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Silent Film Makes Noise

  • 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.



Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, June 23, 2017

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 www.billybvan.com or www.sunapeehistoricalsociety.org/news.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at eholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.