Early Cinematic History on Showcase at Betzwood Silent Film Festival

by Lauren Somers

If you were making a movie about a train wreck in 1914, you actually had to wreck a real train, which was what one director did. At the 25th annual Betzwood Film Festival on Saturday, May 3, at 8 p.m., audiences can learn more about this famous collision and see the film itself. The annual film festival will be held at Montgomery County Community College’s Science Center Theater, 340 DeKalb Pike, Blue Bell. Tickets cost $12 for adults and $8 for children under age 12. Visit mc3.edu/livelyarts or call 215-641-6518 for tickets and information.

The story of how and why those two old locomotives ended up on the same track is only one of the features of our 25th anniversary show. We also plan to round up a posse to find Big Bill the bandit, recreate a Civil War battle, and hop into some vintage cars to rescue the kidnapped detective before the bomb goes off. Professor Eckhardt will explain the meaning of it all, with more vintage photographs from the Betzwood Film Archive and long lost stories about the making of silent movies in Montgomery County. As always, the films will be shown at their original projection speed, with live organ accompaniment by Don Kinnier.

Not many local residents today are aware that before Hollywood, there was Betzwood: a sprawling 350-acre studio complex where more than 100 films were produced and circulated worldwide. Located in what is now West Norriton Township near the Trooper Road exit of Route 422, the operation was the brainchild of Siegmund Lubin, a Polish immigrant and Philadelphia-area resident who started out as an optician entranced by the possibilities of filmmaking.

Lubin was truly ahead of his time, designing and selling movie cameras and projectors, operating a chain of movie theaters, and producing, directing, marketing and appearing in his own films. The visionary earned patents, conceived of the idea of home movies and tried to market movies with sound as early as 1904. But once he built his studio and film processing and distribution operations at Betzwood, he quickly became one of the most commercially successful movie moguls of the early silent era, establishing the world’s largest and most advanced film factory that employed up to 1,000 people and turned out five to six million feet of film each week.

The spectacular train wreck was staged for the cameras in central Pennsylvania for a cool $35,000—as much or more as others were spending on entire films at the time and the equivalent of $818,000 in today’s dollars. The expense helped derail Betzwood’s viability. Coupled with patent and government lawsuits, restricted foreign distribution with the advent of World War I, and a major fire that destroyed the masters for many of the films, Lubin’s empire quickly foundered by 1915—when the groundbreaking film “Birth of a Nation” ushered in a new era of more sophisticated storytelling.

Montgomery County Community College is home to the largest known archive of Betzwood movie studio artifacts in the world thanks to Joseph Eckhardt, emeritus professor of History. Eckhardt is the author of the first Lubin biography, The King of the Movies: Film Pioneer Siegmund Lubin, which details Lubin’s transformation from an immigrant optician into the first successful movie mogul, credited with the first attempt at the “mass marketing” of movies.

Only 30 Betzwood films and fragments have survived the ravages of time, and MCCC is fortunate to have copies of 25 of these in its Betzwood Film Archive. For the past quarter-century, the College has screened films from its Betzwood collection for the public during its annual festival.

In 2012, Eckhardt donated a variety of Betzwood artifacts – including manuscripts, photo albums, tape recordings and studio props that he acquired through this extensive research – to the archive, which is housed in a climate controlled space in the College’s Brendlinger Library in Blue Bell. The archive has recently been digitized and is now accessible online to the general public at mc3betzwood.wordpress.com.

To join the Betzwood mailing list, email Joseph Eckhardt at jeckhard@mc3.edu.

Follow “Destination Arts” at Montgomery County Community College on Facebook at facebook.com/DestinationArts for information about performing and fine arts events.

Photo courtesy of the Betzwood archive

Photo courtesy of the Betzwood archive

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