Film Forum’s Hollywood on the Hudson festival opens this week
Movies were born in 1890s New Jersey. They grew up on the East Coast, a poor stepchild of Broadway. And like an eager teenager, they moved to Hollywood in the 1910s — as soon as they were old enough to be on their own.
But like many a prodigal son, they also returned to papa when times got tough.
“Hollywood on the Hudson,” a film festival that takes its title from Teaneck film historian Richard Koszarski’s 2008 book of the same name, examines one instance in particular: the early sound period (roughly 1927 to 1935) when Hollywood, silent until that time, suddenly needed stars who could talk.
That led them back to Broadway – and to a handful of studios in the New York area that were in commuting distance of The Great White Way. All the films in this festival, running Tuesdays from this week to Aug. 10 at New York’s Film Forum (Koszarski was a consultant), were made in New York area studios.
“Some of the actors didn’t want to give up their Broadway gigs,” says Koszarski, who teaches film at Rutgers University in New Brunswick (his book has been newly reissued this year in paperback).
In one famous example, the Marx brothers simultaneously shot their first movie, “Cocoanuts,” at the Paramount Studios in Astoria, Queens – now the site of the Museum of the Moving Image — in the daytime, and then high-tailed it back to Manhattan to appear in “Animal Crackers” on Broadway at night. “Animal Crackers” was then, in turn, filmed by Paramount (it screens here July 27).
“Every film being made in Astoria has some connection to Broadway,” Koszarski says. “Either it’s an adaptation of a play, or they’re experimenting with some [Broadway] actor.”
Even after the movies settled in Hollywood around 1914, they continued to maintain outposts back East. Fort Lee, which once boasted 30 studios, continued to rent its facilities out to independent producers of Yiddish, Italian and so-called “race” movies.
In the 1920s, D.W. Griffith, the great pioneer of silent cinema, built a studio in Mamaroneck, Westchester County. That same decade, Fox (eventually 20th Century Fox), Warner Bros. and Paramount all had studios in New York, so they could be close to Broadway and to the New York bankers that controlled the movies’ purse strings.
But it was the advent of the “talkies” in 1927 that really put the wind back into the sails of the East Coast studios. Not only could they make use of New York talent, but they could also exploit a Broadway argot and attitude that were miles away – 3,000 miles, in fact – from their cousins in Hollywood. The muttering Popeye the Sailor and the scandalous Betty Boop, both products of the Max Fleischer studios on Broadway, could never have come from California. As comedian Eddie Cantor cracked in one film of the period: “Is it going to be in English, or are we only going to show it in New York?”
“The New York films were all very New York,” Koszarski says. “Which means they talked too fast. They would use Yiddish. In ‘Animal Crackers,’ Groucho says, ‘Did someone call me schnorrer?’ Who knew what a schnorrer meant in Ohio?”
In general, the New York films of the period tend to be racier, funkier, more contemporary-feeling than their Hollywood counterparts. “Crime Without Passion” (1934) and “The Scoundrel” (1935), which open the festival Tuesday (Koszarski will host the 7:35 p.m. show in person), both showcase the biting cynicism of ace Broadway writers Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.
The independent “The Emperor Jones” (1933), starring Paul Robeson and paired with blues star Bessie Smith’s only film short, the 1929 “St. Louis Blues” on Aug. 10, delve into issues of race that Tinseltown would just as soon leave alone. And the 1933 musical “Moonlight and Pretzels” (July 20) was just one of a number of “off-color” films that roused the ire of hinterland audiences. “It was very controversial, very risqué,” Koszarski says. “One of the Philadelphia critics said, ‘It’s a good argument that all films should be made in Hollywood.’ ”
World War II, which saw New York studios converted for Signal Corps moviemaking, brought this brief renaissance to a close. But in later years, Hollywood filmmakers would continue to come sporadically back East, seeking a grit and authenticity they couldn’t find in laid-back Los Angeles.
“The New York mindset was much more cosmopolitan,” Koszarski says. “They were really pushing the edge.”