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A Brief History Lesson: The Betzwood Film Archive

May 9th, 2003 (11:57 am)

© 2003 D. Gordon

Recently, I heard the phrase, "Before Hollywood, there was Fort Lee." Definitely true, and there exists a rich history of Fort Lee productions, but it's not the whole story. Growth during the infancy of the movie industry mainly came from population centers, leading to several cities sporting home-grown studios. New York had some of the best-known, including Biograph, the studios of Fort Lee, some locations in the Bronx, and Edison’s studio in New Jersey. Chicago had Essanay. New Rochelle had Thanhouser. From 1912 to 1922 Philadelphia had the Betzwood.
Every year, Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell, PA, which houses the Betzwood Archive, hosts the Betzwood Silent Film Festival. From this year's program:
Founded by film pioneer Siegmund Lubin in 1912, and later owned and operated by Wolf Brothers, Inc., of Philadelphia (1917-1922), this studio was the production site for over 100 films of various genres. With both electric and daylight stages, its own power plant, and a complete processing laboratory, the 350 acre studio was world famous as one of the largest and most advanced studios of its time.

The Betzwood Festival showcases the studio's productions, tracked down in archives around the world. Although not the polished gems of the late twenties, the Betzwood films are a great look into early filmmaking techniques and practices outside of the established leaders. The Drunkard's Child (1909), restored from a paper print in the Library of Congress, is a simple morality tale of strung-together vignettes with all action spelled out through the intertitles. Three years later, The Physician's Honor (1912), starring Arthur V. Johnson and Ormi Hawley (two of the earliest movie stars), unspools a more complex narrative - again morality-based - but still leaves nothing up to audience interpretation. The Price of Victory (1913), a story of honor and sacrifice among southerners, is a little more sophisticated, allowing the audience to pick up hints rather than spoonfeeding them. The film also moves beyond pure narrative, featuring authentic Civil War uniforms, equipment, and artillery. (The curator conjectured in a side conversation that Lubin featured Confederate stories in so many of his Civil War films - shot around 50th anniversary commemorations - for the simple reason that he had more Confederate uniforms at his disposal.)
A Girl's Folly (1917), the festival feature, was out of the Éclair Studio in Fort Lee but is the most instructive of the set. The movie is about a young woman in rural New Jersey (! - New Jersey definitely doesn't look like that anymore) who dreams of adventure and runs into it when she stumbles across a movie set in her back yard. She ends up in The Big City (New York) to try her hand in the movies. The acting is bright, the story is amusing, but it’s the moviemaking scenes that really set the film apart. The director calls for a bedroom – the workmen set up the walls, lay down the carpet, movie in the furniture and within five minutes there’s a bedroom. The angle looks wrong? Rotate the stage 90 degrees until the light is right. Then come the actors. The extras make themselves up in a common room; the star gets his own dressing room with valet at his elbow and yesterday's girlfriend trying to catch his eye. The actors laze about and horse around with each other until time for their scenes. On the set, the director tells each character what they're supposed to do because, as the intertitle tells us, "Frequently, 'movie actors' do not know the plot of the picture in which they are working" (Mike Leigh has nothing on them). There are the constant retakes, the noise of several other productions filming at the same time, the assembly-line structure of the editing room - but there's also the camaraderie of the commissary, support from friends during the big screen test viewing, the party atmosphere of going on location. Is it surprising that the girl decides to stay on with her new movie friends after her failed screen test?
The darker side of the movie life also comes into play – or at least follows the stereotype: the valets and maids, expensive cars and fancy clothes, the implication of a "kept" woman, the parties that degenerate into things too risque for 1917 audiences. The girl ends up "saved" by a mother wielding a birthday cake; but more importantly, the movie is an early entry in a whole genre of "life in Hollywood" movies, including such notables as The Last Command, Show People, All About Eve, A Hard Day's Night (remember the scene in the commissary with Ringo and Paul's granddad), and The Player. Altogether a fascinating look at studio life.