The 1932 Carole Lombard film "No More Orchids" (also featuring Louise Closser Hale and Lyle Talbot, above), was still making the rounds of theaters in early 1933, often in the lower half of double bills. But that February in Middlesboro, Ky., it played second fiddle to this:
I noted "Middlesboro's Hero" in my "Looking back: February 1933" entry a few months back, thinking it to be some sort of local curio -- and, in a way, it was. But I've since learned this was an example of a practice known as "itinerant filmmaking," something that's largely slipped through the cracks of movie history.
Looking at a fine site, http://www.mikeclinesthenplaying.com, which gives extensive information on films and theaters in Salisbury and Rowan County, N.C., from 1920 to 1979, I discovered a "Salisbury's Hero" film had been made in town in 1925. Further research showed that dozens of such "(Town)'s Hero" movies, all two-reelers, had been made.
All were the work of one man, director Don Newland:
Newland'a background, at least where filmmaking is concerned, is a bit sketchy. We know he was born in Battle Creek, Mich., in 1896, and served five months in the Army in World War I (though it's uncertain whether he went overseas). Publicity for his "Hero" films stated he had directed for Mack Sennett and producing one-reelers for Mary Pickford and early silent comedian John Bunny. However, Newland has no listing at all at the Internet Movie Database, and Bunny died in 1915, while Newland was still in his teens.
From that, it might seem as if Newland was a charlatan Prof. Harold Hill type, heading to small towns to bilk folks out of their money. But apparently his work was on the level, because I can find no accusations of scams or other unsavory behavior.
In the early 1920s, Newland began his "Hero" films, silent two-reelers (he shifted to sound by the end of the decade). All used more or less the same script. The process worked like this: He would work in conjunction with a local newspaper to promote the film (perhaps getting some financial backing as well); the paper ran stories and even a contest to find a local leading lady (all the roles were played by townspeople).
The most popular scene was invariably a head-on "collision" between two cars (furnished by a local dealer, which of course received publicity). But no vehicles were actually damaged in the filmmaking process; as Cline noted about the Salisbury shoot, the cars had "their front bumpers touching each other. As the camera started rolling, a smoke bomb would be set off underneath the cars, which would then back away from each other. Later, when the film was shown in reverse, it looked as though the cars were moving toward each other and the smoky, head-on smashup." A little Hollywood-style camera trickery, often done in the middle of town where the home folks could watch (more promotion!).
Filming took a few days, after which Newland sent the reels to a New York lab to be developed. A week or so later, it would premiere at a local theater, usually before a huge crowd looking forward to seeing their neighbors -- perhaps themselves -- on screen. Newland made a little money, while the sponsoring newspaper (which usually kept the lone copy of the film) got some good PR. Records show Newland made such films throughout the East and Midwest.
Many of these movies have been lost, and since the film stock was nitrate, many of the others have since disintegrated. According to Wikipedia, only three "Hero" movies are known to still exist -- a silent made in Janesville, Wis., in 1926, and sound two-reelers shot in Huntingdon and Tyrone, Pa., in May and June 1934.
Newland -- who died in a Florida auto accident in 1951 -- may be the best-known itinerant filmmaker, but he wasn't the only one. Many visited small towns and made residents "stars" in locally-made productions. One was called "A (Town) Romance," which would get backing from local businesses whose stores would be shown on screen. (Parts of one such film, set in Little Falls, N.Y., reportedly survive.)
Such films enabled moviegoers to live out their fantasy of being thrust onto the other side of the screen, a la "The Purple Rose Of Cairo":
This week's LiveJournal header shows Carole, Gary Cooper and Shirley Temple near a French railway station in 1934's "Now And Forever."