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Before Hollywood, There Was Fort Lee, N.J. (1964)
Starring: Mary Pickford, Lionel Barrymore
Director: D.W. Griffith
Category: Documentary
Studio: Image Ent.
146 mins



Early Moviemaking in New Jersey

When Hollywood, California, was mostly orange groves, Fort Lee, New Jersey, was a center of American film production. There, D.W. Griffith made many of his one-reel Biograph dramas, Mack Sennett appeared in his first film, Pearl White endured the Perils of Pauline, Mary Pickford and Theda Bara starred in early features. By the mid-teens, a dozen major movie studios were operating in the Palisades village across the Hudson River from Manhattan's Washington Heights.

This enormously interesting DVD, produced in cooperation with the Fort Lee Film Commission, is perhaps the most detailed look we shall ever have at early Fort Lee film production. Thomas Hanlon's 1964 documentary Before Hollywood There Was Fort Lee, New Jersey uses rare still photographs, almost-complete versions of such films as Edison's Rescued From an Eagle's Nest (1907) and Biograph's The Curtain Pole (1909) and poignant footage from 1935 of the great glass studios in ruins to show the rise and fall of silent filmmaking in the village on the Hudson.

D.W. Griffith's location work in Fort Lee is represented by the New York Hat (1912), featuring Mary Pickford and Lionel Barrymore.

Maurice Tourneur's 1917 feature, A Girl's Folly had not been rediscovered when Hanlon's film was produced, but it's a movie about filmmaking in Fort Lee which uses the then-new Peerless Studio as background. Included in this half-hour abridgement are views of the glass stages, rotating sets, tank for water effects, laboratory, projection room, and crews at work on various aspects of production in that period. The whole thing ties together with a pleasant little story co-authored by Tourneur and Frances Marion, then just starting her spectacular screenwriting career.

Director Maurice Tourneur is further represented by an enchanting hour-long feature of 1914, The Wishing Ring, taken in the village environs as well as the Paragon Studio. What historian Kevin Brownlow has called "its freshness and impish vitality" is hardly diminished by nine decades, and artistically this may be the most accomplished film produced anywhere in the world by 1914. Variety wrote that "the whole atmosphere of the tale is light and as graceful as a minuet and colored with the nicety of a pastel." The tinted print has a charming digital stereo score by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

Historian Richard Koszarski, founding editor of the journal Film History, member of the Fort Lee Commission and author of several important books on early cinema, contributed "New Jersey and the Early Motion Picture Industry," an exclusive essay packaged with this DVD.