The American movie business started in New Jersey.
Between 1893 and 1896 in West Orange, N.J., Thomas Edison was developing the early motion picture tech, inventing new ways to capture images in motion, and the result is that “you have the only fully operational motion picture studio facility in the world,” says Richard Koszarski, professor emeritus of English and cinema studies at Rutgers University, and expert in the early motion picture industry in New York and New Jersey.
His latest book on film history is “Keep ’Em in the East: Kazan, Kubrick, and the Postwar New York Film Renaissance.”
While companies were setting up production operations and offices in New York City, including Edison, “it’s very difficult to film in New York City. In those days, they didn’t have very good artificial lights,” says Koszarski. Making films required enormous skylights and other sources of natural light.
But over in Fort Lee, N.J., there was already a support system for tourists that switched easily to help productions, lots of diverse locations and plenty of space to spread out and build large stages, storage and production facilities.
Indeed, although the interiors of 1903’s “The Great Train Robbery” were filmed in Edison’s soundstages in Manhattan, all the exteriors were shot in Essex County, N.J.
In 1910, Champion Studio became the first permanent studio in New Jersey, while bigger, better financed companies followed, according to Koszarski. By 1915, business was booming in north Jersey, and all the majors had studios there. Big names were filming in New Jersey — Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Mack Sennett, Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith, Lionel Barrymore, the Marx Brothers, Theda Bara — bringing in jobs, money and glamour.
But World War I, the 1918 global flu pandemic, plus advances in film production technologies and the lure of California’s good weather and space to build combined to end the New Jersey boom times.
“When the war is over, many of the companies say, well, you know, we’re pretty happy out here [in California] with just one studio on the West Coast. And we like New York, but we don’t need to be in New Jersey,” Koszarski says.
But that left room for indies and others playing vital roles on the fringes of the mainstream film business, including pioneering Black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux.
“In the early ’20s, the regular studios pretty much shut down, but these buildings, they’re only five years old,” Koszarski says. “So they’re available for independent filmmakers.”
Michaeux shot 1920’s “Symbol of the Unconquered,” which depicts the Ku Klux Klan as a terrorist organization, a rejoinder to Griffiths’ 1915 racist “Birth of a Nation” in Fort Lee. He also shot his last film, 1948’s “The Betrayal,” there.
At the end of the 1920s, some entrepreneurs wired the New Jersey stages for sound, offering more affordable venues for lower-budget productions.
Koszarski notes that people were coming out to Fort Lee to make “Yiddish-language films. They’re making Italian-language films because in Italy, they don’t have sound movie equipment yet but they already have it in New Jersey.” Mormons made epic “Corianton” there in 1931.
“And it looks like they’ve got a business model there until the Depression. The Depression was hard on Hollywood, but basically takes these marginal people out of business.” But as the decade progressed and the economy got better, ethnic film producers and low-budget productions once again found the Garden State.
“Edgar G. Ulmer, the guy who will make ‘Detour,’ in the late ’30s, he’s making Yiddish films [in New Jersey],” says Koszarski.
World War II basically put an end to northern New Jersey’s run as a production spot. New York bounced back, according to Koszarski, but the studios in New Jersey hadn’t been maintained and upgraded, TV was taking over New York and California had become the entertainment capital of the world.
Once in a while, a film would shoot in New Jersey, such as 1954’s “On the Waterfront,” “a film that’s made without the use of studios,” says Koszarski.
“The only thing that was shot in the studio was the inside-of-the-taxi cab scene. They shot at as much of it outdoors as possible. And that could be done in Hoboken, New Jersey.”
But the production boom and New Jersey’s competitive incentives are creating another renaissance. From Edison’s first shorts to “West Side Story,” New Jersey’s rich production history is now back on center stage.