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Pretty as pictures

Quaint Vermont towns offer glimpses of the movies that were filmed in them

Email|Print| Text size + By Diane E. Foulds
Globe Correspondent / March 2, 2005

STOWE, Vt.—In the 1996 movie ''The Spitfire Grill," a young woman leaves prison and moves to Gilead, Maine. But that was Hollywood. In truth, Gilead, Maine, was Peacham, Vt.

Actress Alison Elliott plays Percy Talbott, who finds work at a country restaurant owned by blunt-spoken Hannah (Ellen Burstyn). Hannah's suspicious son Nahum (Will Patton) sends his downtrodden wife, Shelby (Marcia Gay Harden), over to keep an eye on Percy.

The scenery is breathtaking, the village almost too ideal for words. I wanted to see for myself. What ensued was a journey to an imaginary realm, movie sets immortalized on the screen, and, like some adventure movies, it contained as many letdowns as thrills.

Peacham turned out to be quaint, like the Gilead in the movie: a white-steepled church, old brick houses, and a sign at the edge of town marking its founding in 1775. There on the corner I recognized The Spitfire Grill from the movie, a neat red building with white pillars in the front. But inside it was completely different: The Peacham Store is a country store, its shelves stocked with cheeses, jams, maple syrup, and knickknacks.

So the whole thing had been a fabrication.

''Vermont films are part and parcel of a whole genre that is related to small-town America being this dream," said Stephen Bissette, a film historian in Vermont. ''It's always these small, unspoiled towns. Vermont has had this mystique to it since the silent era."

Bonnie Christensen, a Vermont artist who painted some of the movie's sets, remembers the store was specially fitted with rustic-looking booths and tables, but that the upstairs scenes were filmed elsewhere -- in a house about a mile down the road with a hill in its backyard. It was there that Percy sets out on walks into the woods.

I was completely fooled. I would be again, this time in the 1993 movie ''Ethan Frome." Liam Neeson portrays an impoverished farmer caring for his invalid wife (Joan Allen) in a secluded Vermont landscape masquerading as 19th-century Massachusetts. The story, adapted from the Edith Wharton novel, explores the consequences when the wife's attractive young cousin (Patricia Arquette) moves in. The most enduring image is the cold.

George Woodard, who plays a farmhand in the film, recalled that temperatures fell so low during the shooting that camera equipment wouldn't work. Heated trailers were kept idling nearby so the actors could warm up. The property, which had been sold just before filming, was near Groton, about 10 miles south.

Driving east out of Groton on Route 302, I turned left past the cemetery and drove 1¼miles up Glover Road. I found the house on the right, the barn on the left. The filmmakers didn't like the way the road split the farm in two, Woodard said, so they concealed it under artificial snow made from a potato mixture.

For the scene in which the farmer buys the cousin a gift, it was back to the Peacham Store. They emptied it out and refilled it with antiques. When the love-struck farmer watches the cousin dance, Woodard said, he is standing by Peacham's white church, the same one Percy uses as her secret refuge in ''The Spitfire Grill."

It is not unlike the church Alfred Hitchcock used in ''The Trouble With Harry" (1955), a murder comedy with British affectations.

''That was Hitchcock's favorite of all his films," said Bissette. ''The trouble with 'The Trouble With Harry,' if you will, is Americans just don't get it -- whatever 'it' is." The movie was a hit in Europe but tanked in the United States.

The story plays out in picturesque ''Highwater," where Harry Warp turns up dead in a field. The dilemma of what to do with the body unites a group of locals, whose own lives are transformed as a result. Though bits were shot in Morrisville and Stowe, the church and town green are unmistakably Craftsbury Common. Snapshots of Hitchcock and crew hang in the town's historical museum, and David Linck, a historian and naturalist, remembers where every scene was shot.

What's remarkable is how little the village has changed. On the day I visited, the weather was miserable. It was that, in the end, that drove Hitchcock back to California. As Bissette writes in ''Green Mountain Cinema I" (Hollywood Comics, 2004), boxes of leaves were packed up and shipped to Hollywood, where they were used to dress up a studio-built ''outdoor" set where Harry is buried and exhumed.

Making ''Sweet Hearts Dance" (1988), a somewhat sluggish tale of two friends (Don Johnson and Jeff Daniels) and the women in their lives (Susan Sarandon and Elizabeth Perkins), was not as difficult. Filmed in Hyde Park, this was the only one of the bunch that did not mask its setting with a fictitious name. The Vermontness comes through in spades in a scene when the two men race each other on ice-skates across a frozen pond. In the summer, Johnson's character turns the same pond into a liquid graveyard for his friend's car. Jan Herder, now director of the Dibden Center for the Arts at Johnson State College in Johnson, Vt., worked with the film crew and told me the skating scene was filmed on two ponds about 5 miles north of Hyde Park: Lake Eden and South Pond. But the car was sunk in Los Angeles.

Curiously, the same stunt is used in the 1981 comedy ''The Four Seasons." A metaphor, perhaps, of man and nature in collision -- or Hollywood and Vermont. But this time it's accidental: Jack Weston plays an angst-ridden Manhattan dentist whose vacations with the gang (Alan Alda, Sandy Dennis, Carol Burnett, and Rita Moreno) are getting old. His cherished Mercedes falls through the ice, and his composure goes with it. In one scene, the usually laid-back Alda loses it in a cozy ski chalet, ripping a moose head from the wall and throwing it into the fireplace.

The set was the Edson Hill Manor, a wood-paneled inn set alongside manicured ski trails in the mountains outside Stowe. Memories of the movie's laughably bad skiers came rushing back as I drove in (the Mercedes-swallowing pond is right in back). But the place is a revelation, much quieter and classier than it looks in the movie, better even than it appears on its own website. The moose head ended up down the road at the Stowehof Inn, where the cast and crew stayed.

Diane E. Foulds is a freelance writer in Burlington, Vt.

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