The sound of silents

Cragsmoor Historical Society hosts lecture this Sunday on pre-Hollywood films shot in Cuddebackville

by Lynn Woods
May 26, 2011 11:11 AM | 0 0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Hollywood is so entrenched in the collective unconscious that it’s difficult to conceive of the movie industry ever being based somewhere else. But in its fledgling days, the film industry centered in New York City and Chicago. Many early films were made in Fort Lee, New Jersey, which was just a ferry ride away from the Big Apple; but as filmmakers got tired of the same old buildings, they began to explore other locations within relatively easy access of the City.

One was Cuddebackville, a hamlet just north of Port Jervis located on the Neversink River. According to Seth Goldman, executive director of the Neversink Valley Area Museum, D. W. Griffith brought his Biograph Company here from 1909 through 1911, traveling from Manhattan by train with stars Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish and Mack Sennett and shooting some 20 movies. The Museum preserves this history through its Institute for Early Film Studies, which includes films, books and artifacts of early motion-picture-making in the area. (The Museum’s other collections focus on the Lenape people and the D & H Canal.)

The Cuddebackville connection somehow led to a film being shot at Cragsmoor, a nearby artists’ colony, in 1919. Called The Moonshine Trail, the Prohibition Era film was directed by J. Stuart Blackton, who formed the American Vitagraphy company after meeting Thomas Edison in 1896. Blackton not only directed, produced and wrote many of his films, but also acted in them, and he was the first of the pioneer filmmakers to adapt stage plays to celluloid.

The Moonshine Trail, which was shot on the Shawangunk cliffs and climaxes in a shootout between a family of moonshiners and the Revenue men, is lost (the fate of 70 percent of silent movies, according to Goldman). However, it has given Goldman a reason to present a talk on the fascinating subject of the early upstate movie industry at the Cragsmoor Historical Society. The talk will be held at 7 p.m. on Sunday, May 29.

Goldman said that he will show Griffith’s first film, The Adventures of Dollie (it’s nine minutes long and was actually shot in Connecticut), along with a couple of other shorts (standard for the time) made in Cuddebackville. After Griffith went out to California in 1910, the days of the Cuddebackville film industry were numbered, and by 1920 Hollywood had become synonymous with the movies.

It turns out that it wasn’t the sunny, warm weather that lured filmmakers out to the Golden State; for that, they could have taken a much shorter train journey to Florida. The real lure, according to Goldman, was that California was beyond the reach of Edison’s patent police. In the early days, “If you were using Edison’s machinery or copying it and not paying him, he would be sure to sue you and shut you down,” he said. Crossing the Rocky Mountains put filmmakers beyond the reach of the enforcers; by the time that the industry had hit the big time and Hollywood was solidly on the map, filmmakers could use other systems besides Edison’s.

Goldman noted, however, that New York never lost its status as the discrete center for the film industry, since only the production departments migrated West. The film historian will share many more insights on the early film industry in his talk. The suggested donation is $10, and refreshments will be served. The historical society is located at 349 Cragsmoor Road; call (845) 647-6487 for more information.

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