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CONNECTIONS: Movies become the Berkshires

Berkshire has a place in the history of American cinema after all. “Adams Mills 1917” is among the earliest films made in Massachusetts.

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.

The 88th annual Oscars are almost upon us – Sunday February 28th. Probably Berkshire is not the first place you associate with Oscar or with movie making. In fact The Berkshires may be the last place you think of, but that is not quite fair.

In 1969 they did shoot “Alice’s Restaurant” in Stockbridge. Looking very much like a typical New England spinster, Miss Mary Flynn was asked to walk down Main Street in one of the scenes.

She demurred, “I would break the camera.”

Arthur Penn, always the gentleman, contradicted her and insisted.

Miss Mary acquiesced and got ready for her close up, as they say in filmdom. Penn called for action; Mary was in position and smiling, and…yup… the camera broke.

In 1996 they shot scenes for “Before and After,” starring Meryl Streep and Liam Neeson, at the Berkshire County Courthouse.

In 1999 they filmed a few scenes for “The Cider House Rules” at Ventfort Hall in Lenox. The bonus was that in the then crumbling mansion, Hollywood set designers and crew spruced up the great hall.

Possibly three films in thirty years are not what they churn out in California or even New York City. However, we do have a dandy annual film festival, and I have fond memories of watching the Oscars in Stockbridge.

It was an annual event at Marge Champion’s house. Moreover, I saw an Oscar for the first time, and held it in Lenox. It was surprisingly heavy. It belonged to Maureen Stapleton and sat on a shelf beside her Emmy and her Tony. Mo was a triple-crown winner – fêted on Broadway, in Hollywood and on television. Still, The Berkshires is simply not the first place anyone equates with the film industry. Is that fair?

Invention of what would become one of America’s major industries began with a snap shop in 1826. There were stabs and strides at picture making from then on. They added motion convincingly by the end of the century but not color or sound. There were special effects and that now famous first on screen kiss, all before the turn of the century.

It was the twentieth century before there was that first “real” movie – a motion picture with a story. Released in 1902 it was called “A Trip to the Moon.” It was short, silent, and black and white. The first American feature film, “The Great Train Robbery” was released in 1903. In 1915 the epic “Birth of a Nation” was released. It was longer by hours, cost $10 million to produce, and grossed as much before it was banned.

The following year, 1916, a movie theater opened in Berkshire County. The Williamstown Theater had 550 seats and music piped in to accompany the action on film. Mr, Quackenbush in Pittsfield may have shown movies earlier, but Williamstown Cinema has the distinction of showing films continuously for 100 years.

That’s right: when the industry was cranking out 12 minute silent films, Berkshire residents could pay a penny and watch in Berkshire County. They could pay a dime and watch a full-length feature. That dime could buy a ticket or a loaf of bread or a quart of milk.

That’s not all. Not only did Berkshire County get in on the ground floor in the movie theater business, but The Berkshires had a fledgling movie producer.

By 1917 the moving picture was all the rage and Theodore Plunkett, son of the mill owner W. B. Plunkett, was a huge fan. His first venture was to hire the New York-based Comtest Cinema Company to come to Adams and film four Berkshire cotton mills and document cotton manufacturing. The film remains and you can see it on YouTube. Here it is: “Adams Mills 1917”:

 

 

Plunkett then turned his attention to directing as well as producing. Mr. Theodore Plunkett and Miss Myrtle Adams decided to have a go. Amateur plays and tableaus were popular among young people, but this is apparently the first moving picture made in Berkshire County. It was a full-length moving picture — a real reel — with a cast of 19 and extras! There was a script. It was the story of a boy and girl in love. The boy and girl had relatives and so the tension.

Romeo and Juliet in Adams? Perhaps. There is no sound; the script is lost, and the players are, well, amateurs, so the story is anyone’s guess. What remains is a moving picture of people and places in Berkshire County in 1917. The people are a future State Senator, Captain in the Spanish American War, Postmaster, local druggist, and a Broadway, if not star, then at least working actress. The places are all over the town of Adams and the scenic environs. They called it Miss Adams of Adams, not Gone with the Wind, but it is well worth watching.

The fictional piece can be seen at the Adams Historical Society. So Berkshire has a place in the history of American cinema after all. These films are the earliest film made in Massachusetts that can still be viewed.

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