Tom Whiteside

Duke University

"Up for Adoption?

The Adaptability of H. Lee Waters’ Movies of Local People"

September 30, 1999

Orphans I at the University of South Carolina



In 1985 I was working as a visiting artist at Isothermal Community College in Spindale, North Carolina, and there weren’t too many people there who were even interested in what I was doing as an experimental film maker and film historian. One of them came up to me one day in the hall and said, “A local historian down in Cliffside has some very interesting footage you might be interested in.” So I went down to Cliffside, North Carolina right on the South Carolina border and watched three and a half hours of film from Cliffside, Forest City, Spindale and Rutherfordton with Philip White, a local historian there. The film really impressed me. I was very interested in this big chunk of footage that I was watching. I asked him, “So who made this?” and he said that it was H. Lee Waters, who lived in Lexington, North Carolina. “But you know he is pretty old by now.” That night I called directory assistance in Lexington and ask for a phone number for H. Lee Waters and they asked if I wanted the studio or the home number. At that point he was still alive and still working in the photography studio.


There are many types of orphaned film and one that has been identified already at this conference is the “Our Town” film. But within the “Our Town” genre there are many different types. The films that I know of made by Don Perisher and Holly Smith in this region in the 1940s are quite different than the silent films that Waters made from 1936 to 1942. There are a few things I would like to point out about him as a filmmaker. First he was the most successful independent filmmaker that I have ever known. By successful I mean he remained a most independent filmmaker and he made his living at it for six years. He also left behind a very interesting and viewable body of work. As an independent filmmaker he was production, distribution and exhibition all in one person.


Over a period of six years, there are only several mistakes that NBC news made on that little broadcast. He made more than 250 shows he filmed in 119 towns, which were mostly in NC but also 19 in the uplands of South Carolina, a few in southern Virginia, and one in Eastern Tennessee. Basically a 250 mile radius from his base in Lexington, NC. He did more than 250 shows in all and in some towns where he would return over the years there is as much as six hours in one town (i.e. Roxboro, NC).


It is very interesting that he was production, distribution, and exhibition because he was very quick to point out that he was not a low filmmaker, that he was not a fly by night company, that he was a very responsible business man, and he never missed a show in six years even when he was driving 250 miles to get the show. When he came to town, he would sign a contract with a local theater manager saying that he is going to shoot film in your town and going to come back on a given date about two weeks in advance and show the film then. Then and only then would he be paid both for the commercials that appeared in his work because he would sell a commercial to a local business and also take a small percentage at the door. This was 1936 to 1942 and from looking at his records I know sometimes come away with a weekends work with $750. So he did pretty well.


Another thing that is very interesting about him as a filmmaker is over six years, 250 shows, more than 100 hours of film, his shooting ratio was one to one. Why waste film? The very first films from the summer of 1936 of which I've seen relatively few, are not very good. But, because he was showing the films in commercial cinemas and no commercial cinemas had 16mm projectors he had to go back to the town to give the show. This means that he was in the room with the audience for every single show he ever did. In turn that means he was showing a film he had done - maybe with trick photography, for example- and he saw that the audience responded well to that. He was on to the next town the next day and he incorporated that into his style. So this must be the most successful, most direct mass market research ever in film history. I don't think any other filmmakers are there at every single show accept for the travel hog people.


If you consider his background as a still photographer often times the portraits he grabbed on the sidewalk or in a schoolyard or outside of a factory are often the most interesting shots in his work. They often look like August Sander and Michael [?] I was very interested in seeing the “Looney Lens” sequences from the Movietone News because a lot of the fast motion, reverse motion, the Davidson county courthouses you ever saw, those tricks are in almost every reel once he hit his stride.


Most of these were small towns. He did film in a few larger cities like Durham, Greensboro and Winston-Salem but he often said that he much preferred smaller towns like Scotland Neck or Pittsboro because when he was in Pittsboro, everybody knew about it and he got tremendous response. If he was in Durham where there were may be eight different theaters competing he wouldn't have made much of a ripple. I think that these films are to a certain degree small town symphonies. They are not city symphonies because they didn't purport to show a day in the life of a metropolis as a big working machine. Instead, just as the city symphony genre developed in the 1920s if you look at this body of work, you can see how his small city symphony developed through the work of one filmmaker developing one particular style in the 1930s and 40s.


Home movies did not become popular until after World War II, so most people who were going to his films were going to see themselves on the screen for the first time. Once I was doing a screening in Spindale, North Carolina and we had the publicity out in the paper, I got a phone call and this gentleman said,


“Are you the one who is doing that movie program Friday night?”

“Yes I am.”

“Have you seen the film?”

“Yes I have.”

“Did you see a boy doing a swan dive off the high dive at the public pool in slow motion?”

“Yeah, I remember that shot.”

“That's me.”

“When is the last time you saw that film?”

“I saw it once in 1938.”


I was struck how for this man there was this one image, this one motion picture image that he had retained for more than fifty years and you think of the hundreds of hours of every thing else that had gone through his eyes and through his mind and through his life and it really didn't mean as much as that one shot.


Look at the orphan film metaphor - the first day or two everyone spent time setting it up and now we are spending time knocking it down. It doesn't work, because orphans grows up, you only have to take care of orphans for 18 years and then they go out on their own and there are contributing members of society. We have orphans that need more and more elder care the longer and longer they survive.


I wanted to point that out because one of the things that happens with footage like this is that people say “Oh, wow that is great. I am doing a documentary on blues, do you have any footage on blues musicians?” I know of some. I've seen about 40 hours of H. Lee Waters's Movies of Local People, this work is collected at Duke University and a few other places. We have the largest collection of it that I know of at Duke. Some of the work has been restored (we have made inner negatives from his 16mm camera reversal original), but in no way is it in good shape as an archive. There really are no guides to the collection. I spent a total of three months working on this collection at the Duke University Library of Special Collections and I've worked at Duke for twelve years but the rest of the time I've been doing administrative work and teaching the kids how to make movies. The films do have some value in that they are going to be picked up and used by other filmmakers. Films do beget films.


I’d like to show a very short clip right now. This is from The Uprising of ‘34, a film made by George Stoney, Judith Helfand and Susanne Rostock. . .  . Uprising of ‘34 is about an event of national importance that happened in the summer of 1934. H. Lee Waters started making movies in summer of 1936. He never filmed in Georgia so we have a shot of some boys from Gastonia, NC including one boy who comes in from the right of the screen with a big beefy face and kind of a toothy smile. Then we cut to video interview of Lonnie Morris in Noonin, Georgia. Now we all know how documentary films are made and we all know that they have recorded their hundreds of hours of interviews, they know the story they want to tell about textile strikes in the south in 1934 and they need to illustrate that with historical footage. Susan got a co-director credit on that film because George Stoney, who is one of our finest filmmakers who's been at it for a while, knows how to make a film. At the end though, he said by the time he'd gathered three hundred hours of footage for Uprising of ‘34, he had no idea what to do. Susan is a very experienced documentary editor. She comes in and says “You know Lonnie Morris is that big kind of beefy-faced guy and if I could just find one little beefy-faced kid…” and I am sure that is how that cut was made.


So this brings up the question of what I call “close enough”. In using documentary, in using historical footage in documentaries there has been a quantifiable degree of “close enough” which has changed over a period of time. And there was an example today as we watched a newsreel and laughed at the inadequacy of the sound effect for the forty-ton bell. And yet no one seems to notice the inadequacy of the occidental transverse flutes when the four [Indian] flute players were on the screen. There was not a murmur in the audience but that was a completely the wrong sound. It was “close enough” for us but the gong for the bell was not. I think that what is going to happen now is that a lot of film archives are going disappear, a lot of work is not going to be saved, a lot of work is not going to be reused in other documentaries. Instead of going back to archival footage and finding this little beefy faced boy you just ask Lonnie Morris if he has a photograph in school from the tenth grade and then you digitally animate that face and you get historically accurate footage for use in your new documentary.


In the post photographic age, perhaps this medium which has in a century led us to understand temporality in a new way, will also lead us away from the use of motion picture images adaptable for historic uses. I'm not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but it is certainly going to change because we are all talking about keeping photographic images unaltered as much as possible to the original state. For generations to come it will not matter. Images don't have to be made in front of a camera - they can just be made inside a computer.


Waters passed away a couple of years ago. He was a very fun man to know, and he was a very fun man to watch movies with. One of the things I was so amazed with was that every time I watched a film with him he would say, “Oh watch this part.”  From a hundred hours of film and not having seen it in 50 years, I was really amazed that someone would remember things so closely. That's all I've got right now. Thanks.