Before Hollywood There Was Fort Lee, N.J.: Early Movie Making in New Jersey (a J!-ENT DVD Review)

January 1, 2011 by  

Fort Lee, New Jersey was once the motion picture capital of the United States.  Before Hollywood, many silent stars had careers born from Fort Lee and this 1964 documentary showcases the heyday of the studios shooting silent films in the area during that era.  But while the documentary has definitely aged, fortunately we also get a classic Mary Pickford/D.W. Griffith short, a Doris Kenyon abridged version of her fil “A Girl’s Folly” and the complete hour-long film “The Wishing Ring”.  For silent film fans, definitely a DVD worth having in your collection!

Images courtesy of © 2003 Image Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

DVD TITLE: Before Hollywood There Was Fort Lee, N.J.: Early Movie Making in New Jersey


YEAR OF FILM: The Wishing Ring (1914)

DURATION: 40:02 (Before Hollywood There Was Fort Lee, N.J.)/16:12 (The New York Hat)/29:43 (A Girl’s Folly)/1:00:07 (The Wishing Ring)

DVD INFORMATION: B&W & Color Tinted, Dolby Digital Stereo

COMPANY: Image Entertainment

RATED: Not Rated

RELEASE DATE: May 20, 2003

Before Hollywood There Was Fort Lee, N.J.: Early Movie Making in New Jersey

Directed by Thomas Hanlon

The New York Hat (1912)

Directed by D.W. Griffith

Story by Anita Loos

Photographed by G.W. Blitzer

A Girl’s Folly (1917)

Directed by Maurice Tourneur

Scenario by Tourneur and Frances Marion

Photoraphed by John van den Broek

Produced by Biography Company

The Wishing Ring (1914)

Directed by Maurice Tourneur

A Shubert Feature, based upon the play by Owen Davis

Photographed by John van den Broek

Produced by World Film Corporation

Music performed by the Monte Alto Motion Picture Orchestra


The New York Hat (1912)

Mary Pickford

Lionel Barrymore

Charles Hill Mailes

A Girl’s Folly (1917)

Doris Kenyon

Robert Warwick

Chester Barnett

Johnny Hines

Maurice Tourneur

The Wishing Ring (1914)

Vivian Martin

Alec B. Francis

Chester Barnett

Simeon Wiltsie

Walter Morton

Johnny Hines

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.

Before Hollywood, California became the entertainment hub for film studios, during the 1920’s, Hollywood was about oranges and as for the earlier years of cinema?  Films were shot at Fort Lee, New Jersey, the former motion picture capital of America.

Beginning as far back in the 19th century courtesy of Thomas Edison, who created his “Black Maria”, the first motion picture studio in West Orange, New Jersey.  The city would quickly entice studios such as Independent Moving Pictures Company, Peerless Studios, the Solax Company, Eclair Studios, Goldwyn Picture Corporation, American Melies, World Pictures, Biograph Studios, Fox Film Corporation, Pathe Freres, Metro Pictures Corporation, Victor Film Company and Selznick Pictures Corporation.

The studios shot their films in Fort Lee and silent film stars such as Mary Pickford and Miles Remy who worked with Biograph Studios started their film careers in New Jersey.

But because Hollywood, California was more cost-effective all year around due to its weather climate (unlike New Jersey which goes through major cold spells), it began with Nestor Studios building their first Hollywood studio in 1911 and later merged with Universal Studios and all filmmaking would be done in the West Coast by 1930.

But from 1907 through the 1920’s, Fort Lee, New Jersey was the city where early silent cinema was filmed, where it prospered and was the city where many stars began their acting career. Where many international directors tried their best to get their feet into the door of American cinema and also a city, that many people today have forgotten of its role in cinema.

To bring attention to the accomplishments of what took place in Fort Lee, New Jersey, Image Entertainment has resurrected the 1964 Thomas Hanlon abridged documentary of “Before Hollywood There Was Fort Lee, New Jersey”.

A documentary that would go into the heyday of silent film but also what took place during the Depression and what was left of the studios after everyone left to Hollywood, California.

While the documentary is quite outdated and for some people, reminiscent of the training videos or films they had to watch during elementary school, for many silent film fans, its the three films that are included in this DVD release that will attract interest.

Included are”The New York Hat” (1912), a Biograph film starring Mary Pickford and Lionel Barrymore and was directed by D.W. Griffith.  The film revolves around Miss Mollie Goodhue (played by Mary Pickford) who lives an impoverished life, mainly because her father is so strict and he is also a miser.  But before her mother Mrs. Goodhue (played by Kate Bruce) dies of illness, she tells Preacher Bolton (played by Lionel Barrymore) to buy her daughter the “finery” which she has desired but her father would never let her have.

The preacher does as what Mrs. Goodhue had requested by buying her a fancy New York hat and gives it to Mollie who is so happy by the gift.  Unfortunately, gossip in the town starts to erupt as many are saying that Mollie and the preacher are up to no good and shocked and shamed, her father tears up the hat.  With gossip continuing around town and her father now upset, what will the preacher do to fix the situation?

The second short is titled “The Wishing Ring” (1914) produced by World Film Corporation and directed by Maurice Tourneur.  The film stars Vivian Martin, Alec B. Francis, Chester Barnett and more.

The film revolves around Giles Bateson (played by Chester Barnett), a man who has gotten himself in trouble in college for misconduct and is expelled.  His father, the Earl of Bateson (played by Alec B. Francis) is disappointed and gives his son a note that he does not want to see him again until “he has earned a half crown and a worthy of confidence”.

One day, Giles meets a young woman named Sally (played by Vivian Martin), the daughter of the Parson.  One day, she and Giles take a walk and meet up with gypsies who tell her about a magical ring.  Giles buys her the ring and Sally believes that the ring is capable of power and making her wishes come true (when it really is Gile making her wishes come true).  One day, Sally finds the note that the Earl had sent to Giles and now she is determined to make sure that father and son are good again.

The final short film included in this DVD is “A Girl’s Folly” (1917), a film produced by World Film Corporation and is directed by Maurice Tourneur and stars Doris Kenyon, Robert Warwick, Chester Barnett and Johnny Hines.

It’s important to note that there are two versions of this film available.  One from Reel Classics which is the full version of the film and there is the abridged version which is included on this DVD.  Unfortunately, the full version of the film (the first and third/final arc) suffers from major nitrate damage that only 30-minutes or so are in good condition of the 65-minute film and thus the good portion (the middle of the film) is included on this DVD release.

“A Girl’s Folly” revolves around Mary Baker (played by Doris Kenyon) who is tired of the rural area and leaves it.  One day, she notices a film crew shooting a western near her home and she becomes good friends with the film’s lead star Kenneth Driscoll (played by Robert Warwick).  Kenneth encourages her to become an actress and so, she decides to leave the rural town and move to the big city to become an actress.  Will she become successful in her endeavor?


For the release of “Before Hollywood There Was Fort Lee, N.J.: Early Movie Making in New Jersey”, it appears that David Shepard and the Fort Lee Film Commission wanted only the best parts of the documentary and shorts appearing on this DVD, which is understandable.

The documentary and films are definitely watchable and sure, they have scratches, some deterioration and occasional flickering but that is acceptable for silent films and because these films are nearly a hundred years old, the fact that they do look good on DVD is a plus.  Granted, DVD authoring has changed since 2003 compared to DVD releases in 2010 but considering you get the documentary and three shorts is pretty cool.  Granted, it would have been nice to see the full version of “A Girl’s Folly” but I can understand them removing the parts with massive nitrate deterioration.

The shorts are presented in black and white and color-tinted.

As for audio, as mentioned with the documentary, that style of documentary narration by Thomas Hanlon in 1964 is reminiscent of the older films I had to watch during the ’70s in elementary school.  The monotone voice and overall presentation, yes…it’s quite dated.  But if it was just the documentary alone, I may have been disappointed but fortunately you get the three shorts and you get music by Robert Israel (“The New York Hat” and “A Girl’s Folly”) and the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra (“The Wishing Ring”).


“Before Hollywood There Was Fort Lee, N.J.: Early Movie Making in New Jersey” comes with no special features but the three extra silent shorts included in this DVD release.


Included is a four-page booklet about “New Jersey and the Early Motion Picture Industry” by Richard Koszarski of the Fort Lee Film Commission.

As a fan of silent cinema, I have had my eye on “Before Hollywood There Was Fort Lee, N.J.: Early Movie Making in New Jersey” and the only thing that has been pushing me away from it were people discussing online of how the documentary shows its age and how “A Girl’s Folly” was incomplete.

But having become a fan of Mary Pickford after seeing a good number of her films and after watching “The Ocean’s Waif” starring Doris Kenyon, the opportunity to watch an early Pickford Biography short and another opportunity to see a Doris Kenyon film seems quite difficult if your only connection watch them is on DVD.  So, it was a no-brainer, the fact that you get a documentary plus three shorts was a must-buy.

“Before Hollywood There Was Fort Lee, N.J.: Early Movie Making in New Jersey” which I was really wanting to see was now what I was expecting but still I did enjoy it. I learned quickly what people meant by how this film shows its age, with its monotone ’50s-’60s style of narration.  It also wasn’t a documentary in the sense that we get interviews with past celebrities or those who worked on the film.  We do get classic video footage and images from that era, but while the  the documentary showcases the area of where films were shot at, what we do get are clips of various movies with narration but what I did enjoy was the fact that we get almost-complete versions of Thomas Edison’s “Rescued from an Eagles Nest” (1907) and Biograph’s “The Curtain Pole” (1909).

Sure, the documentary shows its age but at the same time, there is not exactly footage of Fort Lee, New Jersey during the silent era available on DVD, so you take what you can get and in this case, we get an abridged version of “Before Hollywood There Was Fort Lee, N.J.: Early Movie Making in New Jersey”. Granted, there is information available from Kevin Brownlow and others film historians of the era in book format and if you have read these books, the documentary does not provide any groundbreaking information.  But still, I’m grateful for Image Entertainment for releasing this documentary on DVD.

But what makes this release worth owning is its inclusion of “The New York Hat”, “A Girl’s Folly” and “The Wishing Ring”.    While “The New York Hat” is included in the first Griffith Masterworks DVD box set from Kino Video and “A Girl’s Folly” in its full-complete format (with major nitrate decomposition included) in the Reel Collection release, for me, having looked for Doris Kenyon films on DVD, at least we do get one abridged film starring Kenyon on this DVD.

Also, for Mary Pickford fans, you get an early Pickford/Griffith with “The New York Hat”. But also featured in the “Before Hollywood” documentary, we get to see “A Lonely Villa” (1909), a D.W. Griffith Biography short not included in the Griffith Masterworks DVD box set with a young Mary Pickford playing an older daughter.

Overall, this DVD is for those who want to see how Fort Lee, New Jersey was the original motion picture capital in the United States.  As mentioned, nothing groundbreaking if you have owned books by Brownlow and other authors/historians but still, it’s great to see footage from yesteryear, especially images of stars who had careers born in Fort Lee.  I definitely didn’t know that Olive Thomas or Norma Shearer had their start in Fort Lee so it was great to see that on the documentary.

And although the documentary is abridged and yes, it shows its age, at least David Shepard threw in two shorts and one hour long film, “The Wishing Ring” on this DVD release.  Also, unlike other silent films released from Image Entertainment, this DVD at this current time, is not difficult to find.

While probably not an essential DVD for the hardcore silent film fan who own every DVD and book on silent film, for those who who want a silent DVD with historical information on motion pictures of the silent era plus the fact that you do get extra films, then this DVD is definitely worth having in your collection.

I’m definitely recommending the DVD release of “Before Hollywood There Was Fort Lee, N.J.: Early Movie Making in New Jersey”.  Recommended!

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