It has been 58 years since a film crew descended on Bridgehampton to shoot “Problems of a Small Community,” an 11-minute movie about small-town democracy that the U.S. Department of State sent abroad to combat communism at the start of the Cold War.
Though the film could easily be seen as a propaganda piece, local historian Ann Sandford, who found the footage at the State Department archives while researching a book about her grandfather’s life in Bridgehampton, has a more nuanced view of its purpose.
“It was supposed to portray democracy in action in a typical American village,” Ms. Sandford told members of the crowd that gathered for a screening of the film at the Hampton Library in Bridgehampton last Tuesday, April 8. Her lecture explored whether the film was truly a documentary, or propaganda.
The filmmaker, Richard Carter Wood, was a still photographer and architect with a degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who vacationed in Bridgehampton. He was intrigued by the hamlet’s attempt at self-governance by creating a community council, which historical records say took place in 1950.
Ms. Sandford discovered some historical inaccuracies in the project, however. For one, the film’s narration claims the formation of the council took place in 1946, but newspaper accounts at the time said it occurred on Friday, August 18, 1950.
When 400 members of the community showed up for the meeting, Ms. Sandford said they knew the proceedings would be filmed and viewed abroad.
“Would that many people have showed up if it wasn’t being filmed?” she wondered.
The council, which the film said was formed in part to help stop Halloween pranks and prevent people from drowning at the beach, contained one representative from each of the community groups and an equal number of people elected from the community at large. Ms. Sandford said that newspaper accounts at the time, including one from The New York Times, show that the way the council was organized had been documented accurately.
Members of the council were “not a part of government,” according to the film, but “represented a centralization of public opinion.”
“It’s a sensible alternative to incorporating,” said Ms. Sandford, referencing Bridgehampton’s recent attempt to form its own village.
One of the first things that tipped Ms. Sandford off to the fact that the film wasn’t a pure documentary was the participation of Meryl and Mary Hildreth, a couple who still lives in Sagaponack. In the film, Meryl goes swimming at a nearby ocean beach while his wife stays on the sand. He drowns.
Mr. and Mrs. Hildreth, who attended the screening last week, said they were invited to star in the drowning scene, which they remembered having been shot on Main Beach in Sagaponack in August of 1950. Mr. Hildreth is obviously very much still alive.
Another aspect of life in Bridgehampton that appears to have been glossed over by the filmmakers is the hardships faced by African-American migrant workers, who are conspicuously absent from the footage.
Ms. Sandford did recognize Brian Hamlin among the participants on the council, a man who was described by reporters at the time as a “liberal thorn in the conservative flesh,” and was among the members of the council who were active in trying to better the lives of migrant workers in the community.
Not long after the movie was shot, two black children died when the chicken coop they lived in on the Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike burned to the ground.
Soon after, the community built the Bridgehampton Child Care Center not far from where the children had perished.
None of this subject matter made it into the film, which opens with a sleepy tour of Bridgehampton’s churches, reminding viewers that though Methodists, Catholics, Episcopalians and Presbyterians have differing religious views, they come together to solve the collective problems of their community.
The greatest source of dread in the picture is the young children who, accompanied by horrifying music, soap windows and steal fences on Halloween—a scene that adds to the film’s skewed time frame, since much of the action in the movie is purported to have taken place in the summer.
The narrator describes the community as “tolerant toward youth,” and the council rids the hamlet of Halloween pranks by holding a party at the school.
Gail Maran Brockett was one of the girls bobbing for apples in the party scene. She also won one of Ms. Sandford’s Bridgehampton Oscar awards for naming more people in the film than anyone else. She recognized a total of 25 people in the film, including her mother, father and uncle. Her cousin, Carlton Thiele, was one of the kids stealing things on Halloween and Ms. Maran Brockett remembered that Mr. Wood had been taking pictures of her cousin, who had intense red hair, all summer in 1950.
“He was on the cover of magazines,” she remembered.
Along with Mr. Thiele, Ms. Maran Brockett recognized her friend Eddie Hildreth as one of the children playing pranks in the Halloween scenes. Other members of the community have identified all of the members of the council and the most prominent participants in the film.
Though Ms. Sandford says the film was distributed at American libraries in Europe and elsewhere abroad, she said that it’s still open for debate whether its prospective audience understood English.