This week we’d like to direct your attention to a captivating set of movies: Duke University’s H. Lee Waters Film Collection, which consists of 92 town portraits available for online viewing.
Between 1936 and 1942 itinerant filmmaker H. Lee Waters (1902-97) filmed more than 118 small communities in the Carolinas, Virginia, and Tennessee for his series Movies of Local People. By collaborating with local movie theaters to screen his films, he allowed everyday people to see themselves on the big screen. One of the highlights of the 252-film series, Kannapolis (1940–41), was placed on the National Film Registry in 2004.
These invaluable documentaries sprang from a canny commercial sense. As Waters explained, “with the Depression and hard times, people couldn’t justify spending much money, but to be able to see themselves on the same screen with a movie star was irresistible.”
Upon entering a town, Waters usually negotiated with a local theater manager to show his film—often as a special attraction before the main Hollywood feature—and receive a cut of the box office. Two weeks after filming, Waters returned to screen the edited footage, drumming up attendance by placing newspaper ads that proclaimed “See Yourself in the Movies,” giving out buttons that read “I’m in the Movies,” and driving through town in his Oldsmobile to announce screenings over a loudspeaker.
Waters increased his earnings by shooting footage of local businesses and incorporating them in his films. He also knew it was good business to film as many people as possible, since those he filmed were likely to show up at screenings. Children were an especially prized subject, since parents eagerly paid to watch them. His comprehensive camera crossed racial lines and extensively documented the African-American residents of the communities he visited.
Many of the townsfolk filmed by Waters were appearing before a moving picture camera for the first time, and their unaffected reactions give his films a charm that is hard to find in an era of reality TV, phone cameras, and YouTube.
After his retirement from itinerant filmmaking, Waters began selling prints of his films to the communities they depicted. Over the ensuing decades Duke collected these films from various towns, libraries, and historical societies. The prints were in varying shape, and since they had outlived their commercial value, outside assistance was required for their preservation.
That’s where we came in. NFPF grants supported the preservation of 30 films from Duke’s collection, including all three reels of Kannapolis. We’re proud to have played a part in preserving these works of cultural history. Now—thanks to the collaboration between Duke Library’s Digital Projects and Production Services team and the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library—these films return to the public once again. Intended for isolated screenings in single towns, they can be accessed by anyone interested in cultural history.