by Ashley Witzenberger
Picture it, Vermont, 1916…you will have an opportunity to do just that at this year’s Green Mountain Film Festival during the screening of a piece of lovingly restored cinematic history, “A Vermont Romance.”
This silent era film displays the Vermont landscape 100 years ago, and was produced for the Vermont Advance newspaper and the Vermont Progressive Party (not the same progressive party we know today in Vermont), featuring a cast of local amateur actors. “A Vermont Romance” was the first feature film commissioned and shot in the Green Mountain State, and it is noted that the writing and production of the film was done by an experienced movie picture producer from New York, brought to Vermont “by the Advance at great cost.” In the early 1900s, it was almost unheard of to get an acting job, unless you were wealthy. The Advance newspaper recruited locals to be actors through a Movie Contest. The contest began with the nomination of local Vermonters that were then chosen through a popular vote. This contest gained the Progressive Party a great deal of notoriety, and the Advance newspaper a dramatic increase in subscriptions as the number of subscriptions one could procure increased the chances of winning. To entice Vermonters to get involved, the Advance newspaper advertised the contest as “a wonderful opportunity for every man, woman, and child in Vermont … that may open a big channel in your future.” Two ladies and two gentlemen were chosen; the main characters, Dorothy Whipple of Waterbury and J. A. Hunt of Derby Line, were paid $25.00 per week, plus expenses, a very generous pay for the times.
This film promises a variety of amazing street scenes including a steam-powered train at the Burlington Train Station, horse-drawn cabs, City Hall Park in Burlington, Hotel Vermont and views of the industrial landscape on the Lake Champlain waterfront. The majority of the movie was filmed in Burlington, but it also features scenes in Grand Isle, Newport, St. Johnsbury, White River Junction, Rutland, Chester and Bellows Falls.
The producers began filming on Wednesday June 21, 1916 and the movie took only 10 days to complete, very different from the long production schedules we know today. The story is centered around the main character, Dorothy, whose father has passed, and, as a result, she loses the farm where she lives and works. Destitute, she moves to Burlington to find work, and her adventures begin, including some of the first known car chases in film. In 1966 at the première at the Majestic Theater in Burlington, it was reported that more than 4,000 people viewed the film on its first day alone.
Lost for many years, the film was found in 1966 in a Montpelier barn owned by Guy B. Horton, a man known to be active in the progressive party movement and an amateur historian. Mrs. B. B. Bosworth, Horton’s daughter, found the film, and handed it over to WCAX-TV, who preserved the film for some time.
A project of the Vermont International Film Foundation, the Vermont Archive Movie Project partnered with the Vermont Historical Society to digitally remaster the film in 2K resolution. Only 16 mm prints survive from the original 35 mm. According to Paul Carnahan from the Vermont Historical Society, “Great care and expertise went into the restoration of this film.” Paul explained that this digital transfer speed was matched to the production speed, making for a much “smoother” viewing experience. Considerable work was also done to remove imperfections. This film will not look like many of the silent films we see today that jump around due to the different production speeds.
Celebrating the film’s centennial, and seeing this project come full circle from the barn in Montpelier to now, the debut screening of the restored version of this film will take place in downtown Montpelier during the Green Mountain Film Festival. Mark your calendar for Saturday, March 26 at 4 p.m., when the movie will be shown in the Pavilion Auditorium. The original music score was unfortunately lost and, as part of the restoration process, a special new music score was commissioned and created by Bob Merrill, a veteran silent film composer and pianist. To recreate the experience of a silent film of that time, the screening will feature Merrill in a live piano accompaniment.
After the screening, movie enthusiasts and history buffs are invited to a panel discussion with Orly Yadin, filmmaker and executive director of the Vermont International Film Festival, Paul Carnahan a librarian at the Vermont Historical Society; Gregory Sanford, former Vermont State Archivist; and Steve Bissette, film historian and faculty member at the Center for Cartoon Studies.
Tickets are $15 for this event and can be purchased online at https://gmffestival.showare.com, or in person at the GMFF office opening on March 7 located at 54 Main Street, Montpelier (next to Pho Thai Express). Ticket Office Phone Numbers: 595-6661 and 595-6662. The ticket office hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (closed Sunday, March 13). For all other inquires please call 917-1225.