Before there was Hollywood, there was New Jersey — really.
The reason was simple. Take New Jersey-based Thomas Edison’s inventiveness, add New York City-based actors and directors, and then mix with the large North Jersey and New York City populations who could afford the nickel for the nickelodeon and — voila! — an industry and an art form were born.
In fact by 1918 Fort Lee was the movie capital of the word with around 11 studios and hundreds of employees building the industry day by day and year by year.
But New Jersey’s starring role soon ended, thanks in part by the same person who helped start it.
Edison’s hold on patents and his willingness to use lawyers and gangsters — really — to curtail competition sent other filmmakers to go west to states where the patent rights did not extend.
And when many landed in a small town called Hollywood, the film industry was reborn and has thrived ever since.
Nevertheless, New Jersey has stayed has in the picture — but this time as a locale or a state of mind.
So with some of the films available online or easily ordered, why not take a look — especially while staying home during the current coronavirus crisis?
Here are a several selections that put our region on the Hollywood map.
Let’s start with “A Beautiful Mind.” It’s the Hollywood treatment of the late Princeton professor and Nobel laureate John Nash, whose beautiful mind contained both the purity of mathematical reasoning and the fire of insanity.
Based on New York Times economics reporter Sylvia Nasar’s biography of the same name, the 2001 film directed is directed by Ron Howard features Russell Crowe as Nash and Jennifer Connelly as his wife, Alicia.
As a New York Times review sums it up, “In outline Mr. Nash’s life has the perfect three-act structure of a screenplay: a sparkling career derailed by adversity and redeemed by a triumph of the spirit.” Yet the review also touches on “troubling information” regarding Nash, including “antisocial temperament and his predilection for cruel put-downs” and other less than flattering facts about Nash’s personal life.
The review is right with saying, “All this, apparently, is too much for audiences to take in: anything that would dilute our sympathy by acquainting us with the vicissitudes of Mr. Nash’s real life has been airbrushed away, leaving a portrait of a shy, lovable genius. Of course any movie that traffics in biography must edit, foreshorten, emphasize and condense, but ‘A Beautiful Mind’ goes further, becoming a piece of historical revisionism.”
All that is true, but “A Beautiful Mind” is an engaging film that cinematically explores both Nash’s prize-winning ideas and the struggle of an intellectual coming to grips with the uncertainty of his own thoughts and perceptions.
It also racked up the Academy Awards for best picture, director, actress, and adapted screenplay.
“A Beautiful Mind” can be streamed on Hulu or rented via Amazon Prime, iTunes, Google Play, or YouTube.
Another local cinematic biography pick is Trenton-born producer, writer, and actor Amy Robinson’s 1983 biographic slice of life “Baby It’s You.” Directed and written by New Jersey filmmaker John Sayles, it marks the celebrated director’s first major Hollywood studio effort.
The film takes place in 1966 Trenton. Here Jill Rosen, a young college-bound Jewish girl, becomes smitten with Albert Capodilupo, a Frank Sinatra-worshiping would-be singer who goes by the nickname “Sheik” (as in the condom brand).
The film’s title comes from the name of the hit song by the era’s popular girl-group the Shirelles. The soundtrack also includes an anachronism: the then-new songs by Bruce Springsteen. And while not of the period, the songs certainly accent the homegrown New Jersey flavor.
Although a recent reviewing of the film found it uneven, it was also an opportunity to explore or remember what Trenton was once like — before the Jewish and Italian populations moved away and into the suburbs.
The film also deals with issues of the sexual norms of the day with the reputations and hopes of young women dashed by young men trying to prove their masculinity through sexual conquests — no matter how indiscriminate.
And while it is obvious that the romance between the two star-crossed lovers — played by Rosanna Arquette and Vincent Spano — isn’t going to work, the viewer gets pulled into their painful encounter. He ends up lip-syncing Sinatra tunes in the Florida restaurant where he also works as a dishwasher, and she goes to Sarah Lawrence College where, interestingly, she cannot forget she’s from Trenton and feels alienated from those hailing from tonier towns.
It’s not upbeat or perfect, but with its scenes of now vintage cars driving over the Trenton Makes Bridge and scenes of Trenton (shot elsewhere), it’s a nostalgic trip to what once was.
“Baby It’s You” can be rented on Amazon Prime or viewed for free at www.dailymotion.com/video/x5kosz9.
“IQ” is another nostalgic trip to our area: Princeton in the 1950s. And while its main character is one of the world’s great thinkers and one of the region’s most prominent citizens, Albert Einstein, the film is pure fantasy and escapism.
In this 1994 film the genius, played by an avuncular Walter Matthau, isn’t concerned with the unified field theory or the creation of Israel but with the romantic life of his niece (played by Meg Ryan). She’s a mathematician who hasn’t done the math to realize that the man for her is a car mechanic (played by Tim Robbins).
Uncle Al is so interested in her romantic wellbeing he enlists three other professors to help him play cupid with the inevitable ups and downs leading to an also inevitable happy ending. It’s an enjoyable, old-fashioned, light screwball type of comedy, a cinematic version of comfort food.
Yet one doesn’t need to be an Einstein to realize that the real fun for area viewers is to see actual places in Princeton, Hopewell, and Cranbury transformed to evoke the 1950s.
“IQ” can be streamed on HBO Now or rented via Amazon Prime, iTunes, Google Play, or YouTube.
“One for the Money” is another regionally connected light fare film — or slight fare.
Released in 2012, it’s based on the first of writer Janet Evanovich’s bestselling series of novels featuring the exploits of the plucky Trenton-born lingerie saleswoman-turned-bounty hunter Stephanie Plum. It stars Katherine Heigl.
As the Hollywood Reporter puts it, “The cutesy plot revolves around Plum’s first assignment, to capture a possibly corrupt and murderous cop who also happened to relieve her of her virginity years earlier.”
That pretty much says it all.
Although the books are spiced with a New Jersey attitude, this film’s “Joisy” seems canned and the proceedings noisily routine. Perhaps the filmmakers should have stayed in New Jersey rather than using Pittsburgh as Trenton’s stand-in.
Some film buffs may want to see the film for legend Debbie Reynolds’ last part — her over-the-top performance as Plum’s eccentric Grandma Mazur. Others may just want to just sit back and smirk.
“One for the Money” can be rented via YouTube, iTunes, or Google Play.
Now let’s go to the 2013 light comedy “Admission.” It stars Tina Fey and Princeton University — well sort of.
Fey plays Princeton University admissions officer Portia Nathan who not only deals with the university’s admissions of students but with a series of personal admissions.
The story quickly sets up a series of mildly engaging situations that puts Portia in a social and emotional bind: competing for the job of department dean, being rudely dumped by her longtime English professor partner for a another self-absorbed English professor, getting involved with an alternative school faculty member, discovering one of his students may be the child she gave up in college, and eventually attempting to game the admission system to get her “son” into Princeton.
Add Portia’s personal admission-filled visit to her Bohemian mother (played by Lily Tomlin) and the film rolls pleasantly along, lifted by composer Stephen Trask’s buoyant soundtrack.
Paul Weitz directs Karen Croner’s liberal screen adaptation of former Princeton resident Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel, inspired in part by the writer’s own experience of working at Princeton University.
Interestingly a review for the film came from the online magazine Inside Higher Ed. It asked three admissions officers about the film’s depiction and found “the experts agreed that ‘Admission’ won’t counter the media hype about how hard it is to get into college — which may be true for Princeton but isn’t true for the colleges at which most students enroll,” with one saying, “It made us seem a little mean.”
The article also quotes former Princeton vice president Robert K. Durkee’s comment that viewers “understand that it is not a documentary; it does not portray the Princeton admission process, it portrays a fictional admission process that is set at Princeton. We have no trap doors in our admission office” — a reference to the imagined presence of rejected applicants falling gracelessly through the floor.
He also has his own admission: Princeton’s “English department faculty is not at all captured by the stereotypical English department faculty members who populate the film.”
“Admission” can be rented via Amazon Prime, YouTube, iTunes, or Google Play.
Princeton is also the setting for the 1934 comedy “She Loves Me Not,” starring Bing Crosby in one of his first feature film roles. He is joined by the versatile Miriam Hopkins (whose range ran from light comedy to dead serious drama) and Broadway and film performer Kitty Carlisle.
The comedy tells the tale of Curly, a Philadelphia chorus girl who witnesses a gangster murder. Knowing she’s in trouble, Curly, still in her chorus girl outfit under a big coat, takes the next train as far as her pocket money can carry her: Princeton.
There we meet Paul, played by Crosby in his Princeton University living quarters. With just two weeks to go before graduating, he is writing the music for the upcoming Triangle Show. Curly somehow ends up at the university, sees Paul through the window, invites herself in, and shares her tale.
Knowing he can get expelled if he has a girl in room, he instantly agrees to help. He and a pal disguise Curly as a guy so she can hide out at the all-male university.
Meanwhile Crosby’s petty criminal bootlegged-gin provider connects the girl to the shooting. Crosby’s pal’s New York filmmaker dad gets wind of Curly’s story and decides to exploit in the media to sell a film. Add a few misconstrued letters, mistaken identities, both new and angry lovers, quarrels, and other complications galore and the 85-minute farce sails merrily and improbably along — thanks to director, vaudeville performer, and 1930s-era Broadway comedy artist Elliott Nugent.
While the film is also noted for the debut of the then-famous popular hit “Love in Bloom,” area viewers will be more interested in seeing Princeton get the old Hollywood treatment, including a romantic shot of men singing with Nassau Hall behind them. Call it a wine cooler of a comedy and you get the feeling.
“She Loves Me Not” is available for purchase on Amazon.com and can be viewed for free at ok.ru/video/294285675171.
Another film focusing on another area educational institute is “The Happy Years.” A major motion picture produced in 1950, the area star is the actual Lawrenceville School.
The plot is based on the 1910 novel “The Varmint,” one of author Owen Johnson’s series of books known as the “Lawrenceville Stories.” This is the one that introduced readers to one of Johnson’s popular characters, John Humperdink Stover — aka Dink.
The story is a pleasant and formulaic tale of a smart-mouthed twerp (played by a young Dean Stockwell) who finds his way through school with the help of a veteran professor (Leo G. Carroll) who has seen the same type of kid come and go. And so too have many of the film’s viewers.
Overall it is a plucky Tom Sawyer-like story crated to make rich boys feel naughty. Nevertheless, the initiation Dink experiences moving into a new school is reminiscent of what many of us will recall when we suddenly find ourselves the new kid on the block — or in this instance the house to which Dink has been assigned.
Some of the film’s fun is seeing the area on screen, including a brief scene of Dink being picked up by a carriage at the recreation of the Trenton train station. There is also a scene in a recreated Lawrenceville pancake restaurant where one of the Lawrenceville boys successfully takes on the restaurant’s All You Can Eat challenge and wins a day of pancakes for the entire student body.
Directed by Oscar winner William Wellman and with a screenplay by Harry Ruskin — who also wrote three films dealing with another bad boy series, Hollywood’s Andy Hardy films starring a young Mickey Rooney — the film is a period piece. It is also a curiosity that it gave the start to a number of young actors who are now in their golden years. That includes Robert Wagner in his first role.
The Happy Years is available for purchase on Amazon.com and can be viewed for free at ok.ru/video/391630621326.
“The Crossing” is the 2000 television film of George Washington’s gambit of crossing the Delaware River on Christmas Day to surprise attack the Hessian army in Trenton and reverse a series of loses for the Revolutionary Army.
Variety called the A&E production featuring Jeff Daniels as Washington a “nobly executed but flawed look at the Revolutionary War’s most celebrated event. Not focused enough on the lingering effects of the journey, the cable web’s ambitious telepic gets high marks for effort only. Viewers who know little about the expedition will appreciate the simplistic history lesson, but demanding audiences may want something that resonates with more significance.”
The film, based on Howard Fast’s 1971 novel of the same name, gives local audiences an opportunity to get a glimpse of what 1776 Trenton may have looked like.
Watch “The Crossing” on YouTube.
While the area has cameo roles in other films — including Charles Foster Kane’s Trenton marriage in “Citizen Kane” and a Princeton University visit in “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle” — the above films are the ones that get up close and personal with our region.
They also offer a way of getting out and about in the community when it may be better to stay in.