Studios and Films
Here’s a summary of the studios and films that were produced in Fort Lee, NJ.
Champion Film Company
In the early days of the American movie industry, the Fort Lee–Coytesville area became New Jersey’s busiest production center. The first permanent film studio built there was the Champion Film Company. Champion was one of the independent companies that defied the dominance of the Motion Picture Patents Company. Its studio was built in a remote area in Coytesville, north of Fort Lee. The building was designed to look as little as possible like a movie studio so the Motion Picture Patents Company (dubbed “the Trust”, of which Thomas Edison was a key component) detectives would have a hard time finding it. Champion was one of the companies which joined in the founding of Universal in 1912. The old Champion studio building, still standing on a side street in the Coytesville Section of Fort Lee, is one of the few surviving movie buildings. Representative films: Abernathy Kids to the Rescue (1910); The Cowboy and the Squaw (1910); Days of the Early West(1911); Camille (1912). Champion performers included Gertrude Shipman, Irving Cummings, and Evelyn Frances.
Éclair American Company
The French film manufacturing company, Societe Francaise des Films et Cinematographes Éclair, opened an American branch with a studio at Fort Lee in 1911. Its studio, designed by the firm which designed its new Paris facilities, was considered the very latest in movie studio design. It combined glass-covered shooting stages with administrative offices, photographic laboratory, dressing rooms, scenery storage, and workshops, all in one plant. In 1912, the Éclair American Company joined with the new Universal Film Manufacturing Company and its productions became associated with the release patterns of the larger company. On March 17, 1914, fire destroyed negatives and the main studio building. Éclair officers included Jules Brulatour (1911).
The product of Éclair consisted mostly of short films but, as feature productions became more prominent, disappeared from the Universal Studios program. Representative films: Hands Across the Sea (1911, 1st release); Robin Hood(1912); Soul to Soul (1913); The Jester(1914). Starring in Éclair productions were British actress Barbara Tenant, Fred Truesdell, Swedish actor Oscar A.C. Lund, Muriel Ostrich, and John Adolfi.
Victor Film Company
The Victor Film Company, founded in 1912 by the screen’s first popular actress, Florence Lawrence, and her husband, Harry Salter, was one of the first companies formed to feature the work of a single star. Florence Lawrence began her movie career with the Edison Company in 1907 and had worked with Vitagraph before she began to gather national attention while playing for American Mutoscope and Biograph. The company never revealed the names of its players, hoping the producer’s name would attract an audience, but theater owners began publicizing Lawrence as “the Biograph girl” and audiences responded. In 1910, she was hired by Carl Laemmle’s IMP Company and he publicized her name, featuring her in a number of films. After a brief stint with the Lubin Co., she retired to her home in Westwood, NJ, but stayed only a few months before the new company was born. The Victor studios were in Fort Lee, and shortly after the company was organized it joined the newly formed Universal Film Manufacturing Co., which released its product.
For the first year, all of Victor’s productions featured Florence Lawrence. Playing opposite her was Owen Moore, formerly one of the Biograph Company’s favorite leading men and the husband of Mary Pickford. Victor’s productions were gradually absorbed into Universal’s general program. Representative films: Not Like Other Girls (1912); Sorrows of Israel (1913); Flo’s Discipline (1913); The Girl o’ the Woods (1913).
The Solax Company was founded in 1910 by Alice Guy Blache, her husband Herbert, and a partner, George A. Magie. At the time, Herbert Blache was managing the American production branch of Leon Gaumont’s Paris-based filmmaking company. Alice Guy Blache was artistic director for the new company and directed many of its releases. Solax’s first studios were in Flushing, NY, but, as Solax grew, the Blaches invested in a modern production plant in Fort Lee. The new studios, completed in 1912, cost more than $100,000. The Solax studios had shooting stages under a glass roof, dressing rooms, shops, administrative offices, places for scenic and costume design, and a laboratory to process and handle the finished films.
Alice Guy Blache qualifies not only as one of the first women to direct movies, but one of the first business women in the industry as well. When the Blaches were not using their studio, they would lease it to other production companies, and the facilities continued to be used under the Solax name even when they were leased to companies such as Goldwyn. The Blaches continued to work in this pattern until late in the ’teens, when dissolution of their marriage ended their partnership.
Representative films: Dublin Dan (1912); Rogues of Paris (1913); Shadows of the Moulin Rouge (1914); The Pit and the Pendulum (1916). Solax performer included Olga Petrova, Ethel Barrymore, John Barrymore, and Alla Nazimova.
New Jersey’s World Pictures was founded to import foreign-made features on a title-by-title basis. In 1914, several investors came together and bought the company to distribute the product of their newly-established feature-filmmaking enterprises. The central figure in the negotiations was Lewis Selznick. Selznick started a new production company, Equitable Pictures, and enticed movie queen Clara Kimball Young away from the Vitagraph Company. Equitable joined with a production company founded by the Shubert Theatrical Company, managed by Broadway producer William A. Brady, and with Jules Brulatour’s Peerless Pictures under the banner of World Pictures, the former distributing company.
In 1914 and 1915, World Pictures released Equitable, Peerless, and Shubert Pictures, as well as the products of a number of independent companies, including a San Francisco-based company, the California Motion Picture Corp. Production was gradually concentrated at the Fort Lee studios, centering about the Peerless Studio, built in 1914 (by Jules Brulatour, who had made a fortune selling film stock to independent filmmakers) and the Paragon Studio, built in 1916 (the “Brulatour Building” which Brulatour built to produce film stock, still stands today on Jane Street). The name of the film distribution company gradually began to dominate the operations of these various production companies and World Pictures is the name best remembered today.
World Pictures personalities included Albert Capellani, Maurice Tourneur, Alice Brady, Clara Kimball Young, and Elaine Hammerstein. World Pictures filmed Lillian Russell in her theatrical hit Wildfire, and they hired Marie Dressler and Lew Fields. They made film versions of a number of well-known plays, such as Alias Jimmy Valentine, Across the Pacific, After Dark, The Boss, Camille, The Hungry Heart, Mother, and Man of the Hour. The most talented and best-remembered of World’s directors was Maurice Tourneur. The legendary Joseph von Sternberg worked as a film cutter at World. Frances Marion, one of the industry’s best writers, got her first full-time writing job at World. In 1919, Selznick was able to establish his own successful company and he bought World, absorbing it into his company. Fort Lee remained the production center for World Pictures until its purchase by Selznick.
William Fox started his own filmmaking company in 1914. The first Fox studio was rented from C.A. “Doc” Willat in Fort Lee. It had two large shooting stage areas resembling gigantic twin glass barns. This remained Fox’s principal studio for the next several years until production was shifted to New York City and Los Angeles in 1919. Many other studios in New Jersey were used, among them facilities in Hoboken, Jersey City, Grantwood, and Cliffside, as well as Fort Lee. Branch studios were also built in Jamaica and Los Angeles. Among its directors, Fox hired a young man working for D.W. Griffith, Raoul Walsh, destined to become one of the most famous Hollywood directors.
Fox players included Theda Bara. The first big hit for Fox was A Fool There Was (1914-1915), which made Theda Bara an overnight star and gave a new meaning to the word “vampire”, creating a whole generation of “vamps”. This one movie made the company a major force in the movie world. Theda Bara was a huge star and a completely new phenomenon, a mass-produced celebrity instantly familiar to millions of people through the images seen on the screen. During the next four years, Bara (real name Thodosia Goodman) made more than 40 pictures. She played Solome, Cleopatra, Juliet, and Madame Dubarry. Other Fox stars included Valeska Suratt, William Farnum, and June Caprice. In 1919, Fox’s Fort Lee operations were closed down, ending Fort Lee’s role in the establishment of one of the legendary movie companies, 20th Century-Fox.
Metro Pictures Corporation
Founded in 1916 by Richard Rowland and Louis B. Mayer, Metro did most of its productions in Los Angeles and New York City. It occasionally leased facilities in Fort Lee. Among Metro’s Fort Lee productions were: The Eternal Question, with Olga Petrova, (1916); The Divorceé, with Ethel Barrymore (1919); What People Will Say?, directed by Alice Guy Blache (1915).
Selznick Pictures Corporation
Lewis Selznick, founder of a dynasty of independent movie producers, was forced out of his position as general manager of World Pictures in 1916. In leaving world pictures, Selznick took Clara Kimball Young with him and formed his own production company. He leased the Solax studio in Fort Lee and made it the production center for the Clara Kimball Young Film Corp. Selznick also released movies made by Joseph and Nicholas Schenck, partners with Marcus Lowe in a chain of movie theaters and a new amusement park in Fort Lee/Cliffside Park, Palisades Amusement Park. The Schencks and Lowe would later be important partners in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. In 1916, they began to produce movies starring Joseph Schenck’s new wife, Jersey City-born Norma Talmadge.
Selznick merged with Adolph Zukor, president of Famous Players Pictures, in 1917. The company name was changed to Select Pictures. Selznick organized a new Selznick Film Company. He acquired enough capital to buy out Zukor and merged the two companies into Selznick-Select. He then bought control of World Pictures’ film exchanges, renaming them Republic Distributing Corporation. He began a shift of operations to California, although Selznick films continued to be made in New Jersey well into 1920.
Representative films: War Brides (1916); The Easiest Way (1917); The Claw (1918); Getting Mary Married (1919); The Flapper (1920). Representative players include Clara Kimball Young, Jack Holt, Owen Moore, Richard Barthelmess, Hedda Hopper, Matt Moore, Alice Brady, Marion Davies, and Norma Talmadge.
Goldwyn Pictures Corporation
Goldwyn Pictures Corporation was formed in December, 1916 by Samuel Goldfish, Edgar and Archibald Selwyn, Margaret Mayo, and Arthur Hopkins. The name was formed by combining the names of Goldfish and Selwyn. The dominant figure in the company was Sam Goldfish, who had been one of the founding partners in the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Film Co. two years earlier. He was forced out of the company in early 1916 when Lasky’s business connection with Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players Film Co. was tightened. Sam Goldfish liked the Goldwyn name so well that he had his name changed to Goldwyn.
The Goldwyn Company rented studios in Fort Lee, at first the Solax studios but later the larger Universal studios on Main Street. The first picture released was Polly of the Circus in September, 1917, starring Mae Marsh. Although most of it was shot in Fort Lee, scenes of a horse race were filmed in Ho-Ho-Kus, a circus parade in Englewood, and the early arrival of the circus in Kirksville. Sam Goldwyn remained the dominant figure in the company until September 1920, when he was forced to resign in an ownership struggle. By this time, the company purchased the former Triangle Studios in Los Angeles and had leased two more studios in New York. The operation in Fort Lee was virtually ended.
Representative films: Polly of the Circus (1917); Tillie the Scrubwoman(1917); Thirty a Week (1918). Featured players included Mae Marsh, Mabel Normand, Pauline Frederick, Madge Kennedy, Tallulah Bankhead, Marie Dressler, Will Rogers, and E.K. Lincoln. Featured directors included Raoul Walsh, Ralph Ince, and Frank Loyd.
Artcraft and Famous Players
Artcraft Pictures was formed in the summer of 1916 as a prestigious offshoot of Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players–Lasky Corp., which was at the time the most powerful company in the movie industry. The talent gathered together to launch the new company included D.W. Griffith, Thomas Ince, Cecil B. Demille, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Elsie Ferguson, William S. Hart, Geraldine Farrar, and George M. Cohan.
The films produced by Artcraft were not offered in Famous Players’ regular programs of films but, instead, were distributed through Paramount Pictures, the distributing organization controlled by Zukor’s companies. Artcraft pictures were made in Famous Players’ Hollywood and New York studios and the Peerless Studio in Fort Lee, which was leased to expand production. The first film produced in Fort Lee was The Pride of the Clan (exteriors shot at Marblehead, MA), directed by Maurice Tourneur and starring Mary Pickford. This was followed by A Poor Little Rich Girl, also directed by Tourneur with Mary Pickford returning to her popular young girl role.
Other Artcraft productions in Fort Lee were: Wild and Wooly (with Douglas Fairbanks), 1917; Barbary Sheep (Tourneur and Elsie Ferguson), 1917; and The Man from Painted Post (Douglas Fairbanks), 1917. During 1918 and 1919, New Jersey facilities were also used for productions of Famous Players, Artcraft’s parent company. Maurice Tourneur made The Bluebird (1918) and Prunella
(1918) for Famous Players. Other Famous Players productions made in Fort Lee included: When the Boys Come Home(directed by John Emerson, written by Emerson and Anita Loos), 1918; The Test of Honor (with John Barrymore), 1918; Mrs. Woggs of the Cabbage Patch (with Marguerite Clark), 1919; Billeted (with Billie Burke), 1919; and Black is White (with Dorothy Dalton), 1919.
Essentially a Los Angeles-based film distribution company managed by Harry Aitken, Triangle Co. leased production facilities in New Jersey. The leases were for one or more productions at a time. In late winter of 1915-1916, Douglas Fairbanks worked on his Picture in the Papers, directed by Emerson and written by Emerson and his wife Anita Loos. At the time, Fairbanks was Triangle’s fastest rising star. He then worked on The Habit of Happiness, directed by Alan Dwan.
At the same time, Keystone sent comedy star Fatty Arbuckle east to make several slapstick comedies in the Fort Lee studios. Arbuckle directed a number of them himself. Among these films: A Reckless Romeo, 1916: He Did and He Didn’t (with Mabel Normand), 1916; Love and Lobsters (with Mabel Normand), 1916; The Bright Lights, 1916; The Waiter’s Ball (with Al St. John), 1916; and The Moonshiners (with Al St. John and Alice Lake), 1916.
Universal Film Manufacturing Company
The Universal Film Manufacturing Co. was formed in 1912 as a combination of several existing companies, including three New Jersey ones: Éclair, Champion, and Nestor. These companies joined several of the other independent film companies: IMP (Independent Motion Picture Co.), Powers, Bison, Crytal and Rex. Universal also formed two new companies, Gem and Fort Lee’s Victor. At first, it was a loose confederation, but Universal soon underwent a series of intense control battles which eliminated pioneer film executives such as Mark Ditenfass and David Horsely. Carl Laemmle gained control, and would lead Universal Studios thorough the mid-1930s. Smaller studio facilities were gradually eliminated and production was consolidated in larger, more central facilities. In the west, Universal City was built; in the east, a new studio was built in Fort Lee in 1916. In 1917, the studios were leased to Goldwyn, with Universal announcing that it would use the old Champion studios in Coytesville.
Many of the Universal productions made in New Jersey studios were short films. Among them: Neptune’s Daughter, 1914; Morgan’s Raiders, 1918 (with Violet Mersereau); Absinthe, 1914 (with King Baggot); The House of Fear, 1915.
A number of well-known movie personalities formed their own production companies; sometimes they were closely aligned to larger film companies. Clara Kimball Young’s two companies were Equitable and Clara Kimball Young Film Corporation, which were related to World Pictures and Selznick. Silent film actress and Broadway star Gail Kane formed her own production company. Among the largest of these independents were Maurice Tourneur Productions; Jans Pictures, Inc., Leonce Perret Pictures, Inc.; Albert Capellani Productions; Emile Chautard Productions; and Hope Hampton Productions (founded by her husband, Jules Brulatour). Many of these companies were formed at the time the larger companies were leaving New Jersey for Hollywood.
Biograph used Fort Lee extensively for location shooting as early as 1908. Numerous Biograph films directed by D.W. Griffith and filmed by his famed cameraman Billy Bitzer survive today and are part of the Library of Congress paper print collection. Griffith filmed his epic civil war film The Battle on Hammett’s Hill in Coytesville in 1911. The social commentary short For His Son was shot in 1910 using the exterior of the old stone building behind Borough Hall. The New York Hat (1912), filmed along Washington Avenue in Coytesville and on Main Street in Fort Lee, starred Mary Pickford, Lionel Barrymore, and Lillian Gish. Griffith was with Biograph from 1908 to 1913.
Much of the above material is from the book The Movies Begin: Making Movies in New Jersey (1897-1920) by Paul C. Spehr.
The Fort Lee Film Commission's site has been relocated to the BFC website.