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Mabel Evans Jones, the film’s producer, is seen in character as Eleanor Dare, Virginia Dare’s mother, in this still photo from the film.

ECU prof helps authenticate 1921 ‘Lost Colony’ movie

By Jeannine M. Hutson

For decades on Roanoke Island, a pristine copy of the first movie produced in North Carolina sat undisturbed, and possibly forgotten, in storage with other historical documents relating to the outdoor drama “The Lost Colony.”

Now the film is coming to light and the story of how the film came to be produced in Manteo in 1921 is being told.

Dr. Larry Tise, the Wilbur and Orville Wright Distinguished Professor of History at East Carolina University, and a historian at Roanoke Island Historical Association have confirmed that the film found recently is a true copy of the 46-minute silent movie, made in 1921, on the 1580s exploration of the Outer Banks.
Elizabeth Grimball, the director of the 1921 film on the Lost Colony, is shown with the cinematographer in this undated newspaper clipping. A native of North Carolina, Grimball was hired by the Atlas Film Company to direct the production.

It had long been assumed, Tise said, by film historians that no faithful copy of the film survived.  The researchers – Tise and Lebame Houston of the Roanoke Island Historical Association – have been looking for a copy of the historic film for the last decade. Both have seen some badly deteriorated copies of the film and kept hoping that an undisturbed version existed, Tise said.

Houston has been cataloguing the vast historical records of the outdoor symphonic drama, “The Lost Colony” – which will celebrate 75 years in 2012 – and in February she found a stash of film and audiotapes with obscure labels suggesting the items might be associated with the 1921 film.

Tise and Houston have also uncovered two previously unknown audio narratives of the film with the voice of Mabel Evans Jones, the film’s producer, explaining the scenes and how the film production came together in 1921 in Manteo.

A native of Manteo who attended East Carolina Teachers Training School, Jones returned to Roanoke Island in 1921, after one year at Columbia University in New York. She was intent on creating good schools on the Outer Banks and on making an educational movie that told the story of North Carolina’s first colonists for the state’s school children, Tise said.
The title frame from the opening of the 1921 film is shown in this still photo recently taken from the movie.

The original film was made 35 mm nitrate film, which was used by all filmmakers at the time, Tise explained. However, over time nitrate becomes explosive so the original films had to be destroyed in the 1950s and 60s.

“The original film was stored at the Atlas Film Company in New York and when they realized that they had to destroy it, they contacted the Lost Colony and told them that they could make a 16 mm film copy for them,” Tise said.

The former director of the Institute of Outdoor Drama for North Carolina Mark Sumner told Tise that he remembered either three or five copies being made of that original film. One copy was used about 20 years ago, and was badly damaged, Tise said.

“As far as we know, this copy that Lebame found is the only pristine copy in existence. It’s as good in terms of light and fidelity as the original 35 mm; however, it has been reduced to 16 mm,” Tise said.

Tise describes his research colleague, Houston, as “an authority on almost anything having to do with Sir Walter Raleigh, Thomas Harriot, the Lost Colony or Queen Elizabeth.” A five-minute version of the original film with music and Mabel Evans Jones’ commentary was shown at ECU on March 24 as part of Houston’s lecture on “The Lost Colony” drama.

Her lecture, “A Briefe and True Report of ‘The Lost Colony’ Drama in the New Found Land of Virginia” incorporated film, characters, music and dramatic sequences to show how this outdoor drama has evolved during its almost 75 years. Houston’s lecture in Wright Auditorium was part of the Discovery Lecture Series of the Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences.

Jones' commentary adds much to the watching and understanding of how the movie was made, Tise said. The audio tapes that Houston found were made in 1971 and 1976. As the film plays, Jones describes for the interviewer which local residents took what role, how the costumes were made and other interesting snippets of the history of the film that would have otherwise been lost, Tise said.

In one 26-minute recording, piano accompaniment plays silent movie era music matching the drama and action of the scenes, while Jones details the scenes. “It’s fascinating,” he said.

The second part of that recording hasn’t been found; Houston and Tise continue to hope it will be located. “We are always thrilled when we can assist groups such as the Roanoke Island Historical Association in researching, preserving and interpreting their rich historical materials,” Tise said.

“Already my colleagues at ECU in history, English, anthropology, geology and other fields have offered their expertise as we research ways of bringing this important treasure to a broader audience across North Carolina,” he said.

While Tise referred to the film as “The 1921 Lost Colony movie,” the actual title is longer and doesn’t contain any reference to the famous English colonists. The film’s title frame shows the work as “The Earliest English Expeditions and Attempted Settlements in the Territory of What Is Now the United States, 1584-1591.”  

The Roanoke Island Historical Association owns the newly discovered copy of the film as well as the audiotapes.

Houston and Tise are now working on a documentary history of the film to be premiered during the 75th anniversary of the outdoor drama.

“We’d like to present (the film) in a format that has the proper music and have a premiere at some point,” Tise said. “We’re just scratching the surface thus far on this film,” Tise said.

“Mabel Evans Jones and Elizabeth Grimball, two women of the same age, both from North Carolina, making the first movie in North Carolina is incredibly remarkable.”