Ft. Lee, NJ—movie capital of the world

When Hollywood was mostly filled with scrub brush and the occasional orange tree, Fort Lee, New Jersey, was a booming movie town.

Thomas Edison, of course, started it all in West Orange with a small movie studio covered in black tarpaper. The studio was built over circular railroad tracks and could revolve to make the most of the sunlight.

Edison needed actors—so what better place to find them than right across the Hudson River, acting on the Broadway stage?

Only problem: there was no ferry that could easily connect downtown NY City to West Orange, NJ. There was ferry service in Fort Lee and Edgewater and there was also a Yonkers Ferry.

Near all these ferries, situated high on a bluff over the Great Palisades stood the small village of Fort Lee, noted mostly for the historic fort that stood there during the Revolutionary War. This little town and its environs had scenic spots that were useful in making movies—and some rich history:

• In 1900, Maurice Barrymore, Broadway actor and Father of John, Lionel, Ethel and great grandfather of Drew Barrymore, moved to Coytesville (a section of fort Lee).

• In 1907, Thomas Edison used the Palisades to film Rescued From am Eagle’s Nest, starring a young actor from Texas named D.W. Griffith.

• In 1908, Mack Sennett had the original Keystone Kops running amuck on Main Street, being comically incompetent in a film entitled, The Curtain Pole.

• In 1909, Universal Studio’s forerunner, Champion Film Company, established a studio that was hidden in the lush foliage near what is now Exit 1 on the Palisades Parkway. He hid his studio so detectives of the newly formed Patents Trust Company wouldn’t find it.

In 1909, D.W. Griffith directed Mary Pickford in The Lonely Villa, the first firm to incorporate the technique of cross cutting and the cut-back, used to promote tension.

• In 1911, The Battle, a film about The Civil War was shot on a hill near present day Route 4, featuring a young Lionel Barrymore (It’s a Wonderful Life.)

• In 1912, on Main Street in Fort Lee, D.W. Griffith directed the first superstars—Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, and Lionel Barrymore in The New York Hat, written by Anita Loos.

Other firsts: the word cliffhanger came into being because so much movie action took place on the cliffs over the Palisades.

Theda Bara, an early femme fatale, began her famous film career in Fort Lee

• In 1918, part of the first film version of Les Miserables was filmed in the place now occupied by the George Washington Bridge toll booths.

• In 1922, Kodachrome, the first successful color film, was introduced and tested in a studio that later became Universal, just off Main street in Ft. Lee.

• In 1922, The Marx Brothers made their first film, Humor Risk, in Fort Lee. The film was shown once at a movie house in the Bronx, then promptly disappeared never to be seen again.

• In 1931, the first talking version of Alice In Wonderland, was filmed in Ft. Lee at the Metropolitan Studios, later renamed Fox.

The history of cinema is firmly rooted just over the border from Rockland County.
Most of the studio sites are long gone now, but some still stand and are used for other venues. Finally, in 1947, 20th Century Fox returned to the home of the birth of movies to shoot the film noir classic, Kiss Of Death.

Ric Pantale writer and director, is an independent film maker.