The documentary Before Hollywood there was Fort Lee shows some of the films which were made at the pioneering studio in New Jersey. It also describes something of the history of the place, how it came into being and how it declined. Unfortunately the version of the documentary on the DVD has been abridged. It thus provides snippets of information skating quickly on to the next topic. A good deal of the running time is taken up with stills from various Fort Lee productions. It also contains nearly complete versions of some Biograph shorts including the Lonely Villa, the Curtain Pole and Rescued from the Eagle's Nest. It is good to see these early D. W. Griffith films, but I would much rather have seen complete versions without the voiceover commentary. The upshot is that although the documentary shows numerous examples of films made at Fort Lee, it provides little in the way of information about the studio. The DVD does provide an insert essay written by Richard Koszarski, providing in its few pages more actual information than the documentary. It thus rather shows up the inadequacies of the documentary.
The DVD contains three further films made at Fort Lee. The New York Hat (1912) is one of the best of the Biograph films, starring a young Mary Pickford and Lionel Barrymore long before he became the crusty old gent familiar from so many films from the thirties and forties. It is a great film, but silent film fans will probably already have it, as it is available on at least two other DVDs. A Girl's Folly (1917) is a very interesting and enjoyable film. Unfortunately the version available on the DVD has been abridged running for just under 30 minutes. It may well be that this is the only version that survives. If so, it is a great pity, for it is clear from the abridgement that this was a fine film. It is the story of a country girl who tries her luck in the movies. During the course of her adventures, the viewer sees some fascinating glimpses of movie studio life in the 1910s. The story is easy enough to follow, but it is quite obvious that large chunks are missing. The tinted print is generally fairly good, with some occasional and quite severe print damage.
The film which makes this DVD worthwhile is the Wishing Ring (1914). Directed by the great Maurice Tourneur, it is set in early 19th century England, telling the story of the son of an earl who after getting himself kicked out of school and falling out with his father, finds himself working as a lowly gardener. Here he meets and falls in love with the parson's daughter. This is an accomplished film, sweet and romantic, with good acting and production values. The tinted print is very good, clear and sharp with hardly any damage. The Mont Alto Orchestra score is full of tunes associated with England. The score and the playing of Mont Alto really fits the action. At times they even deliberately play excruciatingly badly when, for instance, the action includes a character who can't play the piano. This musical effect is well done and makes for an unusual experiment, which for the most part works very well. This DVD is something of a mixed bag, but is worth getting for the Wishing Ring alone. Silent film fans should not be disappointed.