Friday, May 19, 2006

What's Up with the Dial Up This Morning?

I had something planned to share with y'all this morning, but due to either the weather or the vagaries of Sovernet (our server), I can't access my own email this morning for more than one email at a time. Having struggled through this nonsense enough today, I'm feeling lucky to get into the blog at all and will table my planned posts until the weekend or after.

So, local interest stories only this morning -- sorry!

This week has been an eventful one here, culminating in a Wednesday night five-town meeting of the minds in the Town Offices in Dummerston, VT about bringing DSL service to rural Windham County. Dummerston selectmen Tom Bodett (known to some of you for his Motel 6 commercials and appearances on NPR's Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me) and Kevin Ryan organized the powwow, and Jim Mahoney and I were there on behalf of the Marlboro committee; there were folks from nearby Newfane, Brooline and Putney there, too. We'll be posting the meeting notes and other info and updates on
  • the Marlboro broadband committee site.

  • In the meantime, Jane Wilde and I continue working on the upcoming launch of the Bissette website, while I chip away at other duties and projects: the weekly drawing session with a Marlboro Elementary School student (who will remain unnamed here, to protect the innocent), ongoing work with the CCS students on our late spring DVD minicomic gig, the ongoing expansion/revisions to We Are Going to Eat You, and writing and editing chores in the hopes of getting two volumes of Green Mountain Cinema this summer.

    I've also had prep work for this week's illustrated lecture on comics and graphic novels -- delivered Tuesday night to an architect's association in White River Jct., VT -- and more extensive prep work for two presentations next week: a presentation in Morrisville, VT's Morristown Centennial Library on Monday May 22 at 6:30 pm (802-888-3853), and a private presentation of a lecture on psychology/psychiatry and comics for a Dartmouth gathering on Wednesday. I hereby vow to feature EC's Psychoanalysis comic and Charles Schultz's famed "The Doctor is In" panel from Peanuts among other goodies, including Justin Green's confessional Binky Brown and the Holy Virgin Mary and others.

    Then there's the day-long fund-raising drawing workshop I'm giving at the Marlboro Elementary School tomorrow (Saturday, May 20th), for which I've donated my time. Morning (10 AM to 12 noon) is for K thru 4th Grade students, the longer afternoon session (1:30 PM to 4 PM) is for 5th Grade and up, including two adults who've signed up. Should be high-octane and fun, and I've got some great exercises planned. If this works out, we'll do another later this summer with wider promotion; alas, I couldn't get any assistance or aides, so I'll be on my lonesome with the small group, which is fine.

    I also managed to catch evening screenings of United 93 (brilliant piece of work, and among the most harrowing docudramas I've ever seen) and Art School Confidential (engaging, excellent and haunting; kudos to Clowes and Zwigoff!) this week, too. I was suffering cinematic withdrawal symptoms, and so badly needed my dose of colored-light-on-a-big-screen and sound-coming-at-me that I would have settled for anything, really. Two good pics in a row, though, was a treat.

    For your Friday reading pleasure, though, and as a follow-up to my 1927 flood 'teaser' earlier this week (as the rain picks up and continues today, after two days of sporadic sunshine here in Marlboro), I'm posting the outline for my Green Mountain Cinema II silent movie coverage. This appeared, in truncated form (edited down from this draft), in a Montpelier newspaper and in the regional newsstand magazine Livin' hereabouts in 2005; I'm expanding this considerably for GMCII, to provide broader context for my 1927 flood article and Arthur Lennig's definitive coverage of the making of D.W. Griffith's classic Way Down East, among other goodies.


    REEL ESTATE: How the Movies Came to Vermont, and Vermont Came to the Movies...

    The early years of Vermont’s motion picture legacy are elusive. Many of these films no longer survive, the only evidence of their flickering existence found in newspapers, trade journals, books, the occasional photograph or promotional ad. But rest assured that films were indeed being made in Vermont before the coming of sound, laying bedrock for the film and video production of today.

    The first Vermont films chronicled military maneuvers, most likely filmed at Fort Ethan Allen. Hand-cranked motion picture cameras accommodated about one minute’s worth of film, and the titles were self-explanatory: Cavalry Charge, Cavalry Horses at Play, Cavalry Musical Drill, Charge Through Intervals of Skirmishes, Fencing on Horseback, Troopers Hurdling, along with Wrestling, Bareback: 3rd Cavalry and Musical Drill: Troop A, Third Cavalry (all 1897).

    The famed French cinema pioneers the Lumiere Brothers August and Louis opened a plant in Burlington by Lake Champlain in 1902; it was acquired by the Eastman Company, and abandoned in 1911. The following year, celebrated silent comedy mogul Mack Sennett formed the production company Keystone with two partners, one of whom was Adam Kessel, Jr., whose Kessel Park estate on the New York side of the lake reportedly housed guest stars like Charlie Chaplin. By then, Vermont had spawned two ‘movie stars’ of its own: Commodore Admiral George Dewy of Montpelier, and Wilson Alwyn Bentley, the “Snowflake Man” of Jericho.

    Dewey was one of the great naval heroes of the 1898 Spanish-American war; eager to satisfy public demand for footage of Dewey, Albert E. Smith and James Stuart Blackton boarded the cruiser Olympia in September 1899 to ‘sneak’ shots of Dewey, and later filmed the Admiral in Washington, D.C.

    The team then journeyed to Montpelier to visit the Admiral’s home -- only to be tossed out. Dewey later accepted an invitation from Smith and Blackton to travel to their Vitagraph studio in Flatbush, New York and appear in The Battle Cry of Peace (1915).

    The humble Jericho man who made his mark in the world photographing snowflakes was visited by Pathe News in 1917. During this outdoor session (much to Bentley’s frustration, as he worked inside), the Pathe crew clumsily faked snowfall by tossing snow from a second-story window and hung cut-out paper models of snowflakes from wires to simulate microphotography of snow spiralling through the air.

    Alas, this short film is all that remains of Bentley’s motion picture career, though he was visited again in 1921, this time by the Bray Studios of New York. Bentley demonstrated a firmer grasp of the principles of cinema than did his camera-toting visitors: when the filmmakers inquired whether it might be possible to film the crystallization process, Bentley suggested they film a snow crystal melting, then reverse the film to simulate the snowflake taking form. The short film, entitled Mysteries of the Snow, was exhibited at Burlington’s Majestic Theatre, where Bentley’s slides were occasionally exhibited on the big screen.

    Heartbreak fueled the first features made in Vermont. A Vermont Romance (1915) was made by “The Vermont Progressive Party”, such as it was, set and shot in and around Burlington (and, perhaps, White River Junction). It soon faded from view, perhaps because it defied genre expectations, urging orphaned lasses to spurn the lovesick farmer down the road (even if he gives his last dollar in aid), find a rich man, and marry. It was resurrected and reportedly ‘restored’ by WCAX-TV for broadcast in 1965; a shortened version of this feature is in the collection of the Northeast Historic Film Museum in Buckport, Maine. A Vermont Romance is a most curious artifact, ending with an extended tour of an industrialized bakery (where the now-penniless farmer slaves away, working for the wealthy man who won the heroine’s heart), anticipating the industrial, educational, and promotional film industry which would soon emerge in various corners of the state.

    Far more classical made-in-Vermont romances blossomed in Way Down East, The Offenders, and Insinuation (all 1921). In 1920, the silent era’s greatest director, David Wark Griffith was sorely in need of success to recharge his flagging career. He purchased the rights to the popular stage play Way Down East to craft a star vehicle for Lillian Gish, one of America’s most beloved actresses, and arrived in White River Junction with his cast and crew in March of that year. Gish’s country girl, previously wed to a rich city man who abandoned her with child (which soon died), restarts her life working at a New England farm, where the stout son of the farm’s stern patriarch falls for her; gossip, the return of her rich suitor, and despair drives the forlorn lass into a raging blizzard.

    Intent on creating a spectacle unlike any ever seen, Griffith dared to place Gish afloat on a cake of ice in the thawing March waters. Of all silent Vermont films, Way Down East remains the best-known. Griffith’s sensitive direction, Gish’s heart-breaking performance, and the still-spectacular climax (wherein Richard Barthelmess rushes to rescue Gish before they are washed over the falls) won raves from critics and audiences alike, though the honorable Charles R. Cummings, publisher/editor of The Vermonter: The State Magazine, ridiculed the film’s portrait of the Vermont character.

    Less renowned -- and sadly lost -- are the two features made in Randolph that same year, written, directed, produced by and starring an adventurous woman named Margery Wilson, who summered in Randolph. She’d appeared in films (including D.W. Griffith’s epic Intolerance) and turned down a marriage proposal from one of America’s leading movie stars, William S. Hart. Wilson chose Randolph as the ideal place to make her features, The Offenders (1921/24) and Insinuation (1921), which were both romances in the Way Down East tradition. Insinuation debuted at Randolph’s Chandler Music Hall before its road-show engagements.

    By 1920, “Moving-Picture Machines” were available for sale to the public. Adventurous theater owners one-upped competitors by producing their own exclusive newsreels. Among these was the Latchis Theatre in Brattleboro; when the Connecticut River washed a local bridge downstream in December, 1920, the unidentified Latchis cameraman filmed the spectacle. The footage was acquired (or appropriated) by the Selznick Weekly News and played nationally.

    16mm film was introduced in 1923, opening the door for more regional filmmaking. These were, by and large, products of industry: quarries (the earliest, shot in the Barre quarries, dates from November, 1920), the sugaring firms (as early as 1926, shot by Harry Wendell Richardson for the St. Johnsbury-based Cary Maple Sugar Company), and more. There were home movies, many long-lost and never-to-be-recovered, though a few reside in the Northeast Historic Film Museum.

    At least five cameramen in different corners of the state captured the November, 1927 flood on film. Two reels of flood footage have survived: about 10 minutes of 35mm footage sheltered at the Northeast Historic Film Museum, and 25 minutes currently housed at the University of Vermont Bailey/Howe Library Media Resources Department. Together, this archived footage present a remarkable snapshot of the natural disaster, demonstrating how active newsreel photographers (professional and amateur) had become in the most remote corners of the state.

    The man who’d already shot some of the first industrial films in the state (for the maple sugar industry), Harry Wendell Richardson, shot footage along the northernmost portion of the state, showcasing the wake of the flood in Newport, Orleans, Coventry, and areas along the Clyde River; this reel is in the Northeast Historic Film Museum collection. The UVM footage, entitled Vermont Flood of 1927, is the most publicly available of all (on display at the new Vermont Historic Society Pavilion in Barre, Vermont; excerpts appear in the VPT video Vermont’s Great Flood), featuring the towns of Winooski, Bolton, Waterbury, Jonesville, Jeffersonville, Cambridge, Rutland, Proctor, Richmond, Hinesburg, and White River Junction, as well as bordering New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Four photographers are credited: Edward V. Hoyt, L.A. Norcott, “ex-Governor Proctor, of Proctor, Vt., and Ralph R. Eno of New York City.”

    The silent era of Vermont filmmaking did not end with the ‘bang’ of the flood. After the arrival of sound, regional filmmakers were still using the silent film format; it was the most affordable of media, and was used throughout the 1930s.

    A nomadic female filmmaker named Margaret Cram Showalter wandered New England currying funding from local businesses to produce her rapid-fire “Movie Queen” featurettes. She shot and completed these silent featurettes in a little over a week, always using the same narrative, reaping whatever boxoffice the finished product earned at the local town hall or opera house before rushing off to another town to do it all over again. At least one Vermont-based “Movie Queen” film has survived, shot in Middlebury. There may be others.

    Mack M. Derick of Orleans was the sole native son to continue filmmaking (sans sound). Derick was engaged by The State Publicity Department and various chambers of commerce to make Dot and Glen See Vermont (1932), chronicling the honeymoon travels of the (fictional) couple Dot (17-year-old Josie Pomeroy, now Josie Pomeroy Sherrer) and Glen (19-year-old Glendon Foster). Vermont film historian and archivist Richard W. Moulton presented excerpts from the film (with interviews with Dot and Glen, and clips from another Derick short, Model ‘A’ in the Mud) in the VPT video Vermont Memories Vol. 1 (1994). Derick carved out a living as a still photographer; his work graced many issues of Vermont Life.

    There were a handful of silent feature films set, but not shot, in Vermont, such as The Street of Tears and Which Shall it Be? (both 1924). The first sound film set (but not shot) in Vermont was Drag (1929), which brought Way Down East co-star Richard Barthelmess "back to Vermont" as a small-town newspaper publisher. Hollywood continued to set films in Vermont, all filmed on studio sets, including Frank Capra’s humanist comedy Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and William Wellman’s retaliatory satire Nothing Sacred (1937).

    With the notable exceptions of Mack Derick, the Movie Queen, and industrial and education films (including those made for the growing ski industry), regional filmmaking hibernated until Robert Flaherty’s arrival in the late 1940s. In 1954, Alfred Hitchcock came here to film his peculiar black comedy The Trouble with Harry (1955)...

    ...but that’s another story.

    [Special thanks to the folks at the Northeast Historic Film Museum, and to Joseph A. Citro, Richard W. Moulton, Arthur Lennig, Art Donahue, Roger Wiberg, Martha Day, Lori Holiff, and Cecile Starr.]

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