In 2018, taking a selfie or filming yourself for social media is as banal as brushing your teeth.
Eighty years ago, however, seeing yourself on film was a rare treat — so much so that, in the years before home movies became a regular part of American life, a small cottage industry for itinerant filmmakers sprang up in small towns nationwide.
In the late 1930s, towns all over Maine signed up to be part of a “movie queen” film: a scripted half-hour movie directed by a traveling filmmaker that showcased the town’s businesses, landmarks and people. Think of it as a sort of Facebook Live for 1930s small-town Maine.
A number of those movie queen films survive — mostly in the vaults at Northeast Historic Film, a Bucksport-based organization that collects and preserves film from 1896 to the present.
Karin Carlson-Snider, the vault manager at NHF, said the films were the work of a production company out of Boston, the Amateur Film Company, that sent a filmmaker to towns all over New England, with a basic script and a pitch to the town.
“They’d show up in a town, and they’d go around to businesses and get them to be in the film, and they’d pick the movie queen — which was a teenage girl or a little older, who would be the heroine of the movie,” said Carlson-Snider.
There are quite a few surviving films. Northeast Historic Film holds a number of movie queens, including Bar Harbor, Ellsworth, Lincoln, Lubec, Newport and Van Buren. Other films exist in other collections and libraries, including Bath and Belfast, as well as films from towns in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Interestingly, most of the films were shot by female filmmakers, including Margaret Cram, who shot films including Belfast, Lincoln and Lubec.
The plot varied little from town to town. The movie queen returns to her hometown from her glamorous life in Hollywood, and is greeted by a rapturous welcome by the townsfolk. She visits various local businesses: the barber, the grocer, clothing stores, mechanics and so on. Then the movie queen is “kidnapped” by a group of bandits — a bunch of men in the town dressed up like bad guys, hamming it up for the camera — and eventually rescued by a hero.
The movies generally run about 30 minutes. After the film was shot in town, the footage was sent to Boston to be edited, and then brought back up to the town to be shown at the movie theater. In the Lincoln movie, you can actually see a poster in one of the shop windows of the screening, set for the town’s Oddfellows Hall in late August.
The movie queens were part of a larger genre of “see yourself” films, prevalent all over the country at that time. Though it’s not known exactly how the filmmaker got all the businesses in town involved in the film, as almost no information remains about the actual creation of the films, NHF and other film archives speculate that merchants paid a small fee to be featured in the movie. Essentially, it was an early form of product placement.
“We don’t know exactly how it worked, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the filmmaker came to town and went around to businesses and just tried to see who would bite in terms of signing up to do it,” Carlson-Snider said.
Carlson-Snider said that unlike home movies, the movie queen films offer 21st century viewers a more comprehensive look at what the town looked like nearly 100 years ago, with higher production value than a home-shot 16-millimeter movie. Though many things have changed, some things remain the same. In Bar Harbor, Sherman’s is still there, as is Testa’s Restaurant, while in Lincoln, Gateway Motors is now known as Cole-Whitney Ford.
“You get to see so much more. It’s a pretty amazing snapshot of life in the ’30s, before World War II, in the Depression, in these towns,” she said. “And what’s neat is that I know when NHF started playing these for people when they first found them, there were people that remembered them being shot. The woman who played the movie queen in Lubec was still around.”
NHF shot its own version of a movie queen back in 2000, in its hometown of Bucksport; “Bucksport Movie Queen 2000” will be shown at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 19, at the Alamo Theatre. For more information, visit oldfilm.org.
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