Boston Globe: 100-year-old silent film shot in Quincy discov

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Boston Globe: 100-year-old silent film shot in Quincy discov

PostSun Apr 24, 2016 7:55 pm

100-year-old silent film shot in Quincy discovered

Ruth Packard at the Quincy Tennis Club.
By Jeremy C. Fox Globe Staff April 19, 2016

For years, the family treasure was inside a rented storage unit in Central California, at the bottom of a box containing other keepsakes.

It was there in 2014, amid dishes, theatrical costumes, and her grandfather’s hand tools, that Jean Fowler found what she sought: a canister containing a 100-year-old silent film, called “A Romance of Quincy,” starring Fowler’s grandmother, Quincy native and amateur actress Ruth Packard Rhodes.

“Mom told us all of our lives that Grandma had been a star in a silent picture, and she had a reel with the movie on it,” Fowler, 72, said by phone from her home in Woodinville, Wash. “But we never saw evidence of that reel, and we never saw the moving picture.”

Thanks to Fowler’s discovery, the film, shot on location in Quincy in 1916 and long believed lost, has been brought back before the public eye.

The Quincy Historical Society screened the 16-minute film, complete with piano accompaniment, Wednesday for dozens of people at Adams Academy.

That followed a packed showing there in November and a December screening at the Quincy Council on Aging’s Kennedy Center.

The movie was part of a series of “A Romance of ...” short films made by the New York City-based Civic Motion Picture Company in the teens, according to Ed Fitzgerald, executive director of the Quincy Historical Society.

The film’s discovery was first reported in The Patriot Ledger.

Fitzgerald said the filmmakers went to cities around the country making short films — shot in about a week — starring local residents. Their goal was to drive traffic to the box office.

“People were very eager to see it,” Fitzgerald said. “When you see the film, they’ve gone to great lengths to get as many people into it as possible, so that everybody has a reason to go and see themselves on the screen.”

Other films in the series were made in small cities such as Orlando — much less populous in the days before theme parks — and Biddeford, Maine.

With its views of landmarks such as Quincy Center, the Fore River Shipyard, the Quincy Tennis Club, and an early home to Quincy Hospital, the film may be most interesting as a time capsule of early 20th century life in the city, Fitzgerald said.

The plot, he concedes, is not terribly original.

“It’s a real basic boy-meets-girl, bad guy wants to break up the relationship, one thing or another happens, love conquers all kind of script,” Fitzgerald said.

“It’s not a great movie, but it’s fun, particularly when you know the story behind it,” he added later.

For Fowler’s family, the plot may be the least important aspect of the film. It gives them the chance to see her grandmother, who died in 1966, youthful and in motion, so recognizably herself.

“She’s a very distinctive person,” Fowler said. “Same mannerisms, her smile, just very easy to recognize her.”

The young Packard, then about 26, plays the film’s leading lady, one of many roles she would perform in local plays and operettas.

Fowler said that after her grandmother married, she seemed to shift her theatrical interests to her daughters, Fowler’s mother and aunt, who both appeared in plays as children.

Even today, Fowler said, her mother, 97 and suffering from dementia, has a theatrical flair. “She’s still an actress herself, at heart,” she said with a chuckle. “When you get her at the right time, she’ll put on a good show for you.”

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at [email protected].

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