Monday, November 26, 2018

Crank the Camera

"Lost Colony" Filmed in 1921

            A town full of residents-turned-actors, $3,000 in grant funds, the hide of one ox, and other necessities were the makings of the 1921 film, Covering The Earliest English Expeditions and Attempted Settlements In The Territory Of What Is Now The United States: 1584-1591, aka The Lost Colony.
Elizabeth B. Grimball
Taken from "Women Film Pioneers"
            “Crank the camera, Mr. Peterson,” shouted Miss Grimball on the first day of filming—Tuesday, September 20, 1921. The final product was to be a five or six reel silent movie recounting the events that took place on Roanoke Island in the late 1500s filmed right there on the Outer Banks.
            The first day of shooting was pleasant, and the cast of local area residents—many of whom had never even seen a movie—went home thinking what fun it was to be a movie star.
            Not much film was shot that first day—only about 650 feet. The first scene depicted an old sailor on what purported to be the English shore telling stories about the marvelous New World to a young Walter Raleigh.  Another scene portrayed Governor White’s terrible grief when he returned to Fort Raleigh and found his daughter, Eleanor, and the other the colonists missing.
            Wednesday was slightly warmer, but still nice. However, some ill-fitting shoes began to pinch and the Manteo drug store sold out of corn plasters. Thursday was hot! The actors, dressed in velvet suits, petticoats, fake whiskers, and flowing wigs, began to lose their gusto for movie making.
            On Friday, the last full day of filming, the sun blazed down on Fort Raleigh and there was no breeze whatsoever. Virginia Dare, played by a Manteo baby, squalled at the top of her lungs, and, before the day was over, one of the overdressed ladies fainted.
            All that was left was the Indian war dance and this was filmed on Monday evening. The project, which had been months in the planning, was completed in just a few days.
A scene from the 1921 movie
The Virginia Pilot Online

How It Came To Be
            The movie never would have happened were it not for W. C. Crosby, Secretary of the Community Service Bureau—part of the State Department of Education—and Mabel Evans, the determined and resourceful Superintendent of Dare County Schools. (Yes, there was a female Superintendent in 1920!)         
            Crosby was captivated by movies from the get-go, and he convinced the Department of Education to produce a series of educational movies depicting historical events for the state’s schools. A $3,000 grant was awarded to finance the first movie—not nearly enough to make a full-length movie, even in 1921; but Crosby was used to making a dollar go a long way, and he set about making it happen.
            When Mabel Evans heard about the proposed project in the spring of 1921, she approached State School Superintendent Brooks to ask him to begin the visual education series with the story of Roanoke Island. He was reluctant at first, asking her if she thought there was enough talent on Roanoke Island to carry out such a large venture. Evans was able to convince him that the people in the northeastern corner of the state were up to the task.
John White’s Drawings
            Roanoke Island was a remote place, reached only by boat, with few amenities and few North Carolinians had never been there. The challenges of organizing and preparing to make a feature film in such a rugged place were staggering, but the local people rose to the occasion with vigorous enthusiasm.
            The collection of watercolor drawings done by John White in 1585 provided the filmmakers with a unique and valuable record of the original colony on Roanoke Island.  There were dozens of drawings of the fort and the Indians— their villages, their food, and their ceremonies. These drawings made it possible to present an extremely realistic view of the original settlement. 
A Lot of Work
            Planning for the big event got underway during the summer. The months of August and September passed in a whirlwind of activity. Evans wrote the script. She also recruited numerous bit players to act the parts of Indians, colonists and sailors, helped design costumes, and organized the preparation of the various scenes.
            Elizabeth Grimball, who had staged several dramas in the state, was selected to direct the movie. She chose players for the main characters: Gov. White; Ananias Dare, father of the baby Virginia Dare; Amadas and Barlowe, explorers who were sent by Walter Raleigh in 1584 to find a suitable place to start the first settlement; Manteo and Wanchese, native Americans who visited England; Eleanor Dare, daughter of Gov. White and mother of baby Virginia; Virginia Dare, Eleanor’s baby played by the squalling Manteo baby. Mabel Evans was given the part of Eleanor.
            Local seamstresses were lined up to make costumes for Indians, colonists, and sailors. Many costumes for the fine gentlemen were ordered from Philadelphia
           On September 9, the Elizabeth City newspaper, The Independent, described the Indian costumes: “Many untrimmed furs and skins will be utilized, and at least one ox will lose his hide in the costuming of A. J. Willis, who will represent Insinore, one of the Indian chiefs. Shredded strands of hempen rope will be dyed for Indian wigs, and beards will be made from crepe-hair, bought by the yard and dyed. For the complexion a special dye made by one of the big film companies and costing $5 a gallon will be used.”  The cost was about $1 each for the locally made costumes.

Children in 1921 movie
Village Realty Blog, 7/23/2013
            There was brouhaha over the design of the costumes of the Indian maidens. On August 5, 1921, in the Elizabeth City Daily Advance, Mabel Evans was quoted, “It makes one blush just to look at pictures of the original Indian dresses. We have decided upon certain modifications, the most radical of which will be the addition of shoulder straps.”                  
             Volunteers labored to rebuild Fort Raleigh, to construct Indian villages, and to rig a borrowed shad boat to simulate a ship of the late 1500s. Most importantly, it was necessary to remove all signs of modern civilization from the view of the camera.     
            By late August, the preparations were in high gear.  Props were being borrowed from private citizens, museum collections and, where necessary, improvised. The 150 to 200 costumes needed were almost ready.
            Miss Grimball claimed to have solved the riddle of why the colonists left. Miss Grimball had been at work in the woods on the island, “close by the site of the original Fort Raleigh and small denizens of the forest—mosquitoes, redbugs and the like—have shown her particular personal attention. She is sure that the colonists left to escape being eaten alive.”[1]
            Another amusing mishap was reported: “…A few days ago, … leaders in the [film] undertaking, made a hurried trip to Kitty Hawk Bay aboard the Gretchen … . The Gretchen was brought as close to the shore as the shallow water would permit; all divested themselves of shoes and hose and began to wade ashore.
            “As they neared the beach, the party found an underwater area covered with short grass, literally alive with crabs. Brooks, Crosby and Williamson, proceeding cautiously ahead, were making creditable speed, when they were halted by a call from Miss Grimball.
            “I’m afraid of these horrid crabs,” she said, “and I’m going to put on my shoes.”
            “No, don’t do that,” said Williamson, “you’ll ruin them. I don’t mind carrying you ashore.” Miss Grimball consented and he picked her up. 
            Williamson, who is director of mechanics for the school extension division, of the State Department of Education, is a strong man, and well able to carry a woman of medium size any reasonable distance under ordinary conditions. However, he is afraid of crabs, and in avoiding a particularly big crustacean with outstretched claws, he stepped into a hole, and partly lost his balance. The result was that Miss Grimball fell full length into the water, with a resounding splash!”[2]
The Making of the Movie
            The Atlas Educational Motion Picture Company of Chicago was contracted to film, edit and produce copies of the movie. Captain A. O. Clement, a well-know photographer from Goldsboro, was appointed the task of taking hundreds of still pictures, or “slides,” during the filming. And, of course, W. C. Crosby was everywhere, supervising everything.
            And then, at last, it was September 20 and the camera rolled—or actually, was cranked, and filming began.
The filming of the movie
Taken from "Women Film Pioneers"

Watch the Movie
            The 1921 movie disappeared for many years, but in 2011 a pristine copy was found and digitized. It can be viewed at

[1] News & Observer, Raleigh, NC; September 16, 1921, Page 5
[2] ibid

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