on June 7, 2003
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.
on December 28, 2003
My introduction to silent films occured at a most unlikely place, a pizza parlor in Greenville SC. This was back in the early 1960's when silent films were first being rediscovered. More often than not they were used to get laughs like on a TV show popular at the time called FRACTURED FLICKERS or at this pizza parlor where 8mm abridged versions of old silent movies were shown while an employee played barber shop quartet standards on an upright piano. The prints were of poor quality and usually the action was too fast but it didn't matter to me because I was hooked. Seeing this documentary took me back to those days which is not surprising since it dates from 1964. Back then programs dealing with silent movies used bad prints at the wrong speed with inappropriate background music, cartoon sound effects, and well meaning but condescending narration. This is not to say that BEFORE HOLLYWOOD is of no interest. Quite the opposite, it was fascinating to see rare footage of the early days in Fort Lee captured on film. Most of it was taken from a 1935 documentary GHOST TOWN: THE STORY OF FORT LEE. It was also interesting to see virtually complete versions of Edwin S. Porter's RESCUED FROM AN EAGLE'S NEST with D.W. Griffith as an actor and the Griffith directed THE CURTAIN POLE featuring Mack Sennett and Florence Lawrence which I had heard about for years but had never seen. The documentary was originally made for TV and is slightly abridged with all the commercial breaks intact and runs about 45 minutes. To fill out the DVD there is the 1912 Biograph short THE NEW YORK HAT with Mary Pickford and Lionel Barrymore, surviving excerpts from the 1917 feature A GIRL'S FOLLY which shows a Fort Lee studio at work giving us a rare glimpse into how silent movies were actually made. This was directed by Maurice Tourneur as was THE WISHING RING, a totally charming complete feature from 1914 which rounds out the program. There is also a printed insert from Fort Lee film historian Richard Koszarski which contains additional background information. An absolute must for anyone interested in film history and an excellent example of how far we have come in our view of and our restoration of silent films.