- Itinerant Filmmaking in Knoxville in the 1920sA Story Told through Unseen Movies
As film archivists, we like to brag about our latest discoveries. Occasionally, while describing the finer details of location, plot, and characters, we may have to remind ourselves that we have never actually seen the film we are talking about. The vivid moving image in our heads has often been created solely from references gleaned from newspapers, scrapbooks, and oral histories. The number of lost films, especially from the silent era, is vast; the survival rate for amateur and nonstudio system commercial films is likely far lower even than that for silent-era studio productions. Thanks to the efforts of regional film archives, special collections within universities, and historical societies in particular, awareness and knowledge of these films has steadily increased.
As a new regional film archive—the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound (TAMIS), founded in 2005—we have been surprised by the number of itinerant films we have been able to locate in the very small area we cover. Many of these are the your-town-in-the-movies type, usually commissioned by the local theater owner to portray his or her hometown and entice audiences to the theater to see themselves, their friends, and their town on the big screen. We classify these films as itinerant films because many of the same crew members traveled from town to town to work on each production. At TAMIS, we have two examples of your-town-in-the-movies films made by the John B. Rogers Company: Athens, TN (1940) and Sweetwater, TN (1937). However, we have been unable to find much information about either the man or his company. This is not unusual when it comes to itinerant filmmakers, who are often difficult to pin down. These two films, along with other examples of this type of film in our collection, provide unique portraits of towns across our region even if no circumstantial information about their makers is available. Such films not only capture the town’s former physical and commercial geography but also shed light on the world of itinerant filmmaking, primarily through the newspaper stories surrounding the films’ production.
The earliest known examples of itinerant films made in Tennessee that we have been able to find are, unfortunately, no longer extant. The first reference we have located is to a one-reeler, made in Knoxville, titled Aunt Sally Visits Knoxville (December 1915).1 The film was produced by an out-of-town firm, the Gullette and Harris Empire Amusement Company, based in New York, and made under the auspices of a now-demolished Knoxville movie house, the Gay Theatre. The film, shot entirely in Knoxville, featured many prominent members of Knoxville society, including local artist Hugh C. Tyler, uncle of Knoxville-born author James Agee. The film’s production and release was covered by the Knoxville Sentinel. According to the Sentinel, Mr. Tyler himself took the lead role as Aunt Sally, a primitive old lady residing in the hills of the nearby Cumberland Mountains. When oil is discovered on her property, Aunt Sally suddenly becomes a fabulously wealthy woman and travels to the big city of Knoxville for a series of shopping sprees, with comical results.2 The article lists some of the prominent names in the cast, along with some of the locations used in the movie, including a number of Knoxville’s most prominent businesses. So it seems that even as early as 1915, the die had been cast for what would become a standard method of operation for many itinerant films: townspeople took lead roles, and location shooting took place at businesses that had paid to be advertised in the movie as well as at historic homes and landmarks about town (in this case, the stately mansion of Colonel L. D. Tyson). The film premiered in late December 1915 at the Gay Theatre, home base for the films produced by Triangle and Fox Film Studios. It was included on a bill with Stolen Magic, a Mabel Normand comedy, and Matrimony, directed by film pioneer Thomas Ince. The film was a hit: “Several thousand...