Looking for some rare old films to watch? Other than Archive.org or YouTube–if you don’t mind wading through an ocean of fuzzy public domain copies and painful soundtracks–I can’t think of a better place to go than the National Film Preservation Foundation’s website. It has a free online library of freshly-preserved films, everything from 1910s cartoons to 1940s documentaries. And I recently discovered that the site was also hiding a marvelous surprise–for me, anyways!
On their “Treasures from the American Film Archives” screening room page they the link for a 14-minute film called Cologne: From the Diary of Ray and Esther (1939). The caption caught my eye: “Preserved by Minnesota Historical Society.” I, a native Minnesotan, thought: “Hold on! Cologne? Wait, was this filmed in that Cologne?”
Cologne, Minnesota, you see, is a little town only a short drive from where I grew up. You zip past cornfields and soybean fields and cow pastures for awhile, cross a highway, and there it is, with an old railroad line running through it and a pretty little lake along one side. I still live pretty close by, and last year I even considered buying a house there! And lo and behold there it was, the star of a pre-WWII amateur film. How could I not check that out?
One of the most charming “Fatty and Mabel” comedies, Fatty and Mabel’s Simple Life (1915) manages to hit a number of birds with one stone: it’s rural-themed, it riffs on the popular “evil mortgage collector threatens the farm” theme, it riffs on the equally popular “evil mortgage collector threatens the farm unless he can marry the pretty daughter” theme, adds a romantic triangle, has hijinks around a hand-cranked well, throws in a couple Keystone Kops, and finds time for some surrealism.
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…!
Largely forgotten today, the boyish Charles Ray was once a bright Hollywoodland light. The most prominent actor to specialize in gosh-and-golly “hick” characters–with much-lauded touches of subtlety and pathos–Ray helped make the rural melodrama a much-loved genre of its own. And he may also have been influential in ways we wouldn’t guess today.
The day of the “show” came. The courts adjourned. Stores closed, the blacksmith dropped his tongs, and school “let out” at noon. The people went in droves, even the ministers and their wives…The opera house was packed, with an eager, expectant and mystified audience. The house was darkened, and suddenly a glimmering light began to play on a canvas dropped like a curtain across the stage. And the first moving scene “thrown” was one of a lazy policeman trying to hurry an old man and a crippled mare across a street. The town wag let out a whoop, everybody caught the spirit–the moving pictures were a go!
–Reminisces about an 1897 small town motion picture show, Conestoga Magazine, 1907.
Could cinema have been invented at a more fortunate time? Once an impressive novelty viewed for a few cents a pop, it also inadvertently documented intriguing glimpses of the “old,” traditional way of life. And those glimpses were something more than the general, exciting changeover from horse-drawn buggies to automobiles, or how the cities slowly lit up with electric lights. It was the passing of using those horses to plow fields, the end of drawing water by hand from a well, the dwindling away of kerosene lamps and flickering candles. It all happened in the mere span of a generation or two.