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New England in Early Film

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A century before the film Manchester by the Sea was nominated for six Academy Awards, New England played many a starring role on the silver screen.

Connecticut’s own Katharine Hepburn created the iconic New England woman in 1933 as Jo in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. She spoke to the entire region’s unvarnished character (well, except maybe for Newport) with her pronouncement, “I loathe elegant society.”   See the trailer here.

Katharine Hepburn as Jo in Little Women.

Katharine Hepburn as Jo in Little Women.

New Englanders brought the film industry to maturity as actors, producers, cinematographers, studio owners and financiers. And it was a New Englander who helped move it out west.

New England in Film

“From the early days of projected motion pictures, representations of New England appeared on screens wherever movies were seen,” wrote Karen Sheldon, co-founder of Northeast Historic Film.

Five major New England themes run through American films, according to Sheldon. They are small town life vs. city values; Yankee characters, often the sage rustic; family secrets; seafaring tales; and haunted New England.

Lon Chaney starred in the 1909 film The Miracle Man, in which New York con men try to use a faith healer to collect money in a small New England town. George M. Cohan, who considered North Brookfield, Mass., his home, wrote the screenplay. Watch the surviving parts of it here.

Bette Davis in The Way Back Home

Bette Davis in The Way Back Home

The Yankee rustic appears in the 1931 film Way Back Home. Philips Lord, a radio personality from Hartford, Vt., created the Seth Parker character, a clergyman and backwoods philosopher based on his real-life grandfather. Way Back Home was also the film debut of Bette Davis, who owned a farm in Sugar Hill, N.H., and often shopped at the Carol Reed shop in Littleton, N.H. (See a clip from Way Back Home here.)

Secrets, Sailors and Ghosts

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, a story about a family secret, was made into film for a third time in 1926 starring Lillian Gish, which you can watch here.  It would be made for the big screen two more times, including the disastrous 1995 version starring Demi Moore. It was also made for television three times. (“This will not do,” wrote Roger Ebert in a review that gave the film one-and-a-half stars.)

Lobby card for the 1934 version of The Scarlet Letter.

Lobby card for the 1934 version of The Scarlet Letter.

Playwright Eugene O’Neill, took the family secret theme to new heights (or depths) with plays that were adapted for film, including Long Days Journey Into Night and Desire Under the Elms.

During the 1920s, at least a half-dozen films featured the salty New England sailor, presaging George Clooney in The Perfect Storm and Casey Affleck in The Finest Hours decades later. Rin Tin Tin foils bootleggers in 1924 off the Maine coast in The Lighthouse by the SeaThe Pearl of Love in 1925 was based on a Harriet Beecher Stowe novel also about the Maine coast. John Barrymore starred as Captain Ahab in The 1924 movie, The Sea Beast. (Watch the love scene here.)

Still from The Sea Beast

Still from The Sea Beast

Stephen King is only the latest in a long line of writers whose stories about haunted New England appear in film. The Salem witch trials happened here, after all.

Maid of Salem, starring Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert in 1937, is a story about a girl who falls in love with an adventurer and is sentenced as a witch. Watch it here.

At least a dozen movies inspired by the Salem witch trials have been produced since then, from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible to Scooby-Doo! and the Witch’s Ghost.

The Movie Business

Before film production moved to California, there were dozens of film studios in New England, including the Eastern Film Corporation in Rhode Island, the Commonwealth Photoplay Corporation in Massachusetts and Dirigo Pictures and Pine Tree Pictures in Maine.

Thomas Ince, film’s first tycoon, was responsible in part for the industry’s migration out west.

Thiomas Ince in 1918

A native of Newport, R.I., he invented the shooting script and the five-reel film, created the first movie studio and put the producer in charge rather than the cameraman and the director. Ince died in 1924 after a sojourn on William Randolph Hearst’s yacht with Charlie Chaplin and Marion Davies.

Another New Englander, G.W. ‘Billy’ Bitzer, helped bring the film industry out of its infancy with his innovative cinematography.

He was born in Roxbury, Mass., in 1872. Bitzer developed early cinematic technologies and techniques such as the fadeout, the soft focus and the close-up. Like other cameramen of his day, he traveled the country shooting scenes of real life. Seeing Boston By Streetcar on film in 1906 was once such film.


Joseph P. Kennedy

Joseph P. Kennedy

Louis B. Mayer, who co-founded MGM, got his start in the film business in Massachusetts with the purchase of a burlesque theater in Haverhill. It was nicknamed the ‘Garlic Box’ because it catered to poor Italian immigrants. Mayer cleaned up the theater’s reputation by showing a religious film when it opened in 1907. He bought more theaters, eventually controlling the largest theater chain in New England before moving west.

Joseph P. Kennedy, father of the president, only ran his movie studios from 1926 to 1930, but he is credited with launching the talkie revolution and creating the modern entertainment conglomerate. He was the first financier to buy control of a studio – actually, he bought three — rather than build it up.

For a list of films with New England themes or locations, click here. For a story about award-winning films shot in New England, click here.

This story last updated in 2022.

With thanks to Northeast Historic Film.



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