Valley News: Silent Film Makes Noise

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Valley News: Silent Film Makes Noise

PostMon Jun 26, 2017 11:04 am

http://www.vnews.com/Library-of-Congress-Unearths-Lost-Silent-Film-From-Newport-s-Sunshine-Man-10822926



A print of the Billy B. Van movie "Where Are Your Husbands?" was recently found in a Library of Congress vault. Made on the shores of Lake Sunapee, the movie is to be screened at Dexter's Inn in Sunapee, N.H., on July 12, 2017, at 7 p.m.

A print of the Billy B. Van movie "Where Are Your Husbands?" was recently found in a Library of Congress vault. Made on the shores of Lake Sunapee, the movie is to be screened at Dexter's Inn in Sunapee, N.H., on July 12, 2017, at 7 p.m.

A print of the Billy B. Van movie "Where Are Your Husbands?" was recently found in a Library of Congress vault. Made on the shores of Lake Sunapee, the movie is to be screened at Dexter's Inn in Sunapee, N.H., on July 12, 2017, at 7 p.m.

Negatives from the Billy B. Van movie "Where Are Your Husbands?" was found in Newport, N.H. -- a version discovered in a Library of Congress vault is to be screened at Dexter's Inn in Sunapee, N.H., on July 12, 2017, at 7 p.m.

A still image from Billy B. Van's silent film "Where Are Your Husbands?" features Van himself, who directed and starred in the short silent film made by his studio in Georges Mills. A print of the film has emerged from a Library of Congress vault.

By EmmaJean Holley
Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, June 23, 2017

1 Print

Sunapee NH Newport NH Newport Historical Society Billy B. Van

Billy B. Van, a longtime Newport, N.H., resident who died in 1950, was many things to many people: pine soap salesman, radio personality and motivational speaker, to name a few of the hats he wore in his lifetime.

He was also, as newly discovered footage illustrates, quite the silent filmmaker.

After years of poking around, Hanover film archivist John Tariot tracked down Where Are Your Husbands?, a 20-minute silent film that Van made under his Georges Mills film company in 1919. The film was among a stack of unidentified reels that been sitting in Library of Congress vault in Virginia.

The Newport and Sunapee historical societies will screen the film on July 12, both to raise funds for the Sunapee Historical Society’s purchase of the Old Abbott Library building, and to explore history through the antics of the beloved local polymath who nicknamed Newport “The Sunshine Town.”

“Billy B. Van was basically the Kanye (West) of the 1920s,” Tariot said in a phone interview earlier this week. “The only thing he didn’t have was his own sneaker line.”

The screening of Where Is Your Husbands? will cap off what has been, for Tariot, a long and unlikely road in bringing the film to light. He first heard of Van in 2009, and was intrigued by the story of the early filmmaker with the studio, called Equity Motion Picture Co., in Georges Mills.

“As a long-time denizen of the lake myself, that really interested me,” he said. After asking around at the historical societies in Newport and Sunapee, and gathering information from local historians, Tariot eventually went on a tour of Van’s old dairy barns in Newport.

Inside one of the barns, he found an old steamer trunk. Inside the trunk was a box and inside the box was a 2-foot-long shard of old motion picture film.

Upon closer inspection, the shard revealed a few things about its origins: It was from 1919. It was made with Kodak movie film. But, somewhat frustratingly for Tariot, none of the actors was Billy B. Van.

“Still,” he said, “it was a clue, even if there were no leads right then and there.”

Months later, at a conference with other film archivists, he was discussing the Billy B. Van case with Rachel Del Gaudio, a library technician at the Library of Congress’ National Audio-Visual Conservation Center in Culpeper, Va. She agreed that Van sounded like an interesting character, but didn’t have any further information.

That conversation took place last fall. Then, early this year, “Rachel had a ta-da moment,” Tariot said.

As part of her job duties, she’d been winding through a stack of unknown films. She came across a reel that contained some familiar shots: They were the same ones Tariot had shown her, that he’d found in the barn in Newport.

“We were able to identify that it was indeed the film, and that it was made by Billy, starring Billy, in Sunapee,” Tariot said. Though it appeared that the first 30 seconds or so of the film were missing, the rest of it was more or less in complete form.

Among the many serendipitous events that led to the film’s discovery, perhaps the most impressive is that the film exists at all, Tariot said. The vast majority of silent films, some 90 percent, are lost forever.

There are a couple of reasons why so few silent films have survived: For one, filmmakers developed the movies on nitrate film, which is highly combustible and whose flames cannot be extinguished with water.

“As you can probably imagine, there have been many spectacular film archive fires over the years, just from this nitrate film catching fire,” Tariot said.

But the second, less flammable reason is that, back when silent films were a dime a dozen, no one thought they were worth saving.

“They were treated as ephemera,” Tariot said. “They were projected until they turned to dust, then disposed of. Nobody thought they had any value, certainly not as records, or as historical items.”

The silent film era itself was ephemeral: Its heyday lasted from the 1910s to the 1930s, Tariot said, but once technology allowed for sound in movies, silence quickly fell out of vogue.

“After the Depression, that stage of show business history was really faltering,” said Jayna Huot Hooper, author of Billy B. Van: Newport’s Sunshine Peddler, a history of Van’s life in Newport that came out last year. At the July 12 screening, Hooper will narrate a skit about Van’s life, which Newport native Dean Stetson will act out.

“(Van) was, at the end of the day, an entrepreneur,” Hooper added. And so Van’s involvement in the silent film industry was similarly brief; the former vaudeville star had a tendency to jump on, and off, bandwagons at the right times, Hooper said.

After stepping down from the Equity Motion Picture Co., in the early 1920s, Van opened up a dairy farm and threw himself into the next big frontier in the entertainment industry: radio, which he used as an opportunity to drum up business for his homemade pine soap.

“He was very business-minded,” Hooper said. “He knew that trends may come and go, but people will always need soap.”

Though the rarity of silent film footage certainly enhances its historical significance, Where Are Your Husbands? raises issues that are still relevant in 2017, Tariot said.

It may have also, in its day, raised eyebrows. The setup is this: The country has just come out of World War I, the women’s suffrage movement is gaining traction and women are entering the workforce in droves. It’s also Election Day. The wife of our hero, Billy, goes off to vote; in the meantime, Billy falls asleep and has a dream.

In his dream, it’s the women who go off to war, and the men who stay home and tend to domestic duties. That’s the premise. The plot takes off from there.

“It actually offers a very interesting take on gender role reversal,” Tariot said, hinting that at one point in the film, Billy is subject to the kinds of unwanted advances that women stereotypically deal with. “This is a storytelling technique that goes back to the Greeks, to Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, to Billy B. Van.”

It’s important to note, Tariot added, that Van was probably not trying to make any sort of political statement in the film, progressive or otherwise; he was a comedian, and the gag was strictly for laughs.

Van’s intentions notwithstanding, Where Are Your Husbands? opens a window into a pivotal time in American history. It also holds special relevance for Sunapee by allowing it to peer into its own past, said Becky Rylander, president of the Sunapee Historical Society.

“I think (this film) helps to reinforce our sense of place by adding context to it. It makes us realize yet again why Sunapee is so special,” she said. “Our past is part of what makes us a community.”

After Van rolled the credits on his silent film career, he moved to Newport. There, he became a beloved pillar of the community, and the only honorary mayor in the town’s history. Beyond the Upper Valley, he was also a sought-after motivational speaker, addressing chambers of commerce and businesspeople around the country.

“What I think is particularly captivating and enriching for people to realize is that (silent film) is just one sliver in the life of this man who made all these contributions to society and to the community around him,” Hooper said. “Like all of us, he was so much more than the sum of his parts.”

The Newport and Sunapee historical societies will screen Billy B. Van’s Where Are Your Husbands? on Wednesday, July 12 under the tent at Dexter’s Inn in Sunapee to help raise funds for the Sunapee Historical Society’s purchase of a new building. South Pomfret’s Bob Merrill will provide an original piano accompaniment to the film. The event will also include a biographical skit by Jayna Huot Hooper and Dean Stetson, a barbershop quartet and a 1920s-inspired costume contest. For tickets ($40 in advance, $45 at the door, $75 for two people) or more information, visit http://www.billybvan.com or http://www.sunapeehistoricalsociety.org/news.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at [email protected] or 603-727-3216.
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BillysLostFilms

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Re: Valley News: Silent Film Makes Noise

PostSat Jul 01, 2017 11:43 am

Hi Bruce (and all)-

Thanks very much for posting this! I don't get to check-in here as much as I'd like, and have been planning on sharing this news, and, as we learn more about the film, I have even more questions which I would like to ask of this community. It's a vicious cycle...

This seems like a good opportunity to say that Nitrateville has actually been quite useful on this hunt- particularly as a resource of information on Reelcraft Studios that I have been unable to find anywhere else. And, while I might take it on some day, I would like to toss out the idea for anyone here interested in telling more of the Reelcraft story at, say, an upcoming Mostly Lost. But that's a topic for another post...

First, I can't emphasize enough how useful Media History Digital Library has been, and that for all who are on a similar hunt this MUST be your first stop. It is a game-changer in film research.

Second, the help of the whole staff at Library of Congress, and especially Rachel's amazingly fortuitous find, were so key in connecting a scrap of nitrate to this "lost film."

And, for anyone within shooting-distance of NH on July 12, please let me know- I'd love to have guests, and, with Bob Merrill's new accompaniment, this should be a really good show. In some advance screenings, the audience reaction to the male/female role reversal and gender stereotypes and sexual innuendo has been incredibly provocative.

The hunt is not over by any means: I am still looking for any uncatalogued Reelcraft Royal Comedies, or leads on the Export and Import Film Company, or Miller & Steen Distributors. I should note that we do have a lead on one of Billy’s other Reelcraft titles, SNAKES, at George Eastman Museum. More info & filmography: www.billybvan.com

I don't think I should try to cram in ALL the news about the film here- but let me close with one question that came up, and made me think of asking all here: what do we know about general literacy rates of the movie-going public in the 'teens and 20's, and how accessible intertitles were to people who couldn't read? Most silents can easily be watched without paying attention to titles, but was it common, say, for audiences to read them out loud, either for their seat-mate or for a larger crowd? It's an angle I hadn't thought about, and thought some here may have insights.

Thanks again to all, and I will be happy to chat online or off about the hunt, the restoration, how we're creating new titles, and colorizing it (just kidding!). It's been a fun project, and rewarding to reconnect this piece of history to its home town.

My best-

- John
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Re: Valley News: Silent Film Makes Noise

PostSat Jul 01, 2017 12:22 pm

BillysLostFilms wrote:was it common, say, for audiences to read them out loud, either for their seat-mate or for a larger crowd?


There are many references to people reading out titles aloud, but the inference I've always taken was that it was a nearly subconscious reflex rather than for the benefit of other patrons. I believe I've seen at least one early pre-film slide that asks people not to do so, along with warnings such as 'Remove Your Hat'. I'm on a slow internet connection right now, maybe someone can find an example?
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Re: Valley News: Silent Film Makes Noise

PostSat Jul 01, 2017 12:37 pm

Hi-

Yes- there's an excellent collection of "Etiquette Cards" at http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/ ... 005684157/

But could the loud-talkers read them? :D

I've read that talking was pretty common, and that movie patrons of the day included the whole family, and that talking to each other and to the screen took place. Still curious about what assumptions were as to the audience being able to read the titles. Interesting info, Brooksie.

- John
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Re: Valley News: Silent Film Makes Noise

PostSat Jul 01, 2017 5:58 pm

I haven't read many comments about talking aloud during Silent movies over the years being a big issue (except in reference to the VERY early days.) And the living vets of that era I've spoken with haven't really mentioned it either.

I'd be interested in some references & documentation...

Good luck with the screening!
-Craig
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Re: Valley News: Silent Film Makes Noise

PostSun Jul 02, 2017 11:09 am

The practise of reading titles out loud is covered in a lot of books about the silent/sound transition (I've just moved house and am yet to unpack my boxes so I can't check, but I believe Alexander Walker's The Shattered Silents is one of them). Doing a search on the term 'titles out loud' via the Media History Digital Library brings up a number of contemporary references, ranging from the mid teens to the late twenties. This is from Photoplay in 1919, so it must have been a well-established phenomenon from fairly early on:

Image

Luke McKernan (who is or was a Nitrateville poster) has also written a paper and done a presentation on the noises a patron was likely to hear during a 'silent' film screening. His summary (see http://lukemckernan.com/2012/10/17/only-the-screen-was-silent/) makes for interesting reading, and even includes accounts of children reading titles aloud to their foreign-speaking parents, as the original poster suggested might be the case.

By coincidence, a catalogue of early movie slides has just turned up on Ebay. The text is given for dozens of slides, which provides some idea of the other bad habits of early filmgoers:

* Please Do Not Talk During The Singing Of The Song
* If You Expec-To-Rate High, Do Not Expectorate On The Floor
* Positively No Stamping Or Whistling Allowed In This Theatre
* The Use Of Tobacco Is Positively Forbidden In This House

The full catalogue is at http://www.ebay.com.au/itm/152607934698. It's fascinating, but unfortunately, the price they are charging is ridiculous.
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Re: Valley News: Silent Film Makes Noise

PostSun Jul 02, 2017 3:25 pm

This is truly fascinating Brookise- "The London Project" alone I could see spending hours poring through. And then there's the "Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918" oral histories at the British Library. Wow. You have pointed me to an excellent answer. There's a lot to learn here, and I'm going to be reading it much more deeply, but, in the mean time: thanks very much.

- John
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Re: Valley News: Silent Film Makes Noise

PostSun Jul 02, 2017 8:35 pm

Well, the point of the cartoon is that that behavior stinks and should not be the norm, so...
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Re: Valley News: Silent Film Makes Noise

PostMon Jul 03, 2017 7:37 am

How prevalent in-film yammering was might also be more dependent on where the film was being shown. Rural or high immigrant population areas might be likelier to have folks reading the cards out loud than more 'literate' sections of town. I'd definitely expect this reading to be more 'normal' in the oughts and early teens than in the post-War/'20s era where the tolerance for ignorant rubes might be greatly diminished.

It would also be interesting to know how this was issue was treated in la France, where I'm led to believe that reading the title cards was de rigueur in the earliest days. Would this temper the irritation or did the keep-it-down mentality also evolve as it did over here as the films improved?
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Re: Valley News: Silent Film Makes Noise

PostMon Jul 03, 2017 8:41 am

oldposterho wrote:How prevalent in-film yammering was might also be more dependent on where the film was being shown. Rural or high immigrant population areas might be likelier to have folks reading the cards out loud than more 'literate' sections of town. I'd definitely expect this reading to be more 'normal' in the oughts and early teens than in the post-War/'20s era where the tolerance for ignorant rubes might be greatly diminished.


Yup. That's about what I posited above.
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Re: Valley News: Silent Film Makes Noise

PostMon Jul 03, 2017 4:00 pm

"I love me, I love me, every place I go,
I love me, I love me, and at a movie show,
I take myself right by the arm and push me through the crowd
And listen to myself read me the titles right out loud."

--from "I Love Me (I'm Wild About Myself)" by Edwin J. Weber, Will Mahoney & Jack Hoins, 1923.

The satirical tone of the whole song makes me think that reading the titles aloud wasn't unheard of, but it wasn't exactly a well-liked practice.

-HA

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