Fort Lee: Birthplace of American Cinema

At the turn of the last century, Fort Lee became the first American film town -- one in which an entire population was employed by the motion picture industry.

By Young Soo Yang

Cliffhanger point in Fort Lee then and now - in production still from movie serial House of Hate is Pearl White on cliff, her director George Seitz leaning over cliff, actor Antonio Moreno holding onto director and cameraman Arthur C. Miller. Photo courtesy of the Fort Lee Film Commission.
On Sunday night, almost a billion people around the world will watch the Oscars telecast as Hollywood takes center stage.

But long before there was Hollywood, there was Fort Lee.

An event like Oscar night can be bittersweet for some New Jersey film buffs. It serves as a reminder of how far removed the Garden State is from its once illustrious place in the history of cinema.

At the turn of the last century, Fort Lee became the first American film town — one in which an entire population was employed by the motion picture industry.

There were several reasons why Fort Lee was chosen as a film location. It offered huge, open backlots in close proximity to New York City and Thomas Edison’s labs in West Orange. Other attractions included the town’s main streets and the nearby Palisades which served as backdrops for many films of the silent era featuring the likes of Mary Pickford, Lionel Barrymore, Dorothy Gish and Lillian Gish.

“Main Street looked like pretty much any rural main street in the country. You had the [Palisades] cliffs where you could shoot action adventures and you had the northern section of town which wasn’t populated heavily. It had small cabins so it could play out as a western location,” said Tom Meyers of the Fort Lee Film Commission.

Fort Lee’s fortunes as a boom town for film began to turn after World War I as movie companies were lured out West for its ideal climate and cheaper production costs. Major studios started to disappear from Fort Lee around 1925.

But 2012 is a year of celebration of Fort Lee in the movies. The Fort Lee Film Commission is planning events throughout the year to mark two centennials.

The first is the commemoration of Solax Studios. The studio was partly founded by Alice Guy-Blaché who started making films in the 1890s in France. Recognized as one of the first female filmmakers, she came to the U.S. in 1910.

First woman director in cinema history Alice Guy-Blaché at work with her crew at her Solax Studios in Fort Lee. Photo courtesy of the Fort Lee Film Commission.
“In 1912, she came to Fort Lee and built this $100,000 studio and she was directing, producing and writing hundreds of films from 1912 to World War I — all before women had the right to vote,” said Meyers. “So we have the only marker in the United States dedicated to what she did … at her old studio site which is now an A&P.”

The Film Commission is planning museum exhibits, tours and a three-part film series (scheduled March 4, April 20 and May 4) to honor cinema’s female pioneers entitled “Reel Jersey Girls: A Century of Women Filmmakers from Alice Guy-Blaché to Today.”

Another studio celebrating its 100th year is one that is more familiar to moviegoers — Universal Studios.

When a German immigrant by the name of Carl Laemmle came out to Fort Lee to film Hiawatha in 1909, the town impressed him enough to return in 1912 and buy the first studio built in Fort Lee which became the first home of Universal Studios.

To celebrate the history of the studio in Fort Lee, the Film Commission will be screening Universal Studios’ movies throughout the year including a program in July billed as “Our Summer of Universal: A Centennial Salute to a Fort Lee Studio” at the Fort Lee Community Center.

Meyers said the screenings are made possible because of Universal’s participation in the celebration.

“They’re waiving the license fee for at least 11 films this year that we’re going to be screening. And the license fees range anywhere from $175 to $400, or several thousands of dollars.”

Universal Studios still maintains a connection to the town through the television series Law & Order: Special Victims Unit which has used Fort Lee for location shoots in the last five years.

“Even though the studio no longer has a presence in Fort Lee, we are certainly very proud that Universal Studios still sends film crews to Fort Lee because Law & Order is a Universal production.”

The series used to have a studio in North Bergen but moved to New York, says Meyers, after Gov. Chris Christie eliminated a tax credit for production companies that film movies or television shows in New Jersey.

“As soon as the tax incentive was removed, they not only stopped shooting in Fort Lee, they immediately left their studio in Tonnelle Avenue in North Bergen and went to Chelsea Pier in Manhattan.”

Keystone Comedy Star Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle in a scene from his 1917 film A Reckless Romeo shot in Fort Lee at Palisades Amusement Park. Photo courtesy of the Fort Lee Film Commission.
Meyers laments the short-sightedness of state politicians in both parties for failing to see the economic value of marketing the state’s film heritage. And he has definite ideas about what the state should do to reinvigorate the film industry in New Jersey, including design tips for the controversial development in the Meadowlands now known as American Dream (formerly Xanadu).

“Get rid of that cacophony of crap they have on the outside of it and put images of the film industry and try to market New Jersey as birthplace of the American film industry,” Meyers said. “And maybe, just maybe, in all that square footage they have in this development out there, they could devote a small space to a working film studio. How cool would that be?”

Gov. Christie has been very vocal in his disdain for shows like MTV’s Jersey Shore and how they impact outsiders’ perceptions of the state and its residents. But Meyers says the perpetuation of negative stereotypes of the state is partly self-inflicted because the climate in the last 10 years for film and television in New Jersey has gotten progressively worse.

“Get a tax incentive going,” he said, “or you’re going to end up being defined by Snookie and the gang.”

He hopes that Fort Lee serves as a model for the state in creating a welcoming environment for film and television production.

“Every town is not as accommodating to film. We have a very pro-film mayor and council, chamber of commerce; and they know the history of Fort Lee,” Meyers said. “If we could transfer the climate in Fort Lee in terms of people accepting and acknowledging and using in a positive fashion this film history, I think the state would benefit from seeing what’s been happening in New Jersey and in Fort Lee.”

Scene from first American gangster film ever made, The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), directed by D.W. Griffith on Main Street in Fort Lee near the present site of Fort Lee Post Office parking lot. Photo courtesy of the Fort Lee Film Commission.
It’s not hard to imagine which film Meyers will be rooting for on Sunday night to win Best Picture. Nominated for ten Oscars, The Artist is an homage to the silent film era of the early 1900s. He’s already seen it twice and is eager to see it again. The greatest films of that genre, he says, are truly works of art.

“The only time I’ve ever been in a movie theater where people gave a standing ovation after a film was a silent film with a full orchestra whether it’s Buster Keaton or it’s a film that’s of a more serious note. I mean it’s an amazing experience,” Meyers said. “That’s when you see that this is an art form, it’s not just a business.”

In its heyday, the film industry in Fort Lee turned out a great number of silent films. Here are several that Meyers recommends that feature the local scenery:

1. The Perils of Pauline (1914 serial) — Features actress Pearl White in a “damsel in distress” role with each installment ending in suspense or “cliffhanger” (the term originates from this series, owing to a number of episodes filmed on or around the Palisades).

2. The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) — Credited as the first American gangster film. Directed by D.W. Griffith.

3. Matrimony’s Speed Limit (1913) — Comedy short directed by Alice Guy-Blaché.

4. A Reckless Romeo (1917) — Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle stars as a philandering husband. Features the oldest known footage of the Palisades Amusement Park.

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