In the early days of the American movie industry, the Fort Lee–Coytesville area became New Jersey’s busiest production center. The first permanent film studio built there was the Champion Film Company. Champion was one of the independent companies that defied the dominance of the Motion Picture Patents Company. Its studio was built in a remote area in Coytesville, north of Fort Lee. The building was designed to look as little as possible like a movie studio so the Motion Picture Patents Company (dubbed “the Trust”, of which Thomas Edison was a key component) detectives would have a hard time finding it.
Champion was one of the companies which joined in the founding of Universal in 1912. The old Champion studio building, still standing on a side street in the Coytesville Section of Fort Lee, is one of the few surviving movie buildings. Representative films: Abernathy Kids to the Rescue (1910); The Cowboy and the Squaw (1910); Days of the Early West(1911); Camille (1912). Champion performers included Gertrude Shipman, Irving Cummings, and Evelyn Frances.
The French film manufacturing company, Societe Francaise des Films et Cinematographes Éclair, opened an American branch with a studio at Fort Lee in 1911. Its studio, designed by the firm which designed its new Paris facilities, was considered the very latest in movie studio design. It combined glass-covered shooting stages with administrative offices, photographic laboratory, dressing rooms, scenery storage, and workshops, all in one plant. In 1912, the Éclair American Company joined with the new Universal Film Manufacturing Company and its productions became associated with the release patterns of the larger company. On March 17, 1914, fire destroyed negatives and the main studio building. Éclair officers included Jules Brulatour (1911).
On March 17, 1914, fire destroyed negatives and the main studio building. Éclair officers included Jules Brulatour (1911).
The product of Éclair consisted mostly of short films but, as feature productions became more prominent, disappeared from the Universal Studios program. Representative films: Hands Across the Sea (1911, 1st release); Robin Hood(1912); Soul to Soul (1913); The Jester(1914). Starring in Éclair productions were British actress Barbara Tenant, Fred Truesdell, Swedish actor Oscar A.C. Lund, Muriel Ostrich, and John Adolfi
The Solax Company was founded in 1910 by Alice Guy Blache, her husband Herbert, and a partner, George A. Magie. At the time, Herbert Blache was managing the American production branch of Leon Gaumont’s Paris-based filmmaking company. Alice Guy Blache was artistic director for the new company and directed many of its releases. Solax’s first studios were in Flushing, NY, but, as Solax grew, the Blaches invested in a modern production plant in Fort Lee. The new studios, completed in 1912, cost more than $100,000. The Solax studios had shooting stages under a glass roof, dressing rooms, shops, administrative offices, places for scenic and costume design, and a laboratory to process and handle the finished films.
Alice Guy Blache qualifies not only as one of the first women to direct movies, but one of the first business women in the industry as well. When the Blaches were not using their studio, they would lease it to other production companies, and the facilities continued to be used under the Solax name even when they were leased to companies such as Goldwyn. The Blaches continued to work in this pattern until late in the ’teens, when dissolution of their marriage ended their partnership.
Representative films: Dublin Dan (1912); Rogues of Paris (1913); Shadows of the Moulin Rouge (1914); The Pit and the Pendulum (1916). Solax performer included Olga Petrova, Ethel Barrymore, John Barrymore, and Alla Nazimova.
William Fox started his own filmmaking company in 1914. The first Fox studio was rented from C.A. “Doc” Willat in Fort Lee. It had two large shooting stage areas resembling gigantic twin glass barns. This remained Fox’s principal studio for the next several years until production was shifted to New York City and Los Angeles in 1919. Many other studios in New Jersey were used, among them facilities in Hoboken, Jersey City, Grantwood, and Cliffside, as well as Fort Lee. Branch studios were also built in Jamaica and Los Angeles. Among its directors, Fox hired a young man working for D.W. Griffith, Raoul Walsh, destined to become one of the most famous Hollywood directors.
Fox players included Theda Bara. The first big hit for Fox was A Fool There Was (1914-1915), which made Theda Bara an overnight star and gave a new meaning to the word “vampire”, creating a whole generation of “vamps”.
This one movie made the company a major force in the movie world. Theda Bara was a huge star and a completely new phenomenon, a mass-produced celebrity instantly familiar to millions of people through the images seen on the screen. During the next four years, Bara (real name Thodosia Goodman) made more than 40 pictures. She played Solome, Cleopatra, Juliet, and Madame Dubarry. Other Fox stars included Valeska Suratt, William Farnum, and June Caprice. In 1919, Fox’s Fort Lee operations were closed down, ending Fort Lee’s role in the establishment of one of the legendary movie companies, 20th Century-Fox.
The Universal Film Manufacturing Co. was formed in 1912 as a combination of several existing companies, including three New Jersey ones: Éclair, Champion, and Nestor. These companies joined several of the other independent film companies: IMP (Independent Motion Picture Co.), Powers, Bison, Crytal and Rex. Universal also formed two new companies, Gem and Fort Lee’s Victor. At first, it was a loose confederation, but Universal soon underwent a series of intense control battles which eliminated pioneer film executives such as Mark Ditenfass and David Horsely. Carl Laemmle gained control, and would lead Universal Studios thorough the mid-1930s.
Smaller studio facilities were gradually eliminated and production was consolidated in larger, more central facilities. In the west, Universal City was built; in the east, a new studio was built in Fort Lee in 1916. In 1917, the studios were leased to Goldwyn, with Universal announcing that it would use the old Champion studios in Coytesville.
Many of the Universal productions made in New Jersey studios were short films. Among them: Neptune’s Daughter, 1914; Morgan’s Raiders, 1918 (with Violet Mersereau); Absinthe, 1914 (with King Baggot); The House of Fear, 1915.
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