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The Film Industry

In the early years of the 20th century, a small town became the unlikely center of the nascent film industry. As the movies exploded upon North America's consciousness, this town skyrocketed into prominence and it wasn't long before the town's name and motion pictures were virtually synonymous. Then, like a cliffhanger finish, it ended in a slow fade to black... for Fort Lee, New Jersey, the one-time home of the American silent film industry.

There is little doubt that Thomas Alva Edison was a bona fide genius. You can't have been issued more than 1,000 patents on looks alone; Edison had a whole slew of miraculous inventions or improvements to his credit. He was also much more of a steely-eyed businessman than commonly believed. After carving out a dominant role in the budding film industry, in 1908 he, and other companies like Vitagraph, established the monopolistic Motion Picture Patents Company, or the Trust. The Trust controlled every phase of the motion picture business. If you wanted to be involved in films, you used only Trust-approved materials... particularly film stock. The Trust used a goon squad of detectives to assure that everyone was complying.

In the beginning, New York City was the center of the motion picture universe. Most studios were located around Union Square (along 14th Street and up Broadway to 23rd Street). In a city in which the number of theatrical actors outstripped the number of theatrical opportunities, it was no problem to find performers willing to go before the camera. The city also provided numerous different types of interior and exterior locations, for urban, ghetto, big-city crime or similar types of stories. All a director had to do was find a suitable outdoor location and start cranking. Actual backgrounds were not only inexpensive - read "free" - but also added a significant dose of realism to the film.

But whereas the city was great for some types of films, it was bad for others. Cowboy epics didn't translate well to asphalt streets, and it was tough filming medieval knights at swordplay and have a streetcar rumble past in the background. Was there a location that offered it all?

There was - just across the river in New Jersey. The state had everything: gritty urban cities like Newark, undeveloped countryside, tree-lined hills, the Palisades cliffs and over 120 miles of coastline. Best of all, much of this was just 30 minutes away from New York City.

It didn't take long for word to spread. Soon, many New York City film-makers were taking the ferries to cross the Hudson River to New Jersey. Once there, they drove along a shaded road for about three miles until they reached Fort Lee... a small town of about 4,500 people that was soon to become one of the most important in America.

Enduring Mysteries

The history of Hollywood is full of enduring mysteries. For example, what possessed Paramount Pictures to back Paint Your Wagon, a $20 million 1969 musical Western starring the non-singers Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood? How did the budget for the 1995 Kevin Costner vehicle Waterworld bloat to more than $200 million? Who thought the 1980 musical Popeye was a good idea?

Hollywood has produced bombs since moviemaking’s beginnings: Witness the director D. W. Griffith’s 1916 debacle, Intolerance, the follow-up to his popular and controversial film The Birth of a Nation. The 197-minute film saga required the building of several massive sets and the hiring of thousands of extras for crowd scenes. Made for a then-astronomical $386,000, it failed to recoup its production costs and hobbled the rest of Griffith’s career. But starting in the 1940s, a combination of factors made possible truly awe-inspiring commercial and artistic failures.

A 1949 federal-government ruling forced the studio giants—Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Paramount, and Warner Bros. among them—to give up their ownership of movie theaters. The resulting lack of revenue meant that fewer movies could be made. Once television moved onto the pop-culture scene in the 1950s, movie studios pinned their hopes on expensive, heavily promoted spectacles to compete with the small-screen fare. Add to this frequent changes of ownership and leadership at film companies, and the pressure on executives to produce surefire hits became intense.

Soon studio heads were violating the cardinal business rules of moviemaking, tolerating out-of-control budgets racked up by the whims of egomaniacal actors and directors in the hopes of spawning a hit. Sometimes such a risky strategy has worked, as in the case of 1997’s Titanic, which cost more than $200 million to produce and raked in a staggering $1.8 billion worldwide. But when the strategy fails, it really fails. United Artists backed a major film, Heaven's Gate, that no executive of that studio ever saw before opening night, a film that turned out to be so long (three hours and thirty-nine minutes) and costly (thirty-six million dollars-five times its original budget) that it drove audiences out of theaters and United Artists itself virtually out of business. (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer bought the remains in 1981; Ted Turner recently gobbled them both up.)

These cinematic trainwrecks are astonishing at times. In 1963 Cleopatra, in which Twentieth Century-Fox pinned its hopes on a mercurial and unreliable star, Elizabeth Taylor, whose marriage self-destructed during filming and who was constantly rendered immobile by ailments including an infected tooth, meningitis, and severe pneumonia. The final cost of the lumbering 243-minute epic was $42 million, about $260 million in today’s dollars, which, despite Taylor’s star power, the movie did not come close to earning back at the box office.

The 1984 Jazz Age drama The Cotton Club not only was crippled by a spendthrift director (Francis Ford Coppola) and a prima-donna star (Richard Gere); it also had a producer, Robert Evans of Chinatown fame, who was not above becoming involved with drug dealers to get funding for his film. (Indeed, an acquaintance of Evans’s was the victim of a drug-related hit during filming.) And then there’s 2000’s Battlefield Earth, a doomed vanity project of John Travolta’s. The enthusiastic actor went so far as to call the first draft of Schindler’s List of science fiction.” The film, based on a bizarre novel by L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, was extravagantly mounted for some $73 million. Moviegoers stayed away in droves, and the final box-office tally was less than $30 million worldwide.

As tale after tale of moviemaking excess unfolds, you get the idea that the big studios never learn. They keep making the same mistakes, over and over. But there may be hope that they are gaining at least some measure of humility from their long history of fiascoes. “In the old days in Hollywood, they used to brag about how much a movie cost,” wrote the movie critic Roger Ebert in his review of the infamous Waterworld. “Now they apologize.”

Formerly called Fort Constitution, Fort Lee changed its name to honor Revolutionary War general Charles Lee. Just incorporated in 1904, the town tasted film stardom a few years later when Edwin S. Porter, director of the landmark film The Great Train Robbery, shot Rescued from the Eagle's Nest on the nearby Palisades cliffs in 1907 or 1908. The film starred a young actor named David Wark Griffith - soon to be better known to the world as director D.W. Griffith.

As a director, Griffith remembered Fort Lee, and soon he and his cast were routinely making the ferry ride from the city to the New Jersey town. Among the films Griffith made in and around Fort Lee were The Man and the Woman, The Fatal Hour, A Tragic Love and many others.

Where Griffith went, others followed. Cowboy movie-maker Champion Studio settled in Fort Lee in 1910. Others with studios in town included Eclair, Peerless, Universal, Paragon, Solax and Lincoln. By circumstance and happenstance, the tiny town became the motion picture center of the United States, if not the world. As early director Arthur Miller said, "It certainly never occurred to any of us that this small rural town would soon become the movie capital of the world, years before Hollywood, California gained that title."

The town took to its new role with all the free enterprise energy it could muster. Everything and everybody in Fort Lee was for rent to the film companies, running the gamut from sturdy trees on which western bad guys could be strung up to homes, stores... even people. (One enterprising youth would greet the filmmakers in the morning before the day's shooting began with the cry of "Hey, mister, you wanna rent me mudder?")

In these simpler times, it didn't take an army to produce a film, just a cameraman (who often doubled as the director), the cast and maybe one or two others. Soon you couldn't throw a piece of popcorn in Fort Lee without striking a film crew. As one film executive noted, "Cameras were everywhere, grinding out dramas. Burglaries and dynamite and fat men rolling down hills, and nobody even turned to look at them. Kindly old ladies didn't blink an eyelid when three galloping Mexicans were shot and killed at their very door."

One of the most popular areas in which to film in Fort Lee was Coytesville. Modern technology, (c. 1900) had not yet discovered Coytesville. It still had dirt roads, wooden frame buildings and neither telegraph nor telephone wires. The unabashed star of Coytesville was Rambo's Roadhouse, a dead ringer for an Old West saloon, complete with swinging half doors and a wooden front porch. In reality, Rambo's was a hotel; the upstairs rooms often doubled as dressing rooms for the actors and actresses. Film companies would often gather at long tables under a 100-foot-long grape arbor on the side and eat, and the outside water pump was convenient for washing off make-up. But no matter: scores of desperadoes stepped scowling out of the front door of Rambo's onto the dirt road and were dispatched in short order by the white-hatted Good Guy.

To Fort Lee came Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Fatty Arbuckle, Theda Bara, Ethel Barrymore and countless others. Ground-breaking female director Alice Guy Blache mastered her craft in Fort Lee, and William Fox (20th Century Fox) and Lewis Selznick (father of David 0. Selznick of Gone with the Wind fame) started their film empires there. It was from the Palisades cliff near Fort Lee that Pearl White dangled at the end of her film, giving rise to the phrase "cliffhanger".

Indeed, Fort Lee and all New Jersey appeared in films so much that a trade publication complained about the constant use of "Jersey scenery" in films. Linda Arvidson, Griffith's first wife, said that she was "made love to on every rock and boulder for twenty miles up and down the Hudson." And then, in the blink of an eye, it all disappeared.

Several factors killed the film industry in New Jersey. The first was the weather. Arvidson remembered frozen make-up and damp, dreary hotel rooms in winter and muggy, steamy summers. The unpredictable weather also wreaked havoc with transportation. Many times, the ferries would not run because of ice or choppy water, stranding a company. As former stuntman Gustav Nelson stated, "It was the rotten New Jersey weather that killed the movie business in Fort Lee." During inclement weather, film companies had to use hot lights to film indoors... a bad combination with the highly flammable silver nitrate film. This caused numerous fires, including one in 1914 that ravaged the Eclair studio.

Finally, there were the ever-present Trust detectives, always ready to pounce on those who refused to pay the Trust for the privilege of making movies. Miller described the situation, "McCoy [the main Trust detective} and his cohorts appeared every place we went to photograph... Some in our company would spot one of the spies... I folded the legs of the tripod, put the camera over my shoulder and took off down the road or in the woods. [It became] impossible to work."

Was there an alternative? There was indeed. In 1913, Cecil B. DeMille wrote back to his fellow New York film-maker friends about the sensational weather in a place called Hollywood, California - 3,000 miles away from the Trust. Griffith had already gone west, and soon others followed. When coal for heating proved difficult to obtain because of WWI, the cross- country trickle became a flood. By 1925, the movie industry was virtually extinct in New Jersey.

Fort Lee settled down. Telephones, electricity, asphalt and other forms of progress invaded Coytesville. The studios were shuttered and demolished. The George Washington Bridge was built, irrevocably altering the Palisades cliffs and the town itself. Today, only memories remain of the oh-so-brief time when Fort Lee was one of the most important cities in the world.

David Rapp. Lights, Camera, Fiasco! American Heritage. January 19, 2006.
Russell Roberts. Lights! Camera! New Jersey? History Magazine. April/May 2008.


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