A few people sitting on the front porch of a Barryville home on the Delaware River last weekend learned firsthand what movie makers in the region discovered more than 100 years ago. There is a light that sweeps down the river valley shortly before dusk that is pure magic.
G.W. “Billy” Bitzer, the master cameraman who accompanied influential director D.W. Griffith to Cuddebackville, in western Orange County, NY, in the early part of the last century, dubbed it magic hour, and “the light Mr. Griffith waited for.” It brought Griffith and his crew back to the area year after year before he discovered the advantages of filming in California and became known as “the man who invented Hollywood.”
In June of 1909, Griffith was a rising young director at Biograph Studios in New York when he brought a film crew to Cuddebackville to escape the city’s oppressive heat. It is believed to be the first time in the fledgling industry’s history that such a large group would embark on such a long journey for such a long stay. Thereafter, such on-location film shoots would be commonplace.
Griffith, Bitzer, and a group that included, among others, actress Mary Pickford and actor/director Mack Sennett, rode a ferry to Weehawken, New Jersey, took the New York, Ontario and Western Railway to Summitville, and then the branch line that the O&W had constructed (when it assumed ownership of the Port Jervis & Monticello Railroad in 1903) through Port Jervis to Cuddebackville. It was a half a day’s journey.
The filmmakers checked in at the Caudebec Inn — an aging three-story summer hotel that could accommodate 80 guests — on the evening of June 26, and shortly after sunrise the next morning began exploring the nearby countryside for suitable locations. In his 1970 book, D.W. Griffith: The Years at Biograph, Robert M. Henderson wrote:
“The physical and geographical nature of Cuddebackville to some extent dictated the kinds of stories Griffith could film there. There were several scenic features that would add unusual touches to the backgrounds: the old canal; the Neversink River passing through the hills; impressive rocky cliffs; river rapids; a large pond in a wide place beneath one of the canal dams called ‘the Basin’ and in the near vicinity there were several stone buildings dating back to colonial days, in reasonably good states of repair.”
On Tuesday, June 28th, Griffith began work on the first of what would become known as his “Cuddebackville films,” one-reelers that would help establish the grammar of film, as well as the careers of several future Hollywood notables. That first movie was entitled “The Mended Lute” and it was filmed largely in Oakland Valley, in the town of Forestburgh, about four miles from the inn. In fact, although the Caudebec Inn would always serve as the group’s headquarters on their trips upstate, most of the filming was usually done in Sullivan County. Griffith found that the unspoiled wilderness was perfectly suited to the western and colonial themes of many of his films.
According to Henderson, that first Cuddebackville movie was a “stirring romance of the Dakotas” shot on the banks of the Neversink River. A second picture followed — “The Indian Runner’s Romance” — which was started on the second day and filmed alternately with “The Mended Lute,” and featured Mary Pickford as a Native American girl.
Griffith and his crew would come back again and again that summer and throughout the next two. During the filming that took place in and around Sullivan County, Griffith experimented with many of the innovative techniques that would later become his trademark, including shooting a scene with three cameras. And, he discovered that magic light.
A number of the frequent visitors to the area would eventually become household names in the movie industry. Bitzer, Mack Sennett, Florence Lawrence, Mabel Normand, and Donald Crisp, among them. And Mary Pickford, born in Canada as Gladys Smith, not only made the transition during the Cuddebackville years from frightened ingénue to leading lady, but also began to exhibit the business acumen and movie-making instincts that made her one of America’s richest women after she co-founded United Artists Studios.
Griffith and his crew were not the only moviemakers to find Sullivan County a great place to film in 1909. Filmmakers Fred Balshofer and Arthur C. Miller were looking for a place to hide from Thomas Edison and his patent detectives, who were seeking royalties from anyone using Edison’s camera. They eventually ended up in the tiny hamlet of Neversink that summer, where they shot dozens of short westerns.
Photo of director D.W. Griffith and cameraman Billy Bitzer in 1919. They were on location in Cuddebackville years earlier when they discovered “the light.”