Vermont on the Silver Screen Transcript
Back to the Vermont on the Silver Screen episode.
[Music from A Vermont Romance]
Fred Pond: It’s called A Vermont Romance. And the title itself sounds very romantic, but it’s really not a romance film. It’s almost a political film.
One of the earliest films made in Vermont was produced by The Vermont Advance, the newspaper of the Progressive Party. They wanted to promote the modernization of the state.
The half-hour, black-and-white movie was shot in just 10 days in the summer of 1916. Vermonters were chosen in a statewide contest to be the actors.
Fred: And it shows. It’s not too zippy, but it does have for that time, of course, romances. And there are car chases. You must have car chases.
Fred Pond has volunteered at the Vermont Historical Society for over a decade, helping to locate and preserve old films, including A Vermont Romance.
Fred: A woman leaves the country and moves to the city. Meanwhile, there’s a tour of the bread factory in White River Junction.
The Tip Top building is still there, but it’s no longer a bakery. It’s an arts and creative business center. Other locations shown in the film have also changed, or disappeared entirely.
The Vermont Advance toured the film all over the state in the fall of 1916. People came out in droves. It was probably the first film that many Vermonters ever saw. And it was just the first example of how Vermont has been depicted on the silver screen.
Fred: You know, a local film has been made, let’s go see it. This is our street. Look at this. This is a film.
[BYT theme music]
This is Before Your Time, presented by the Vermont Historical Society and Vermont Humanities. I’m your host, Lovejoy. Every episode, we go inside the stacks at the Vermont Historical Society to look at an object from their permanent collection that tells us something unique about our state. Then we take a closer look at the people, the events, or the ideas that surround each artifact.
Because of the pandemic, we’re not actually going into the stacks today. And movies really live in our memories, and in the stories we tell about ourselves.
The physical nature of movies has changed since the time Fred Pond went to school.
Fred: I worked in the audiovisual club at my high school. She wanted this film at that period in room 506. And we would take the film out of storage and thread it on a projector and roll it on a cart, clatter, clatter, down the hall to room 506.
Before video was a thing, Fred learned to splice and love films. Years later, Vermont Historical Society librarians Paul Carnahan and Marjorie Strong found a project for Fred that took advantage of his knowledge.
Fred: They let me come in and look at the vault and they showed me this wall of old films, a whole big bookcase. And I said to Paul and Marjorie, “What’s in them?” And they said, “Well, we have a few lists, but we’re not really sure.”
One of those films turned out to be A Vermont Romance. It had been shot on wide 35-millimeter film stock, but the original was lost to time. By 2008, only a 16-millimeter copy, and a grainier 8-millimeter copy, survived.
The Historical Society worked with the Vermont International Film Foundation and its Vermont Archive Movie Project to restore A Vermont Romance. And that 8-millimeter copy came in handy.
Fred: With these old films, the headers and the tails would get chewed up and you wouldn’t have the titling. The 8-millimeter that we found had the titling, so we used the 8-millimeter to inform the retitling in the digitized copy we did in 2016.
Since A Vermont Romance is a silent film, the Vermont International Film Foundation commissioned a score by Bob Merrill, a composer and musician who regularly accompanies silent films at Dartmouth College.
100 years after its initial tour, the restored A Vermont Romance went on the road. And again it was a big hit across the state.
[film score out]
Not every film in the archives can get the same star treatment as A Vermont Romance. Fred is also interested in home movies, what he calls “community” films.
Fred: We sometimes get them when estates are settled. But I live in concern that people will see that old film canister and recycle it.
Old films shot in our state give us an invaluable look at how life was lived in Vermont years ago: our hills and buildings, our clothing and mannerisms.
Fred: Vermont has never been a rich state. And we didn’t have a lot of people filming in the early days. So what we do have is perhaps more dear.
This lack of footage from Vermont’s early days is surprising, since Vermont has now been portrayed in film so often. Grab a bag of popcorn and settle in as we head down memory lane.
Amanda: My name is Amanda Gustin. I’m the Public Program Manager at the Vermont Historical Society and you’ve heard me before in other things in this podcast. Today we’re going to talk about something that’s near and dear to my heart: film history. I particularly love classic Hollywood movies – anything made before about 1945.
Amanda: A few years ago, I started keeping a list of movies that mentioned or took place in Vermont. It started just as a fun thing to do, but it started getting longer and longer, and before I knew it, I had started to see patterns – and when I thought about those patterns, they seemed to say something about the way Vermont has been depicted in Hollywood movies over the last hundred years.
Amanda: Take the 1930s and 1940s, for example. There are a ton of movies from that era that show Vermont as this perfect, idyllic place – it’s the last refuge of democracy, kids are excited to go to Sunday school, it’s an inherently more moral place than somewhere like, say, New York City. The pace of life is just slower and happier. Here’s an example: the 1939 movie Dark Victory, in which Bette Davis plays a New York socialite and George Brent plays her doctor. He’s telling her here why he’s leaving New York, and she tells him why she thinks that’s a terrible decision.
[Dark Victory clip]
Amanda: Before 1950, too, there are two other tropes you see in movies set in Vermont: winter is bad and the state is full of Republicans. Time and time again people in movies set in Vermont are getting into serious trouble with the weather. In 1940’s Young People, Shirley Temple plays a girl whose parents move to Vermont so they can raise her properly – and her family is finally accepted by the community after she saves her whole Sunday School class in a blizzard.
Amanda: Then there’s the politics.
[White Christmas clip]
Amanda: From 1860 to 1960, Vermont was one of the most reliably Republican states in the country. There are a lot of reasons for that, and a lot of reasons why it changed, but it was well-known and obvious enough to Hollywood scriptwriters that there are tons of little jokes just like that one from 1954’s White Christmas.
Amanda: Speaking of White Christmas…if there’s one movie you probably think of when you think about movies set in Vermont, it’s that one. It’s a classic, and do you remember the plot? White Christmas is the first time a movie set in Vermont is lamenting about a lack of snow instead of worried about too much of it.
[Snow song from White Christmas]
Amanda: By the 1960s, the centralized image of Vermont in film was starting to fracture. So you saw movies like 1965’s Those Calloways, set in Vermont, that deal with issues like economic development, environmental preservation, and the essential nature of community.
[Clip from Those Calloways]
Amanda: In the 1980s, Vermont again became a place where people would go to escape and live the good life – usually leaving New York City to do so. Here’s Diane Keaton in Baby Boom, reflecting on just what life will be like when she settles into her new farmhouse in Vermont.
[Clip from Baby Boom]
Amanda: One thing has remained constant through all movies and tv shows set in Vermont, and that’s the trope that Vermonters give bad directions. Here’s a great example from the 1988 Chevy Chase film Funny Farm. To give you some context, these are two moving van drivers looking for Chevy Chase’s new house, and the man they are talking to is an old Vermont farmer sitting on his porch.
[Clip from Funny Farm]
Amanda: Into the 90s and 2000s, Hollywood added a few more things to its image of Vermont: food and liberal politics. Both of them are summed up in this scene from the 2005 movie Thank You for Smoking, in which Aaron Eckhart plays a lobbyist for big tobacco who quizzes William H. Macy’s Senator from Vermont in a congressional hearing.
[Clip from Thank You for Smoking]
Amanda: So what do we learn from watching and thinking about all these movies set in Vermont? Well, for one thing, they all represent a certain idealized angle on the state – even during the height of the Great Depression, in the 1930s, life in Hollywood Vermont was rosy and charmed. A lot of it is tied up again with the same questions of outsider versus insider that come up again and again in Vermont history.
Amanda: Whether or not you agree with the Vermont that you see on a movie or TV screen, it’s how a lot of people are introduced to the state. And I don’t think people in movies and TV shows are going to stop coming to Vermont anytime soon, so I’ll keep adding to my list.
A muddy barn can seem a long way from the idealized Vermont of Hollywood.
This farmer, Kenneth O’Donnell, was captured on film in the early 1970s.
Suzanne Opton: Richard came to Vermont during the back to the land movement, with other filmmakers from New York. And he built a house. He bought that potato field of Kenneth and his brother Arthur. And built a house there right on top of the hill with quite a view.
Suzanne Opton is a photographer. She was the partner of filmmaker Richard Brick.
Suzanne: Kenneth and Helen O’Donnell were our neighbors, and Richard decided to make this film Last Stand Farmer. I helped with the film and then photographed a lot of local people.
Vermont Humanities was founded in 1974. It gave one of its first grants to Richard Brick, to aid in the making of his 25-minute documentary.
Richard was in his late 20s when he made Last Stand Farmer. He eventually became a film professor at Columbia University, and was the first ever Commissioner of New York City’s Office of Film, Television and Broadcasting. He worked on a variety of movies. He died in 2014.
Andy Kolovos: One of the things for the Folklife Center when encountering documentary films is, was this done in a way that it would ethically make sense to us?
Andy Kolovos is the Associate Director and Archivist at the Vermont Folklife Center. The audio from the making of Last Stand Farmer is archived with the Center, and can be heard on their website.
Andy: Is it more about the subject and how the subject sees the world, or more how the filmmaker wants to see the subject and present the subject? And I think Richard did a phenomenal job, from our perspective.
Suzanne Opton started her career as a reporter in California, before moving to Vermont.
Suzanne: But I always want to be a photographer. And I came to Chelsea and thought, this is perfect. I found eight families that were interesting to me and I photographed them all the time. That’s mostly what I did.
Her subjects included their neighbors Kenneth and Helen O’Donnell.
Suzanne: And I don’t think I intended to stay, except that it was fascinating to me. These people whose lives were four generations in the same place, they slept in the same bed all their lives. That was so interesting to me because it was so opposite my experience.
Suzanne’s parents had fled the Holocaust in Germany, settled in New York, then moved to Oregon. She came east for college, went back to the West Coast, and returned east again after she met Richard Brick.
Suzanne: I remember the first time Kenneth came to Richard’s house to visit, in his potato field, and Richard was upstairs. I said, “Richard! Kenneth is coming.” What’s going to happen? What’s he going to think about this sort of modern house in his potato field? And he was the most generous man imaginable, just so sweet and very fond of Richard. They had a really nice relationship.
Andy: My impression, having talked to Richard, provided my memory is right, is that he used to hang out with Kenneth. He would just go over there and then basically let Kenneth talk. A number of the reels are just that. They’re just running the tape recorder while Ken is talking.
The things that Kenneth talked about in the early 70s—taxes, the difficulty of farming—people in rural Vermont still talk about, nearly 50 years later. Such laments are as common as the old movie joke about Vermonters giving confusing directions. But not as funny.
Suzanne: Some of the people I photographed, they couldn’t pay their taxes, so they sold the land as a lifelong lease. And when they died, whoever had bought it got it then. And the Boyd sisters, for instance, I went to see their house in the 90’s sometime and their house fell into the ground. We try to maintain our homes, but they couldn’t do that. So it just fell into the ground.
The short film captures a state in the middle of a transformation, and not just because of the recent arrival of the back-to-the-landers. After decades of cultural stability in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Vermont began to change rapidly after World War II: skiing, the interstates, and the consolidation of dairy farms.
Andy: Inherent in the title Last Stand Farmer, is this romantic notion of loss. Like big “R” romantic, right? That here’s this way of life and I can watch it perishing in front of me.
Andy: That, I think, is one of the enduring stories we tell ourselves about change in Vermont. That things were always one way, and then new people show up and suddenly they can see how it’s going away.
Hollywood isn’t the only place where myths can be created. But calling something a “myth” doesn’t mean that it’s a lie. Myths often hold truths.
Andy: I think a lot of the big “R” romantic vision of Vermont and rural America is this: it’s a timeless place, and the world changed around these people and they didn’t know what to do. And, you know, that’s not something I buy. That’s an outsider’s perspective, I would say. And I’m saying that as an outsider.
What’s unique about Last Stand Farmer when compared to Hollywood films about Vermont is Richard’s relationship with Kenneth. Richard may have been an outsider, but he was a neighbor, and Kenneth trusted him.
[Kenneth clip: taxes, etc.]
Andy: On the one hand we have this narrative of romance and loss. And transition. And on the other hand, we have perhaps maybe one of the fundamental narratives about life in Vermont.
[music up, then down]
Andy: People can’t afford to be here. There’s not enough opportunity. Increasingly, we’re competing with outsiders for employment and space. You know, all that other stuff, these perennial things that have been part of life here for a long time.
This narrative seems truer than the fake snow in White Christmas. But sometimes we can look again at the stories we tell about ourselves.
Andy: The only human constant is change. And while I might not like the way in which things are changing, this is what we as a species do. So I try not to take this position of, gosh, it’s so tragic this is going away and then being sort of mournful or romantically engaged with that topic for those reasons.
Andy: Except to say things change and not all change is good. And not all change is bad. But life is about things becoming different than they were.
[sound of Kenneth talking about beef in winter]