Star-Makers in Muncie

Article excerpt

UNIVERSITY LIBRARY STAFFERS RESTORE A FORGOTTEN FILM FROM THE SILENT ERA

Archivists have always had to be prepared for the unexpected aspects of their work, but the recent restoration of a 1915 motion picture came as a new experience for Ball State University (BSU) librarian-archivist Nancy Turner and five other library employees who converted an 81-year-old, 10-minute, black-and-white feature film into a 29-minute modern version complete with added scenes in color, a narration, and a musical sound track.

Titled The Man Haters and discovered in a VW-Audi dealer's garage, this movie was filmed the same year D.W. Griffith made Birth of a Nation. What is unusual about the movie is not its story line or dramatic content, but rather the way it depicts life in Muncie 10 years before sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd arrived to research the representative American "Middletown," as they dubbed it, for their best-selling books Middletown: A Study in Contemporary American Culture (1929) and Middletown in Transition: A Study in Culture Conflicts (1937), which are still in print.

Project director Turner observed that the mood of the country in 1915 explains a lot about what makes the movie interesting. When 30,000 women suffragists demonstrated for the vote in New York City, it had an effect on Muncie women, especially the younger ones.

That year Muncie had 179 women's clubs. Women were developing and expanding their roles in the community, Turner said, noting that even the prostitutes who owned property in the red-light district had organized and demanded protection.

A reflection of the times

Turner examined 1915 issues of the movie trade journal Moving Picture World and found ads inviting readers to get in on the ground floor of the motion-picture industry by purchasing the necessary equipment. Apparently the movie's producer, Basil McHenry, did just that, giving up his career as a front man for a circus. His equestrian performer wife joined him. They traveled the Midwest with a stock script, soliciting sponsors and shooting films with local actors.

The Man Haters restoration never would have taken place if it hadn't been for William Barnett, director of business services at BSU's Bracken Library, whose hobby is local history.

"For several years my friend Bill Kirtley, a car dealer, and I talked about a film he had found in his garage," explained Barnett. "He was interested because it featured old cars from that period. He said he had seen the film as a youngster."

Barnett didn't think much about it, assuming they were old home movies; but when he finally viewed the movie closely, he remarked, "I thought we might have a real find on our hands."

He knew if he handed the film over to the university archives, it would be hands off for everyone; so he and university photographer Ron Partain (who died in 1995 just before the project was completed, and to whom the restored film is dedicated) found a 35mm take-up reel and made 20 black-and-white promotional frame enlargements from the original 35mm version. This highly flammable nitrate film had been stored in a closet belonging to Kirtley's sister, Jenny Leach, much to the startlement of her husband, a fireman. A 16mm copy was the original one found gathering dust in Kirtley's VW-Audi garage.

Once Barnett donated both copies of the movie to Archives and Special Collections, headed by Turner, the project got underway using a videotaped copy. Library Dean Michael Wood approved the project with backing from Provost Warren VanderHill, one of the three producers of a series on Middletown produced for PBS TV in the 1980s.

Wood instructed Turner and her fellow librarians "to have fun, be professional, and find a grant to cover the expenses." He also suggested learning about the period of the filming and locating descendants of the 13 men and women who starred in the movie. His deadline: completion in time to be used as entertainment at the annual Library Friends dinner. …