Filmmaker H. Lee Waters just wanted to earn some money and survive the Great Depression, but nearly 70 years later his films of life in small Piedmont North Carolina communities are considered historically important documents.
A Lexington, N.C., photographer, Waters started shooting motion picture film when his studio business declined.
"He followed the same script every time," said Karen Glynn, visual materials archivist in the Special Collections Library. "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. 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."
The silent films were popular enough that theater owners paid Waters a percentage of their door receipts to film their communities and then to return and show the films on the theater playbills. Waters' business ledger, a copy of which is in the Duke collection, meticulously documents each film screening, how many people attended, how many tickets were sold and at what price, and sometimes the weather and the names of the other films on the playbill.
"He did a pretty good business this way," Glynn said. "He always filmed a lot of children so that the kids and the rest of their families would buy tickets to see the children on the big screen. Sometimes, business owners paid him to film their products and their stores and edit the footage into the film. He was ahead of his time."
Waters was one of a score of "itinerant filmmakers" who traveled across the country making films for a living. Some were barely more than scams, getting money from people to perform in cheap films with the promise that a Hollywood producer would see the performance.
Film historians said Waters' work stands out among the itinerant filmmakers because so much of it survives. Scholars from a range of disciplines have used the films to portray small southern towns during the Depression and to study race relations during Jim Crow, Glynn said.
Tom Whiteside, a local film historian who helped collect many of the Waters films for Duke, said that little discoveries come from new viewings of the films.
"I was talking to an architectural historian, whom I thought would be interested in the films for showing what the buildings looked like," Whiteside said. "But the historian already knew that. One thing that caught her eye, however, was at the mill, where of course workers couldn't smoke during their shift. She noticed that as they came out, each one would strike a match against the stone entrance and light up. What the films did was show her how people actually used the buildings."
The preservation work, which will be completed in July 2004, entails the cleaning and repairing of the films, as well as the creation of a negative and a new motion picture print from the original camera film. In addition, digital broadcast quality videotapes will be made, as will be VHS videotapes, which will be available for public viewing in the Rare Book, Manuscript and Special Collections Library at Duke.
Videotape copies will also be presented to the libraries of the four communities shown in the newly preserved films.
Besides the collection at Duke, Glynn said she knows of Waters films in the North Carolina state archives and at the archives at the University of South Carolina.
"We know there are more Waters films out there. I hope that the people who have them or know where they are will contact us or another film archive and bring them in for preservation," Glynn said. "They are important historical records and they are deteriorating as we speak."