Just across the George Washington Bridge lies Fort Lee, a borough of some 32,000 whose origins date back to pre-Revolutionary times. On January 18th at the Museum of Modern Art, film historian and author Richard Koszarski will explain how Fort Lee was, for a brief moment, the center of the American movie industry.
Now largely a bedroom community for Manhattan-bound commuters, at the turn of the twentieth century it was still a sleepy rural hamlet–and a popular destination for daytime excursions. It was also the location of choice for New York’s burgeoning film industry. The same ferries that carried tourists to amusement parks and country inns also brought actors and filmmakers in search of “authentic” outdoor locations. So many movies were shot there that by 1910 reviewers were complaining about “Jersey scenery.”
Just about every significant figure in early film ended up in Fort Lee at one time or another. Edison’s crews shot there, using the Palisades for Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest (1907), notable as one of the first starring roles for D.W. Griffith and as the source of a clip used repeatedly on Late Night with David Letterman. Two years later, Griffith, now a director for the Biograph company, brought Mary Pickford there for The Lonely Villa, a thriller about thieves threatening women in a remote home.
It’s one of six films shot in Fort Lee that Koszarski will be screening. Others include Her Awakening, one of seventy films Griffith directed in 1911. It stars Mabel Normand, a teenager who would go on to costar with Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle in several brilliant short comedies before becoming enveloped in a drug-and-murder scandal in the 1920s. By Man’s Law (1913) is one of the first films directed by W. Christy Cabanne, a former Griffith assistant who worked with the industry’s top stars in the 1920s. Shakespearean actor and stage director William V. Ranous directed Hiawatha (1909); he alternated serious adaptations like Richard III and King Lear with lighter fare like Bargain Fiend. The film is more notable as the first production by Carl Laemmle, later the founder of Universal Pictures. A House Divided (1913) was directed by Alice Guy-Blaché, at that time already a veteran of fifteen years in films. She was the first significant woman director, made some of the earliest fiction films, and was one of the first women to run a film company, Solax, which she founded with her husband Herbert. Robin Hood (1912), directed by Etienne Arnaud, was produced by the American arm of Eclair. The French-based camera company built a state-of-the-art studio in Fort Lee in 1911. Mr. Koszarski will be showing the only known copy of the film, which was recently acquired by the Fort Lee Film Commission.
Koszarski’s book Fort Lee, the Film Town (Indiana University Press) offers first-person accounts as well as a detailed history of the time. Ferries would drop the film crews off at Edgewater at the base of the Palisades cliffs. Horse-drawn wagons took them up to Main Street, at that time an unpaved road with a single trolley track. Cella’s Hotel and Rambo’s Hotel offered informal dressing rooms and lunches served in the open on long picnic tables. Rambo’s also doubled as a saloon in many Western films. In her 1925 memoir When the Movies Were Young, Linda Arvidson (D.W. Griffith’s ex-wife) was already nostalgic for a lost era. “Were we ever going anywhere but Ft. Lee and Edgewater and Shadyside?” she asked. “I do believe that first summer I was made love to on every rock and boulder for twenty miles up and down the Hudson.”
The films weren’t subtle. Actors were still struggling to adapt from broad, theatrical gestures to the subtleties of reacting in close-ups. Scriptwriters ransacked everything from songs to newspapers to the classics for material, turning to endless intertitles to make sense of their stories. Directors were still addressing basic problems like how to get people into and out of scenes. In The Lonely Villa you can see Griffith learning how to crosscut between scenes to develop tension. As Mr. Koszarski points out, “Getting outside enabled him to manipulate the possibilities of space and time far more dramatically than when working in the studio.”
Primitive though they may seem, these films are still delightful to see, if only for the unencumbered vistas, the heavy wool clothes, the wagons, the horses, and the people of a bygone age. As the camera pans across a bucolic landscape in The Lonely Villa, it’s impossible not to think about what’s been lost.
Stars continued to come to Fort Lee: Harold Lloyd, Fatty Arbuckle, the Barrymores, the Gish sisters, and Pearl White, who filmed The Perils of Pauline in and around the borough. Samuel Goldwyn, Lewis Selznick (David O.’s father), William Fox, and Louis B. Mayer all either owned or rented studios there. But by 1920 the movies were gone, drawn off to the better weather and cheaper prices of Los Angeles. Films were still made in New York, mostly in studios in Astoria. But the center of focus had shifted inexorably to the West Coast. No longer could the Passaic River stand in for a wild Rockies cataract, or the fields of Coytesville for a prairie.