The film industry wouldn’t be the same without Philadelphia. A new documentary pays homage to the city’s largely unknown contribution to American filmmaking.
Before Hollywood: Philadelphia and the Invention of Movies, premiering Friday as part of the Philadelphia Film Festival and chronicling the rich history of cinematic inventions and advances that originated in Philly, comes from Sam Katz’s History Making Productions and was directed by Andrew Ferrett (Philadelphia: The Great Experiment), and produced by Carrie Rickey, familiar to Philly film fans as a former longtime Inquirer film critic.
Surely, there’s really very little to tell?
Face it, as far as the film world is concerned, Philly is a mere blip. A quaint source of a high-society comedy of yore (The Philadelphia Story) and the place where Sly Stallone earned his only two Oscar nominations. M. Night Shyamalan, who makes all his pictures here (including Glass, which is currently filming in the region), is the exception that proves the rule.
For the most part, Before Hollywood doesn’t focus on the films made in Philly but on the city’s contribution to filmmaking science.
“This history is largely untold,” Rickey said Monday in a three-way phone chat with Ferrett. And it’s a story that stretches far back into our past.
“We take the story to the 18th century with Charles Willson Peale, who operated a moving picture show a few blocks away from” what’s now known as the National Constitution Center, said Rickey. “So in 1787, the writers of the Constitution could walk a few blocks and see a private moving picture show.”
Peale, of course didn’t have a camera. Or film. Those nifty inventions were yet to come. “He didn’t work in light and film but with light and paint, with painted transparencies,” said Ferrett. “He would use light to show the paint transparencies, and create sound effects to create a whole show.”
Typically each program consisted of several 20-minute vignettes. “Oddly enough, these things lasted two hours, which is still the running time” of movies, Rickey said.
Peale can hardly be called the originator of cinema. “But certainly he can be called the father of a large family that eventually produced films,” said Rickey.
Before Hollywood also tells the story of Peale’s son Franklin, who worked on early photography with fellow Philadelphia Mint employee Joseph Saxton. “He takes, in 1839, what was the very first photograph,” said Ferrett. “It’s a shot of the Central High School building!”
By the mid-19th century, Philly had become “the largest center for magic lanterns, slide projectors, and stereopticons [a slide projector that combines two images to create a three-dimensional photo] in the country,” he said.
That’s because it was a major center of scientific activity, due to its leading role in the country’s rapidly modernizing industrial economy.
“It was all a byproduct of manufacturing, [which led to] thousands of patents registered every year in Philadelphia by these restless experimenters, the kinds of people who were pushing the envelope every year,” Ferrett said.
“You can call it the Silicon Valley of its time.” Rickey chimed in. “It was Celluloid Alley.”
Celluloid is the material that finally made modern filmmaking possible — and it was developed here.
“The thing about Philly is that all these centers, like the Franklin Institute, the Mint, the Academy of Natural Sciences, the Academy of Music, and the Penn campus were all within a few blocks of each other, so these guys could” collaborate, Rickey said.
It was at the Franklin Institute that Robert Cornelius took the first photographic self-portrait.
“Yep, the very first selfie was taken here,” Rickey said.
And it was here that Charles Willson Peale’s grandson Coleman Sellers patented one of the earliest, if not the earliest, motion picture cameras.
Before Hollywood also tells the story of another local innovator, filmmaker Siegmund Lubin, who ran a successful film studio in North Philly in the first decade of the 20th century.
Things began changing at the turn of the century with the innovations made by Thomas Edison and the flow of capital into the burgeoning film industry in New York.
Philly could never compete.
But don’t think of this as a sad ending, said Rickey.
“Film is about reinvention. It’s always reinventing itself, and today’s innovations are coming from Comcast,” she said.
If you miss Saturday’s screening of Before Hollywood: Philadelphia and the Invention of Movies, you’ll probably be able to catch it on local TV. Rickey said History Making Productions is in talks with local affiliates.
Before Hollywood: Philadelphia and the Invention of Movies
6:30 p.m. Friday, Ritz East, 125 S. Second St.
Information: 215-422-4970, filmadelphia.org.