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Oscar winner Louis de Rochemont had
big plans to make more Seacoast movies

So Many Stories,
So Little Time

Louis de Rochemont Few filmmakers had more impact on America in the first half of the 20th century than Newington, NH's Louis de Rochemont. His company's 300 short "March of Time" news capsules were seen by millions of theater -goers each month, shaping their view of the world. By the end of WWII, de Rochemont was hungry to make featuure length movies about real stories, especially those he had heard and loved during his childhood.

De Rochemont worked hard to build a reputation, traveling the world to shoot documentary news footage for hundreds of short topical pieces. After two Academy Awards he was able to convince a major Hollywood studio to sign a three-picture deal. The catch was, de Rochemont could shoot his pictures anywhere he chose. He chose Seacoast, NH. His trio of local films included Lost Boundaries, Whistle at Eaton Falls and and Walk East on Beacon Street. Each was shot within an hour's drive of de Rochmemont's Newington, NH home at "Blueberry Hill."

Always an "idea man," de Rochemont collected compelling human stories, especially those from Seacoast NH. In 1948, he told a Portsmouth Herald reporter about three local stories he planned to film. Just before his death three decades later, he still held out hope of making them.

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Plupy Shute Plupy Shute of Exeter
Long forgotten except by die-hard local readers, Exeter's Plupy a Real Boy was once compared to Mark Twain's Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. Born in 1899, like most local boys of his era, Louis de Rochemont fell in love with the misadventures of Plupy Shute and his mischievous friends. For the young de Rochemont in 1914, Plupy held the appeal young boys of future generations would find in The Young Rascals, the Hardy Boys, the Justice League of America or the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.

Already an amateur newsreel producer in his early teens, young de Rochemont tried to convince Plupy creator Henry Augustus Shute to sell him the film rights. The author, also a police judge in Exeter, didn't grant the rights to de Rochemont, who never lost interest in the project. It was a full half century later that the filmmaker, then in his 70s, finally got the movie rights to Plupy Shute from the author's surviving relatives.

Interviewed in 1974 four years before his death, de Rochemont was still raring to get started on the film. The fictional Plupy grew up in post-Civil War Exeter, NH. De Rochemont had no hangups about shifting the time period and was planning a more modern setting. The filmmaker told a reporter he planned to use local houses and local child actors to keep the budget in the $250,000 range. The producer said he could easily raise the necessary funds, but even after 60 years of planning the project never got off the ground.

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Frank Jones Tycoon Frank Jones
It makes sense that a man so familiar with the machinations of world politics and power would be attracted to the story of Portsmouth alemaker Frank Jones. Jones was perhaps the richest and most influential Portsmouth businessman of his time. He was, not unlike de Rochemont himself, a fiercely independent and sometimes domineering figure who turned big plans into big projects. Besides his giant breweries, active during de Rochemont's childhood Jones owned the elegant Wentworth-by-the Sea hotel in New Castle and the downtown Portsmouth Rockingham Hotel in Portsmouth. (De Rochement later lived in the Rockingham and was the first to break the color barrier there during the shooting of Lost Boundaries in 1948.)

De Rochemont announded the Frank Jones film project in February 1948 when he was at the peak of his career. His three picture agreement with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer gave him unprecedented freedom to shoot whatever and wherever he chose.

De Rochemont was attracted to the "rags-to-riches" story of Jones, who grew from a penniless immigrant to a powerful deal-maker. Besides a rich and successful brewer, Jones became a railroad magnet, an advisor to presidents, a real estate tycoon, an insurance executive and a banker. He also invested more than half a million dollars in the up and coming new telephone company. Unfortunately it was the Drawbaugh Telephone Syndicate which lost the patent war to the Bell Telephone Company. Even Frank couldn't win them all. The Frank Jones story was finally told in a detailed 1976 biography by writer Ray Brighton, but so far, "Citizen Jones" has yet to reach the silver screen.

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Maren Hontvet Murder on Smuttynose Island
How would maverick filmmaker de Rochemont react, one wonders, to news that maverick filmmaker Oliver Stone has nabbed one of his favorite movie ideas? Although it was never made, a film about the 1873 ax murder on the Isles of Shoals was high on de Rochemont's priority list. He mentioned it frequently to reporters as his "next" project and continued to develop the story for years. The lurid tale of Louis Wagner's winter attack on three defenseless women isolated on Smuttynose Island had been dubbed the "Crime of the Century" by the 19th century press.

Smuttynose contained all the elements of a blockbuster film -- sex, scandal, money, celebrity, poverty, scenery, mystery and murder. It represented evidence to de Rochemont that the Seacoast area had an "almost inexhaustible wealth" of motion picture material. Unlike modern director Stone, de Rochemont wanted to shoot the story near where it occured. He continued to believe that real life stories shot with lesser known actors would attract large audiences.

De Rochemont was addicted to "true life" dramas, cut from the daily news as in his Academy Award winning March of Time newsreel series in the 1930s. Stone's film is adapted from a fictionalized version of the story as told in bestseller "The Weight of Water" by Anita Shreve. De Rochemont was attracted to the story, he said, not as much for the murder story, as for its aftermath. The trial of Louis Wagner became a 19th century media circus. DeRochemont saw the underlying tale of journalism gone amuck, of reporters more interested in the myth of the murder than in the facts. Too bad he missed the OJ Simpson trial. It would be interesting to compare de Rochemont's "lost" script treatment to more modern interpretation by Oliver Stone. In his booklet "Murder at Moonlight," Isles of Shoals historian Lyman Ruttledge mentions de Rochemont's lost Smuttynose screenplay. But according to de Rochemont's grandson, Shaler McKeel, the manuscript has not actually been lost for the past 30 years. McReel says he has seen a copy and in de Rochemont's 1952 version, the story was heavily modernized. Instead of Louis Wagner rowing 10 miles to the Isles of Shoals, de Rochemonts's main character was going to instead hitch-hike up the highway to a hotel in New Castle. He was to be picked up by a woman driving a sports car. In de Rochemont's retelling of Seacoast history, facts were flexible, but the truth was not.

By J. Dennis Robinson
© 1997
All rights reserved. Attribute all use.

Related Links:

  • The Life of Louis de Rochemont
  • Film: Lost Boundaries (1949)
  • Film: Whistle at Eaton Falls (1951)

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