“Annabell Lee” shows Menemsha in the 1920s

Courtesy of YouTube

The Chilmark Library will screen a rare, vintage silent movie next week, large portions of which were filmed on Martha’s Vineyard. Annabell Lee will play Wednesday, November 12, at 5 pm. Directed by William J. Scully, the script for the 1921 film was inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee,” although the film’s narrative goes in a very different direction from the poem.

A classic romantic melodrama, Annabell Lee tells the story of Annabell (played by Lorraine Hardy), a young woman from a well-to-do family who falls in love with a young, working-class fisherman, David Martin (played by John B. O’Brien). Annabelle’s father, Col. Lee (played by Louis Stern), disapproves of the match and advises the couple to separate for a year. During that time, David captains the triple-mast schooner Hope and hunts for the treasure-laden ship whose sinking killed his father. David hopes that salvage from the shipwreck will make him a more acceptably affluent suitor.

Although Arthur Brilliant’s screenplay paraphrases lines from Poe’s celebrated poem, the story has a very different outcome. David encounters numerous misadventures while at sea, as Annabell waits on the Island for his return, fending off suitors much like Penelope, Odysseus’s wife. Annabell becomes increasingly close to David’s mother (played by Florida Kingsley), whom she invites to live at the Lee family estate, Pine Cove, set on the Vineyard’s north shore. In addition to prevailing attitudes about socio-economic status, Annabell Lee also addresses issues of racism through the Chinese cook onboard, named Joe Ling (uncredited), who becomes David’s companion.

Produced in the style of the era’s silent films, Annabell Lee frames much of the action in iris (circular matte) shots and uses titles to help advance the story. The actors’ careers did not survive the transition to talkies, although Mr. Scully continued to work through the 1930s as an assistant director.

Much of the pleasure viewers will find in the film comes from its footage of Menemsha Harbor in an era well before the 1938 hurricane that leveled the fishing village. Schooners sail in and out of the harbor before its jetties were built, and there are shots of many buildings, including the Gay Head lighthouse keeper’s house, that no longer exist. Footage of the Gay Head cliffs and the Aquinnah shoreline also appear.

Library director Ebba Hierta first learned about the film when Martha’s Vineyard Museum curator Bonnie Stacy included still shots from it as part of a slide lecture at the library last August. The photographs, some of which were taken during production, are part of the museum’s collection. “Old films are turning up more than ever as people realize the need to preserve them” Ms. Stacy says.

The Steamship Authority has stills from the film displayed on the Island Home ferry, and one appears in Paul Schneider’s book of Vineyard history, The Enduring Shore. Wednesday’s screening is sponsored by Friends of the Chilmark Library.

Annabell Lee, Wednesday, November 12, 5 pm., Chilmark Library. Free. For more information, see chilmarklibrary.org, or call 508-645-3360.