Saturday, October 14, 2017

On DVD, a delightful, 203-minute course in American film history -- THE CHAMPION: A Story of America's First Film Town

What a little treasure trove for film lovers is the new Milestone Cinematheque release of THE CHAMPION: A STORY OF AMERICA'S FIRST FILM TOWN. I may have previously heard something about Fort Lee, New Jersey, being a place where early movies were made, but nothing had prepared me for the details that spill out -- surprising, funny, and full of so many names of our early and important filmmakers, actors and eventual and/or would-be moguls -- during this 35-minute-but-too-short-by-half documentary.

It's rare for TrustMovies to wish a film were longer, but he could have easily sat through another hour or more of this one. Still, this two-disc set is more than worth its cost, as it also offers eight silent films from the heyday of Fort Lee (the early 1900s through World War I) plus another short documentary from 1935 detailing even more about movie-making in this New Jersey precursor of Hollywood that was, by the 1930s, already a movie-making ghost town.

As written and directed by Marc J. Perez (based on the book Fort Lee, the Film Town by Richard Koszarski), The Champion takes us to the spot where those famous Perils of Pauline were filmed, shows us what certainly must be one of the earliest "special effects" to be seen onscreen (in a silent movie called Rescued from an Eagle's Nest), and puts us in touch with some famous (or almost) names like Florence Lawrence (shown above), said to be the first real "movie star," as well as stand-bys like Goldwyn, Laemmle and Sennett, as well as names that ought to be better known and maybe someday will be.

In that last category would fall the first black feature filmmaker, Oscar Micheaux, and the first female filmmaker, Alice Guy-Blaché, who wrote, directed and/or produced some one thousand films and actually owned her own film studio -- all before women could even vote here in America.

The Champion concentrates most on a man named Mark Dintenfass, who came to Fort Lee in 1910 and decided it would be smart move to build a studio nearby (in Englewood Cliffs). He purchased land and built what would become the hugely successful (for awhile) Champion Studios, the mark of which is shown below.

This story, along with many others, are told briefly and well in the documentary, which ends, as I say, too soon, but then allows you to take a look at some of the silent films that came out of this era and town. Chief among these is the 31-minute version of ROBIN HOOD, made in 1912 by Eclair America, which was to become the first American-produced version of the tale. The longest of the films is THE DANGER GAME (from 1918) running one full hour.

The other short silents run from nine to eleven minutes each, and though some are in better restorative shape than others, all are great fun to watch and marvel over -- both for how far film (and now video) has come, and how much fun, even enlightening, it could be back at its near-beginning. In fact, this new set makes a lovely complement (or maybe vice versa) to one of last year's most interesting movie-history documentaries, The First Film.

From The Milestone Cinematheque, and running, in all, 203 minutes, this two-disc set features a 2K restoration of that 1935 doc on Fort Lee entitled Ghost Town. For five of the films, all produced at Champion Studio, this new release marks the first time these silents will have appeared on DVD. Special thanks are due The Fort Lee Film Commission for its work in putting together this fine set. The Champion, complete with all its extras, hits the street this coming Tuesday, October 17 -- for purchase and/or (I hope) for rental, too.

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