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100 Years Later, Silent Film Showcases Vermont Scenery

One hundred years ago in June, a filmmaker was shooting Vermont's first-ever feature film in the state, A Vermont Romance. Thanks to the Vermont International Film Foundation, that movie has been restored and digitally remastered and will premiere to a modern audience this weekend.Orly Yadin, executive director of VTIFF, told Vermont Edition about the film's history, restoration and value to Vermont's film legacy. “Every film that was ever made, if possible, should be restored," says Yadin. "Every film is a symbol and a window into its time. Even if the plot may seem silly, there are always things in it that reflect how people thought, how people dressed, the tastes of the time.” 

About the plot

“Well, it's a fairly typical romance,” says Yadin. “Dorothy, our heroine who is a poor country girl, becomes an orphan." She leaves her family’s downtrodden farm to find work and befriends “fast moving people in the big city of Burlington,” chuckles Yadin. In the tradition of melodrama, escapades ensue, even a chase scene.

The 35-minute film was shot over 10 days in June of 1916, and it’s part romance, part scenic tour of the state. “The main thing about the film is that it was actually shot in all these locations in Vermont,” says Yadin. “So we actually have a glimpse into what people and landscapes looked like a hundred years ago.” Locations in the film include Burlington, Grand Isle, Montpelier, Newport, St. Johnsbury, White River Junction, Rutland, Chester and Bellows Falls throughout the film.

About the film restoration process

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Credit Courtesy VTIFF
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Courtesy VTIFF
A street scene from 1916 is captured in 'A Vermont Romance.'

“We're talking about digital restoration here, I'm not talking about creating new film prints,” says Yadin. A film restoration firm in California did the work of restoring and remastering the film from two 16-millimeter copies that were in the Vermont Historical Society’s archives. “They went through a long process,” explains Yadin. A wet gate scanner was used to digitally clean the two prints of the film, reducing scratches and noise frame by frame. “We had several layers of dirt and grime built in,” says Yadin, “which they cleaned up as much as possible.” 

The lab did a scene-by-scene comparison of the two films to verify they were identical and to select the best quality versions of each scene. And there framing problems, says Yadin, “because film shrinks. So when you transfer it, you actually see the frame sometimes - you only see the bottom half of one frame or the top half of another frame.” The restoration lab corrected the aspect ratio of the film as well.

If these things get lost or people don't care about them, we just lose a whole piece of our history.

Yadin describes the appearance of some old films in which people seem to be moving rapidly. “That’s because it’s being projected at the wrong speed,” she says. The speed of a silent film was determined by the projectionist who hand-cranked the reel. The says the restoration lab had to determine the correct projection speed to create the appearance of natural movement in A Vermont Romance,  which occasionally meant duplicating frames to achieve the correct speed. Yadin says, after all that work, “Eventually we got a stable film!”

vpr-silent-film-train-20160323.jpg
Credit Courtesy VTIFF
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Courtesy VTIFF
The film's heroine seeks better fortunes in the "big city" of Burlington.

About the music score

There are no records of the original music score for the silent film, so a new music score was commissioned from central Vermont musician from Bob Merrill. Merrill watched the film “over and over” to compose a new score from scratch, which he will play in a live piano accompaniment at the first six screenings of the film.

About VTIFF’s involvement

Yadin says that Vermont filmmaker David Giancola brought VTIFF’s attention to the film two years ago. Yadin thought it was a great fit for the Foundation’s Vermont Archive Movie Project, which aims to preserve Vermont-made films. A Vermont Romance is the third film restored by VAMP; in 2015 the program also worked to preserve the films Chester Grimes and Transformations.

How to see it

The first showing of A Vermont Romance is Saturday, March 26, at 4 p.m. at the Pavilion building in Montpelier, followed by a panel discussion with Paul Carnahan of the Vermont Historical Society, former state archivist Gregory Sanford, author, historian and cartoonist Steve Bissette, and Orly Yadin of the VTIFF. More screenings are planned around the state.

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