Open Wire in Movies, Books and American Culture
A 10-pin line, a truck and two linemen “co-star” in “It Came From Outer Space (1953).”
“Heaven’s Gate” 1980, 2013, United Artists
Perhaps one of the most famous praise-worthy and infamously audacious attempts at high authenticity motion picture making was summed up by the most expensive film (up to that time) in Hollywood history, Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980). Steven Bach’s great 1999 book, Final Cut: Art, Money & Ego in the Making of Heaven’s Gate, the Film that Sank United Artists, told the tortured story of how this “unqualified disaster” made it to the screen. He should have known, as Bach was a key figure in promulgating the progress of the film from lengthy delays to aggregious and continuing cost overruns. Attempts at reinvigorating the movie in 2012-2013 with further edits and additions, may have redeemed the director and the actors to a modest degree, but most summed up the movie as Vincent Canby reviewed, “. . . It fails so completely that you might expect Mr. Cimino sold his soul to the devil to obtain the success of “The Deer Hunter,” and the Devil has just come around to collect.” I would invite the reader to investigate the reviews further and to obtain the great book by Steven Bach about this $200,000.00 per day filming misadventure.
But, let’s get back to open wire. Glacier National Park’s neighboring area near Kalispell and Wallace, Idaho were two major sites used for the movie. Here, is where citing Cimino’s grand desire for authenticity builds a case for what . . . could . . . have been a GREAT movie.
For example, attention to detail required an entire street to be erected to the period and then when it “didn’t look right,” Cimino had it completely torn down because it should have been “six feet wider.” Another critical eye of Cimino dictated that hours would be wasted on the production crew and cast because “a cloud he liked had to roll into the frame.”
When reading the Bach commentary, special notation was made to the authenticity of the communications wires and poles of the period and that extensive research was required as to how the crossarms were affixed to the open wire lines and style of the structures placed down the streets. The photo below illustrates these “made for movie” open wire structures. Pretty amazing, huh? Get the book. You’ll learn a lot about how . . . not . . . to make a movie! See the “authentic” open wire below:
It Came From Outer Space” (1953)
One lineman reveals to another how the desert can be so deceptive…
“You can see lakes and rivers that aren’t there and sometimes you think the wind gets into the wires and sings to itself.”
For those of you in telecommunications or have an interest in aerial wire who have not seen this 1953 classic science fiction film, “It Came From Outer Space,” prepare to be surprised. Open wire is featured in this film and is shot quite magnificently, revealing many lengthy, detailed views from the top of a cherry picker truck ladder. The wires are not “frogged” by the lineman when using the test phone and it is apparent considerable care was taken in scrutinizing each movie frame when aerial wire was a part of a scene.
This is a still photo of two actors portraying characters in the film. Note the type of insulators used on this particular lead in the California southwest desert country. Source of photo unknown.
There are two telephone linemen (one of whom is a young Russell Johnson, who later played “The Professor” on Gilligan’s Island) working for a fictional independent telephone company, Sand Rock Telephone. The amateur astronomer, John Putnam, played by Richard Carlson, and his wife, Ellen Fields, well played by a then, acting newcomer, Barbara Rush, respond to the scene of an alien spacecraft crash in the desert.
Detailed images of the crossarms, insulators, ties, pins, braces and pole tops are stunningly detailed. Each view is magnificently detailed, capturing intricacy of the gains on the pole, 5/8″ machine bolts, square washers and nuts. Note that the insulators are not typical DPs, Toll, Pony or Exchange insulators, but deep grove units similar to low voltage power use. There is no doubt, this was an actual existing and operating lead in the desert which was donated for use as a property in this film.
Perhaps someone in the Independent Telephone industry knows where these particular shots were filmed? Mojave desert, California, perhaps? Probably not in Arizona, as is supposedly depicted in the film. Most likely, this aerial lead has been “wrecked out” by now. Maybe you–with a detailed memory–can provide some insight here?
During the first portion of the film, the couple seek to identify the “meteor” or whatever has lit up the night sky and which has caused a resounding shudder in the desert. Once found, John summons his friend, Pete to enlist his helicopter to inspect the suspected crash site. After landing the helicopter, John climbs down into the hole only to experience a horrifying sight: an alien space creature inside a craft which has sustained damage during its re-entry into the atmosphere.
While the amateur astonomer pleads for the townspeople to believe him and the possible threat this device and its passenger potentially poses, few accept his story. Since the sides of the pit have collapsed in so much rock and sand and he has been the only visitor to the craft, no one can comprehend his eyewitness account.
It takes some diligent investigating with his local school teacher friend to find out why some people in town have begun to act a little . . . strange lately . . . and whether these activities might have something to do with that crash out in the desert.
Funny noises along an open wire pair awake telephone professionals to a problem but only John Putnam views it as a significant threat and possibly connected to that strange crash and explosion. Soon, the telephone linemen upon inspecting the lead, locate the source of the problem: George happens upon a “creature” with an alien agenda. The creature soon assumes his body with a possible untoward and unknown purpose. Shortly thereafter . . . people in town begin to act . . . a little weird.
The story writer of this particular movie was Ray Bradbury (his first movie writing foray) with Harry Essex having written the film’s captivating screen play.
The film was released in May 1953 by Universal and filmed on the backlot of the studios, costing a little under a million dollars. While Henry Mancini’s musical contributions to the movie were never publicly credited, his talent was one of three musical contributors to this film’s eerie and otherwise orchestrial sound track.
A young Steven Spielberg had been emotionally driven to see the movie six times during his youth. Interestingly enough, with those indelible memories close at heart, featuring a lineman in his Close Encounters of the Third Kind(1977), was built on his movie memories of this earlier movie with linemen.
Critical reviews for this sci-fi adventure have softened over the years as this film ages. Ray Bradbury’s tale has revealed itself to be more of a testimony to the cold war and and seen more as a psychological thriller, rather than a “fear mongering” creature feature.
“The Wizard of Oz” (1939) First Technicolor Motion Picture
The 1939 classic, Wizard of Oz with Judy Garland was a first full-scale test of the Technicolor System for motion pictures, prior to its use in Gone With The Wind, the same year.
The movie is divided into a monochrome (sepia) introduction process when we are introduced to Dorothy and her farm life out on the Kansas plains. After her whirlwind trip into the Land of Oz, the bland sepia images disapate and her color adventure begins as she seeks the “Great and Glorious Wizard” in the Emerald City.
Look carefully and you will observe an icon of nearly all farmsteads of the late 19th and mid-20th Century: the open wire wooden bracket lead which parallels the lane to her farm. It too, is photographed as a part of a mundane, monotonous and minimalist lifestyle prior to the tornado’s devestation. The magneto party line phone in the house is shown very briefly and it, too, was an important, but subtle element in the movie.
While the line is only shown a few times, you will note that it is spaced incorrectly–more symbolically placed–and appears as though the poles were simply toothpicks jabbed into the landscape at varying angles and dimensions.
The movie is just not the Wizard of Oz without this ubiquitous telecommunications feature of Dorthy’s landscape and we salute its feature in the film.
“U. S. 40 A Cross Section of the United States of America” by George R. Stewart (1953)
George Rippey Stewart (1895-1980) was a historian, founding member of the American Name Society and most importantly, an English Professor at the University of California-Berkeley.
With considerable intellectual renoun, Stewart indelibly touched many disciplines with his fine writing and photographic talents. His award-winning book, Earth Abides, was a science fiction treatment, copyright 1949, later which became the inspiration for Stephen King. His historical contributions included an authoritative work, Pickett’s Charge, published in 1959, and was regarded as a milestone historical narrative.
However . . . for our website’s particular review, we draw your attention to a book-length travelogue written by George Stewart, entitled, U. S. 40 Cross Section of the United States of America, published in 1953 (and reprinted in 1973).
“‘Ladies and gentlemen!’—to borrow a formula from the conductor of the sightseeing tour–“You are now about to pass along U. S. 40,” Professor Stewart announces at the start of his geographic itinerary. He continues,”This is a book about that road–in part a history of how it has come to be what it is now is, but more a presentation, with the aid of photographs, of its existing reality.”
The critical value of this book and other complimentary texts following-up his original journey decades later, is in his photography. And, beyond that evidentiary highlight of his trips cross country, is his fascination with “magnificent pole lines” as they once were partners of many major two lane U. S. highways.
We suggest reviewing a copy of the original 1953 volume (originally issued through Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston) or as a reprint (which can be ordered from Greenwood Press, ISBN: 0-8371-6655-1 for around $45.00). The Greenwood Press reprint is just that: nearly a photocopy of the original volume. Many of the photos are not reproduced with clarity and original negatives were not apparently made available to the reprinted volume. $45.00 is far too much to pay for the poor image quality in the reprint, but a companion volume which we note later in this review, makes up for this limitation. Despite this, a Stewart’s complete unabridged commentary and beautiful black & white maps drawn by illustrator Erwin Raisz, reproduced in whole, swiftly announce to any reader this trip along U. S. 40 will not be a purely academic endeavor. What a beautiful geographic carpet is weaved the writing and photos in this book.
To give you a little taste of how valuable this little book can be for those of us with the pole hugger temperament, let me mention a few points he made in the original (and reprinted volume) work about open wire telephone lines.
Entitled, “Farmhouse,” on Pages 44-45, his observation talents could only be matched by Truman Capote’s observational abilities, where Stewart notes both a local two ten pin telephone line “with ten wires” and and a push-braced power distribution line.
At “Ellicott City,” Stewart mentions “cluttering of streets with poles and wires” following the winding streets of an original 1774-founded Maryland village, on page 73.
While attacking the frequency by which he encountered advertising billboards along U. S. 40, he welcomes pole lines–and that is one very convincing and touching standard by which we can view his book with considerable respect. He even mentions on Page 79, “Pole-lines and wires may be accepted, like fences, as part of the basic American landscape. They do their work without striving to be conspicuous, and often their not-ungraceful curves add a touch of interest, an intricacy of pattern, even some beauty. . . . But the billboards blast themselves into the viewer’s consciousness.” –And this was a full ten years before Lady Bird Johnson’s crusade to improve the byways of America wth the elimination of advertising billboards!
By the time the reader steps onto the Great Plains at “Hayfield,” pages 170-171, Stewart mentions how pole lines and highways have different purposes, but serve the public interest in the same easement. Between Lawrence and Topeka, Kansas, the photo clearly portrays a five ten-pin armed toll lead with two aerial cables. Stewart takes note.
Railroad open wire isn’t ignored either, as he takes the Union Pacific to task for “the nearest line of poles . . . is not a first-class line, as can be seen by the leaning poles and by the fact that several of them have been stubbed,” at “Kansas Corn,” the chapter portrayed on pages 174-5.
By the time Stewart’s mid-day driving enters the early afternoon, he reaches the Smoky Hills region, west of Salina, Kansas. Here the old style U. S. 40 concrete, with its old-style 30-degree slanted curbs and poured cement segments, recall an earlier time when Stewart was merely a child. Here, Stewart not only paints a vivid plains picture, he nearly bursts into song when inspired by what he describes as the “magnificent pole line.” He playfully dotes on the use of transpositioning for a full paragraph to the reader.
By entering the Rocky Mountain portion of his journey, Stewart has much to describe about the landscape and the highway. Never without the human touch, he encounters a “Sheepherder” on pages 218-9, and describes how the setting also largely describes the man he encountered with his team of animals. Slightly behind the times, the house, highway and fencing is recounted by Stewart–who also includes the telephone line’s enduring presence as being “far from . . . truly up-to-date.”
On pages 262-263, the author visits a rather scattered collection of buildings, sheds, corrals and barns on U. S. 40 at a overly officious definition of a town in Nevada: Imlay. Here, Stewart pays his greatest homage and respect to this last surviving portion of the 1929-placed central transcontinental open wire line. 40 wires. W-8 arms and 6-inch break-iron point transpositions on every other pole as it recedes into the Humboldt Mountains and the Great Basin. “Here,” Stewart mentions, “we have the old transcontinental lead in all its magnificence.”
Indeed, my visits and photographic records of the Nevada portion of the old Central Transcontinental were directly the result of the book’s companion volume, U. S. 40 Today, as described below. Our public library ordered a copy which was placed on the “new books” display and it was only by fate that I plucked a copy and leafed through it. I was stunned by the photos–virtually unchanged (as there was only a different single span pictured from the original Stewart photo to the revisited location)–of the Imlay, Nevada portion.
I immediately contacted Nevada Bell whose Outside Plant Transmission Engineer informed me that, “I’d better be quick, as these lines were currently being line-wrecked,” in February 1989. Promptly arranging a scheduled fly-out to Reno, and thereby renting a car, Nevada Bell courteously afforded me a last glimpse at this “magnificent pole line.” To be fortuitously be present in order to document the destruction and some preservation, on my part, of the original TC before it bit the dust, could never have happened had the Vale’s U. S. 40 “refresher” volume on Stewart’s original work had not emerged. I am eternally grateful to Thomas and Geraldine Vale for having placed this valuable U. S. 40 treatment in my hands so this monumental line’s destruction wouldn’t have been in vain.
There is much more which could be said about Stewart and about this particular book. We invite you to obtain a copy. Additionally, you might also consider obtaining a companion volume: U. S. 40 Today: Thirty Years of Landscape Change in America,” by Thomas R. Vale & Geraldine R. Vale (ISBN: 0-299-09480-4; Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983).
While a significant flaw in this newer volume is the inability to entirely match all George R. Stewart original photos (1953), this husband-wife Vale team does considerable literary and photographic justice by honoring 73 of Stewart’s original U. S. 40 sites. The authors revisit many of Stewart’s old haunts. Yet, it is an exciting book. The coverage is most dramatic when the reader encounters settings with comparably little change from one page, and then turns to the next stop–where, in several cases–catastrophic negative change has overtaken formerly bucolic or historically romantic sites. The Vales were sorely disappointed in the outcome of many formerly beautiful or historical sites through the changes of 30 years. Yet, there was improvement, too, and those changes filter through the quality writing of this book.
The photos used in Vales’ work were likely sourced from original negatives. These certainly reprieve the quality lost in the reprint editio of Stewart’s work. Naturally, if you can obtain the original volume of Stewart’s U. S. 40, for reasonable cost, then you will surely not be disappointed.