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Before Hollywood, There Was Fort Lee, N.J.: Early Moviemaking in New Jersey
When Hollywood was mostly orange groves, Fort Lee, New Jersey was a center of American film production: D. W. Griffith made many one-reel Biograph dramas, Mack Sennett appeared in his first film, Pearl White endured the Perils of Pauline, and Mary Pickfor
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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.Read more ›
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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.
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.