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Fort Lee Behind the Scenes

Fort Lee's Paragon Studios: where a star was born.

The year 1917 was perhaps the zenith of the filmmaking era in Fort Lee; soon thereafter the industry would center most of its activity in California. However, in 1917 it was a bit premature to shout "Hooray for Hollywood," especially since movie industry pioneer Jules Brulatour in 1916 opened his new Paragon Studio on John Street in Fort Lee. This was the last studio to be built in Fort Lee and one that produced a seminal American film that serves as a documentary of sorts on silent filmmaking.

Jules Brulatour, according to Richard Koszarski in his book Fort Lee The Film Town, had a hand in bankrolling almost every studio in Fort Lee, and he was most heavily involved with Paragon Films, Inc. 

Brulatour incorporated Paragon on March 31, 1915 and two months later had acquired a large property located west of the intersection of Catherine and John Streets. Brulatour’s partners included Maurice Tourneur and William Brady, and their films were distributed through the World Film Corporation. Maurice Tourneur, the creative partner of the new organization, made his artistic ambitions clear from the very beginning.

The March 16, 1916 issue of Motion Picture News details the new studio Paragon in Fort Lee as follows:

No motion picture studio in the United States offers a more interesting study than the fine, new plant of the Paragon Films, Inc., a producing company of the World, at Fort Lee, NJ.  In capaciousness and innovations, this studio and its adjoining printing plant, make it one of the most complete of its kind in the East.  The Paragon Studio is a square building with an exterior measurement of 200 x 200 feet.  The studio floor has an area of approximately 20,000 square feet, with a wide strip partitioned off for offices and workrooms.  From the ridge of the great glass roof to the studio flooring is a drop of seventy-five feet.  These figures fail to convey the immensity of the plant, which must be entered to be appreciated.  The Paragon is also unique in possessing two large revolving stages, each of which is capable of holding two large and two small sets.  Another distinctive feature is the steel bridge that travels the entire width of the studio and from which a director and his cameraman may shoot down upon a series of settings from various angles.

The best surviving example of any film produced at the Paragon, or for that matter, at any Fort Lee studio or silent film studio in America is the 1917 Maurice Tourneur-directed film A Girl’s Folly.  

This film is from a scenario by Francis Marion. Doris Kenyon plays a beautiful country bumpkin who meets a movie company at work near her rural home. She quickly falls in love with the film’s leading man played by Robert Warwick. Soon Kenyon's character follows the movie company back to the studio town, and hence, they come to Fort Lee. 

Here she is, through the sponsorship of Warwick’s character, groomed to be a starlet. This is when the film gets interesting and becomes really a documentary of early American filmmaking. Director Tourneur turns his cameras loose on the exterior of the Paragon Studio on John Street as hundreds of studio workers walk down the street to the studio entrance to begin a day’s work. 

The camera then follows the workers into the studio, and here, we get glimpses of a roomful of film cutters, all women. An extended scene has the studio crew and director at work on a set inside the studio – the crew moves the set on a revolving stage, and at one point, there are magnificent overhead shots of the crew moving sets around the cavernous studio. 

The plot is secondary to the footage of a studio in operation in 1917 here in Fort Lee. This film has been restored and released by film archivist David Shepard in a DVD called "Before Hollywood There Was Fort Lee." 

The film is worth the price of the entire DVD, which includes another Tourneur film made in Fort Lee in 1914, "The Wishing Ring." Also included is the 1964 documentary about filmmaking in Fort Lee by Tom Hanlon.

Just a side note at this point for some of you TCM film fans – catch the wonderful Robert Warwick in the 1950 film, "In A Lonely Place," which stars Humphrey Bogart. Warwick gives a fantastic performance as Bogart’s friend, a washed-up actor. Warwick, in fact, was one of the most prolific of the film stars to start in Fort Lee; his career lasted in film and TV into 1962 when he was in his 80s.

So here we have a rare glimpse behind the scenes of what a Fort Lee studio looked like in operation during the days when Fort Lee was still a film town.

Baba O'Riley September 28, 2012 at 04:15 PM
Tom, great story about the studio!
Tom Meyers September 28, 2012 at 10:37 PM
Thanks! That studio's back lot ran behind the studio up near where MedWest on North Avenue sits today.
Keith Jensen September 30, 2012 at 03:48 PM
Could film be coming back to NJ? Tourism to Fort Lee could be pressed to rise. Leonardo DiCaprio was filming in Cresskill/Closter a couple weeks ago, and just prior to that a major studio was filming outside of Bergen PAC in Englewood. As I flew back from Hollywood yesterday I noticed an excellent article in United's Hemisphere magazine: http://www.hemispheresmagazine.com/2012/09/01/globetrotting-2/ Would be great to find out why these major studios are filming in NJ given the tax climate of the state for this industry: http://fortlee.patch.com/articles/lawmakers-urge-governor-to-support-film-tax-credit Hopefully, the good outweighs the cost, because in the end NJ will come out ahead for tourism, culture and everything the film commission carries on in town for our history and economic climate.

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