Westchester County's History as a Silent Film Hub

Historians and film buffs, listen up: Before Hollywood, Westchester was an important film center. Film critic Marshall Fine informs.



D.W. Griffith

I was asked recently whether I thought the success of the Oscar favorite (now Oscar winner) The Artist would spark a resurgence of interest in the art of the silent film. I said, no—but it will spark a resurgence of stories by film journalists about silent film, particularly lists along the lines of “1,000 Silent Films You Need to See Before You Die,” which, in itself, would amount to a plea for film preservation.

The Artist celebrated the old Hollywood: the sunny, growing metropolis next door to Los Angeles where the movie industry transplanted itself from New York in pursuit of a climate suitable to year-round outdoor shooting. But New York was the birthplace of American movies, with the first public screening of Thomas Edison’s invention at a Manhattan music hall in April 1896.

Mamaroneck’s Orienta Point

The silent-film business—or, as it was known then, the movie industry—flourished in New York into the 1920s. Westchester served as the suburban getaway for everyone from the Warner brothers to Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks (who drew a coterie of artists to their home in the Harmon area)—until the film industry began casting its eyes west for more hospitable weather. Before its departure, silent-film production spread beyond the five boroughs, with several studios in Westchester County. They tended to be located near railroad stops along the Hudson River or Long Island Sound: Yonkers (home to Triangle Studio) and Irvington (Photocolor Studio) for the former, New Rochelle and Mamaroneck for the latter. Mamaroneck gets most of the glory, for the 1919 arrival of D.W. Griffith, who pulled a reverse-migration and set up his own studio on Mamaroneck’s Orienta Point.

Broken Blossoms

Griffith, who started in New York before heading west, moved back east to escape studio control. He settled on Mamaroneck, paying $375,000 for a piece of land, known as Satan’s Toe, that jutted into Long Island Sound (the former estate of oil baron Henry Flagler, who lent John D. Rockefeller start-up funds for Standard Oil in exchange for a piece of the profits). Mamaroneck obviously inspired Griffith, who directed such silent classics there as Broken Blossoms, Way Down East (both starring Lillian Gish), and Orphans of the Storm (starring Lillian and Dorothy Gish). He also made Lillian Gish one of the three or so female directors of silent-era features, hers being the now-lost domestic comedy, Remodeling Her Husband, starring sister Dorothy.

Orphans of the Storm

As big as the Gish sisters were, there were few movie stars who were bigger between 1910 and 1917 than Florence La Badie, the most famous face of what was Westchester’s most prolific and popular movie studio, the Thanhouser Film Corporation of New Rochelle (later occupied by Paul Terry’s Terrytoons, beginning in the mid 1930s). Founded in 1909 in an old wooden skating rink by actor/impresario Edwin Thanhouser, Thanhouser Corporation released its first film in 1910—and made more than 1,000 features and shorts, most of which were lost before film was regarded as an art worth preserving.

La Badie acted in everything from film versions of Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Dickens’s David Copperfield to a comedy called The Baseball Bug, which featured such real-life baseball stars of the era as Charles “Chief” Bender and Rube Oldring, of the then-world champion Philadelphia Athletics. The Angelina Jolie of her time, La Badie’s only real competition at the studio was Muriel Ostriche (pronounced OH-strike), an ingénue whose fame blossomed when she became  “The Moxie Girl,” the face of a new soft drink and a media sensation. La Badie might have made the transition to Hollywood silents—and lasting movie stardom—had she not died at 29 after a 1917 car accident in Ossining.

Photo courtesy of Thanhouser Company Film Preservation, INC.

The Thanhouser Film Corporation of New Rochelle

Thanhouser studios closed in 1917— though its buildings were used as soundstages by Griffith and others. Today, Thanhouser Film Corporation is little remembered outside New Rochelle and film historical circles for a simple reason: it never opened a branch in Hollywood and didn’t survive into the era of talkies

 

 

 

Florence La Badie

Photo courtesy of Thanhouser Company Film Preservation, INC.

Edwin Thanhouser

 

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