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Times Argus (14/Feb/2011) - Alfred Hitchcock came to Barre?




Alfred Hitchcock came to Barre?

His stylized profile, instantly recognizable to the viewers of his weekly television show, was drawn on the wall of Barre's Paramount Theater. To the delight of fans, reporters, and actress, Shirley MacLaine, he signed it with a flourish.

Alfred Hitchcock, the rotund director of many of the greatest cinematic thrillers ever made, was in Barre in late September 1955. The great filmmaker was in the middle of his most productive decade of movie-making. “Strangers on a Train” had been released in 1951 and “Rear Window” in 1954. “Vertigo,” “North by Northwest” and “Psycho” were just a few years away.

Hitchcock filmed “The Trouble With Harry” in locations around Craftsbury Common, and was in Barre for the world premiere of his new movie. The City Council here named him an honorary Citizen of the Granite City and, if that wasn't enough, declared him an honorary mayor, as well. The director and his star, MacLaine, were guests of honor at a Memorial Auditorium gala and the first screening of his new work at the Paramount Theater on North Main Street.

When it was heard that film producer Herb Coleman was looking for a New England backdrop for Hitchcock's black comedy, his assistant received a phone call from Clifford Miskelley complaining that they had not considered locations in Vermont. That was, indeed, true. Coleman had been surveying areas in southern New Hampshire and around Lake Winnipesaukee but agreed to meet Miskelley in White River Junction. Miskelley drove the producer to Montpelier and the views en route “dismissed from my mind Peterborough, Keene, and all the other places we'd covered.”

Coleman described a scene of essential importance in the film, featuring a giant maple tree “with the landscape falling away in every direction.” Misekelley immediately drove him to a location in East Craftsbury. “It was exactly right,” remembered the producer. The efforts of Miskelley, director of the Vermont Development Commission, earned high praise from the film's director, as well. In the autumn 1955 issue of Vermont Life, Hitchcock in uncharacteristic fashion, expressed his very warm feelings for the Green Mountain State and Vermonters, in particular.

“I felt that The Trouble with Harry called for a rural background which would be as much a part of the story as the characters and the plot. The story — a comedy about a body — deals with the lives of simple and attractive people in a framework of natural beauty. This we found in Vermont,” he wrote.

“The Trouble With Harry” offered lighter-than-usual fare from the Master of Suspense and, while considered less than a success in America, in Europe it was hailed as a minor masterpiece, playing for over a year to packed houses in a theater on the Champs-Elysees in Paris. Its quirky humor appealed to European sensibilities. A dark comedy, it was the first film for Shirley Maclaine, and it also starred John Forsythe, later known to television audiences as the voice of Charlie on Charlie's Angels. Forsythe was an established star who was later to reconnect with central Vermont in 1975, when he performed in a promotional film for the Barre Granite Association.

The new Hitchcock movie also featured an unknown child actor, Jerry Mathers, who in just two years, was to become universally famous to television audiences as “Beaver” Cleaver in the successful series, “Leave it to Beaver.”

“The Trouble With Harry” was, for Hitchcock, a bit of lighthearted fun centered around the dilemma of a body that won't stay put. It was intended as relaxing lark with which he could film the beautiful autumn colors of Vermont while introducing movie audiences to the lovely young actress, MacLaine. Just 21, she was discovered by one of Hitchcock's assistants while in a rare performance in the Broadway hit, “Pajama Game.” MacLaine later recalled her experience on the film:

“Hitchcock was a connoisseur of food and had great knowledge in this area. We shot in Vermont because the hotel we stayed in, The Lodge, was famous for the best food in Stowe, Vermont. He liked the leaves of Vermont, but he really appreciated the food. There was always plenty on the set and I ate all of it because it was free. In my days as a chorus girl I hadn't had much to eat. I existed on graham crackers and peanut butter. When I began the picture I was svelte and lithe, but by the time I buried Harry for the last time, the head of the studio called me ... I think the word was blimp.”

The young actress (and future Academy Award winner) was warmly embraced by the citizens of Barre.

Lise Monty reported in the Barre Daily Times: “A bright new star that has ‘what it takes'; an understudy who made good; a wonderful sincere girl who is in love with Vermont … Both she and her husband, Steve Parker, who said they just loved the state, were very enthused and happy about being in Vermont. ‘Just put me in one of these Vermont farms with a barn, some cows, a TV set, plenty of food, a good book, and boy, I'll be happy!” she told the reporter. The city of Barre in general and all who saw or met her personally were honored last night.”

One Barre resident, Lucille Aja, remembered that the local ladies who met MacLaine were please that she seemed so down-to-earth and approachable but, on the other hand, would have been happy to have experienced a little Hollywood glamour. “Audrey Hepburn was my idea of a movie star,” Aja recalled.

For another Barre resident, Shirley MacLaine was movie-star enough. Alan Rogers was just 20 years old when he was able to secure one of the few tickets to the premiere that were made available to the public. He remembers the motorcade from the Barre Auditorium and the spotlights in front of the theater. He still marvels at the clever plot and recalls how fashionable movies were back then.

“There were three theaters in Barre,” he recalled, visiting a movie every week. This movie, remembers Alan, was quite enjoyable and “really funny.” But it was MacLaine who is fixed in his memory. He recalls passing close to the young actress at the premiere and being struck by her natural beauty.

The premiere

On Thursday Sept. 29, 1955, canisters containing reels of the new movie were delivered to William Miller, manager of the Paramount Theater, who immediately turned them over to the protective custody of the Vermont State Police. They would ensure the film's safe delivery for its first showing on the following night.

The movie premiere comprised an evening like no other in Barre history. The festivities commenced at 7 p.m. with a state dinner at the Municipal Auditorium overlooking the city. Of the crowd of 2,000 assembled to witness the singular event, 800 were served a lobster dinner. Among the guests were film critics from Boston and New York, as well as representatives of the London Times, Paris Match and other delegates from the world's press.

The Barre Times reported, “The menu consisted of freshly pressed apple cider, boiled Maine lobster with drawn butter, prepared according to the Vermont recipe which won the New England Lobster Contest in 1954; crisp Vermont potato chips; tossed Vermont harvest salad, home-baked Vermont rolls and fresh Vermont dairy butter, Vermont apple pie with Vermont cheddar cheese and coffee with heavy Vermont cream.”

The meal, catered by Enoch Lyman, cost $6 and was served by the local chapter of the Junior Chamber of Commerce and their spouses. The tables were festooned with autumnal decorations prepared by the Granite City Garden Club. “Marigolds filled half pumpkins on the banquet table and baskets of fall flowers, pine, bittersweet and cones were set against small branches of red and gold maple leaves. A huge background of fiery red leaves covered the stage curtains, making a glorious background for the distinguished head table.”

The evening was arranged under the supervision of Miskelly, director of the Vermont Development Commission, who had started planning the gala in July. The head table was positioned with state dignitaries and Hitchcock and MacLaine. Gov. Joseph B. Johnson had greeted the celebrities at the airport was in attendance at the Auditorium when Mayor Reginald Abare presented MacLaine with a red rose corsage “on behalf of the people of Barre.” The lights dimmed, the national anthem played, and the evening commenced. After the head table was introduced, telegrams were read from those unable to attend, including John Forsythe, Bob Hope, Doris Day, Deborah Kerr and James Stewart.

Abare presented a scroll to Hitchcock declaring him “Honorary Citizen and Mayor of Barre.” A Vermont map fashioned of Barre granite was then presented to the director by the governor. Specially packaged jugs of maple syrup were given to those at the head table, as well as to members of the media.

When the feature was released to theaters nationwide, it was accompanied by a three-minute short, “Vermont the Beautiful” (also directed by Hitchcock), which was intended to promote Vermont tourism. The Vermont Development Commission also produced 35,000 fall foliage brochures which were intended for distribution with the movie.

Miskelley, master of ceremonies, described the making of the movie using football metaphors and lavished praise on producer Coleman, comparing his efforts with that of a great blocking back running interference for the star carrying the ball.

At the conclusion of the banquet the invited guests, including all six New England governors, were helped into a fleet of new cars supplied by local automobile dealers and escorted to the sold-out Paramount Theater by a detachment of uniformed police officers. Not all of the invited dignitaries were able to attend, and the seats made available in this manner were purchased by local residents for the price of $1.50. Spotlights had been installed in front of the marquee, offering a touch of Hollywood to the festivities, and it was announced that the proceeds from the premiere (a sum in excess of $1,000) would be given to flood victims of a hurricane that had passed through New England a few weeks earlier.

Interestingly, strong winds from a hurricane in Vermont the previous year, had blown leaves from the autumn trees just when Hitchcock had hoped to capture the fall colors on film. Rather than complain, the philosophical Hitchcock opined that “after all it was only a movie.” For some shots, the film crew reattached leaves to the trees, but generally, the colorful vistas seen in the film were recreated in studios in Hollywood with foliage imported from the Green Mountains. Screenwriter John Michael Hayes recalls, “we took thousands of leaves back to Hollywood and plastered them on California trees in the studio. Many exteriors were shot in California and interiors in Vermont.”

Obviously, this result was the opposite of the intent to film on location in the beautiful hills around Craftsbury.

As might be expected, the film was well-received in Barre; it was held over at the Paramount for several days so that more local residents would have an opportunity to see it, and following the premiere screening, the guests were escorted to a press party at the Pavilion Hotel's Victorian Lobby in Montpelier.

Hollywood, smitten with filming in Vermont, sought to employ connections made with Miskelley and the Vermont Development Commission, in the shooting of the controversial novel by Grace Metalious, “Peyton Place,” a book that had been banned by the Catholic Church, the city of Boston, and most New England states. A Vermont legislator stood up on the floor of the Statehouse in Montpelier and pledged to pass a law prohibiting filming “Peyton Place” in his state. The film crew went elsewhere.

It would be over a decade before another major studio filmed in the state, but it should be noted that pre-storm outtakes of foliage from “The Trouble with Harry” were used in the controversial movie based on Metalious's novel.

The movie gala in Barre received front-page headlines in the next day's Barre Times and Montpelier Argus.

Paul Heller is a local historian who lives in Barre.