Fort Lee: The Film Town

Fort Lee: The Film Town

by Richard Koszarski


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780861966523
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 03/02/2005
Pages: 362
Sales rank: 1,006,719
Product dimensions: 8.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.93(d)

About the Author

Richard Koszarski is a member of the Fort Lee Film Commission and Associate Professor of English and Cinema Studies at Rutgers University. He lives in Fort Lee, New Jersey.

Read an Excerpt

Fort Lee: The Film Town

By Richard Koszarski

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2004 John Libbey Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-86196-652-3


Fort Lee: Legend and Reality


Fort Lee, Movies' Battleground, and its Glamorous First Days

Sleepy Borough Here Became Scene of Producers' War 1st Wild West

Its 'Prairies' Long In Use Before The Studios Went Up

By Edmund J. McCormick

(from Bergen Evening Record, July 8-12, 1935)

Sprawled out on the top of the majestic Palisades that wall the Hudson on the West, under the shadow of the George Washington Bridge from New York City is the little town of Fort Lee.

Here in the shadows of New York skyscrapers are fertile fields that give to the town its principal industry, farming. Serving as a severe contrast to its rural life is a giant stretch of steel, the George Washington Bridge that joins the cliff town to New York City, pouring into the small town thousands of cars a day.

At Fort Lee years ago when the colonies were fighting England in the war for independence was located one of the most formidable forts in the East, Fort Constitution.

Battleground again

Protected by the natural rock wall hundreds of feet high, the fort was one of the colonists' strongholds. It was here that General Nathaniel Greene, greatly outnumbered, put up a gallant fight, finally going down to defeat before England's Lord Cornwallis and where General Anthony Wayne was turned back in his attempt to capture the cliff fort.

Years later the town was again to become a battleground. Quite a different struggle, the conflict was waged between shrewd businessmen fighting with film and camera for the life of a new born industry, motion pictures.

In 1907 Sid Olcott, right hand man at Kalem's New York motion picture studio, discovered a new Wild West lying in the shadow ofNew York City. Around Fort Lee were acres of delicious scenery, dense woods, steep slopes, distant mountains, open plain marsh, sheer hundreds of feet of solid rock rising high above the Hudson, and to put the icing on the cake was the town itself: dirt roads, dirt sidewalks, and old fashioned houses could be found in plenty. When Olcott saw the cliff town he knew it was the spot for Kalem's western pictures, so the Kalem Company, with horses and tepees, came across the Hudson.

Griffith came in 1908

In the trail of Kalem in 1908 came D.W. Griffith with the Biograph Company, bringing with him Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Mary Pickford and Mack Senett.

The center of gathering for the companies on location was at Rambo's Hotel, situated on an ill kept dirt road called Rambo's Lane. On the upper floor of the small hotel were the rooms where the actors dressed. In the rear yard tables were set up for the companies to eat; here knights and ladies sat with Indians under the shade of apple trees that sided the tables. In the background could be seen a three-story frame house, the home of Maurice Barrymore.

An old property man who worked with Griffith and Kalem, and who still lives in a small house in back of Rambo's, prepared the stage for the first picture Griffith directed.

It was a Biograph picture called The Adventures of Dolly.

"Griffith wasn't the least bit nervous", the old property man said. "We put everything in place up on Hammett's Hill and were wondering what would happen. But the minute he walked on the scene we knew we were working for a real master. He gave orders clear and direct and had the whole thing done in a couple of days. [N.B. This may actually be a recollection of the filming of The Battle; see the account in The Palisadian reprinted on page 66.] Griffith liked soldier pictures. I've seen the time when he had seven hundred soldiers fighting at once and that was a big crowd for those days. Kalem's specialty was Indians. It got so after a while that if the day was clear I'd know Kalem would call from New York and say 'Teepees' – then I'd rush over with the wagon and fetch a couple of dozen, set them up here and there and we would be ready to go in no time. They weren't particular then."

Alice Joyce made her debut in motion pictures riding a horse for the Kalem Company in 1909. Another Kalem horseman was Robert Vignola who later directed Marion Davies in When Knighthood Was In Flower.

Fort Lee tolerated this violent disturbance of its former peaceful dignified life with a patient indifference. It would end in a short while, the town reasoned, so let them be. But the disturbance didn't end – it became increasingly violent as the movie makers found that people would pay to see their pictures whether they were good or bad.

Studios go up in 1908

Rough wooden shacks had been erected at Fort Lee, but nothing that resembled a studio until Mark H. Dintenfass promised the Edison Company in 1908 that he wouldn't make any more motion pictures.

In 1903 Mark Dintenfass was a salt herring salesman working for his father. A few [years] later he was a proprietor of Philadelphia's second movie house, a small store with little over a hundred seats. Holding title to a camera after an experiment with talking pictures in his playhouse had failed, Dintenfass decided to sell his theater and become a producer. He opened up the Actophone Studios in New York.

His movements were carefully watched by a powerful group of movie makers who had pooled their patents, among which was the patent for the Latham Loop, heart of the motion picture camera.

The movie trust squeezed out independents by virtue of its practical control of all motion picture cameras. Bold independent producers had to resort to all [manner of] tricks to hide from the rubber sneakered patent trust investigators. Some hid in cellars, others concealed cameras in scenery or under cloth hoods.

He couldn't quit

Dintenfass botched the job of hiding his camera and was caught one day by an Edison man. After loud arguments in which the Edison Company always won, Dintenfass, in return for a promise from the trust that he wouldn't be prosecuted in court, said he would forget that he ever wanted to be a producer.

But it was in his heart. He couldn't give up his ambition so easily. A short while later, well hidden in a shanty at Fort Lee, he continued to grind out pictures. In 1909 [actually 1910 – ed.] he built the first studio at Fort Lee, called his company Champion, and started production.

Fort Lee's first studio wasn't an impressive structure when compared with the giant studios of today. But its 150 feet of shingled building with small glass studio was significant then for it marked the beginning of a period when producing companies were about to band together in settlements.

In 1909 there were several minor centers of the industry, but no large groupings as were later to form at Fort Lee and Hollywood. Largest number of companies was found in New York City where Vitagraph, Edison, Kalem, Biograph and Carl Laemmle's Imp roosted. Chicago and Philadelphia ranked as secondary centers.

California already had several companies on location. The movement to the West was headed by the Selig Company in 1907. Essanay followed with its Wild West Company in 1908.

Baumann and Kessel deserted their Florida and Fort Lee locations for the West in 1909. D.W. Griffith went west with Biograph a year later.

The pictures taken at the period when Champion started were simple affairs consisting of one or two reels. The subjects were mainly thrillers involving the cowboy and Indian theme. Few pictures cost over $10,000 to produce.

STUDIO TOWN 2: The Public Becomes Critical; Fire, Movies' Menace, Strikes.

Stupid Plots, Monotonous Stories Bore Audiences As Novelty Of Film Wears Off Éclair Studio Leveled

The procedure that evolved as a movie maker's formula for success in terms of dollars was many pictures at lost cost. Plots were seldom considered seriously.

They grew as the pictures went along. The use of a story prepared in detail before the picture was taken was not to come for several years.

A typical story of the period is Caprices of Fortune starring Barbara Tennant and Alec Francis. The picture was produced by the Eclair Company, the second company to locate at Fort Lee. It was a story of a poor young man madly in love with a wealthy second cousin. He asked her mother for her daughter's hand but she, reminding him of his low station in life, refused. He was considerably shaken but mustered up enough strength to ask, "Auntie, if I make my fortune, may I hope to marry Bertha?" He left to make his fortune in Homestead, Pennsylvania. From there he drifted to the West and then to Mexico. Finally he won money in a lottery and went back to marry his aunt's maid.

Eclair, the producer of this bit of drama, came to Fort Lee in 1911. It was the American branch of the mildly profitable Cinema Éclair in Paris, a company headed by Charles Jourjon. Foreseeing the golden harvest to be reaped in America, Charles Jourjon capitalized a company for $1,250,000, set aside $200,000 for buildings and equipment, and set the carpenters to work at Fort Lee.

Francis was star

The late veteran of the screen, Alec Francis, was the mainstay of the company. Supporting him in his pictures was leading lady Barbara Tennant.

Éclair's pictures were usually only a reel long. One spectacle called The Land of Darkness or Through the Bowels of the Earth set a high-mark in the company's history. It was advertised as staged "at a cost of $50,000 – 200 people in its mighty cast" – but cutting both figures twice would give a more accurate picture of the spectacle's proportions. If the story ran short, as it usually did, Éclair would tack on enough footage of a nature study to even up the reel.

The year that brought Éclair on the scene at Fort Lee also brought Herbert Blanche [i.e. Blaché] who erected a series of buildings in the cliff town and opened up a producing company called Solax. But Solax was to be a dull star in the constellation of youngsters who sprang up during this period. Hanging on for years, finally passing out of the scene entirely in the early twenties after a serious fire, the company reached only mild success pushing Olga Petrova to stardom during the vampire period.

Champion, Éclair and Solax were all members of the independent group who were battling with the Edison patent trust. As a result of their persistence the independents were enjoying more freedom. By 1911 they were coming into the open emerging from dark cellars, taking the hoods off their cameras. Carl Laemmle of Imp was the leader of the independents. His violent attacks on the trust finally achieved victory when a court order declared the Latham Loop patent no longer existent.

As the fear of opposition from the patent trust become less pretentious [sic], Fort Lee's three studios began to prosper, until one crisp clear day brought disaster cloaked in the form of the film industry's ugliest enemy, fire.

The scene was set for The Gentleman From Mississippi. The place, inside the Éclair studio. Alec Francis stood on the sideline waiting to be called by the director for his part. The studio door opened with a bang, a breathless employee rushed on the set. "Clear out! The whole place is on fire", he yelled. Pandemonium reigned. Employees scrambled for the exits. Next to the studio was the film laboratory housing thousands of dollars worth of inflammable film. The fire caught the laboratory in a wave of flame and it burned as if drenched with oil. Heavy yellow smoke rose lazily into the air blotting out the sky. A few fire engines rush up. Rubber coated firemen set hose in position. The pressure was turned on. A small trickle of water spouted from the fire hose. Film executives collected on the sidewalk wailed in dismay. "Sorry, no water pressure", was the firemen's answer. And thus Éclair departed from the list of producing companies in America. Insurance money collected was sent to the company headquarters in Paris. War broke out. The money never came back. Éclair struggled valiantly for a few months but gave up.

This great calamity happened in the year 1914, a year that brought to Fort Lee much good fortune, to make up for the loss of one of its three companies.

First in the list ofevents was the arrival of Kessel and Baumann's New York Motion Picture Corporation, which erected a large studio next to the Éclair lot. The Willat studio, named for C. A. Willatowski, who was for years one of the leaders in Carl Laemmle's old Imp Company, was not to be occupied by the New York Motion Picture Corporation, for a former shoe polish salesman, William Fox, who turned producer after a successful career as exhibitor, leased it almost upon completion. Fort Lee became the center for the William Fox Company.

The entrance ofWilliam Fox upon the scene at Fort Lee marked an era of great prosperity. During this era, which was to last for five years, Samuel Goldwyn was to embark upon his career as producer, World Film Company was to be launched and Lewis Selznick was to form his Select Picture Company.

The cliff town was to become the seat for the formation offabulous fortunes made overnight. It was to enjoy the period; share in the fortunes being made. School children, fathers, mothers were to be drafted as extras. The Fort Lee Fire Company was to be as indispensable to the picture makers as their most valuable star. The acres around Fort Lee were to forget their normal scenery and become a rapidly changing panorama of the World. Thousands of stars and extras were to parade through the street of this eastern movie center.

This period also marked the establishment of the feature picture of several reels, which supplanted the one reelers of the years previous. Movie makers were spending more money on their products. "The time has come", said J.J. Kennedy of Biograph to D.W. Griffith a year previous, "for the production of big fifty thousand dollar pictures".

Audiences were becoming critical. The idea that the public enjoyed a picture because it was a picture, whether it was good or bad, no longer held true. The novelty of the picture idea having worn off, audiences were beginning to analyse each offering, picking out the flaws . ...

STUDIO TOWN 3: Enter Theda Bara, and the Whole Nation Picks Up The Vamp Fad Star A Gold Mine For Fox, Who Found Her The War Starts And With It, Fort Lee Begins To Feel Decline

William Fox, after taking over the Éclair as well as the Willat studios at Fort Lee, was to become not only interested in realism in his pictures, but was to delve into the super-natural. An attractive girl christened Theodosia Goodman cast for the Fox picture The Stain [actually, a Pathé film-ed.] made such an impression upon Fox Director Frank Powell that she was slated for the leading role in a Fox picture called A Fool There Was.

She became a star overnight. Dubbed Theda Bara, she immediately was wrapped in a veil of mystery, classified as a vampire. The movie audiences, newspapers, grubbed for every grain of information they could get about her every movement. A national craze developed. Hats, dresses, new drinks, were named after the vampire. Women acquired a slinking walk, darkened their eyes. The word "vamp" came into common parlance. Absurd publicity stunts were staged. Writers wrote words of nonsense that were shoved to an eager public. One mumble jumble writer, a New York phrenologist and physiognomist, wrote, "I write this with a photograph of Theda Bara the William Fox 'Vampire', before me. Never in all my experience have I gazed into a face portraying such wickedness and evil – such characteristics of the vampire and sorceress."

She's a gold mine

Louella Parsons, then writing for the Chicago Herald, found it necessary to dip into history to give full flavor to a description of Miss Bara. She wrote, "Her hair is like the serpent locks of Medusa, her eyes have the cruel cunning of Lucretia Borgia, till now held up as the world's wickedest woman, her mouth is the mouth of the sinister, scheming Delilah, and her hands are those of the blood bathing Elizabeth Bathrog [sic], who slaughtered young girls that she might bathe in their life blood and so retain her beauty.

To William Fox, Miss Bara was a gold mine. Despite his sidetracks into colossal features into which he packed all the stars he could get, Miss Bara's pictures were his only consistent big money makers during his days in the East. Other stars that played at Fort Lee for Fox were Frank Morgan, June Caprice, Valeska Suratt, William Farnum, Warner Oland, George Walsh, William Courtleigh, Virginia Pearson, Noah Berry, Milton Sills and Virginia Corbin.

The second incident that more than balanced the loss of Éclair was the erection of the Peerless Studio next to the old Éclair Laboratory. Builder of the studio was Jules Brulatour, contact man for the film trade to George Eastman. The Peerless Studio was to be the headquarters for the World Film Corporation, the only producing company to spend its entire life at Fort Lee.


Excerpted from Fort Lee: The Film Town by Richard Koszarski. Copyright © 2004 John Libbey Publishing Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Introduction. City of Intrigue and Mystery
by Paul Spehr
1. Fort Lee: Legend and Reality
2. Into the Woods
3. Biograph
4. 'The Curtain Pole'
5. Champion
6. Edgewater, Cliffside, Grantwood, Ridgefield...
7. Éclair
8. Solax
9. Pathé
10. Willat-Triangle
11. Peerless-World
12. Cartoon Department
13. Fox
14. Brenon-Ideal
15. Paragon
16. The Film Town
17. Universal
18. Goldwyn
19. Selznick
20. Fort Lee Talks
21. Why Did the Studios Leave Fort Lee?

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