Film History of the Film Industry in Fort Lee

Before Hollywood, There Was Fort Lee...

We’re all familiar with the term “cliffhanger”, used to describe a movie filled with suspense, danger, and “seat-of-your pants” thrills. But did you know that the term originated out of the early serials filmed on the New Jersey Palisades in Fort Lee–the birthplace of the motion picture industry in America?

The movies came to Fort Lee when pioneer companies started to look for new filming locations. In 1907, it was found that the Palisades near Fort Lee and Coytesville could be used for “Wild West” scenes and other outdoor scenes. Rambo’s Hotel on First Street was used as a place to dress as well as for the exterior of a Western saloon.

In 1907, Thomas Alva Edison used the cliffs of the Palisades for the exterior of Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest. It was in this picture that D.W. Griffith, later to become more famous as a director, first appeared in a starring role as an actor. Although his first directorial effort, The Adventures of Dolly, was actually made in Sound Beach, CT, rather than in Fort Lee (as is listed in some secondary sources), Griffith did direct Mary Pickford in The Lonely Villa in Fort Lee in 1909. In this film, Griffith employed his most sophisticated use to date of the technique of “cross-cutting” or the cut-back to build up tension. In The New York Hat, with Mary Pickford, he presented many members of the Biograph family: Lionel Barrymore, Dorothy and Lillian Gish, and Jack Pickford. In The Battle, which was shot in the Coytesville section of the Borough in 1911, he introduced all the “battle photography” which he later expanded in his film The Birth of a Nation.

An early example of the “slapstick” comedy was Biograph’s The Curtain Pole, directed by D.W. Griffith. It was shot on the streets of Fort Lee in late 1908 and started the career of the “King of Comedy”, Mack Sennett.

Early Film Studios

In 1909, the Champion Studio was erected on Fifth Street in Coytesville. The building still stands today. The Eclair Co. of France built a studio on Linwood Avenue in 1911. In 1913, the Willat Studio was located primarily on Main Street, near the intersection of Main and Linwood Avenue. The World-Peerless Studio was erected on Lewis Avenue in 1914, with the Solax Studio subsequently built on Lemoine Avenue. This was later known as the Hirligraph. The Paragon of John Street and the Universal Studio of Main Street were built in 1915.

For detailed information on the movie studios of Fort Lee and some of the key films shot in the “birthplace of the motion picture industry”, please visit our Studios & Films section.

When Hollywood was mostly orange groves, Fort Lee, New Jersey was a center of American film production: D. W. Griffith made many one-reel Biograph dramas, Mack Sennett appeared in his first film, Pearl White endured the Perils of Pauline, and Mary Pickford and Theda Bara starred in early features. By the mid-teens, a dozen major movie studios were operating across the Hudson River from Manhattan’s Washington Heights. Using rare photographs, almost-complete versions of such films as Edison’s Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest and Biograph’s The Curtain Pole, and poignant footage from 1935 of the great glass studios in ruins, this comprehensive collection also features D. W. Griffith’s The New York Hat, featuring Mary Pickford and Lionel Barrymore. Maurice Tourneur is represented by the once-lost 1917 feature A Girl’s Folly, in a half-hour abridgement with views of the glass stages, rotating sets, tank for water effects, projection room, and crews at work, and his enchanting hour-long 1914 feature, The Wishing Ring, taken in the village environs as well as in the Paragon Studio. Variety wrote that “the whole atmosphere of the tale is light and as graceful as a minuet and colored with the nicety of a pastel”, and this tinted print has a charming digital stereo score by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. This DVD was produced by David Shepherd in cooperation with the Fort Lee Film Commission. The DVD is available nationwide and through the Fort Lee Film Commission for $20. Contact the Commission at (201) 592-3663 or through this web site.

Color Motion Pictures - The Earliest Days: 1922

In these newly preserved tests, made in 1922 at the Paragon Studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey, actress Mae Murray appears almost translucent, her flesh a pale white that is reminiscent of perfectly sculpted marble, enhanced with touches of color to her lips, eyes, and hair. She is joined by actress Hope Hampton modeling costumes from The Light in the Dark (1922), which contained the first commercial use of Two-Color Kodachrome in a feature film. Ziegfeld Follies actress Mary Eaton and an unidentified woman and child also appear. George Eastman House is the repository for many of the early tests made by the Eastman Kodak Company of their various motion picture film stocks and color processes. The Two-Color Kodachrome Process was an attempt to bring natural lifelike colors to the screen through the photochemical method in a subtractive color system. First tests on the Two-Color Kodachrome Process were begun in late 1914. Shot with a dual-lens camera, the process recorded filtered images on black/white negative stock, then made black/white separation positives. The final prints were actually produced by bleaching and tanning a double-coated duplicate negative (made from the positive separations), then dyeing the emulsion green/blue on one side and red on the other. Combined they created a rather ethereal palette of hues." Of Note: This footage is from the George Eastman House collections. Preservation was completed by the museum's Motion Picture Department, a project of Sabrina Negri, a student in Eastman House's L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation and a recipient of the Haghefilm Foundation Fellowship. 

Visit http://1000words.kodak.com/post/?ID=2982503 for more details. 


...Birthplace of the Motion Picture Industry

Timeline of Key Events

1900: Broadway actor and Coytesville resident Maurice Barrymore threw a benefit to raise money to build a firehouse for Company #2 on Washington Avenue in Coytesville. His son, John, age 18, makes his acting debut at this benefit. Barrymore also ran another fundraiser for the purchase of uniforms for Company #2.

1907: Thomas Edison’s Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest shot on location on the Fort Lee Palisades. Film features D.W. Griffith’s first starring role as an actor, having appeared in bit parts in several films now identified.

1908: Early “slapstick” comedy, Biograph’s The Curtain Pole (directed by D.W. Griffith and featuring Mack Sennett), shot on streets of Fort Lee (Main Street).

1908: IMP (Independent Motion Picture Company, which later joined with other independents to form Universal) shot first film on location in Coytesville, Hiawatha.

1909: D.W. Griffith directed Mary Pickford in The Lonely Villa in Fort Lee. The film embodied Griffith’s first sophisticated use of the technique of “cross cutting”, or the cut-back, to build tension.

1909: Champion Film Company, first permanent film studio in Fort Lee-Coytesville area, became New Jersey’s busiest production center. Located in remote area of Coytesville, north of Fort Lee, to evade Motion Picture Patents Company Trust detectives. Champion was one of the companies that joined in the founding of Universal Film Manufacturing Company in 1912 (Carl Laemmle was the moving force behind this and served as head of Universal Studios until 1936).

1911: The Battle shot in Coytesville on Hammett’s Hill. Directed by D.W. Griffith, film featured many Biograph stars including a young Lionel Barrymore. (A restored German print of The Battle was screened at the October 2001 Pordenone Film Festival in Italy, and the Giornate del Cinema Muto in Sacile also screened a reconstructed version in 2000.)

1912: D.W. Griffith directed Mary Pickford, Lionel Barrymore, Dorothy Gish, and Lillian Gish in the Anita Loos-scripted The New York Hat, shot on Washington Avenue in Coytesville and Main Street in Fort Lee.

1915: Famous “vamp” actress Theda Bara made her movie debut in A Fool There Was, filmed at the Fox/Willat Studio on Linwood Avenue.

1918: Les Miserables, a Fox Studio production, featured the largest outdoor set ever built in Fort Lee. This studio also produced the epic Tale of Two Cities in 1917. (Film has long been considered lost, but a copy has recently been found in Warsaw, Poland by Commission member Richard Koszarski; the FLFC is currently negotiating to have the film brought to the United States so that it can fund restoration.)

1919: Pioneer African-American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux shoots Within Our Gates in Fort Lee, presenting the flip side of Griffith’s 1915 The Birth of a Nation by presenting the black perspective.

1922: Marx Brothers appeared in their first film, Humor Risk, shot in Fort Lee. Film had one screening in the Bronx and was lost soon thereafter. Groucho Marx claimed in the 1970s that he would pay thousands to get the film back.

1928: On August 13, WRNY in Coytesville became the first station to broadcast a television image, a 1.5 inch square image of a woman’s face, to New York City, where it is viewed by 500 people.

1930: As a result of stricter fire laws in effect in Manhattan after the Pathé studio burned down, RKO moved production of W.C. Fields’ first “talkie”, The Golf Specialist, from its 24th Street studio to the Ideal Studio in Hudson Heights.

1931: The Exile, first all “talkie” African-American film, shot by Oscar Micheaux at Metropolitan Studios in Fort Lee.

1931: First “talking” version of Alice in Wonderland, starring Ruth Gilbert, filmed at Metropolitan Studios.

1947: 20th Century Fox returns to town of its birth to shoot interiors for the film noir classic Kiss of Death at Holy Angels Academy, across the street from its old studio.

1948: Oscar Micheaux shoots his final film, The Betrayal, in Fort Lee.


The Fort Lee Film Commission / Fort Lee Historic Committee are recipients of a 2011 Bergen County Special Projects History Grant for $2,000. This announcement was made by the Bergen County Division of Cultural & Historic Affairs Division Director Carol Messer based on an application made by the Fort Lee Film Commission / Fort Lee Historic Committee.


The special project is the creation of a walking tour history map of Fort Lee, which will highlight the film history locations around the borough associated with Fort Lee’s days as the birthplace of the American motion picture industry. Fort Lee was the location where such great American film companies as Universal Studios (1912) and Fox Studios (1914) were born.

This project continues the effort to reclaim this history and highlight this history for borough residents and for film scholars around the world. Other projects over the past decade have included the commemorative street naming (Theda Bara Way on Linwood Avenue and Main Street adjacent to the old Fox Studio location / John Barrymore Way on Main Street and Central Road at the location of where John Barrymore made his stage debut in 1900 at age 18) as well as placement of eight large historic markers at such sites as Constitution Park (location of several major film studios) and Main Street in West Fort Lee on site of Universal Studio / Consolidated Republic Studio grounds.


Theda Bara

First sex symbol in film history Theda Bara poses on Fox Studio back lot on Main Street and Linwood Avenue, Fort Lee, NJ, circa 1915 - rock is still visible from Main Street in Fort Linwood Garden Apartments court yard.

WATCH: Without Fort Lee, There'd Be No Hollywood - The Smithsonian Channel Aerial America Features Fort Lee, The Film Town

Universal Studios aerial view