Friday, March 25, 2011

Hollywood on the Jersey Side of the Hudson

This site occasionally moves outside its usual domain of the environment to examine some of New Jersey's historical preservation for other thing endangered in our state.

I have long been a film fan and used to teach some film courses. Too many people (in and out of NJ) don't know about our state's important early role in the American motion picture industry.

Thomas Edison invented his motion picture system in New Jersey in the 1890s, and within a few years most American filmmakers could be found on either side of the Hudson River.

New York City offered actors, artists and financial backing. New Jersey provided settings and Thomas Edison.

Hollywood on the Hudson is a book that that explains that even after much of the film industry had moved to California, this area was still an economic and administrative location, and that many writers, producers, and directors continued to work here.

Fort Lee: Birthplace of the Motion Picture Industry (NJ) (Images of America)
Fort Lee, NJ: Birthplace of the Motion Picture Industry is a good book about a favorite location of film pioneers like D. W. Griffith and Mary Pickford. Fort Lee was the first center of the American motion picture industry and studios lined both sides of Main Street. Film laboratories produced thousands of reels of film for the nickelodeon market. Broadway stars and producers came across the Hudson to make many of their first feature-length films.

By the end of the 1920s, much of the business and stars like Theda Bara, Fatty Arbuckle, and Douglas Fairbanks had gone west. But a local film business continued for quite some time with some of the many behind the scenes roles such as printing, storage, and the distribution of movies being made in Hollywood.

One milestone of film from NJ is the first "Western" – "The Great Train Robbery" in 1903. It was directed and photographed by Edwin S. Porter, a Thomas Edison Company cameraman and director.

Movie Poster via

It is a one-reel (10-12 minutes) action picture. It has 14-scenes that were filmed in November 1903. The settings included Edison's New York studio, Essex County Park (NJ) and along the our Lackawanna railroad tracks.

It may look amateurish and primitive to an audience today, but some of the cinematic techniques were new because telling a story on film was new. Narrative storytelling, parallel editing, any camera movement, and location (rather than studio) shooting was groundbreaking.

The story's inspiration was with the real Butch Cassidy’s 1900 train heist, and the film includes blowing open a safe and escaping with the cash. (A scene done more grandly in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1969.) The film was originally advertised as "a faithful duplication of the genuine 'Hold Ups' made famous by various outlaw bands in the far West."

Porter worked for Thomas Edison's motion picture company and saw, perhaps more than Edison, the potential for film. In 1899, he joined the Edison Manufacturing Company and was soon in charge of motion picture production at Edison's New York studios. He operated the camera, directed the actors, and assembled the final print.

He was arguably the most influential filmmaker in America then. His earlier experiences as a touring projectionist gave him a good sense of what audiences enjoyed.

He borrowed techniques in his earlier films such as "Jack and the Beanstalk" (1902) and "Life of an American Fireman" (1903) from the French filmmaker Georges Méliès.

The first cowboy star, Gilbert "Broncho Billy" Anderson played several roles in TGTR including a bandit, a wounded passenger, and a tenderfoot dancer.

Porter used a title which was the same as a popular contemporary stage melodrama. He saw that in this pre-nickelodeon era that a film could be commercially-viable.

Porter used a number of innovative techniques, many of them for the first time, including parallel editing, some camera movement, and location shooting.

The film edits and intercutting (showing two different events happening at identical times but in different places) must have been almost jarring to the new movie audience. Film grammar that even unsophisticated modern viewer understand from experience were innovations. The very early film experiments all had fixed cameras, but this film had the first pan shots where the camera moved right/left while filming. Porter had experimented earlier with dissolves (overlapping scenes) and included an ellipsis in this film as a transition between scenes. A very obvious dummy standing in for the train's fireman is thrown off the moving train marking a kind of "special effect" used before stunt doubles.

All of the film's fourteen scenes would be redone many times in Western films in the 100+ years to follow.

In 1909 Porter left Edison and joined with others in organizing Rex, an independent motion picture company. He sold Rex after three years and became chief director of the new Famous Players Film Company. It was the first American company that regularly produced feature-length films. Porter directed the first five-reel American film, The Prisoner of Zenda (1913), and also directed Mary Pickford, Pauline Frederick, and John Barrymore in feature films.

Black Maria - Library of Congress image

Thomas Edison National Historical Park preserves Thomas Edison's laboratory and residence, Glenmont, in West Orange, New Jersey. From those laboratories came the motion picture camera, improved phonographs, sound recordings, silent and sound movies and the nickel-iron alkaline electric storage battery.

The Black Maria (pronounced mah-rye-ah, and also known as the Kinetographic Theater) was Thomas Edison's movie production studio in West Orange and is considered America's first movie studio.

The 1893 building was covered in black tarpaper and had a huge window in the ceiling that opened up to provide the tremendous amount of light required for early film stock and cameras. It was built on a turntable so the window could rotate toward the sun throughout the day and supply light all day. The studio was used for eight years and produced hundreds of short films.

Edison built a glass-enclosed rooftop movie studio in New York City in 1901, and stopped using the Black Maria. It was demolished in 1903, but a reproduction was made in 1954 at what is now the Edison National Historic Site in West Orange.  (A previous reconstruction had been built and dedicated in May 1940 when MGM held the world premiere of Edison, the Man starring Spencer Tracy in NJ theaters in West Orange, East Orange, South Orange, and Orange.)

The Centaur Film Company in Bayonne, New Jersey, 1907 Photographic Poster Print, 18x24
The Centaur Film Company in Bayonne, New Jersey, 1907

History of Edison Motion Pictures at The Library of Congress

The Movies Begin: Making Movies in New Jersey, 1887-1920
Fort Lee: The Film Town (1904-2004)
Fort Lee: Birthplace of the Motion Picture Industry
South Jersey Movie Houses
Cinema Treasures: A New Look at Classic Movie Theaters
Great Train Robbery - 100th Anniversay
Great Train Robbery - 100th Anniversay
Landmarks of Early Film, Vol. 1 Thomas Edison
Fort Lee: The Film Town (1904-2004)

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