In the popular imagination, motion picture producers and camera operators are always assumed to be men. Even the cover of my book, Main Street Movies: The History of the Local Film in the United States, is indebted to this image of the “man with a movie camera,” (apologies to Vertov). Even now, we can more easily imagine cameramen than camerawomen. The appearance of a woman behind the camera is still seen as a bit of a novelty.
And yet, in the 1930s, when H. Lee Waters, who’s depicted on the cover of my book, is making his “Movies of Local People” in the mid-Atlantic, there were dozens of women filmmakers and film producers working in the U.S., collectively producing many, perhaps even a majority, of the local films made in that period. Today, I want to focus on one of the most prolific producers of local films, Amateur Service Productions, and the women who worked for the company.
Despite years of research, I’ve not been able to learn who started Amateur Service Productions, but by the late 1930s they seemed to have offices throughout the midwest, including Akron, Ohio; Lancaster, Pennsylvania; Jefferson City, Missouri; Waco, Texas; Oneida County, Wisconsin; and many other places. The women who worked for the company almost certainly began their employment by answering ads like this one, which ran in small-town newspapers throughout the country:
By looking through the census records on Ancestry, I’ve been able to learn a bit about some of the women who answered these ads. Several were divorced, or widowed. Others were living in hotels, or in boarding houses, reporting long hours, and low pay.
When they arrived to town, they were almost always identified in the local paper as “Miss,” perhaps to disguise the complications of their own lives. (Most were also older than the age requirements specified in the classified ad).
As advance staff, these women were responsible for selling the film to the town, convincing local businesses to pay for advertising, contracting with a movie theater or fraternal hall to host the screening. While Amateur Service Productions often used male camera operators, in many cases the cameraman was the only man involved in the film’s production. Women arranged for the production of the film, convinced businesses to sponsor it, and likely made up the majority of the audience as well.
While many of the films made by Amateur Service Productions survive, I have not come across any materials from the women who made them. In my filmography (in the book and, soon, I hope, online) I list several dozen films I’ve been able to document in local newspapers and archives. One company representative suggested that they made 1,500 films, so there’s many more to be discovered.
For now, though, I want to focus not on the films themselves, but the women who made them. Here is a partial list. By my count, women made up approximately 80 percent of Amateur Service Productions’s employees, both at the home office, and on the road, persuading local women to sponsor their very own picture:
Ruth A. Ritchie
Lois D. Benton