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Central Jersey film: A train wreck waiting to happen

Published in the Home News Tribune 12/31/99

Filmmaking during cinema's early days in Central Jersey was a smashing success.


When the early New Jersey film studios wanted to shoot a big locomotive crash scene, the filmmakers would often come to Middlesex County's Raritan River Railroad line to smash trains.

And what scenes they caused.

Courtesy of Ronald Burkshot

In 1914, the Vitagraph film company staged a famous train wreck at Duck's Nest Pond, now a part of Sayreville's Bailey Park. This 1938 photograph shows the salvaging of the locomotive smashed in the making of that movie, "The Juggernaut."
Take the 1914 filmed crash at Duck's Nest Pond, now part of Bailey Park in Sayreville. The Fort Lee-based Vitagraph company filmed a sequence for the film "The Juggernaut" there in which an engine and three cars filled with dummies plunged down a trestle.

"They built a stand (in the pond) for the cameraman to film the sequence," said Mark Nonesteid, assistant curator of the Middlesex County Museum in Piscataway. "When the train went into the water, the waves from the impact almost knocked him off."

The dummies were popping up around town for several months afterward, Nonesteid said. The train wasn't retrieved until 1938 when a Perth Amboy company fetched the wreck for scrap.

The former Parlin station nearby figured in many filmed wrecks, as well as locations in South River and Milltown, according to the book "Rails Up the Raritan" by Frederick Deibert.

Two episodes of the 1914 serial "The Perils of Pauline" were filmed in Milltown and at least one train was dunked -- dummies included -- off a trestle into the borough's Lawrence Brook.

However, the residents of Milltown -- especially the women -- weren't pleased to be hosts for the movie makers, according to the book "The Story of Milltown" by former Home News writer H. Rodney Luery.

"When Pearl White (the star of 'The Perils of Pauline') was in Milltown . . . mothers clutched their their daughters to their skirts and admonished them to have nothing to do with her," wrote Luery in the 1970 book. "The fact that Pearl White was the only female among the otherwise all-male visiting players did nothing to endear her to the mothers."

"The Perils of Pauline" serial -- which also filmed its "cliffhanger" scenes on the cliffs of the Palisades -- was a product of the French-owned Pathe-Freres studio, located in Jersey City and on Lincoln Boulevard in Middlesex Borough. The Pathe Middlesex studio, in operation from 1907 to 1948, was popularly known as the Pathe Bound Brook studio and employed a couple of hundred area residents.

"A lot of the women took jobs sewing and working in the (studio's) factory," said Dorothy Stratford, 74, a volunteer archivist for Bound Brook.

The Pathe studio's were responsible for one of the earliest moving images of baseball when in 1913 they filmed Giants and Yankees games at the former Polo Grounds in New York City. But perhaps the studio is best known for its Pathe newsreels, which featured a crowing rooster at the begining of each issue.

As for feature length movies, Pathe released one of cinema's earliest western's "The Girl from Arizona" in 1910.

But "The Girl from Arizona" wasn't the first western. The honor for founding the genre goes to Thomas Edison and his director Edwin S. Porter, who produced 1903's "The Great Train Robbery," in West Orange.

Movie-music magic

If Edison himself did not exactly invent the motion picture, the Wizard of Menlo Park had the genius and means to orchestra its development. There were several inferior systems already in use for showing motion pictures by the time Edison directed the resources of his West Orange lab onto the project in 1889. Edison assigned assistant William Kennedy Laurie Dickson the task of inventing a motion picture camera. The problem was, film at the time was not yet durable or long enough for the task. Finally by 1890, celluloid film was invented, and that was the breakthrough the Edison gang needed to develop the Edison Kinetoscope, a box into which the viewer peeps.

Along the way, Edison built the first film studio, the Black Maria, in West Orange. It was so named because it ominously resembled the Black Maria police wagons at the time. There, Edison shot the earliest copyrighted film that still survives. Officially called "Edison Kinetoscopic of a Sneeze, January 7, 1894," it's more commonly refered to as "Fred Ott's Sneeze." Ott was an Edison employee.

Edison also filmed vaudeville performers, circus acts, boxers and scantily clad women for the Kinetoscope parlors, which were opening around the country.

Others started experimenting with projected moving images, and the popular demand for the new development prompted Edison to market his Vitascope projection system, a system actually developed by inventors working outside the Edison company and sold to Edison.

The close of the century saw the production of actuality films, or films of everyday life and events as they occurred. The popularity of movies dropped until Edison and Porter, who was hired in 1900, began filming narrative movies. "Jack and the Beanstalk" and "The Life of An American Fireman" in 1902 and "The Great Train Robbery," 1903, are considered the first modern films.

"In 'The Life of American Fireman,' Porter is noted for the discovery that film is able to have two actions happen simultaneously," said John Columbus, founder and director of the Black Maria Film Festival, based at New Jersey City University, Jersey City. "It's called cross-cutting and it's a major step in filmmaking that had never been done before."

Hollywood, N.J.

Thanks to technical and artistic innovations, movies began to grow in popularity. In turn, filmmakers, including Fox, Universal and Biograph, started to set up shop in Fort Lee. The location was a short ferry ride from New York City and its terrain was suitable for action and adventure films.

Porter eventually left the Edison studio and in 1909 shot the famous "Rescued from the Eagle's Nest" in Fort Lee. D.W. Griffith, the feature's star, would later attain directing fame in Hollywood with his masterpiece "Birth of a Nation." But first he directed 1909's "The Curtain Pole" and 1913's "The Massacre" in New Jersey.

Early silent movies shot out of the North Jersey studios included the original versions of "Les Miserables" and "Romeo and Juliet," the Mary Pickford showcase, "Poor Little Rich Girl," and Buster Keaton's first comedies.

Nearly as soon as the action started, film making in Jersey began to ebb. Cecil B. De Mille filmed 1913's "The Squaw Man" in Hollywood, and the Southern California climate soon became prefered over New Jersey's harsh winters. Also around this time, Edison's attempts to monopolize the film industry via patent claims made it difficult for filmmakers to have a free hand in the business. In 1915, an anti-monopoly ruling was handed down against Edison and his company but by then most of the studios had relocated to Hollywood.

That's a wrap

After 1915, movie-making in New Jersey all but ceased for more than 50 years with only a few notable exceptions. Of course, Elia Kazan's 1954 hard-bitten look at life on the Hoboken docks, "On the Waterfront," has become a classic.

And it's that authentic, gritty appeal of "On the Waterfront" that has in part attracted filmmakers back to Jersey. In 1980's "Atlantic City," the faded resort town is as much a star as Burt Lancaster and Edison-native Susan Sarandon are. The hazy romanticism of the Jersey shore figured in numerous Woody Allen movies and the streets of Woodbridge and Newark framed the tension and hope of 1992's "Malcolm X."

"Location is as important to a movie as it's characters," said Steven Gorelick, associate director of the New Jersey Motion Picture and Television Commission. The commission was formed in 1978 to entice movie makers back to New Jersey. "New Jersey was one of the first states to jump on that bandwagon."

Eighty-six feature movies were filmed in New Jersey in 1998 and the hit "You've Got Mail" was partially shot in the state's busy Teaneck and Jersey City Armory studios.

"We were successful early on and now we're one of the most active states," Gorelick said.

Source: Home News Tribune

Published: December 31, 1999

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