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Film In Duke Collection Named To National Film Registry

H. Lee Waters' films of small-town life in the Piedmont during the Depression cited as an historical document

Part of the Filmmaker H. Lee Waters Series

A 1941 movie from Duke University's film archives that shows a slice of daily life in Kannapolis, N.C., has been added to an elite list of historically important cinema.

The Library of Congress announced Dec. 29 that the Kannapolis film made by itinerant filmmaker H. Lee Waters was one of 25 it would add to the National Film Registry. Each year the Librarian of Congress names 25 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," said Karen Glynn, the visual materials archivist in Duke's 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 said. "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 to be included in the registry because she said 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 said 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 returned to make another movie there in 1941.

"The amount of footage of the black community is what makes this particular film more interesting," Glynn said. "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 said the films show a side of American cinema that deserves to be honored by the film registry.

"The film registry is an eclectic list," he said. "The purpose is to show the entire spectrum of film, and it's easy to see how Waters' films would fit in there."

Whiteside said Waters stands out among the so-called itinerant filmmakers who worked in the early years of cinema by making movies of local communities. 

"He has a particular style," Whiteside said. "The thing about him is he would be in the theater presenting his films. So he saw what the audience reacted to, what worked and what wouldn't. That helped him develop a particular style."

More Waters films are being found every year, Glynn said, and she hopes the registry honor will attract attention to their value. One was found this year in the Fuquay-Varina high school, she said.

However, money is needed -- around $100,000 -- to do preservation work, she said.  The library has received four grants for the films to date, but the grants have been small and have covered the costs of work on only a few films.

"There are still some films out there, and we hope this award will lead people to contact us about them," Glynn said. "The problem is many of the films are in a serious state of deterioration. They are close to 70 years old, and in some cases it is questionable whether they can be restored.

"Of course, the worse condition the films are in, the more expensive it is to restore them. A lot of these films won't survive if they have to wait in line to be restored."

The registry listing has already caused some excitement in Kannapolis. Glynn contacted the Cabarrus County Library and is scheduling a showing of the film for the local historic preservation society.