Lost Films: “The Old Oaken Bucket” (1921)

We’ve largely forgotten how popular the “rural” genre was in early film, especially in the mid- to late-1910s. Since so many silents are lost and all, it’s safe to assume that for every charming classic like Tol’able David (1921) or The Greatest Question (1919) there are several rural-themed films that have vanished. One such lost film was called The Old Oaken Bucket (1921), and after reading descriptions I decided that there’s no way you could make a film that sentimental today. At least, not without a lot of struggle…!

The Old Oaken Bucket, US lobbycard, from left: Mary Beth Barnelle,... News  Photo - Getty Images

The Old Oaken Bucket was named after Samuel Woodworth’s best-known poem. A wistful look at bucolic childhood memories, various lines and phrases were part of the American vernacular and generations of children could recite it by heart. It had also been turned into a popular 19th century song. Some sample verses:

How dear to my heart are the scenes of my childhood,
When fond recollection presents them to view!
The orchard, the meadow, the deep-tangled wild-wood,
And every loved spot that my infancy knew;–
The wide-spreading pond, and the mill that stood by it,
The bridge, and the rock where the cataract fell;
The cot of my father, the dairy-house nigh it,
And e’en the rude bucket which hung in the well;
The old oaken bucket, the ironbound bucket,
The moss-covered bucket, which hung in the well.

The old oaken bucket - b&w film copy neg. | Library of Congress
One of many old Woodworth-themed prints that would’ve graced family homes.

The poem inspired director May Tully to create an appropriately nostalgic film. Tully was a hardworking Canadian stage actress who was described as “the over-time worker of the vaudeville world” and “perhaps the most businesslike of all lady playwrights.” She was also a massive–and I mean massive–baseball fan, to the point where her love of the sport was as well known as her theater career. After being a writer on several films she decided to direct.

May Tully, vaudeville actress (SAYRE 10436) - PICRYL Public Domain Search

Trade reviews yield some pretty good synopses of this film, as well as info on how it was marketed. Here’s a detailed article from the November 5, 1921 issue of Motion Picture News–I’ll type it up since the scanned material is a little hard to read:

A Happy Memory of Youth; Great Audience Picture Time turns backward in its flight in this visualization of “The Old Oaken Bucket.” This sentimental ballad of yesterday, which will ever remain popular, has been used as the background for a happy memory of youth, and so faithful are the fond recollections that its appeal is irresistible. It has been no easy matter to compile these scenes and shape them into a harmonious whole, but May Tully has seemingly worked with artistic appreciation. She has collected as fine an assortment of rustic settings as have ever graced a rural photoplay.

The very fact that the backgrounds include a picturesque waterfall, a quaint farm-house, a snug swimmin’ hole, a fishing pond with a truly rustic bridge as a background, an exquisite garden spot, a few cozy coves and lover’s lanes indicate that Miss Tully traveled far and wide, for it is safe to assume that these strips of nature were not discovered on one location. With the eye feasting on these eloquent backgrounds, the memory of youth returns as the glorious days are lived over. Whether you have lived in the city all your life does not matter. The urbanite will visualize himself in the picture. Those who have left the country home and fireside will express an acute feeling of sentiment.

Miss Tully has brought out these scenes realistically. There is not an incident which could be called exaggerated. In order to reach the substance of the memory, she picturizes a Wall Street figure, oppressed with care and worry, desirous of living over his youth in teh scenes of his childhood. And so he leaves the material world and becomes a poet for a day. A series of dissolves are employed, and the rich man emerges from maturity to become a boy again. The smile returns to his face–a smile tinctured with pathos. Once again he steals the pie from the cooling spot in the kitchen window, or he may cut his hand and bandage it so heavily that he is looked upon as the ideal hero by his chums (a true touch, but no more genuine than the other depicted). He goes in swimming with his pals, all of them naked, and is unsuccessful in hiding from his mother, and as he grows older he steals a kiss from his best girl at a picnic for two. She is provoked at him and rides home with the fresh, but affluent clerk in the bank, for his buggy is brand new and the horse is a thoroughbred. He will get even by speeding by, driving a nifty team. And he goes to the well and drinks from the moss-covered bucket.

The rich man does not neglect a single thought which brought him boyhood happiness. He discovers Mary, the girl of his youth, now the village school-marm and together they wander into the dying sunset. There is no plot. It comprises a series of episodes which, taken collectively, conquer because of their rich sentiment, charm and humor. The picture is genuine because the boys are real boys and the things they do are ever being done through the flight of time. The principals in the cast are Joseph Smiley, Vioet Axzell and Bobby Connelly. May Tully directed and with E.S. Harrison wrote the scenario.–Length, 5 reels.–Laurence Reid.

All stills are from Motion Picture News, by the way. There only seemed to be a few stills in circulation.

Motion Picture News includes some sample press notices and program reader notes–yes, many feature films would’ve been packaged with programs, much like playbills!

PRESS NOTICE–STORY. A tribute to an ever-popular song–a fancy of youthful memory in which the hand of Time is turned backward so that a dream of childhood days may be restored is “The Old Oaken Bucket.” This charming song has been translated in many languages. It has become a classic. The appeal of the lyric carries such sentiment and heart interest that its suggestion as a medium of film expression will be appreciated by everyone. Consequently May Tully has fashioned a clever story around the song. A city dweller, tired of the humdrum existence of making money and worshipping at false shrines, returned to the vistas of his boyhood days and again lives over the happy memories. The old swimming hole, the stolen sweets, the picnic with his best girl, the school-days, the buggy riding, the hundred and one unforgettable memories of a bygone age are visualized and the picture tugs at the heart as a consequence. It is prettily laid among scenes of rustic charm. “The Old Oaken Bucket” will appear at the ——- theatre next —– and ——–.

PROGRAM READER “How dear to my heart are the scenes of my childhood.” How many remember the words that start this lovely song of charm and sentiment entitled “The Old Oaken Bucket”? It has become one of the classics–a song to be compared to “Swanee River” and many others. It tugs at the heart. Its simplicity, its sweet story of memories is enough to make one forget the work-a-day world and become a youth again. As a picture its appeal is irresistible. Memories of boyhood days come over an elderly figure. He has forgotten his youth in his search for wealth. But he returns to the spot of the old oaken bucket. And lives over the happy memories of youth. At the ——- theatre next——–.

And here’s a few tips about how to properly “exploit” (that is, market) the film at the theater. Many movies back then had a “prologue,” or brief stage show, that helped set the mood. This seemed to be a hand-me-down from the vaudeville days, when films were sometimes the chaser to a program. Plus many movie theaters were converted vaudeville houses:

SUGGESTIONS This picture should not be hard to exploit. First you have the original song which can be resurrected and used as a prologue. A moss-covered well can be easily made of papier-mache and groups of farmer boys and girls can trip up to it and drink from the old oaken bucket. A rural setting with a courting scene would lend some significance too. Also a barn dance or a musical ensemble festuring the old time songs with “The Old Oaken Bucket” dominant. Your musical arrangement should feature the song above all others. Bill it as a sweet, wholesome, charming study of sentiment–a study poignant and quaint. Bill it as a happy memory of youthful days. You can put this over if you give it the proper thought.

Elsewhere in the issue, Motion Picture News gave some “exploitation” tips for The Old Oaken Bucket. “It would seem probably any of the firms selling bottled water of any sort would jump at the chance of cooperating in advertising the picture and their product…For a lobby display a reproduction of one of the old time well houses usually found where the oaken buckets were used would be suitable and effective. The well itself and the bucket of course should be a part of the display. If you were to use this display a week in advance, posters on the coming show could be placed at the bottom of the ‘well.'”

Imagine running a theater back in the day–you didn’t just send some ads to the local paper and change the posters and lobby cards, you also had to book song-and-dance folks, work with local businesses to advertise the show, probably think up some “ballyhoo” like hiring a guy to walk around wearing sandwich boards, and rig up stage decorations from scratch! Experience with papier-mache being a bonus, I’d assume.

One such theater display in Topeka, Kansas (again from our friend Motion Picture News).

The Old Oaken Bucket seems to have done very well–some theaters even booked it for a full week, rather than a couple days. The LA Times gave it a warm review: “May Tully has woven memory into a beautiful picture. The Old Oaken Bucket plays this week at Clunes and what a theme for a picture memory it is.” Motion Picture News noted that part of the appeal was the musical accompaniment. Apparently musicians went all in on the “nostalgia” theme, playing well-known ballads like “Home Sweet Home,” “Sweet Rosie O’Grady,” and, of course, “The Old Oaken Bucket.” “It is some time since picture managers have heard an entire audience join in singing but results in the Keith houses…have shown the picture’s old-home appeal united with the melody of the orchestra to be an irresistible combination.” I think even the biggest cynic can admit that’s pretty heartwarming.

Which all goes to show that many old silents weren’t just inexpensive entertainment or ways to spend an evening–they were community events, a way to bond over shared pop culture. And I think I’ll just leave that there.



9 thoughts on “Lost Films: “The Old Oaken Bucket” (1921)

  1. Fascinating post, thanks for highlighting this genre of film. The rural movie did continue into the sound era, with films like The Trail of the Lonesome Pine and a remake of Tol’able David (many well-known silents were remade in the 1930s). You could also argue that the rural genre continued into the 1950s with the extremely popular Ma & Pa Kettle comedy film series (about 8 movies were made in that series); and maybe even into TV in the 1960s, with such ‘rural’ comedies as The Beverly Hillbillies or Green Acres (though their emphasis was more on a city vs. country clash). There doesn’t seem anything comparable to this genre today, unless you count those horror films set in the hinterlands, amongst various ghouls, cannibals, zombies, and extraterrestrials. I think modern movie audiences might find the ‘gentle’ rural film utterly baffling today.

    • I agree, it’s ironic considering the genre was popular precisely because it WAS so familiar, back in the day.

      Various rural tropes kept chugging along on TV for quite some time, it seems. IMO they started relying more and more on stereotypes that were almost cartoony.

  2. You display here your remarkable writing talent. You “got” me to feel like I had just watched and enjoyed a movie that doesn’t exist (anymore)!

  3. Well, after reading this, I think this film has gone to the top of the list of things I hope they’ll one day find! I think Zadock’s comment above is spot-on; I’ve fallen in love with a movie that doesn’t exist anymore. And those last three lines of the article are tempting me into sociological musings about what we are missing, today—maybe yearning for….

  4. Pingback: Silent-ology Is 8 Years Old Today! | Silent-ology

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