It might surprise you to learn that New Jersey was the birthplace of America’s film industry
Once upon a time, before Hollywood, a borough of northern New Jersey was the film capital of the world. Located across the Hudson River from New York City, Fort Lee was the birthplace of the American film industry, home to the first film studios, including Universal, Solax (the first studio founded and directed by a woman: French writer, director, and producer, Alice Guy Blaché), and Fox.
What brought filmmakers to Fort Lee?
In 1888, Thomas Edison, who had already invented the phonograph, commissioned William Dickson to create the first motion-picture camera: the Kinetograph. In 1893, the Edison Company built what is thought to be America’s first film studio in West Orange, New Jersey. This studio was a single-room building called the “Black Maria,” which rotated on tracks to follow the sun.
In 1907, Edison’s film company chose Fort Lee as the filming location for its silent action-drama, Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest, due to the diverse landscapes it offered (and probably also because it was less than 20 miles away!).
The film featured D.W. Griffith in his first starring role and was shot on location on the Palisades, a line of steep, incredibly scenic cliffs that run along the west side of the lower Hudson River. D.W. Griffith would later direct countless films in Fort Lee, including The Curtain Pole, The Lonely Villa, and The New York Hat.
These cliffs, the surrounding fields and woodlands, rolling hills, farms, rural neighborhoods, and nearby river and waterfalls would transport audiences to places such as Sherwood Forest (as was the case in Eclair Studios’ 1912 film, Robin Hood) and the Wild West. Added to that the fact that Fort Lee was so conveniently close to New York City (and the bright lights of Broadway), other film companies soon followed suit. Champion Film Company built the first permanent studio in 1910, and during WW1, a dozen studios were working within just blocks of each other, employing hundreds of residents.
Nearby stables are said to have lent horses for Westerns. Movie producers allegedly transformed the facade of the local watering hole to look like that of a saloon. The 1914 film serial The Perils of Pauline, starring Pearl White, was filmed in Fort Lee and is said to have popularized the term “cliffhanger,” as White was often left hanging from the Palisades cliff edges.
Stars are born
The Marx Brothers kicked off their film career in Fort Lee, shooting their first-ever comedy short, Humor Risk. Fatty Arbuckle, Mary Pickford, and Theda Bara, whose femme fatale roles earned her the nickname "The Vamp,” also started their careers in Fort Lee.
Broadway actor Maurice Barrymore (of the Barrymore acting dynasty) lived in Fort Lee and helped build a local volunteer fire station. The story goes that he staged a play called Man of the World in a local beer garden to raise money, and his 18-year-old son, John (Drew Barrymore’s grandfather), made his acting debut in the starring role. John Barrymore went on to become a prominent actor.
In 1909, Oscar Micheaux, the first major African American feature filmmaker, shot Within Our Gates in Fort Lee, which many consider a response to Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915). Micheaux continued to make pictures in Fort Lee right up until the 40s, long after most studios had packed up and headed west.
Why did the film industry move to California?
While Hollywood’s first film studio opened in 1911, it wasn’t until the 20s that Tinseltown took off. Fort Lee’s film industry suffered as a result of the US’ joining the First World War in 1917, the 1918 influenza pandemic, the Hudson River freezing over in 1918, and a coal shortage that left studios unheated during a brutally cold New Jersey winter, which forced studios to shutter. East Coast studios eventually left for sunnier climes and set up in Hollywood.
Over time, Fort Lee’s history was forgotten. However, the cultural significance of Fort Lee is now being rediscovered, and efforts to preserve these memories have resulted in plans for a film museum and 260-seat cinema, the Barrymore Film Center, to open in Fort Lee soon.