In 2016, a hundred-year-old film spent the year touring the northern half of Vermont, drawing audiences to refurbished opera houses and picture palaces. But the picture being celebrated for its centenary year was not D. W. Griffith's Intolerance or Lois Weber's Shoes, two of the best-known films made in 1916. Instead, Vermonters were watching what they believed to be the first feature film made in their state, the fetchingly titled photoplay A Vermont Romance.
But A Vermont Romance is not a conventional feature picture. None of the people who appeared in the film had previous movie acting experience, and to our knowledge, none of them appeared in another film. The picture was not made by an upstart local production company hoping to enter the lucrative business of moviemaking. Instead, it was sponsored by a newspaper, the Vermont Advance, which in turn was established to promote a political organization, the Vermont Progressive Party. To complicate matters further, the film was not made by a Vermonter. Instead, it was shot by an English cameraman living in New York and a salesman and self-proclaimed "movie director" from Cleveland. While the film was seen widely in Vermont, which was the intent of its sponsor, it was not distributed out of state. Instead, it was celebrated at the time as one of the first statewide "contest films" and, after Photoplay magazine's "The Beauty and Brains" contest, held the same year, the biggest contest of its type. Participants competed to win parts in the production, with forty regional winners plus two "stars," who received the most votes statewide. One entered the contest by buying newspapers and newspaper subscriptions, or by convincing others to do the same.
Although the paper claimed the contest a success, it was not successful enough to save the Vermont Advance, which folded within a year of the film's debut. The Vermont Progressive Party did not last much longer either. Not surprisingly, none of the picture's stars was able to parlay their screen debuts into an acting career. But the film itself survived, even though hundreds of nationally released movies made that year are lost, most likely destroyed by motion picture companies uninterested in keeping copies of their product.1
In this article, we discuss A Vermont Romance as two motion pictures. The first motion picture, made in 1916 as a "contest film," is a significant example of how the cinema came to reflect and project ideas about social status, celebrity, and identity in the 1910s, when classical Hollywood cinema itself was being formed. The second motion picture, discovered by local historians in 1964, is an example of how popular ideas about what cinema was informs how old movies are received and reproduced in contemporary culture.2 For us, the story of A Vermont Romance is not a singular history of the film's production, exhibition, and discovery but rather a dual history, one in [End Page 98] which the rediscovery of a film can be a transformative act, bringing a new significance to a work that was previously unknown to scholars, archivists, and popular audiences alike. For this reason, the story of the two Vermont Romance films provides a productive vantage point from which to think about the use and reuse of archival moving images in public history. With the recent success of Bill Morrison's Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016) and Peter Jackson's They Shall Not Grow Old (2018), both of which make use of film footage from the 1910s, we anticipate that public historians, curators, archivists, and programmers in museums, libraries, and archives will increasingly turn to film as a way to fill the gap between past and present. The generations of local historians and archivists who worked to make A Vermont Romance better known in their state present a unique case study of how the process of discovery, preservation, and representation can alter the perception of an archival film.
Vermont, Film, History, Progressive Party
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Johnson, Martin L. and Frederick C. Pond. "A Vermont Romance Turns One Hundred: Vermont's Earliest Surviving Photoplay." The Moving Image, vol. 20 no. 1, 2020, p. 97-122. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/article/803447.
American Politics Commons, Film Production Commons, Other Film and Media Studies Commons, Screenwriting Commons, United States History Commons