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
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
THE IRON CLAW. EPISODE SEVEN: THE HOODED HELPER (Pathé,
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.
35mm, 5750 ft., 77’ (20 fps), UCLA Film and Television Archive (via
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,
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.
HE DID AND HE DIDN’T (Triangle-Keystone, US 1916)
Dir: Roscoe Arbuckle; ph: Elgin Lessley; cast: Roscoe “Fatty”
Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, William Jefferson, Al St. John, Joe Bordeau;
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.
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,
Dir: Ulysses Davis; adapted “from J. Whitcomb Riley’s great
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.
WHITE FAWN’S DEVOTION (Pathé Frères, US 1910)
Dir: James Young Deer; cast: James Young Deer, Princess Red Wing; rel.
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,
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.
ROBIN HOOD (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,
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.
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
THE GREAT ADVENTURE (Pathé Exchange,
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
All film notes by Richard