Chicago's First Lady of Amateur Film

Charles Tepperman
Committee on Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago
Chicago Film Archives

Nancy Watrous
Director, Chicago Film Archives
5746 N. Drake Avenue
Chicago, IL 60659

*Both Nancy Watrous and Charles Tepperman contributed to this presentation. The Tepperman text precedes the Watrous portion.

“Film is the art of the century!
it can delight, inform, involve and motivate.
it can make life more real and make art of reality
and do it all at once!
the pictures you take are the stories you choose to tell, and that’s the truly marvelous thing about moviemaking: it makes storytellers of us all!”

I’ve been reading from a lecture that Margaret Conneely presented to the Society of Canadian Cinema Amateurs in 1979 called “Story films and what it takes to make them.” Our presentation will introduce the author of this lecture, the woman you met a woman ago on video, amateur movie-maker Margaret Conneely. Now 90 years old, Margaret was active in amateur filmmaking both locally and internationally for nearly half a century, first joining a local club in 1949, but quickly getting involved in the Amateur Cinema League and the motion picture division of the Photographic Society of America.

Conneely recently donated her films and documentation to the Chicago Film Archives. So far this has consisted of over 250 reels of films, 4 boxes of documents (including local and national movie club newsletters dating back to the 1950s, correspondence to many amateur colleagues), and tons of miscellaneous equipment and paraphernalia (my favorite is the box of trophies from amateur competitions that she won). About a third of the films in this collection is amateur footage, the rest is commercial – but the amateur films are really gems; many of them are Margaret’s own films, but perhaps half of them are films made by her friends and club colleagues. We’re only starting to understand the value of this collection as a real snapshot of an era of mid-century amateur filmmaking.

Margaret’s films drew on her domestic experiences, but they’re markedly different from “home movies.” One of the rich things about this collection is that Margaret was such an active and vocal proponent of amateur movies, publishing articles in all kinds of magazines and newsletters, from the PSA journal to the New York Times. This helps us to see that Margaret was a filmmaker who reflected upon the aesthetics and social function of amateur film, and whose career challenges scholarship that dismisses amateur film as simply a function of consumption and domesticity. But what we want to talk about today is Margaret’s career in terms of some of the traditional expectations of gender and film production.

I think Margaret is exceptional in many respects – she’s a woman who enjoyed working and who returned to work in the early 1950s, when her kids were old enough to go to school. Before she was married, Margaret worked as a legal secretary – she later worked a variety of jobs, eventually parlaying her skills as a photographer and filmmaker into work as a medical photographer at Loyola University medical school in the 1960s. It has sometimes been suggested that women made “Home Movies,” not serious films —that technology was marketed to them to be easy and stylish, not difficult and technical. Margaret’s career certainly challenges such assumptions. We’re going to look at how Margaret’s films sometimes used her family for actors and material, but how they remained distinctly the product of her own quirky creative sensibility.

Two films back to back – the first – Saga, from about 1954 features her son, John, in her lecture, Margaret introduced this as “A story without words – a film were you only need one or two persons other than yourself”

Show: Saga of the First and Last (c. 1954, [4 min])
Show: Jim’s Card Game (c. 1955, [3 min])

We can see from these last two films how Margaret used subjects related to her family to hone her technique. But as her kids got older (and as she put it, were no longer so interested in being in her films) Margaret turned increasingly to making films co-operatively in context of amateur movie clubs (in Chicago). Club films – films where the entire club would pitch in on different elements of production, were a staple of most movie clubs; often they would make one or two per year, and devote the rest of their time to looking at individual members’ work. But in the early 1960s Margaret was instrumental in setting up a unique kind of film club: central cinematographers was a club that met once a week in downtown Chicago to make short fictional films together, and survived well into the video era, eventually folding in the early-1990s. Here’s a short “behind the scenes” film that Margaret prepared and was part of a presentation she gave in 1979- again, I’ll read from her lecture cue-cards.

Show: Behind the Scenes at Central Cinematographers reading from card: “This is how we work together at Central Cinematographers. Each member gets his turn at playing “Director/Producer”. He gives each other member a work assignment for duration of his film production, ie., actor, cameraman, script person, soundman, gaffer, or in charge of lights, props, titles, or whatever. Director/producer does editing on his film.”

- Charles Tepperman

Before you see Margaret Conneely's

Mr. E, I would like to say a couple of things about her work. My perspective on Conneely’s films is informed, I admit, by my own observations of my mother and her generation of women. Margaret’s work is well considered, amusing, entertaining, well-crafted and wicked. Not wicked in the sense of how film noir or horror films frighten, but wicked in a worse way.

Margaret seems to embed her stories of seemingly normal domestic life with a light and innocent-looking strand of wicked and even sadistic humor that nevertheless is so amorphous and nuanced, you often don’t know why you squirm in your seat a bit as you watch her films. It can be as innocuous as the pacing of a voiceover narrative that seems to say, “Don’t take this city symphony at face value, I’m teasing you and the city as you watch this ode to Chicago.”

Sometimes this strand is in sharper focus such as in the film

The First and the Last

when she has her son emerge from the woods with a rifle, shoot a paint can off a fence then light up and choke on his first cigarette.

Her choices of pacing, props, edits or the situations she puts her family members in somehow slightly distorts this very neighborly domestic life she depicts in her films. Her choices are often surprising and always serve her stories well.

At first I thought a momentary slice of darkness was just a chance aspect of one of her films. But the more of her work I saw, I understood it not to be by chance at all, but by design. First of all she knows her craft too well to attribute a delicious and unsettling edit to luck, and secondly, the domestic harmony she depicts in her films is consistently destabilized (usually by the woman with a hint of sadistic pleasure in her smile) throughout her work.

I think that Conneely expresses some of the edgier mischief and discontent that women of my mother’s generation seemed to tote along with them and unwittingly reveal at who knows when. Unlike many women of that era, it doesn't appear that Margaret was held back much at all in pursuing her interests beyond her family.

Nevertheless, in the context of the amateur film clubs, she couldn't have missed the fact that she was uniquely in the company of men at a time when the women typically dealt with the slide shows. Perhaps her "special standing" came out in her work in these various ways. As she once said about camera composition, "Feel for a picture in everything you see, and strive to make your pictures portray what you feel."

After listening to the presentation during the last couple of days, it seems obvious that we attribute our own background experiences to our evaluations and interpretations of these home movies and we conjecture about the filmmakers and their work from an approximation of where we ourselves stand, so I'll weigh in on that exercise as well.

- Nancy Watrous