Introduzione / Introduction
Schede film / Film notes



Fort Lee: The Film Town (1904-2004)
The 100th anniversary of the incorporation of the Borough of Fort Lee, New Jersey, provides an ideal moment to reflect on the role this new community played in the development of the American motion picture industry. Laid out by General George Washington at the time of the American Revolution (he was soon forced to abandon it when British forces succeeded in crossing the Hudson a few miles to the north), Fort Lee was for its first century a rural satellite of New York. Farming provided the basic occupation, but towards the end of the 19th century the area also became an attractive tourist mecca. The Palisades, which General Washington felt might protect the spot from invasion, had succeeded in retarding the commercial development which had overcome most of the Hudson’s Jersey shore. No railroad line was ever built along the Palisades, and most direct access was by ferry across the Hudson River and then up the Palisades via interurban trolley car. To take advantage of this relative isolation vacation cabins were constructed as summertime rentals, while tourist hotels and livery stables catered to New Yorkers seeking a bucolic getaway only a day trip from midtown Manhattan. And Fort Lee was not only unspoiled and close at hand, it offered surprising topographical variety, with cliffs, cornfields, rocky shoreline, country estates, and winding village roads all within its geographical boundaries. By 1907 the tourists had been joined by filmmakers.
Gene Gauntier and Sidney Olcott of the Kalem company claimed to be the first to discover the value of this community as a production center. In any case, they were soon joined by Biograph, Pathé, IMP, the New York Motion Picture Company, and other early producers, trust members and independents alike. James Young Deer shot Pathé’s first American westerns here in 1910, while D.W. Griffith made nearly 100 short films in Fort Lee. Soon, “Jersey scenery” had become so commonplace on motion picture screens that the term acquired an unfortunate generic meaning: an overused landscape failing to pass as something it is not. That same year Mark Dintenfass decided to take Fort Lee filmmaking indoors, opening the Champion studio at the borough’s northern boundary. At that moment, Fort Lee passed from being just another interesting location and began its brief career as America’s first “motion picture town”. Within a few years the borough’s tax rolls would be completely dominated by motion picture studios and laboratories.
Champion was soon joined by American Éclair and Alice Guy Blaché’s Solax, the beginnings of a French invasion that would shape the character of Fort Lee filmmaking for a decade. Backed by Eastman raw stock mogul Jules Brulatour, Éclair’s Charles Jourjon built the Peerless studio next door
to Éclair as a center for feature film production. When World War I changed Jourjon’s plans, the World-Peerless studio was taken over by his partners, Broadway impresarios Lee and J.J. Shubert, with Lewis J. Selznick and later William Brady as managing partners. For several years the Éclair and World studios served as a dissemination point for French filmmakers, film style, and film technology. Maurice Tourneur, Albert Capellani, Ben Carré, Lucien Andriot, Francis Doublier, and Georges Benoit were all on staff here, as was a certain Monsieur Grisel, employed as interpreter (Émile Cohl and Étienne Arnaud had already returned to France, while Léonce Perret and Henri Ménessier were busy down the road at Solax).
In 1914, laboratory specialist “Doc” Willat had opened his own lab and two large greenhouse studios just south of Éclair. The World-Éclair-Willat properties constituted an unprecedented film superblock, crowded with stages and laboratories (today known as Constitution Park, it is home to summer concerts and outdoor film screenings). Willat rented his stages to William Fox, then to Triangle and Fine Arts. Theda Bara, Douglas Fairbanks, and “Fatty” Arbuckle would work here over the next few years. Just across the street from the Willat stages, Universal built the largest glass-enclosed studio in the world in 1915, the same year that they opened a western “Universal City” in California. In 1917 it would become home to the new Goldwyn Corporation, and Fort Lee’s ferries would be renamed for Goldwyn’s stars, Mae Marsh, Geraldine Farrar, and Madge Kennedy.
Just as California’s “Hollywood” studios were scattered far beyond the confines of that locality, so the name of Fort Lee (now generic in its own way) was often stretched to include such outlying facilities as Herbert Brenon’s Ideal studio in Hudson Heights, Kalem’s open-air stages in Cliffside Park, and the impressive studio built by E.K. Lincoln at Grantwood. Pathé, which had discovered the advantages of Fort Lee even before it constructed its Jersey City studio in 1910, continued to return to the Palisades, especially when filming Pearl White’s cliffhanger serials.
The last of the great Fort Lee studios, the Paragon, was built just south of Universal in 1915 by Jules Brulatour. Maurice Tourneur was a partner in the Paragon, and it was here that he made A Girl’s Folly, Poor Little Rich Girl, and The Blue Bird. Later it became the New Jersey headquarters of Famous Players-Lasky, and eventually of Selznick Pictures. In fact, Selznick’s would be the last traditional studio operation in Fort Lee: after a series of political, economic, and even environmental pressures forced out most other producers in 1918, only Selznick remained and prospered. By the early 1920s he controlled 2/3 of the studio space in Fort Lee, as well as the Biograph stages across the river in the Bronx.
Unfortunately, Selznick himself was out of business by 1923, and the last silent films shot in the borough were independent productions featuring stars like Richard Barthelmess and Barbara La Marr. Jules Brulatour single-handedly kept the Paragon studio open for his protégée, Hope Hampton. But while most accounts of Fort Lee film history end here, a few of the “old” studios saw new life in the early years of sound. Several stages were soundproofed and made available to independent producers, including racial, religious, and ethnic minorities ignored by the majors. Instead of French, the languages now heard on the stages were more likely to be Italian, Yiddish, or Croatian. Ambitious feature films were shot here by Mormon interests, as well as race film producers like Oscar Micheaux (who had already worked in Fort Lee during the silent era). W.C. Fields, Edgar G. Ulmer, and Harry Langdon all made films here during the early 1930s, or at least tried to. The collapse of film production in the East in 1932, and the general economic depression, left the laboratories and storage vaults as the only vestige of this industry still standing. Today, Fort Lee Film Storage still holds nitrate film in an enormous building put up by Jules Brulatour more than 80 years ago.
While filmmaking in Fort Lee did not strictly precede similar activity in “Hollywood”, this was the first industrial location in America completely dominated by the producing and printing of motion pictures. For a time, cultural critics seemed fascinated by this “film town” on the Palisades, where the movies had supplanted all other commercial activity. But as the studios, and the producing entities that operated them, suddenly entered the dark hole of “orphan cinema”, even historians lost interest. Fifty years ago, Theodore Huff was pretty much alone when he wrote of Fort Lee as “Hollywood’s predecessor”. Did the American film industry really learn anything from Fort Lee? Given the current interest in the “transitional era” of American cinema, this year’s centennial would seem to provide a convenient moment for reassessment.–RICHARD KOSZARSKI



(Pathé, US 1916)
Dir: Edward Jose; cast: Pearl White, Creighton Hale, Sheldon Lewis, Harry Fraser; rel. 10.4.1916.
35mm, ? ft., UCLA Film and Television Archive.
In revenge for having had his arm cut off by a cuckolded husband, Legar (later known, for obvious reasons, as The Iron Claw) had kidnapped the man’s daughter and raised her for a life of crime. Returned to her father years later by The Laughing Mask, a mysterious crusader for good, Margery (Pearl White) soon becomes involved in the search for a missing treasure map, which provides the excuse for weekly conflict between the forces of good and evil. One of the few locally-produced Pearl White serial episodes to survive in an intact, tinted 35mm original.

THE POOR LITTLE RICH GIRL (Paramount-Artcraft, US 1917)
Dir: Maurice Tourneur; ph: John van den Broek, Lucien Andriot; sc: Frances Marion, from the play by Eleanor Gates; des: Ben Carré; cast: Mary Pickford, Madeline Traverse, Charles Wellesley, Gladys Fairbanks; rel. 5.3.1917.
35mm, 5750 ft., 77’ (20 fps), UCLA Film and Television Archive (via Dennis Doros).
The Paragon Studio, just south of Universal’s studio on Main Street, was built by Jules Brulatour in 1915 largely for the use of his artistic partner, Maurice Tourneur. At first they produced films here for World, later for the Mary Pickford Corporation, then Paramount-Artcraft. Eventually the facility was taken over by Selznick before reverting to Brulatour, who continued to make films here with his protégée, Hope Hampton, well into the 1920s. The Poor Little Rich Girl was one of two Pickford vehicles made at the Paragon by Tourneur, and probably the first film in which he and his art director, Ben Carré, experimented with the use of stylized settings (they would make the far more radical The Blue Bird and Prunella in this same studio the following year). Tourneur was a master of theatrical melodrama, but he also waged a one-man campaign to translate the ideals of Gordon Craig, Max Reinhardt, and Maurice Maeterlinck to the cinema screen. The balance of dream and reality worked perfectly here, but none of Tourneur’s subsequent “artistic” features gained equal commercial success.


THE VAMPIRE (Kalem Company, US 1913)
Dir: Robert Vignola; ph: George Hollister; cast: Harry Millarde, Marguerite Courtot, Alice Hollister, with Bert French and Alice Eis in their famous “Vampire Dance”; rel. 15.10.1913.
35mm, 2560 ft., George Eastman House.
The Vampire, with its direct evocation of Burne-Jones’s signature image of voracious female sexuality, beat William Fox’s Theda Bara films into the market by over a year. But both Kalem and Fox were tapping into the general vampire-mania which had swept through various levels of popular culture since the turn of the century. This version was shot at Kalem’s open-air studio on Palisade Avenue in Cliffside Park, just south of Fort Lee. While the wind-blown interiors are somewhat distracting, the film makes good use of New York City locations, which it juxtaposes with the bucolic landscape of Hackensack, New Jersey.

ON DANGEROUS GROUND (World-Peerless, US 1917)
Dir: Robert Thornby; ph: Lucien Andriot; adapted by Frances Marion from “Little Comrade, a Tale of the Great War”, by Burton E. Stevenson; cast: Carlyle Blackwell, Gail Kane, William Bailey; rel. 8.1.1917.
35mm, ? ft., Library of Congress.
Fort Lee filmmakers began dramatizing the Great War almost as soon as the first shots were fired. Ramo Films quickly adapted another project and staged The War of Wars, or the Franco-German Invasion in Grantwood, New Jersey, in August 1914. But most of the war films produced here over the next few years eschewed elaborate battle scenes in favor of more intimate melodrama involving spies, divided families, and cross-border romances. On Dangerous Ground was adapted by the prolific screenwriter Frances Marion from an intriguing John Buchan-style thriller, although the character of the aggressive heroine is clearly more indebted to Pearl White and other female action stars of the era.


(Triangle-Keystone, US 1916)
Dir: Roscoe Arbuckle; ph: Elgin Lessley; cast: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, William Jefferson, Al St. John, Joe Bordeau; rel. 30.1.1916.
35mm, 2 rls., Library of Congress.
Adam Kessel and Charles Baumann, operators of the New York Motion Picture Company, were associated with both the Triangle Film Corporation and the Willat Studios, Inc., a laboratory and studio facility which “Doc” Willat opened at the corner of Main Street and Linwood Avenue in 1914. While the stages were often rented by William Fox, in 1916 they were renamed the Triangle East Coast Studios, and Douglas Fairbanks, “Fatty” Arbuckle, and Mabel Normand arrived from California to make pictures in Fort Lee. Arbuckle shot seven of his finest two-reelers here, including The Waiters’ Ball and A Reckless Romeo. Obviously responding to the general acclaim now being accorded Chaplin’s films, Arbuckle had removed himself from Mack Sennett’s supervision to produce a new style of comedy in the East. “I have always thought that there was room for beautiful scenic achievements in comedy as well as the kick and the custard pie,” he told one reporter on the set of this, his first Fort Lee production. Arbuckle may have been striving for beauty, but what he delivered was a precocious black comedy with enough dream imagery to stagger a surrealist. Even he never went there again.

PHIL-FOR-SHORT (World-Peerless, US 1919)
Dir: Oscar Apfel; sc: Clara Beranger, Forrest Halsey; ph: Max Schneider; cast: Evelyn Greeley, Charles Walcott, James Furey, Hugh Thompson; rel. 2.6.1919.
35mm, 5742 ft., Library of Congress.
A delightful proto-screwball comedy featuring one of World’s most durable stars, Evelyn Greeley. Damophilia Illington (Phil for short) lives a double life as a boy while pursuing woman-hating academic John Alden. Alden (who bears a remarkable resemblance to former Princeton University historian Woodrow Wilson) prefers to read Sappho in the original. Can Phil, whose own understanding of the classics goes beyond mere theory, tear this desiccated intellectual away from his library? Except for the DeMille films, few of these postwar marital comedies are familiar to modern audiences. If the rest are anything like this one, historians clearly have their work cut out for them.


THE OLD MAN AND JIM (Champion, US 1911)
Dir: Ulysses Davis; adapted “from J. Whitcomb Riley’s great war poem”.
35mm, ? ft., George Eastman House.
The Old Man and Jim was produced at almost the same time as D.W. Griffith’s better known Fort Lee production, The Battle. But while the Biograph Company took over a large plot of ground at Hammett’s Hill, within walking distance from the Champion studio on Fifth Street, Mark Dintenfass and his director, Ulysses Davis, shot all of their Civil War epic on an open-air stage, including several preposterous “exteriors.” Why? Champion certainly took their cameras out into the neighborhood for many other productions. Was it because they insisted on making good use of what was still the only proper studio in Fort Lee, while Griffith and the rest of the competition were still changing in hotel rooms and filming in the woods? It would seem that Griffith had little to learn from Ulysses Davis – except, perhaps, for that gruesome “Liberty and Her Sons” tableau at the conclusion.

THE FLAPPER (Selznick/Select, US 1920)
Dir: Alan Crosland; story & scen: Frances Marion; ph: Jack Brown; cast: Olive Thomas, Theodore Westman, Jr., Katherine Johnston, Arthur Houseman; rel. 10.5.1920.
35mm, 5876 ft., George Eastman House.
When much of the competition abandoned their New York and New Jersey studios in 1918, Lewis J. Selznick (along with sons Myron and David) was able to take over these stages at bargain rates, and expanded his Select operation tremendously. Before being forced into bankruptcy in 1923, Selznick controlled 2/3 of the studio space in Fort Lee and, with the exception of Famous Players-Lasky, was the most active producer in the East. The Flapper is an obvious but enjoyable commercial package, designed by Frances Marion to alternate thrills, romance, comedy, scenic vistas, and society high life. It is also one of the most successful films of the underrated Alan Crosland, now remembered almost entirely for his direction of Don Juan and The Jazz Singer. Selznick’s top star, Olive Thomas, is obviously enjoying herself in the role of a bright young thing who becomes entangled with a pair of jewel thieves. Unfortunately, she died in Paris of mercury poisoning only four months after the release of this film.


(Pathé Frères, US 1910)
Dir: James Young Deer; cast: James Young Deer, Princess Red Wing; rel. 18.6.1910.
35mm, 950 ft., Library of Congress.
Pathé opened an American factory in Bound Brook, New Jersey in 1910, and established a local production unit the same year. Many of their films were westerns shot in Fort Lee, often directed by James Young Deer, and starring Young Deer and his wife, Princess Red Wing. While Red Wing (real name, Lillian St. Cyr) was an authentic member of the Winnebago tribe, Angela Aleiss, in her forthcoming Native Americans in the Movies, reveals that Young Deer was a make-believe Indian whose name does not appear on the Winnebago rolls (and therefore was not “the first native American filmmaker”). White Fawn’s Devotion is only one of many contemporary derivatives of The Squaw Man, the Ur-text of much early western fiction. Although it makes good use of Fort Lee’s natural wonders, only a New Jersey western would so emphasize the rigors of the Palisades. Horses, although easily available at many local livery stables, appear to have been used sparingly by Young Deer, his Indians being forced to chase their white quarry on foot.

THE ENCHANTED COTTAGE (Inspiration Pictures, US 1924)
Dir: John S. Robertson; adapted by Josephine Lovett from the play by Sir Arthur Wing Pinero; ph: George Folsey; cast: Richard Barthelmess, May McAvoy, Florence Short, Holmes Herbert; rel. 24.3.1924.
35mm, 7120 ft., Library of Congress.
Until 1926, all the Barthelmess Inspiration productions were made in the East; two of them, The Fighting Blade and The Enchanted Cottage, at the Universal studio in Fort Lee, once the largest glass-enclosed studio in the country. Except for a handful of scenes, The Enchanted Cottage was filmed entirely inside this studio during the bitter winter of 1923-24, including all scenes of the cottage and its surrounding grounds. “In the East,” Barthelmess said, “there are many fine studio facilities, and any picture demanding only interiors can be made as well in Fort Lee as in Hollywood.” Of course, such artificial settings worked best with fanciful material like this, elegantly photographed here by George Folsey. Although a few independent productions came later, this was the last silent feature from a major producer/star made in Fort Lee.


(Éclair-America, US 1912)
Dir: Etienne Arnaud; cast: Robert Frazer, Barbara Tennant, Alec B. Francis, Muriel Ostriche, John Adolfi; rel. 22.8.1912.
16mm, ? ft., Fort Lee Film Commission, Al Dettlaff Collection.
This work print represents a restoration in progress based on a now decomposed tinted nitrate original from the collection of Al Dettlaff. The Éclair studio, opened in 1911, was the first to be built in downtown Fort Lee, literally down the block from parts of Main Street frequently used by Biograph and other producers. The stated policy of Éclair’s president, Charles Jourjon, was to combine French dramatic and technical skills with American players, subjects, and scenery. To accomplish this Jourjon imported Étienne Arnaud, Ben Carré, Lucien Andriot, Émile Cohl, Maurice Tourneur, and many others, but Éclair suffered, especially in comparison with Pathé, from a lack of adequate distribution (at the time Arnaud filmed Robin Hood Éclair’s product was being distributed by Universal, but this relationship was never satisfactory). The slight lack of clarity in the narrative might have been less of a problem for audiences familiar with the apparent source, Reginald De Koven’s 1890 comic opera.

BEWITCHED MATCHES (Éclair-Universal, US 1913)
Dir: Émile Cohl; rel. 4.5.1913.
16mm, ? ft., Cineteca del Friuli.
Émile Cohl arrived in the United States in September 1912 and established what was probably the first animation department in the country at Éclair’s Linwood Avenue studio. Cohl produced the “cartoon” element of Universal’s Animated Weekly, and beginning in November 1912 “The Newlyweds”, cited by Donald Crafton as “the first modern animated cartoon series”. In addition to his drawn animation, Cohl was also a pioneer of stop-motion model animation. Unfortunately, Bewitched Matches is his only stop-motion film of this period known to survive.

BY MAN’S LAW (Biograph, US 1913)
Dir: W. Christie Cabanne; story: William Wing; cast: Charles Hill Mailes, Alfred Paget, Mildred Manning, Alan Hale, Donald Crisp, Mae Marsh; rel. 17.11.1913.
35mm, 1600 ft., Museum of Modern Art.
Because recent editions of the Giornate have screened dozens of Fort Lee Biograph films directed by D.W. Griffith, we have selected a non-Griffith title for this series. But there is enough plot here for at least three Biographs, with The Mother and the Law thrown in (“When man turns God, conflict and sorrow follow,” warns the Biograph Bulletin). In addition to considerable footage of Griffith’s familiar Bigler Street locales, the film also provides a rare glimpse of the industrial zone underneath the Palisades in Edgewater, probably the Valvoline or Barret Mfg. Company tanks.

GHOST TOWN: THE STORY OF FORT LEE (Huff & Borgatta, US 1935)
Presented by Theodore Huff & Mark A. Borgatta.
16mm, ? ft., George Eastman House.
Born in Englewood, New Jersey, in 1905, Theodore Huff grew up watching the making of movies in neighboring Fort Lee and become one of the first generation of American film historians. He dabbled in independent filmmaking as early as 1929 and was later involved (in one way or another) with the film programs of the Museum of Modern Art, the National Archives, and the Library of Congress. This was Huff’s only documentary, and was apparently influenced by a series of articles in the Bergen Record (reprinted in Fort Lee: The Film Town). Not content with glorifying a bygone age, Ghost Town reflects the social concerns of Huff’s previous film, Mr. Motorboat’s Last Stand: A Comedy of the Depression (1933). Huff seems to understand the rapid collapse of Fort Lee’s industrial base, where “brief prosperity” has been supplanted by “ruin and desolation”, as a metaphor for the larger national condition.

THE GREAT ADVENTURE (Pathé Exchange, US 1918)
Dir: Alice Guy Blaché; ph: George K. Hollister, John G. Haas; adapted by Agnes C. Johnson from “The Painted Scene”, by Henry Kitchell Webster; cast: Bessie Love, Flora Finch, Donald Hall, Chester Barnett, Florence Short; rel. 10.3.1918.
35mm, ? ft., BFI/NFTVA.
Alice Guy Blaché’s last surviving film (and last Fort Lee production) has recently been restored by the NFTVA from a somewhat abridged 28mm copy. As noted by Alison McMahon, it demonstrates the director’s continuing interest in complex female characterizations even at the very end of her career, and features engaging performances from all the women in the cast, each of whom represents a different ideal of contemporary womanhood. The theatrical background also provides a rich opportunity for Blaché to explore her interest in role-playing, show business, and the need to balance romantic illusion with practical common sense.
Alice and her husband Herbert had built a new Solax studio on Lemoine Avenue in Fort Lee in 1912. After the introduction of features the Blachés often directed films here for others, or even leased the facility outright (Goldwyn made its first films here early in 1917, before moving to the larger Universal studio). Pathé occupied the studio from the summer of 1917, and Alice Blaché appears to have directed this film for them at the instigation of her friend Albert Capellani, who was then its manager.

All film notes by Richard Koszarski.