The Lost Filmmaker's Camera

A talented pioneer cameraman's still-mysterious fate

I can't drop in at the windowless subterranean lair of the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound very often. It always takes a while to unscramble my brain. TAMIS' lab is like being on the inside of a kaleidoscope, with new and antique audio and video technology, and images of pop culture icons from Tom Jones to Ida Cox, and always some music playing—early jazz, early bluegrass, early blues—and some startling video on one of the monitors.

Every time I talk to proprietors Bradley Reeves and Louisa Trott, they're solving some interesting mystery. Last week they made another discovery at the old Rouser Company, known for several decades as a supplier of audio-visual equipment to local schools and other groups, which closed earlier this year. Its last office was on the downtown stretch of Magnolia, the part that's now called Old Magnolia. Frank Rouser Jr., now 83 and retired, likes TAMIS and generously donated much of what he'd been saving all these years, some of it dating back to his dad's era. One item they saved was a small, heavy, black case.

When Louisa Trott saw what was in the black case, she screamed.

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TAMIS nurtures lots of esoteric enthusiasms, like recordings of early country and jazz music. They've made a particular study of finding early Knoxville films. Most are home movies, but there are memories—and so far only that—of feature films shot here. They've been on the lookout for a couple of missing movies by visiting filmmakers, a 1925 project called A Knoxville Romance and a 1928 comedy, at least partly shot at Knoxville High School, called Too Much Flapper.

One of the best existing Knoxville-based films they've ever found was one in the collection of the Thompson family. Shot mostly at and around the University of Tennessee in 1931, it was called "College Life." It shows a snowball fight, students mugging for the camera, some track and field events, a parade with student-made floats. TAMIS showed it at one of their home-movie nights at the East Tennessee History Center.

Brad says the cinematography—not a word usually associated with home movies—suggests professional skill. It impressed him and Louisa so much they set out to find as much as they could about the guy that made the film. At first it wasn't much. His name was Robert J. Clements, and he was a UT student. He'd attended Boyd Junior High, and Knoxville High, and lived in apparently modest rental accommodations on Saxton Street in East Knoxville.

With the help of UT archivists, they found that Clements attended UT for at least two years, 1929-31, switching majors from agriculture to commerce. He apparently never graduated.

A Canadian archivist helped, finding a reference in a national trade monthly called Movie Makers, from January 1931. The article, only a paragraph, outlines the Knoxville Amateur Cinema Club, announcing the release of a "collegiate football comedy" called Pigskin Passions. The cast included Catherine Buster, Virginia Read, Stuart Stair, and Bert Thompson, son of Knoxville's best-known photographer, Jim Thompson, who also dabbled in filmmaking. The director, photographer, and story writer was Robert J. Clements.

The article is not as big as its illustration, a photo of two flappers in a convertible that may be a Rolls-Royce, flapping in front of what appears to be Sophronia Strong Hall, with a young man—identified as Clements—standing on the front bumper. His tripod, seated in the fenders, holds a camera aimed at the two women.

The article continues, "Plans have been made for the filming of a comedy under the amusing working title of The Plumber's Daughter."

That bit of press when Clements was about 21 might have been the high point of his moviemaking career. No copy of either film is known to exist. Clements himself seems to disappear after that. He surfaces as a Knoxville resident, no profession listed, in 1933. Then he vanishes. The mystery of what became of what may be Knoxville's first aspiring filmmaker haunted the archivists. "That has kept us up nights," Brad acknowledges. Brad has reasons to think Clements settled in Fire Island, N. Y., and died at the age of 80. And perhaps lived part of his life under another name, Bobby Austin.

Brad had a short and awkward interview with a family member in New Jersey. The man said he had hardly known his older half-brother, but told Brad the family rejected him because he was gay.

At an estate sale in Sequoyah Hills, Brad and Louisa found a 1928 edition of the Knoxville High yearbook, The Voice. It turned out Clements was prominent in the Senior Class, in the National Honor Society. His picture shows an awkward but intent-looking young man whose stylishly slicked-down hair let his jug ears roam free. In an old movie, he would have been the romantic lead's goofy-intellectual sidekick.

He majored in Latin, but his Favorite Pastime is listed as "snapping movie pictures"; his Senior Class Prophecy was that he "will be the greatest movie cameraman in the world." (Another Knoxville High grad named Clarence Brown, almost a generation older, was already famous for his camerawork.) For his 1928 KHS Senior Class motto, Clements chose a quote from Walt Whitman: "Afoot and light-hearted, I take to the open road."

What they found at Rouser's last week was a rarity, a case holding a small French movie camera, an expensive Pathex 9.5-millimeter model never very popular in America, and then only in the 1920s. Printed on the case was the name Robert J. Clements. In a tin bucket were 20 reels of film. Several of them are labeled as well-known films, like Harold Lloyd's Safety Last. Brad's looked at them enough to know there are some home-made movies in there as well. One shows a biplane, others show mountain scenes, others urban scenes. He can't screen them now, even though he found a 9.5 projector. One place in America has the facilities to restore old 9.5s, and transfer them to viewable formats. He hopes to get that done, to see what's here.

"This man's legacy keeps popping up in the most amazing places," says Brad. "It's fate."


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