Newly discovered silent film comes to Bay Shore
An apartment building currently stands at 94 4th Street, site of the former Vitagraph studio in Bay Shore. Inset: Anita Stewart, a silent screen star.

Courtesy photos from Bill Shelley

Newly discovered silent film comes to Bay Shore

Story By: ANTHONY PERROTTA
8/15/2019


Long Island-based film archivist to give presentation on one of the most prominent motion picture studios of its time

 

BAY SHORE—Bill Shelley, a Long Island-based film archivist, is presenting a free presentation, “More Films from Vitagraph Studios,” on Thursday, Aug. 15 at 7 p.m. at the Bay Shore-Brightwaters Library. The Bay Shore Historical Society hosts this event.

Shelley has hosted similar presentations at the local library, including “The History of Movies Bay Shore” in 2017. Each year, he seeks out archives from around the world to find more lost films that were shot at Vitagraph’s studio, in Bay Shore, between 1910 and 1918. 

J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith founded Vitagraph Studios, also known as the Vitagraph Company of America, in Brooklyn, back in 1897. The company produced hundreds of silent films before being bought by Warner Bros. in 1925. 

Tonight’s presentation will showcase a newly discovered film, “His Phantom Sweetheart,” from 1914, that features Vitagraph star Anita Stewart and matinee idol Earle Williams. Shelley explains that together with the movie’s director, Ralph Ince, who was Stewart’s brother-in-law, the duo made a series of highly successful films in Bay Shore. 

Also screening tonight is an early Norma Talmadge film, as well as a comedy by Vitagraph’s leading comics, Oliver Harmon and Larry Semon. The silent film accompanist John Hodge will also be playing on piano. 

Shelley was born and raised in Baldwin and has lived in Freeport for more than 30 years. 

“I’ve always been fascinated with film history,” Shelley said. “So, I became a film archivist. I enjoy the idea of saving motion pictures that are 100 years old before they deteriorate and are lost forever.” 

Shelley’s grandmother, on his mother’s side, worked for the Edison Motion Picture Company, where her main job was hand-tinting the movie frame by frame with a single hair brush. However, Shelley’s passion came from his mother, who was a movie fan. 

“At night, we would watch ‘The Late Show’ until the wee hours of the morning,” he said. “In the day, we would check out antique and junk stores searching for any old film reels, projectors, magazines, stills and posters. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, there was still plenty of that old stuff to be found.” 

When he was about 5 or 6 years old, Shelley found some old Charlie Chaplin, Felix the Cat and Tom Mix films in a junk store. His family had an old 16-mm hand crank projector to run the film. “From the moment I saw those early images, flickering on a screen, I was hooked,” he said. “I knew then what I wanted to do with my life.”

So, he began collecting films, and by the time he was a teenager, old reels of film started “taking over the house.” There were more than 100,000 reels of film in the archive. Shelley eventually created a business, Shelley Archives Inc., which not only restores films, but supplies rare footage to a number of commercials and documentaries. 

Shelley’s favorite actress from the silent era is Hollywood’s first comedienne, Mabel Normand, who was writing, producing and directing her own films by 20 years old. “She also indirectly discovered Charlie Chaplin, and taught him the art of filmmaking,” he added. 

On the modern side, Shelley’s favorite actor is Denzel Washington, who he describes as one of the greatest actors of his generation. “He has been directing for some time and has a great sense of the camera,” Shelley said, adding that he’s also fond of Anne Hathaway. 

“She can go from drama to comedy to musicals in the blink of an eye,” he said. “Don’t be surprised if she directs films one day.”