Wallace Kelly, 16 min., 16mm, 1938
Preserved by Martha Kelly, the Center for Home Movies and the Library of Congress
Added to National Film Registry: 2007
Essay by Dan Streible
When Martha Kelly brought her father’s 16mm films to a Home Movie Day screening at New York’s Anthology Film Archives in August 2007, viewers who watched the projection of Wallace Kelly’s Our Day responded with delight. They also knew the one-reel, silent, black-and-white film was something much more than a well-preserved, finely-shot home movie. Our Day was so obviously an exceptional work of amateur cinema that the Librarian of Congress named it to the National Film Registry by year’s end.
In addition to being an expertly crafted day-in-the-life narrative, Our Day is also notable because it depicts a place and time in ways that confound contemporary expectations. Wallace McElroy Kelly (1910-1988) filmed his family (wife, mother, brother, and dog) at home in the small town of Lebanon, Kentucky, in 1938. The Depression years and the state of Kentucky are often stereotypically associated with images of poverty and struggle, but Our Day shows a well-to-do family playfully enacting a day and evening in the idealized home they call Halcyon Hill. The most striking aspect of the film is its beautiful technical skill: near-perfect continuity editing, sophisticated lighting, and studied compositions. We see, for example, a subtle play of shadows on a staircase — in an amateur film made in Kentucky? three years before Citizen Kane? “The extraordinary Our Day,” film critic Dave Kehr wrote at the time of the Registry announcement in 2007, “displays a more sophisticated sense of mise-en-scene than the great majority of current Hollywood features.”
The on-screen credits say:
Directed, photographed, produced by Wallace Kelly
A Kelly Production, with the assistance of Mrs. Oliver [Mattie] Kelly, Mabel G. Kelly, Oliver G. Kelly, and Miss Lady Luck Kelly.
Wallace Kelly’s sophisticated home movie stands on its own as a pleasurable viewing experience, yet understanding it in the context of both his life’s work and the history of amateur cinema makes Our Day an even richer document. By vocation, Kelly was an artist who worked across media: writer, illustrator, painter, photographer, actor, and, by avocation, a devoted amateur filmmaker. At 19, after study at Centre College in Kentucky and Cincinnati Art Academy, he moved to New York where he took classes at the New York Institute of Photography sought work as a photo illustrator. In 1929 he bought a 16mm movie camera and by 1930 had edited a 20-minute film of his travel from Kentucky to New York, with documentation of sites around Manhattan and Queens. Now called Wallace Kelly Goes to New York, it reveals an eye for experimentation, such as a split-screen juxtaposing an elevated train and New York Harbor at sunset. The Kelly Scrap Book, a compilation reel of outtakes throughout the 1930s reveal further interests in cinema: home movies in Kodacolor, footage of New York movie theater marquees for Hell’s Angels (1930) and the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business (1931), and rushes of Kelly himself acting in a now-lost silent booster film The Story of Astoria (1931).
With his father’s death in 1932, Kelly returned to Kentucky to help with the family home and business, the Lebanon Express weekly newspaper. In 1935, he and his fiancé Mabel Graham won the top prize in the first Newspaper National Snapshot Awards contest for amateur photographers. (Amateur Cinema League founder Hiram Percy Maxim was among the judges.) They married, studied portrait photography in New York, and ran a commercial studio in Lebanon from 1936 to 1940. In Our Day, the only scene recorded outside of their home shows the couple at work with a large-format camera, shooting a young woman’s portrait. Kelly takes the opportunity to compose the moving images artfully, filming the woman’s face in profile in the foreground while he stands beside his still camera, directing her from the background. His vacation movies, such as Our Trip to Yellowstone Park 1937 were produced with care. He designed title card graphics, stop-motion animated texts, and descriptive intertitles, which sometimes reveal his writer’s aspirations and wry wit. When the family Buick reaches the Mississippi River, his intertitle notes that “the Father of Waters was disappointingly unimpressive.” Our Trip, in fact, begins with staged scenes of the Kelly family studying road maps in the same living room in which they shot Our Day a year later.
Although he was not a presence in the large international Amateur Cinema League or any camera club, Kelly’s creative work with 16mm film was akin to that of many other talented amateurs of the era. He completed his two scripted and ambitious films, Our Day and The Enterprise Goes to Press, in 1938 using a day-in-the-life structure. The latter is a nearly-professional grade process documentary profiling his brother Oliver putting out an issue of the newspaper he (like his father) owned and edited. The more personal Our Day might have been inspired by similar films being made by members of the ACL, such as Another Day (1934) by Leslie Thatcher of the Toronto Amateur Movie Club, A Day’s Work (1939) by Mary Burt, RN, and Olin Potter Geer’s Poem of Montclair (1933). Potter wrote a how-to article for the ACL’s Movie Makers magazine (“Suburban Scenario,” Sep. 1933), suggesting films showing the “story of a family’s life from dawn to midnight” were an ideal for amateurs. Like Geer’s work, Our Day begins with an establishing shot and sequence: long shot of house, closer shot of bedroom window; man shaving; a breakfast scene (down to the detail of “a bubbling coffee percolator and an egg frying in the pan”), followed by departure for work. Both films end with evening rituals that include a family card game.
However, Kelly’s whimsical family portrait is more deftly cut, with a pace of continuity editing that keeps us involved in each shot and action. With some 150 shots in its 16 or so minutes, the average shot length in Our Day, about five seconds, is roughly half the norm of Hollywood feature films of the era. The opening title and credits are painted on glass and cue us with “Halcyon Hill . . . Early Morning.” The thirteen intertitles throughout are simple handwritten texts on cardboard. They signal the comic self-satire of the film’s “typical” day veneer. We see the mother rise at 7:00 am with her playful terrier and make breakfast, followed by the first intertitle “The rest of the family, the lazy things, are just getting up. . . .” Later “Her idea of earthly heaven: that all of every day could be sprint like this!” is followed by shots of Mother laboring with a hoe to break ground in the garden. We read “And ‘Lucky’ has her earthly heaven every morning!” then see the dog chasing a cat and carrying it about by the scruff of the neck. The dog is an animating force and a comic performer, carrying slippers, begging for fried eggs, stealing a croquet mallet, and barking at Mother disrobed for her shower. In fact Kelly films Mabel and then himself undressing to shower, she in silhouette, he in an extreme high-angle shot of his showering.
Nearly every scene includes more such displays of Wallace Kelly’s creativity with the camera, but never merely to show-off his cleverness. An insert shot of a clock uses a jump cut showing 7:15 becoming 7:40 am. A camera set low, on the floor bedside, shows Lucky entering the frame in foreground, then walking to Mother and the bathroom door in the background. As Oliver walks to his car and drives away, Our Day twice cuts to reverse shots 180 degrees apart — the conventional limit to rules of continuity. The “eternal battle for croquet supremacy” scene includes a deep-focus composition of Mother in the distance, comically framed between Oliver’s legs in the foreground. Never does Kelly resort to the “camera magic” or trick photography often described in guidebooks for cine amateurs. Each technique serves the narrative, the golden rule of Hollywood cinematography.
In its memorable time-machine function, Our Day also captures details of Depression-era consumer culture. Although a long-standing family home, Kelly reveals it is also a modern one. Amid modest furnishings we see a household with an electric razor, electric percolator, and a digital clock (which tells us our family heads to bed at 11:37). The Kelly automobiles are shiny, late-model Buick coupes of memorable design, including a sporty convertible. Martha Kelly, born in 1946, notes her parents and uncle each could walk to work in ten minutes, another reminder of the deliberately staged nature of the film, which shows them ritually driving off to work after breakfast. (Outtakes from Our Day include shots of a comically staged head-on collision between the two cars.)
Martha also tells us that Our Day never had a public screening before Home Movie Day 2007, yet her family watched Wallace Kelly’s home movies almost monthly throughout the 1950s, with Our Day being frequently projected.
After its naming to the Registry, the sole film print was preserved in 35mm, with a blow-up release print made by Colorlab for debut at the 2008 NYU Orphan Film Symposium. The Center for Home Movies, Library of Congress, and National Film Preservation Foundation included Our Day and other films by Wallace Kelly in a preservation package, and it was the closing film in the 35mm amateur film compilation Amateur Night: Home Movies from American Archives. These Kelly films are now viewable online via several platforms.
Dan Streible is the founder and director of the Orphan Film Symposium, and an associate professor in the Department of Cinema Studies at New York University and Associate Director of its Moving Image Archiving and Preservation master’s program. He was in attendance at the first public Our Day screening at Home Movie Day at Anthology Film Archives in 2007.