- Meeting the Movie QueenAn Itinerant Film Anchored in Place
Helen Burns of Bailey’s Mistake, Maine, signed a Northeast Historic Film deed of gift in 1989 giving the archives the physical film and all rights to Movie Queen, Lubec (1936), a silent 16mm black-and-white film shot by itinerant filmmaker Margaret Cram. Burns worked in the town of Lubec (pop. 1,500), about 200 miles northeast of Portland, Maine, and two hours from Northeast Historic Film (NHF), the independent moving image archives I helped create in 1986. The deed of gift formalized our agreement to safeguard the original film. Burns and others in the Lubec area had a series of interactions with NHF that included two public screenings of the newly restored film and oral history sessions gathering information about the making of the film and its reception in the 1930s. The project, which began in 1989 and continues today, is integral to NHF’s mission to gather dispersed works into a critical mass, provide opportunities for interaction, and thereby build recognition for previously unknown moving images. In this narrative, I would like to make the case, through an account of activities around films made by an itinerant filmmaker, for the importance of attaching place-based context to original media documents. By layering firsthand production and reception testimonies, documentary research, physical preservation, public presentations, and discussion of accreted meanings, we can enrich our understanding of nonmainstream films as significant cultural records.
Movie Queen, Lubec, like other Movie Queen films that subsequently came to NHF, consists of the arrival of a local girl “returning from Hollywood,” a parade through town, a tour of businesses during which the star is presented with various goods, and finally, an attempted kidnapping and comic heroic rescue. The film is rough: shots are often short and the editing is rudimentary.1 The formula—parade, advertising, and gangster plot—is repeated in the nine surviving Movie Queen films.
We believe that these Movie Queen films were the promotional element of a touring production scheme established by a Boston-based business called the Amateur Theatre Guild, with a revenue model based on remittances from tickets sold by young female traveling directors supervising talent in one small town after another. The director arrived on location to form committees, line up sponsors and advertising, select and train singers and dancers, distribute publicity materials, shoot and edit a film, direct a live show, and collect revenues— aiming for close to universal attendance. Over two or three weeks of work, she reported to the home office of the Amateur Theatre Guild on Boylston Street in Boston. Lauren Kenyon Woods was the guild’s proprietor, dispatching young women to direct stage productions he wrote, one called The Circus, which did not have a film component, and the other Movie Queen, A Musical Comedy in Three Acts, which survives as both the films and a set of documents, including detailed instructions on how to run the production: a sixteen-page “Movie Queen” Daily Procedure and Film Data for Movie Queen Directors.2 The latter indicates that Woods intended the film, like the parade, to build ticket sales for the performance; he states on the first of three pink sheets of paper in Film Data, “with ‘Movie Queen’ your primary drawing power is in the film.”3
Itinerant cinema’s relation to local movie houses, to live theater, and to touring theatrical companies will be further revealed as researchers [End Page 80] uncover more information on the corps of traveling directors launched by businesses such as Lauren Kenyon Woods’s Amateur Theatre Guild. All the Amateur Theatre Guild directors discovered so far have been women.4 Movie Queen, Lubec’s director, Margaret Cram, has so far eluded us. In 1989, a column in the Boston Globe printed our query, including a description of Margaret Cram from the memory of the Lubec movie hero: “She was a young lady when she came to town, fairly attractive and well-proportioned. She seemed to know what she was doing. She was very good at getting us on the ball.”5 No leads resulted from the article. John M. R. Bruner of Groton, Massachusetts...