ARCHIVE: A Romance for the Ages

6a00d8341c2c4e53ef01156f11074d970c-250wiDaniel W. “Bud” Dorn at the camera, and at work on one of the locally produced “Romance” films that he worked on with his father Daniel B. “Jilly” Dorn in the early 1930s. 

(First published on Red Bank oRBit April 8, 2009)

It was a box office record-breaker back in 1933; a silver-screen sensation that had Depression-era audiences flocking to Red Bank’s long-gone Strand Theater with their hard-earned coin. But if you’re looking for Romance and Red Bank in your Leonard Maltin guide, you won’t find it there. In fact, the only place that the picture can be found fully intact is in the memory — provided you’re one of the handful of surviving moviegoers who might have caught it way back when.

The short feature that gave such Hollywood product as King Kong and 42nd Street a run for their money was filmed entirely in and around Red Bank, starred a nonprofessional cast of local Red Bank people — and was produced by a savvy father/son team of Red Bankers named Daniel B. “Jilly” Dorn and Daniel W. “Bud” Dorn.

You may recognize the Dorn family name from the photography business that existed for generations over on Wallace Street, and you may also know that the treasure-trove archive of photos known as Dorn’s Classic Images is nowadays curated by Kathy Dorn Severini and her husband George Severini. What you may not have been aware of is the fact that, for a few years in the darkest days of the Depression, the two Daniel Dorns ran a surprisingly forward-thinking business venture in which they visited towns throughout the greater New York region, and worked with local chambers of commerce to produce little movies that would shine a spotlight on the people and businesses of their communities.

Rather than being straight documentaries, the films framed their civic boosterism within a cornball boy-meets-girl sort of storyline (hence the “romance” part), with a couple of young fresh-faced townies cast in the lead roles, and a collection of local merchants and politicians cast as themselves. Businesspeople were called upon to pony up a minimum of $50 — pretty steep there in the early 30s — to have their stores and services featured within the film in some way.

The major sponsor would be rewarded with having the go-getting young hero presented as an employee of the firm, being shown going about his work day and generally performing “product placement” duties decades before that phrase was ever introduced. And, every now and then, the threadbare plot would stop dead in order to squeeze in a scene set inside Mr. Schmackfeffer’s Hardware Store or somesuch.

The Dorns reportedly made 35 of these epics between 1927 and 1935, of which just two — Romance in Red Bank and Romance in Freehold — have apparently survived the ravages of nitrate-filmstock decomposition. And, in the case of Romance and Red Bank, what survives is just a portion of the complete production.

None of this is going to deter the Severinis from hosting a special screening of Romance and Red Bank this Thursday evening at the Red Bank Public Library, with the surviving footage coupled with a presentation of some rarely seen historical materials related to the film and its times; some fascinating stuff that shines a light back at our own Depression-era concerns in 2009.

If you lived in the greater Red Bank area back circa 1990, you might recall a public showing of Romance at the Count Basie Theatre (we were on the scene, natch; we’re always on the scene). What the audience saw that evening was a restoration of the surviving Dorn footage (the first fifteen to twenty minutes of the feature, plus some bits and pieces of later sequences tied together with silent-movie style title cards), augmented by then-contemporary interviews and footage produced by the late Judith Lasch and her video production company Lasch Media.

Reached at his office, George Severini emphasizes that the version to be screened at the library is not the Lasch restoration — a version which, in its closing views of ice boaters and a streetscape that predates Garmany, the Hovnanian building and Riverside Gardens Park — has come to look like something of an antique in itself.

While Severini estimates the amount of surviving footage to be somewhere between five and ten minutes, we’re guessing that it’s more than that. Based upon our own recollection of the Basie event, you’ll be seeing only the visual component of the film (the missing soundtrack was replaced by Lasch with some awkward dubbed dialogue), with special attention paid to the hero’s daily rounds as a fuel-oil delivery man (for the still-in-business Lawes company of Shrewsbury, if we’re not mistaken). You’ll get fleeting glimpses of many bygone downtown businesses and the people who worked them — and there’s an unintentionally funny sequence of a bunch of the town fathers walking about the downtown, conducting a study of the borough’s ongoing parking problem (if that doesn’t resonate with modern audiences, nothing will).

It’s all competently done, if a bit stilted by nature — the production values of 1938’s Reefer Madness come to mind — and it’s all over before we ever find out what’s become of our hardworking happy couple. But, as Severini explains, he’ll also be showing a Powerpoint presentation on the people, places and circumstances involved in the making of Romance — as well as a collection of related documents and memorabilia (including the Dorns’ shooting scripts) that have probably never been put on public display.