Stark Love, the once-obscure 1927 silent film shot in the Smokies with its two lead actors plucked from the streets of Knoxville, has just earned the equivalent of film knighthood.
The National Film Registry is a designation approved by Congress to preserve and promote deserving older films that are significant "culturally, historically, or aesthetically." Each year, the Librarian of Congress nominates 25 films each year for preservation. This year, the list of titles includes some classics: Dog Day Afternoon, Bette Davis's Jezebel (1938), Greer Garson's Oscar vehicle, Mrs. Miniver, Michael Jackson's video Thriller--and Stark Love.
Director Karl Brown, a young, daring director known in the 1920s as a "naturalist," made the hillbilly melodrama in the Smokies using natural light and no makeup. He found stars Helen Mundy, just a teenager at the time with just a little dramatic experience, and Forrest James, an athlete with no experience at all, just hanging out in Knoxville. (Helen was in a downtown soda fountain.) They both got good notices in the press, and the film was a brief sensation in 1927. James never had any use for movies. Mundy flirted with some stars and studios before marrying a bandleader and retiring to Michigan.
The film itself was once presumed to be lost, until a copy was found in Romania in the 1960s; it had previously been in Nazi hands. It was saved, but barely for years, there were only three or four copies known to exist, which explains why it's so rarely seen. It's been shown in Knoxville only two or three times in the last 70 years, most recently by the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound, at the History Center a couple of years ago. It has never been broadcast or available on video, but now it's easy to believe it's just a matter of time.
Another surprise winner, incidentally, is Quasi at the Quackadero, a short '70s art film I mentioned in a column a few weeks ago. I was pleading that downtown Knoxville needs something like a Quackadero. You can find a watchable version of that one on Google.