, he vows.
Back at the plant Brad reveals to Joe that the company's biggest customer is not renewing its contract. At the local bar, workers debate the value of unions and gripe about old rich Mr. Doubleday. Hard edged Al Webster (Murray Hamilton) worker shows a scar he got in a real labor battle and accuses Brad of being too soft to stand up for the worker's union. "Fight or you don't eat," Al says. His friends suggest running Al against Brad in the upcoming union election.
In a twist of fate, Mr. Doubleday is killed in a car crash just as the new automated machines arrive. "Starvation Annies" the men call them. Production manager Dwight Hawkins (Russell Hardie) tells Joe to operate the new machine. Joe refuses. Hawkins fires him and the entire work force, led by Al, angrily walks out. Brad arrives, and gets the men to return to work.
"What are we, a sewing circle?" Al shouts climbing onto a parked car.
"Don't be such a hothead!" Brad shouts back and convinces the men to return to work.
Hawkins won't hire Joe back. He tells Brad the walkout was a contract violation "OK, you want a fight, Mr. Hawkins," Brad says. "You'll get it!" Hawkins threatens to sell the plant, close it down, and re-open.
Brad Swaps Sides
The widowed Helen Doubleday (Dorothy Gish) is urged by her lawyer to sell the plant. Outside buyers aren't interested in Eaton Falls, she says, but she is. Mrs. Doubleday stuns the town by offering the vacant company presidency, not to Dwight Hawkins, but to Brad Adams.
"How can I switch sides?" Brad asks her. "It may look as if I sold out!"
Brad's wife Ruth (Diana Douglas) is ecstatic about the new appointment. His friends in Local #145 love it too. There is joy in Eaton Falls.
Dressed in a suit instead of his leather jacket and flannel shirt, Brad moves into the president's office. His old friend Bill has replaced him as union chief, but angry Al confronts Brad and calls him a "traitor." Hawkins calls Brad "a patsy" and a "union boy," then quits. Proactive Brad heads out of town to personally win back their top customer.
You Can't Buck the Future
But the Gibbs Company won't buy and the bank needs a chunk of the $150,000 loan repaid in 90 days or Brad is out of a job. Brad races the clock on a Navy contract for plastic buttons, but even his lowball desperation bid is too high. Hard economic reality is settling in.
Arriving home, Brad is despondent, but Ruth insists that he attend the Granite State benefit "barn dance." Eddie and Jean perform a torch song, then make out in the moonlight. Brad slips out during a square dance and returns to his empty office to wrestle with his soul.
The handwriting is on the wall. You can't buck the future. Brad is forced to lay off, not just a few men, but everyone. Disgruntled workers struggle to make ends meet with meager unemployment checks. Eaton Falls has begun to curse the name of Brad Adams.
High Tech to the Rescue
Idea-man Eddie's crackpot inventions give Brad an idea. By building an automatic cutter into the machine mold, he can eliminate the trimming phase. By cutting that cost and using the new machines, he may be able to open the factory again soon. Ike, Eddie, Brad and others work through the night on the secret project, but come dawn the high-tech idea is still full of bugs. "We're in a race with the devil," one worker says. "If folks don't start drawing wages soon, Old Lucifer is going to take over this town."
The rest of the automated machines have finally arrived and Brad wants to put half the town back to work, but the union refuses with their slogan "One man, one machine." Even his old friend Bill accuses him of trying to break the union. Miraculously, the engineering team has de-bugged the problem. The automated cutter works and Brad weeps for joy at this labor/management success. He offers the men any reward they can name.
"I'll settle for a trip to Portsmouth and a lobster dinner," an old Yankee responds.
But Doubleday Plastics isn't out of the woods yet. They need customers badly. Brad sends his only salesman in search of a giant order for a brand new product -- television selector knobs. But the customer has just hired Brad's nemesis Dwight Hawkins. Dwight hatches a plan to buy out Doubleday Plastics. Soon, in Eaton Falls, Dwight uses his influence with Brad's bookkeeper Miss Russell (Helen Shields) to make a $400,000 offer to the owner. But Mrs. Doubleday turns down the offer; she has "complete confidence" in Brad. Too bad Brad doesn't share her feelings.
Brad's troubles are mounting. Ruth has hired a contractor to build their new home. Meanwhile, Hawkins is rabble-rousing with union members who are petitioning Mrs. Doubleday to sell. Union workers begin harassing Brad in the streets, defacing his property. When Brad's old friend Joe London stops in at the Water Wheel Tavern to solicit a few votes for Brad, he is taunted and and hit on the head with a bottle. Weak and bleeding, Joe struggles toward the union meeting.
At the packed union meeting hothead Al calls Brad a "Benedict Arnold" who is using his "blood money" to build a new home while unemployed residents starve. The meeting is in a near riot when a messenger announces that Brother Joe London has fallen into the river at Eaton Falls. No further details are available. The vote is taken. The majority are in favor of returning to work. "Well, just try and make it stick!" Al shouts back.
High Noon in NH
Joe is dead. The union protesters have set up barricades outside the factory. The police are positioned. Brad calls Miss Russell into his office and confronts her with the facts -- he knows her friend Dwight Hawkins is trying to corrupt the union. His efforts have lead to Joe's death, Brad reasons. The treasurer storms out. Outside, after months on the dole, returning workers reach the barricade.
"This isn't picketing, it's wildcatting!" Bill shouts. "They're a bunch of goons trying to wreck their own union." The first car crashes through the line. Brad calls the National Company and orders the president to call off the dirty tricks campaign by Dwight Hawkins. Doubleday is not for sale at any price, Brad shouts. If Doubleday won't sell, says the client, then his company will place an order -- six million TV knobs. Brad explodes with joy just as the workers crash through the barriers and flood noisily up the stairs.
Brad silences the crowd, then announces there will be work all around the clock. Doubleday Plastics is alive again and moving to three shifts!
As the union goons slink off, the narrator wraps up saying, "Well, that's what happened in our town, and its happened in a lot of other towns too. With us here in Eaton Falls, thank the Good Lord, it turned out just fine."
By J. Dennis Robinson
Related SeacoastNH.com Links:
To track the career of each member of the cast go to the Internet Movie Datbase which lists "Whistle at Eaton Falls."
© 1997 SeacoastNH.com
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