Perched on the Palisades at the western end of the George Washington Bridge, the borough of Fort Lee, New Jersey, may be best known today for its role in the Bridgegate political scandal. A century ago, however, the bedroom community across the Hudson River from Manhattan gained fame as the motion picture capital of the world.
Manhattan residents who skimmed the New York Times on December 19, 1909, could be forgiven if they thought the apocalypse had descended upon a small borough on the opposite bank of the Hudson River. “The native population has become accustomed to bands of Indians yelling and dashing about the roads and by-paths, to troops landing on the river bank, to dancing villagers, and every variety of battle, murder, and sudden death at their very doors,” the newspaper reported about Fort Lee, New Jersey. Although the hamlet had indeed been invaded, it was not by hundreds of marauders but by scores of film production crews armed with nothing more than motion picture cameras.
As nickelodeons gave way to movie theaters that screened lengthier features, the town whose previous claim to fame was a 1776 Revolutionary War battle that forced General George Washington and his army to retreat suddenly blossomed into the film capital of the world thanks to its proximity to the industry’s most powerful man and a ready supply of acting talent.
With the help of assistant William Dickson, Thomas Edison had invented the world’s first movie camera—the kinetoscope. On the grounds of his West Orange, New Jersey, laboratory, Edison in 1893 built the world’s first purpose-built movie studio, a one-room photographic shack covered in dark tar paper that was dubbed the “Black Maria.” After purchasing a string of patents related to the motion picture camera, the inventor formed a cartel, known as the Edison Trust, that took control of the film industry.
In 1907, Edison’s film company came to Fort Lee to shoot “Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest,” which featured D.W. Griffith in his first starring role as an actor. The steep cliffs of the Palisades and the town’s boulder-strewn woodlands offered a suitably dramatic background for the short silent film. Nascent motion picture companies quickly followed suit, finding that Fort Lee’s diverse landscape of forests, farms, waterfalls and rolling hills could double for a range of settings from exotic Algeria to Sherwood Forest.
Best of all for film producers, Fort Lee was an easy trip on the 125th Street ferry from Manhattan and the bumper crop of thespian stars who stepped before the footlights of Broadway. In 1908, Griffith directed his first film on location in Fort Lee, and he would shoot hundreds of motion pictures in the town over the ensuing four years. According to the Fort Lee Film Commission, which works to preserve the town’s motion picture history, “the borough soon became so popular that rival studios began to compete for time at the most photogenic front porches or rock formations.” Movie producers transformed the facade of the local watering hole into that of a Wild West saloon. Automobiles filming chase scenes for slapstick comedies roared down Main Street.
Drawn by the borough’s increasing popularity as well as a desire to avoid the watchful eyes of Edison’s hired detectives, the upstart independent Champion Film Company built the first permanent movie studio in Fort Lee in 1910. Others quickly followed in constructing studios with huge back lots, laboratories for developing negatives and massive greenhouse-like buildings that allowed natural light to bathe film sets. Some of the biggest studios in Hollywood today—including Universal, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and 20th Century Fox—had their roots in Fort Lee.
By 1918, at least 11 major studios were operating in the town, according to the Fort Lee Film Commission. Studios employed hundreds of residents as stagehands, carpenters, film cutters and laboratory workers. Kids playing hooky found work as extras.
Fort Lee was the film capital of the world. Some of the biggest stars of the silent movie era— including Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Will Rogers, Mary Pickford, Dorothy and Lillian Gish, Lionel Barrymore, the Keystone Cops and Rudolph Valentino—could be spotted all over the town. Pearl White, who played a damsel in chronic distress in the serial melodrama “The Perils of Pauline,” could be found high above the Hudson River dangling off the sheer precipices of the Palisades, a dramatic backdrop that gave rise to the use of the word “cliffhanger” in the movie industry.
Just as quickly as the film industry descended upon Fort Lee, however, it left. Drawn by the cheap land and abundant California sunshine, filmmakers such as Griffith followed the lead of Nestor Studios, which built the first Hollywood movie studio in 1911. According to the Fort Lee Film Commission, the year 1918 proved a death knell to the New Jersey movie industry. A coal shortage imposed by World War I combined with the coldest winter in decades caused motion picture companies, unable to heat their large studios, to curtail filming. The ensuing influenza epidemic after the end of the war forced studios to shutter for weeks on end. The exodus to Hollywood took full flight. The major studios abandoned New Jersey, and the curtain came down on Fort Lee’s tinseltown days.