Hollywood on the Chesapeake: “The Clam-Digger’s Daughter”

Long before Hollywood discovered Berlin and Ocean City as backdrops for their movies, film crews traveled to the Eastern Shore to create timeless films. Or at least what they hoped would be cinematic classics.

One of them is “The Clam-digger’s Daughter” AKA “The Story of Mr. Hobbs.” It was shot in and around Cape Charles in 1947 by the Canadian director/actress Nell Shipman.

The plot is a wee bit over-the-top. It involves an embittered clam digger who blames a New York banker for the destruction of the barrier island that was his home and location of his shellfish bed in a storm. Said banker refused to approve a loan to build a breakwater around the island because it was a bad risk. (Insert joke about bakers, mortgages, and bad loans here). Now the banker is returning to the area to meet with a beleaguered Latin-American president who is battling communist insurgents in his country. (I told you it was over-the-top.) Hobbs arranges to ferry the banker to his secret rendezvous with the president, but instead takes him to an abandoned cottage on the eroded island where he’ll be drowned by the incoming tide. It’s up to the clam-digger’s daughter and her fiancé, a returning WW2 vet who works for the local newspaper and is supposed to interview the banker, to reach the island and rescue the banker before he drowns. (I know what you are thinking. Be nice.)

How does it end? Nobody knows. Once the filming was over and the cast and crew left Cape Charles, the movie by any name (at one point it had a working title of “Tides, A Tale of the Tidewater”) vanishes. It’s unclear if it was even ever released.

But people in Cape Charles remember it. The local paper is full of photos and articles documenting the excitement generated when the production was in town. One of the local people was hired to type the script, but she doesn’t recall the ending.

A local film buff went looking for the movie. In a piece of detective work worthy of its own movie, he tracked it down in – of all places – the British Film Institute in downtown London. But the Institute can find only seven reels of the movie which was apparently eight or nine reels long. They’ve checked the archives on either side of the copy they found in case it had been misfiled. They checked any film with any title even remotely similar but without luck. They cross-referenced with the cast and production members to see if there was yet another name or possible location. But the fate of the banker, the Latin American president, Crad Hobbs, his daughter, and her fiancé remain a mystery. (OK, we know the girl and her boyfriend live happily ever after. Cue the romantic strings. Fade to black.)

After the film was discovered in 1996, it was shown in Cape Charles. Frances Helm, who played the key role of “Timmy Hobbs,” the clam-digger’s daughter, revisited Cape Charles for what may have been the film’s world premier.

You can see the film and debate the ending this weekend. It’s being screened on Sunday, January 16 at 3 p.m. at the Palace Theater in Cape Charles. Arts Enter Cape Charles and the Friends of Cape Charles/Northampton Library are co-sponsoring it. Admission is free, but a donation to the cause is most appreciated. You can also buy a DVD of the film. Proceeds benefit the library. 757-331-2787.