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European Documentary Filmmakers Set Sites On Fort Lee Film History

Making movies in Fort Lee in 1912.

Fort Lee for those of us who live here is sometimes just home, and it is hard to fathom the interest the outside world shows in our little borough perched atop the bluffs of the Palisades. This column has covered much of Fort Lee’s history, including our role as the birthplace of the American film industry, but this week we add an international flavor via the year 1912.

This year, 2012, as noted in previous archive pieces, we celebrate some of the most important centennials in American and world cinema history, all of which occurred on the streets of Fort Lee. 

Madame Alice Guy Blache built and opened her Solax Studio on Lemoine Avenue (present days site of the A&P) here in Fort Lee in 1912. She produced, wrote and directed hundreds of films at this location through World War I, all before women had the right to vote in the USA. Today we have the only existing historic marker dedicated to Madame Blache at the site of her old studio on Lemoine Avenue.

Mack Sennett bolted from his apprenticeship as actor/director with D.W. Griffith and the Biograph Company and started his own studio, Keystone, here in Fort Lee in 1912 prior to his move to California. A newly discovered film, A Grocery Clerk’s Romance, was one of the first of his Keystone films, and it was shot outside Rambo’s Saloon on First Street in the Coytesville section of Fort Lee. All of this history happened here in 1912. 

Documentary filmmakers from Germany, Great Britain and France have come to the Fort Lee Museum this year to view and borrow from the Fort Lee Film Commission archive and to tour the locations in Fort Lee where these pioneer filmmakers shot their films and where the studios were located 100 years ago.  The Fort Lee Film Commission made our entire photo archive available to these filmmakers because their work helps open a somewhat forgotten chapter of world cinema history, a very important chapter that centers on Fort Lee as the first American film town.

Last Saturday, Nov. 3, we hosted a visit from three French documentary filmmakers. They are working on a documentary about Universal Studio on the centennial of its founding here in Fort Lee. Universal’s first studio still stands on Fifth Street in the Coytesville section of Fort Lee where it has been a printing plant since the mid-1920s. 

The Orange Network in France is producing this documentary for French TV, and it will tell the tale of how Universal  Studio came to life and how the studio evolved from its start in Fort Lee. The French filmmakers interviewed Fort Lee Film Commission member and Rutgers University Professor of film, Richard Koszarski, in the Fort Lee Museum. 

I then led this group to the old Champion Studio on Fifth Street in the Coytesville section. Here these filmmakers took video footage of the exterior of the oldest standing studio in America, built in 1910 as Champion Studio and becoming the first home to Universal in 1912.

I then led them to the second Universal Studio in Fort Lee built in 1914  on Main Street in the West Fort Lee section. Though the studio itself was demolished in 1964, the Fort Lee Film Commission erected a historic marker on the site as well as a new commemorative street sign reading Universal Studio Way.

Our last stop was the cliffs of the Palisades, where so many filmmakers were drawn to a century ago. Just like cliffhanger movie serial star Pearl White, our intrepid French documentarians stood close to the edge of the cliffs to get their shots.

This Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 10 and 11, the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, NY, will showcase many of the films of 1912 in a program being introduced by Professor Koszarski – Making Movies in 1912. See this link for a full schedule.

The Fort Lee Film Commission has loaned the Museum of the Moving Image our 35mm restored print of Éclair Studio’s 1912 film Robin Hood shot at their Fort Lee studio. We also made available to them our digital copy of the recently found 1912 Keystone Studio film A Grocery Clerk’s Romance, which was shot in 1912 outside Rambo’s Saloon on First Street in the Coytesville section of Fort Lee.

We hope you get a chance to visit the Museum of the Moving Image for this series. It is a rare opportunity to see these films presented on a big screen and the museum itself is worth the not too distant trip to Astoria. If you do, as the lights in the theatre dim, you will be transported to a Fort Lee of narrow, unpaved roads, a rural landscape, a small town Main Street and rugged cliffs, all circa 1912.  

As a certain Mr. Serling once said famously, "Your next stop, the Twilight Zone!"

Baba O'Riley November 12, 2012 at 04:39 PM
This is great! Maybe you could get the Bergen County Historical Society to participate.

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