January 4, 2021 | Number of The Day
Major film studios operating in Fort Lee by 1918

Tinseltown on the Hudson? That might not be much of a stretch: Film historians, aficionados and the Fort Lee Film Commission, the New Jersey community perched atop the Palisades can make a legitimate claim to being the home of the American film industry.

The story, like so many in the Garden State, starts with brilliant, multifaceted Thomas Alva Edison, whose list of inventions and technological refinements includes the light bulb, sound recording and the motion picture camera.

Edison and assistant William Dickson invented the world’s first movie camera — the kinetoscope — in 1891. In 1907, Edison’s film company came to Fort Lee to shoot “Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest,” which featured D.W. Griffith in his first starring role as an actor. After purchasing a string of patents related to the motion picture camera, the inventor formed a cartel known as the Edison Trust in 1908, which took control of the film industry. (Ah, those heady days of monopoly capitalism.)

A number of other studios followed Edison Fort Lee in fairly short order: the independent Champion Film Co. built the first permanent movie studio in Fort Lee in 1910. The Victor Film Co. set up shop in 1912; Fox Studio, 1914; Selznick Pictures Corp., 1916; Goldwyn Pictures Corp., 1916; and Universal Film Manufacturing Co., 1917. By 1918 there were 11 studios turning out silent films in the town.

Alice Guy Blache, one of the first women to direct movies, worked in Fort Lee.

One of Fort Lee’s most significant contributions to the film industry can be summed up in a single word, “cliffhanger.” Pearl White, who played a damsel in chronic distress in the serial melodrama “The Perils of Pauline,” could often be found high above the Hudson River dangling off the sheer precipices of the Palisades, endangered by various plots of her dastardly guardian, who wants her inherited fortune for himself.

White was hardly the only movie star who could be spotted on the Fort Lee streets. Other greats included Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Will Rogers, Mary Pickford, Dorothy and Lillian Gish, Lionel Barrymore, the Keystone Cops and Rudolph Valentino.

Fort Lee’s glory days didn’t last long: Drawn by cheap land and abundant sunshine, filmmakers like D.W. Griffith headed for the Left Coast. A coal shortage imposed by World War I, combined with the coldest winter in decades, forced studios to curtail filming. The 1918 influenza pandemic delivered the final blow.