Old Amherst Onscreen

Silent Night, Lonely Night

In December 1969, NBC broadcast Silent Night, Lonely Night, featuring scenes shot around the Town of Amherst and the Amherst College campus the previous winter. A TV movie adaptation of Robert Anderson’s 1959 Broadway play of the same name, and starring Lloyd Bridges and Shirley Jones, Silent Night, Lonely Night tells the story of a man and woman who are, as the trope goes, thrown together by circumstance. The movie, which earned an Emmy nomination for Jones, also starred Cloris Leachman as a flirty local and a young Jeff Bridges as the Lloyd Bridges character in a flashback.

Watch the movie for glimpses of the College back in the day, as when Jones drives through the main entrance to “Parkness School for Boys”—actually the gate to Pratt Field with an ersatz Parkness plaque. Viewers can also spot Edward Renton Leadbetter, a microbiologist who taught at the College from 1959 to 1977 and died in 2015. A member of the Screen Actors Guild, Leadbetter played a bit part in the movie, as Mac the cab driver.

Silent Night, Lonely Night used to make the run of Christmastime broadcasts, and can still be found online and on DVD. Do you remember it being filmed on campus? If so, please let us know at magazine@amherst.edu.

A black and white movie still of a man and woman standing next to a car with the door open

Lloyd Bridges and Shirley Jones while filming in Amherst. The town common is in the background, beyond the cars.

Mystery at MoMA

A black and white photo of a man inspecting film coming out of a projector

A log indicates that the 1906 film College Life at
Amherst was shot by pioneering cinematographer
Gottfried Wilhelm “Billy” Bitzer.

The other movie is a mystery, but not because it features any kind of sleuthing. The film, a look at life at Amherst from more than a century ago, is itself the mystery, as it is assumed to be lost.

On Feb. 12, 1906, the American Mutoscope and Biograph Co. logged the production of a short film, College Life at Amherst, also known as Scenes at Amherst College. That log, preserved at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and with entries accessible online through the American Film Institute’s Catalog of Feature Films, is the sole record of the film’s existence. We know it was shot in Amherst, and that it comprised 462 feet of film (which adds up to about five minutes of movie).

The Biograph Co., as it was later called, was active from 1895 to 1916. Founded by William Kennedy Dickson, an inventor at Thomas Edison’s laboratory, Biograph operated in competition with Edison’s own film company, offering short subjects that were seen by looking into a coin-operated Mutoscope machine—technology that was eventually supplanted by theater projectors.

“It seems likely that this would have been one of many shorts shown in theaters or on Mutoscope machines,” says Brian Meacham ’97 of the Yale Film Study Center. “The topics ranged far and wide, and Biograph’s cameramen traveled all over to make these films.”

The log indicates that the film was shot by Gottfried Wilhelm “Billy” Bitzer, an early cinematographer who worked closely with D.W. Griffith and was known as an innovator in techniques such as the iris shot for scene transitions and the soft focus. Film historian Kemp Niver’s Biograph Bulletins, which catalogues press comments about the company’s films, omits any mention of the Amherst film.

Our attempts to track down this rare piece of Amherst history have been unsuccessful so far. Still, many lost films have resurfaced over time. If you know anything about the film, please write to magazine@amherst.edu.

Actors: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty; Bitzer: Edward Lynch / World-Telegram & Sun / U.S. Library of Congress