Did you know that Fort Lee was the nineteenth century Hollywood? As Netflix prepares to break ground on a new studio in Monmouth County, we take a look into our archives with “David Bianculli on the Birth of Cinema,” winner of the 2015 New York Emmy Award for Historical/Cultural short.
In our feature, critic David Bianculli draws parallels between settings and subjects in historical and contemporary film—from communities to cat videos. In fact, one of the most popular works from Thomas Edison’s West Orange studio was The Boxing Cats, a 30-second film of cats swiping at each other in boxing gloves. Flabbergasted, David tells us, “You have to figure out who wants to see what. And do people want to see cats doing stupid things? In 1894, yes! In 2014, yes!”
As the medium of photography was becoming more accessible, the public grasped at any novel way of experiencing the captured image, from the subtle 3D effect of a stereoscope, which uses two images, to the moving pictures of the kinetoscope’s film strips. As the public flocked to the movies, cinema developed into a big business very rapidly in the 1890s, and a lot of that happened in Jersey. An iconic example is The Great Train Robbery, the silent film that both shocked and excited audiences by breaking the fourth wall and pointing a gun directly at the camera—yes, this too was filmed around New Jersey, including at Essex County Park.
Even in television, from the Sopranos to Boardwalk Empire, New Jersey often finds itself as the location for iconic shows—settings that play an active role, Jersey becoming almost a character in the plot. In 2013, State of the Arts met the author of Boardwalk Empire, Nelson Johnson, to discuss the art of adaptation. “Nucky Johnson was complicated,” Nelson tells us of his historical main character, the political leader of Prohibition-era Atlantic City. And complicated people make compelling characters.
“Jersey is many places, many people, many accents—it is a rich mine in terms of characterization,” David Bianculli notes. “We’re still finding New Jersey is a great place to mine in terms of subject matter.”
Today, films and shows continue to be created around and about New Jersey communities. Netflix has recently announced plans to create a production studio in Fort Monmouth—an echo of the state’s 19th century motion picture laboratories.