News & Notes
Ever watched a 100-year-old feature film? Ever watched it on a big screen with music, running at the correct speed, at full frame silent aperture and 4×3 aspect ratio? You have?! How about all of the above but also shot on location in Vermont?
A Vermont Romance was filmed in June /July of 1916 – on locations throughout Vermont – Burlington, Newport, St Johnsbury, Brattleboro, White River Junction, Bellows Falls, Quechee Gorge and more. It was filmed in downtown streets, at busy train stations, in fancy hotels and houses, on farms, in garment factories and in modern bakeries. It includes broken hearts, an orphan, a kidnapping, a wild car chase, cocktail hour, a dance and a kiss!
See it now digitally restored to 2K resolution by VTIFF’s new program VAMP, with a brand new score composed by Bob Merrill.
A Vermont Romance is an important piece of film history and of Vermont’s history. A brainchild of the Vermont Advance, the publication of the Progressive Party (Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose), the film was produced to publicize the party and its politics. For two months the Advance created a buzz by launching a casting competition among “ordinary” people in Vermont using tactics similar to today’s social media campaigns: the more votes each candidate got, the better chance they had to be selected. Eventually Dorothy Whipple from Waterbury won the competition for the leading lady role, and Jerry Allen Hunt from Newport got the leading male role. (His great grandson Bob Hunt tells us that family lore has it that Jerry got the part because he was a car dealer and could supply the automobiles used in the film.)
A director was brought in from Chicago and a cinematographer from NYC. Everywhere they filmed caused great excitement and you can see passers by staring at the action with great curiosity.
The Premiere of A Vermont Romance was at the Majestic Theater in Burlington (site of the gas station today at the corner of Bank and S Winooski). 4000 people attended the first screenings!
The Advance and the Progressive party lasted for another year or so and then died. But the film survived, barely, in the form of one 35mm print that was found in the 1960s in the barn of the widow of the Advance owner. This was handed over to WCAX who had a lab in NY transfer it to 16mm. We don’t know the fate of the 35mm print after transfer. We do know, from videos that were subsequently made from the 16mm, that the transfer was far from ideal. Vermont PBS aired a poorly-made video (and re-cut) from this transfer, extracts of which have been floating on the internet. The meticulous new restoration by VAMP is probably the closest we’ll get to watching the film as it was first conceived.
Why bother, you may ask, to go to the trouble of restoring and showing such silly old melodrama? The answer is really quite simple. Any film ever made (or other cultural artifact) contains within it some information about the period: the style, the social mores, the political aspirations, the way people lived, the way the landscape looked, the way machines worked, the way the audience related to cinematic representation. If you watch A Vermont Romance, you’ll be surprised at how much you can glean about life in Vermont 100 years ago and also about how the Progressive Party was promoting its political thoughts. There is nothing overtly political in the film, but the unusual twists and turns of the narrative, the seemingly bizarre interlude in the bakery, the “defying all cinematic conventions” romantic choice that Dorothy makes, reveal so much about the producers’ message about the benefits of mechanization and urban life and the anachronism of farm life. Work conditions in the Hinds Garment factory in Burlington (now condo-ized as Hinds Lofts) show how women worked in factories; the garden party scene (shot in the Fairbanks family property in St Johnsbury) shows recreational life of the wealthy; the scene at the busy train station in Burlington brings back to life a time when trains were the default means of transportation. I could go on, but I’d rather you came to see the film and made sense of it for yourself.