Rare silent highlights film festival

Betsy Pickle
Features columnist

Unlike Lana Turner, Helen Mundy really was discovered in a drugstore. But it was in Knoxville, not in Hollywood, and Mundy blew off the film industry after one movie.

That was “Stark Love,” a 1927 silent that will be the culmination of “Southern Exposure: The Great Smoky Mountain Film Festival” at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Tennessee Theatre.

Paramount wanted amateurs to portray the Appalachian characters in “Stark Love,” which was shot on the North Carolina side of the Smokies, in the Robbinsville area.

“They wanted to find authentic hillbillies,” says Bradley Reeves, director of TAMIS, the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound. “Where are you going to find those? Knoxville, of course.

“So they passed through here, and they found Helen Mundy. She was a saucy teenager. She didn’t care about anybody or anything; she was just a wild girl by all accounts, and it really comes through in her performance, which is absolutely first rate for a first-timer.”

Knoxville teen Helen Mundy, star of “Stark Love” (1927)  Photos from TAMIS
Knoxville teen Helen Mundy, star of “Stark Love” (1927)
Photos from TAMIS

“Stark Love” earned great reviews but did not perform well at the box office. Prints of it – along with hundreds of other silent films – were later burned by the studio for their silver. British film historian Kevin Brownlow discovered a copy while filming in Prague in the late 1960s.

The film is now on the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, which has a copy. The Museum of Modern Art loaned the print that will be screening Saturday. TAMIS showed a “rough” 16mm print in 2007.

“This is the brand-new restored print with the right inter-titles, the right lineup of clips from the best possible surviving materials,” says Reeves. “I’m proud it’s going to be on film because that’s something I love. It’s getting rarer and rarer to see that on a big screen.”

Short films in “Southern Exposure” will include serious and campy footage shot in the Smokies.
Short films in “Southern Exposure” will include serious and campy footage shot in the Smokies.

“Southern Exposure” is part of the East Tennessee History Fair, which takes place throughout downtown Saturday. The film festival begins at noon with Dr. Bill Snyder playing favorites on the Mighty Wurlitzer. The free afternoon program runs till 5 p.m. and includes films made by commercial photographer Jim Thompson between 1915 and 1950.

“It’s some of the most amazing footage that I’ve ever seen in my life,” says Reeves. “Jim Thompson is so important in the development of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He was there at the beginning, … and he doesn’t get the credit that he deserves.”

The afternoon includes a lot of footage of the Smokies plus films shot around downtown Knoxville. Reeves recruited local musicians to put music to the silents: Todd Steed for the compilation “Silent Town,” Dave Ball for the newsreel segment “Our Southern Mountaineers”/“In the Moonshine Country” and the Swill Sippers for “A Forgotten Smokey Mountain Road Trip.”

Sequoyah Hills resident George Dominick takes filming the Smokies seriously.
Sequoyah Hills resident George Dominick takes filming the Smokies seriously.

Bill Landry will introduce amateur movies shot in the Smokies and will be on the screen in a 1989 episode of “The Heartland Series” called “The Rolling Store,” complete with outtakes.

After a break, the evening program ($9 adults, $7 seniors and children) will begin at 7 p.m. with the documentary “Lost Masterpiece: Karl Brown’s Stark Love” by Dr. John White, followed by “Stark Love,” with an introduction by Jack Neely.

Reeves says Mundy was being groomed for stardom but never made another movie.

“She didn’t play the game. She didn’t care.”

Like Lana Turner, whose first marriage was to Artie Shaw, she married a bandleader, Donald Berringer. Unlike Turner, she stayed married, and raised a family of in Kalamazoo, Mich., where she lived till the end of her life.

Leave a Reply