In 1919, D.W. Griffith announced that he was opening an independent film studio in Mamaroneck, New York; it had been only five years since the director left the East Coast for Hollywood. But that five-year period had been a momentous one, not only for Griffith—whose West Coast output during this time included Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, and Broken Blossoms—but for the film industry in general. By 1915, 80 percent of American films were made in southern California, and by 1919, the factory system that came to characterize Hollywood production during its classical period was largely in place.
Griffith’s return East is Richard Koszarski’s jumping-off point for his book Hollywood on the Hudson, a survey of film production in and around New York during the 1920s and 30s. It’s a story of stops and starts, with the former outweighing the latter—indeed, despite the success of Way Down East, his first film made there, Griffith’s Mamaroneck experiment eventually failed, as did attempts to sustain feature film production at Paramount’s Astoria Studio in Queens, Fox Studio in Manhattan, and Vitagraph in Brooklyn.
Yet Koszarski’s argument is that movies never entirely left New York: music and comedy shorts, “race” films, and cartoons continued to be made through the 1930s, and even when this activity faded, newsreels, documentaries and nascent television production helped keep the necessary infrastructures alive. In the process, New York filmmaking established a scrappy, independent identity that served as an alternative model to the Hollywood studio system when feature production started trickling back after World War II.
Come to the Riverside Branch on Thursday, May 14 at 6:00pm, where Koszarski will appear to discuss his book and its colorful cast of characters, including Ernst Lubitsch, Oscar Micheaux, Betty Boop creator Max Fleischer, and television pioneer David Sarnoff. Admission is free to the program, which is part of LPA Cinema Series’ Meet the Scholars series.