The Inheritance (1964) was produced and directed by Harold Mayer and commissioned by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. The documentary film shows what life was really like for immigrants and working Americans from the turn of the century on. Their struggle to put down roots, form labor unions, survive wars, and demand their rights ultimately created a new and better life for themselves and our nation.
This is a film that unabashedly celebrates working people, primarily through recounting the experiences of immigrants determined to escape lives of darkness, dampness and dirt. The story begins around the turn of the century as masses of people flowed through the funnel of Ellis Island. They found considerably less than the streets paved with gold that they had been anticipating, but their resolve to learn, study and pay attention was formidable.
The film recounts the horrors of pittance wages and child labor. Before World War I, when the poverty level for a family of four was $900 a year, the average worker was making $400. Movements to organize the workers were inevitable. Unions in this country date back to the banding together of Philadelphia printers in the days before the Presidency of George Washington.
The Inheritance was a first prize winner at festivals around the world. The London Financial Times wrote: “It must become one of the films of our time. Anyone who failed to be moved by it is spiritually dead.” The NY Times: “Memorable—with shattering pictorial effects.”
The Inheritance explores a landscape largely unknown to the present generation—the dim sweatshops, coal mines and textile mills filled with children; the anxious years of the depression and labor’s bloody struggle for the right to organize, including the seldom seen newsreel footage of the massacre at the Republic Steel strike in Chicago.
The innovative use of still photos and rare stock footage broke new ground that influenced film making for years to come. Dialogued stills and footage feature the voices of many great actors. Music sung by Pete Seeger, Tom Paxton and others are a joy to hear. A young Judy Collins sings the original theme song whose chorus goes:
“Freedom doesn’t come like a bird on the wing,
Doesn’t come down like the summer rain,
Freedom, Freedom, is a hard won thing
And every generation has to win it again.”