NUTLEY, NJ — It was a familiar way to celebrate Memorial Day, with parades, banners and palpable patriotism. But it wasn’t last May, it was almost a century ago, and all captured in the film, “Nutley 1918.”
Played for only the second time before a public audience at the Nutley Public Library on April 12, “Nutley 1918” is the earliest known motion picture shot in Nutley.
During the showing, residents who attended, pointed out their native streets from the film, as military troops, the Women’s Club of Nutley, the Nutley Red Cross Chapter and others paraded down the avenues of Satterthwaite, Vreeland and Passaic.
In addition to playing the film at the library show, Nutley Historian John Demmer provided insight into the making of the film.
Identifying the film’s director and producer as one of America’s first female filmmakers, Katherine Russell Bleecker, the reasons as to why she filmed that particular Nutley parade in 1918 remains unclear, Demmer said.
Bleecker was a New York resident, and her ties to the little town were slim, Demmer said.
However, she did have connections to the Red Cross, and had placed advertisements for her camera services in the newspaper, Demmer said.
Noting Bleecker as “a historic person,” Demmer said, she was known to have owned her own film equipment, and to have produced and directed as early as 1915.
“Women had no rights at the time, this was unheard of to send a woman into a male dominated field,” he highlighted.
Aside from “Nutley 1918,” Bleecker made various documentary-like films during her lifetime, most notably “Sing Sing,” “Great Meadow” and “Auburn,” which filmed the conditions of prisons.
“Bleecker wrote, directed and photographed scenarios set in N.Y. prisons, casting inmates as themselves, and thus, she could be understood as pioneering documentary fiction,” Demmer said.
Despite her work not being considered true documentary because the prisoners were acting, the film did however, accurately depict prison conditions of the time.
“Her films were so popular and moving, that they became a source for prison reform,” he said.
Emphasizing the historical value of the film, Demmer added that “this may be the only existing piece of Bleecker’s work,” Demmer said. “This is a very important person, who I don’t think has been fully recognized yet.”
Accompanying the uncertainties that characterize how the film was made, the film also arrived in the hands of the township in a mysterious fashion.
“Nutley 1918” was found in 1960 after having been buried in an abandoned barn.
Following its discovery, the former Nutley township historian at the time, Ann Troy, sought out its restoration, and gave the decomposed film stock to Bob Lee, president of the Essex Film Club.
Having salvaged a little over one half of the original footage, or eight minutes of it, Lee made the film playable.
Years later, Lee’s son, who succeeded leadership of the Essex Film Club, had transferred “Nutley 1918” onto a DVD and accompanied the silent film with patriotic music.