The Catholic University of America

Feb. 26, 2015

Professor’s Research: Movies of Local People

  Assistant Professor Martin Johnson 

A simple typewritten flier — part of a black-and-white film — announces Movies of Local People. As the film unfolds, people start to appear — men dressed in overalls and suits and a woman wearing a hat with a feather and walking a small white dog. Some are shy and reserved; others crack up for the camera.

The 16-mm, silent film of an African American community in Chapel Hill, N.C., was shot April 16 and 17, 1941, and played at the local Hollywood Theatre. Created by itinerant filmmaker H. Lee Waters, the 10-minute piece captures ordinary moments in private lives that were not found in Hollywood movies of the time, notes Martin Johnson, assistant professor of media studies.

With the help of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), Johnson is writing a book about the work of Waters and other filmmakers whose movies were created to draw people into small-town theaters. These local films first started appearing in the early 1900s, when exhibitors used them to draw crowds to “see themselves in the movies,” says Johnson.

Johnson notes that the films are, in some ways, similar to the selfies, Vimeo, and Vines that are so popular in today’s social media. The work of itinerant filmmakers “is simultaneously very particular to a certain community but also part of a collective practice. We see this today in social media. There’s an individual dynamic, but also a collective uniformity.”

Until recently, film experts assumed that the work of itinerant filmmakers died out as Hollywood narrative fiction movies became more popular. But, Johnson’s research reveals that the filmmakers continued to create movies and began to incorporate fictional narrative, documentary practices, and industrial and advertising film aesthetics into their work.

“The extension of such practice into [the] post-WWII period, and into the age of classical narrative, is largely uncharted territory in American film history, and this in itself lends this particular project some significance,” noted an NEH panelist who described Johnson’s proposal as “strong, compelling.”

  Filmmaker H. Lee Waters

Another panelist said, “[Johnson’s] references do an excellent job of situating the impact of the study in terms of ways it would expand the study of the role of American film beyond the confines of narrative Hollywood cinema.”

In his book, Johnson plans to analyze a range of films — from those by Waters, who supplemented his family’s income by filming communities in North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, and South Carolina; to the Movie Queen, a film series directed by women from New England in the 1930s; to Shad Graham’s Our Home Town series, which used the same soundtrack in every town to describe institutions and organizations that they had in common.

Born in 1902 in Caroleen, N.C., Waters helped to run the projector at a local theater as a teenager. In 1926 he bought a studio in Lexington, N.C., got married, and engaged in commercial studio photography. During the Depression, most people couldn’t afford a studio portrait, but they could pay the price of a movie ticket — about 25 cents.

Johnson notes that local films were frequently made in communities where ordinary people didn’t have the money to take their own home movies.

Between 1936 and 1942, Waters produced 252 films across 118 communities and collaborated with local theaters to screen his films, which he called Movies of Local People and advertised with the phrase “See yourself in the movies!” In 2004 the Library of Congress listed Waters’s film of Kannapolis, N.C., on the National Film Registry.

“We’re a visual society and that works somewhat well when looking at the current moment, but when we look to the past we don’t necessarily have documentation of private lives — the personal experience,” he says. “These films provide that.”

“One value of a project like this is that it makes people aware we can look to other types of film, whether it’s local film, travelogues, or industrial films, find documentation of the past, and make it part of our media present.” Johnson said he hopes that the book will become a resource for historical societies in small towns that have their own old films.



More news from CUA