Reel History Recognized

March 31, 2005

 

Camera shy: young Kannapolis girl in film by Waters

Camera shy: young Kannapolis girl in film by Waters. 
Special Collections Library.

A 1941 movie from Duke's film archives that shows a slice of daily life in Kannapolis, North Carolina, has been added to an elite list of historically important films. The Library of Congress selected the Kannapolis movie, made by itinerant filmmaker H. Lee Waters, as one of twenty-five it would add to the National Film Registry.

Each year the Librarian of Congress names twenty-five culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant motion pictures to the registry. The list is designed to reflect America's film heritage. Other films added to the registry this year included The Nutty Professor, Eraserhead, Andy Warhol's eight-hour film Empire and the Cold War educational film Duck and Cover.

"We've long believed H. Lee Waters' films to be historic documents," says Karen Glynn, the visual-materials archivist in Duke's Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library. The library holds a number of the more than 100 films Waters made in the mid-1930s and early 1940s in small towns in the Carolinas, Virginia, and Georgia.

"He would set up the camera in at least three places: in front of the town mill, in front of the school, and along the main street crossroads," Glynn says. "And he would just film people going by, with the idea of getting as many people on film as he could, so that they would pay to see themselves on the big screen when he came back to town two weeks later to project the film in the local movie theater."

Duke has received four grants from the National Film Preservation Fund to restore and preserve the Waters films in its collection.†Glynn nominated the Kannapolis film for inclusion in the registry because she says it was one of the longest and best of his work. Waters went to the town several times between 1940 and 1941.

One of the unusual aspects of Waters' Kannapolis film was the amount of footage of the black community. Glynn says he did the initial film in August 1940 and returned a few weeks later to show the film in the town's two segregated theaters.

But, while the theaters were segregated, the film wasn't, showing a complete picture of the town. He returned to both theaters for a second showing a few weeks later and then went back to make another movie there in 1941.

"The amount of footage of the black community is what makes this particular film more interesting," she says. "He generally didn't segregate his films for the different theaters, but, in this one, he included more of the black community. The fact that he returned to the theaters is an indication of how popular it was."

Film historian and Duke employee Tom Whiteside has studied Waters' films for two decades. He says the films show a side of American cinema that deserves to be honored by the film registry. "The film registry is an eclectic list. The purpose is to show the entire spectrum of film, and it's easy to see how Waters' films would fit in there." Whiteside says Waters stands out among the so-called itinerant filmmakers who worked in the early years of cinema by making movies of local communities.†

"He would be in the theater presenting his films, so he saw what the audience reacted to, what worked, and what wouldn't," Whiteside says. "That helped him develop a particular style."