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What is local color movie about?

Local color movies are a genre of filmmaking that became popular in the early 20th century. These movies focused on specific regions, cultures, and dialects found across America. They aimed to authentically portray the lives of everyday people from a specific locale. Local color films were low budget and independently produced, but gained popularity for their slice-of-life narratives. The local color movie trend reflected wider civic nationalism and interest in diverse regional identities in the early 1900s United States.

Definition of the Local Color Movie Genre

The local color film genre refers to movies that emphasize the distinctive customs, dialects, settings, and other cultural elements of a specific region. Local color films were made across the United States in the 1900s and 1910s. They were independent productions with low budgets, made quickly on location. The term “local color” comes from literature, where regional writers became popular for their lively and authentic portrayals of local people and ways of life.

Local color movies aimed to capture similar local slices of life. They often had simple narratives focused on common people going about their daily business. The key was showcasing the distinctive local cultures and settings – whether New England fishermen, Appalachian moonshiners, Midwestern farmers, or Louisiana Creoles. Local color movies stood out for their attention to local dialects, slang, costumes, stories, music, and scenery.

Origins and Popularity of Local Color Movies

The local color genre emerged in the early 1900s alongside the rise of cinema. Making films on location became easier with new portable cameras. Regional movie-making also aligned with civic nationalism and interest in local communities. President Teddy Roosevelt had called for preservation of local cultures; local color films helped do that on screen.

Many early filmmakers saw local color movies as a great business opportunity. They were inexpensive to make and there was high audience interest in diverse American settings and peoples. Local color films could also compete with the big city-focused studio productions coming from Hollywood.

D.W. Griffith was an early director who helped develop the genre with films like 1910’s In Old California, set during Spanish rule. Other major local color movies included 1914’s The Moonshiners about Appalachian bootleggers and 1928’s Stark Love set in the rural Smoky Mountains. Even as Hollywood came to dominate U.S. film, low-budget local color productions remained popular into the 1920s.

Characteristics of Local Color Movies

Local color films had several characteristic features that differentiated them from mainstream Hollywood studio movies of the time:

  • Regional settings like specific towns, rural areas, or landscapes.
  • Local dialects, accents, and slang.
  • Folk cultures like food, music, stories, and customs.
  • Amateur regional actors instead of Hollywood stars.
  • Simple quotidian plots about everyday life.
  • Authentic on-location filming, often outdoors.
  • Low production budgets and crews.

The goal was to offer an immersive cinematic window into the look, sound, and feel of a locale. Critics however felt the films sometimes slipped into condescension or stereotyping in portraying local peoples as quaint, naive, or backwards.

Examples of Major Local Color Movies

Here are some of the most acclaimed and influential local color movies from the 1900s-1920s silent film era:

In Old California (1910)

An early local color Western starring pioneering director D.W. Griffith. It depicted Spanish California during the Gold Rush. The 15-minute short was filmed on location in Los Angeles and helped establish early Westerns as a genre.

The Moonshiners (1914)

One of the first feature length local color films, The Moonshiners dramatized generational feuds between bootlegging moonshiners and Revenue agents in the Appalachians. It was shot on location in Arkansas and featured local mountaineers as actors.

Where the Real West Begins (1924)

A Western advertised as “filmed in the exact Locale of the Story,” this movie was shot around Pagosa Springs, Colorado. It exemplified on-location outdoor filming central to the local color genre.

Stark Love (1927)

Karl Brown’s drama about a love triangle among North Carolina mountain folk is considered the epitome of the Appalachian local color genre. It used amateur regional actors and on-location outdoor filming to convey authentic backwoods culture.

Nanook of the North (1922)

While focused on the Inuit people of northern Canada, Robert Flaherty’s pioneering documentary featured local color elements that influenced the regional film genre. It starred local Inuits and was one of the first feature length documentaries.

Decline of the Local Color Film Genre

The local color movie genre faded in the late 1920s with the rise of big-budget Hollywood talkies and studio system filmmaking. Some factors in the genre’s decline:

  • Bigger Hollywood productions drew audiences away.
  • The authenticity of local color films was sometimes criticized as condescending.
  • Sound films made visible dialects and accents contentious.
  • Regional filmmakers struggled to afford the transition to sound.
  • The Depression increased focus on Hollywood musicals and fantasies.

Still, the influence of local color movies remained in documentary styles and on later American regional directors. Elements of the genre’s realism are visible in 1930s government documentary projects and 1970s films like Deliverance that continued exploring vanishing rural locales.

Significance of Local Color Movies

Though short-lived, the local color film genre had a significant impact on early American cinema and culture:

  • They helped establish on-location filming as a viable independent filmmaking model.
  • The films recorded diverse American regional cultures and settings during the early 20th century.
  • They reflected wider interest in exploring local and folk cultures as part of America’s civic nationalism.
  • The films inspired Hollywood’s periodic interest in American regionalism, rural dramas, and “hillbilly” movies.
  • Their production influenced documentary newsreel techniques and cinema realism.

Above all, local color movies took audiences on revealing cinematic journeys into distinctive worlds across America during the medium’s earliest days. The genre captured a snapshot of the nation’s rich regional diversity in the early 1900s.


Local color movies rose to popularity in the American silent film era as low-budget, on-location productions celebrating distinctive regional cultures. From Appalachian moonshiners to Midwestern farmers, they authentically portrayed the look, sound, music, and customs of locales nationwide. Local color films declined with Hollywood’s rise but influenced documentary styles and fascination with rural Americana. At their best, they immersed audiences in America’s diverse folk worlds at the dawn of cinema.