Book Review: VITAGRAPH: AMERICA’S FIRST GREAT MOTION PICTURE STUDIO (Andrew A. Erish)

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by Vaughan Edwards on March 23, 2021

in Books,Film

VITAL VITAGRAPH

This is the story of two motion picture pioneers, but their names are not Griffith, Chaplin, or any of the usual suspects found in the history books. J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith were prime movers in the film world of their time, but are forgotten today, mainly because others who came later took credit for what they achieved. In VITAGRAPH: America’s First Great Motion Picture Studio, Andrew E. Erish takes on the task of setting the record straight.

William Humphrey and Julia Swayne in the Life of Napoleon and Josephine (1909).

It’s a story made for the movies, an immigrant saga to rival Once Upon a Time in America or The Godfather. Smith and Blackton, born in England in 1875, arrived in New York with a burning desire to make a mark in their adopted home. While pursuing individual vaudeville careers, they met and joined forces in 1894. They were an unlikely team in some ways, Blackton an idealist, Smith more of a business head, but well-matched enough to form a partnership that lasted thirty years.

Florence Turner in Jealousy (1911).

Their theatrical ambitions took an unexpected turn in 1895 when they wandered into a Manhattan penny arcade and discovered “Thomas Edison’s Latest Marvel, the Kinetoscope”, a peep-show exhibiting moving pictures. But the Kinetoscope could only be viewed by one person at a time, and the race was on for a way to project film onto a screen for a larger audience. Exactly who first achieved this is still in dispute, but in America the moment came on April 23, 1896, when Edison’s next marvel, the Vitascope, debuted at Koster and Bial’s music hall on West 34th Street, where Macy’s department store now stands.

Vitagraph Directors on staff (1913).

Witnesses to this event, Blackton and Smith knew they had found their calling. They abandoned their vaudeville plans, and Vitagraph was born. By 1897 they were making their own films, but Thomas Alva Edison and his Vitascope would be their nemesis for the next ten years. Holding patents on cameras and projectors, Edison had a stranglehold on the emerging motion picture industry. An enthusiastic litigant, he employed private detectives to track down patent infringers, and involved Blackton and Smith in so many lawsuits it’s surprising they had time to make films.

Sidney Drew looks on as Edith Story kisses Jane Morrow in A Florida Enchantment (1914).

But make films they did, by the hundred in every genre from knock-about farce to Shakespeare adaptations. In 1906 they moved operations from the roof of their Manhattan office building to a purpose-built “manufacturing plant” in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Pictures of the facility in 1912 reveal that many features of a film studio as we know it were already in existence: editing room, paint shop and wardrobe department were all in place. Called at first “the plant” or “the shed”, it was rechristened “the studio” by Blackton’s socially ambitious wife, which secured her a small niche in film history. This was one of many firsts for Vitagraph, innovations now incorrectly accredited to others. Relying on his skills as an illusionist, Smith created stop-action and animation techniques. Vitagraph was one of the first companies to shoot on location – “A Wood Near Athens” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream was, in fact, a wood near Flatbush. Understanding the value of star power, they were the first producers to give actors screen credit. Prior to this, Vitagraph’s leading man Maurice Costello received fan mail addressed to “Dimples” because nobody knew his name.

Vitagraph Theatre, 1914.

By 1914 Vitagraph was the biggest producer of motion pictures in the world, though still very much a family business – every employee was given a turkey at the annual Christmas party. But as Vitagraph grew, so did the movies, and a business evolved into an industry. The buccaneers and idealists were left behind, and for Vitagraph a new villain emerged.

New England exhibitors visit Vitagraph's Brooklyn studio (1911).
Front row (L to R) Louis B. Mayer (in black derby), Albert Smith, Pop Rock, J. Stuart Blackton.

Adolph Zukor had been a force in the industry since 1912. In 1917 “in a well-orchestrated putsch”, he became head of Paramount Pictures. Vitagraph was Paramount’s closest competitor and Zukor began a systematic effort to destroy the studio. He refused to book Vitagraph pictures into Paramount theatres and even went so far as to produce rival versions of Vitagraph films. In 1925, facing bankruptcy, Smith and Blackton faced the inevitable and sold the studio to Warner Brothers. It was the end of their thirty-year journey.

Aerial view of Vitagraph's Brooklyn Studio (1915).

A handsome book with well-chosen, highly evocative photographs, if it has a fault it’s one common to many historical accounts – we are frequently given too much information. Unimportant details get in the way of the big picture, forgettable films are minutely described, convoluted lawsuits unearthed with archaeological thoroughness. And do we really need to know about the Vitagraph sales manager’s 1924 heart attack?

Jean Paige and James Morrison in Black Beauty (1921).

Smith and Blackton’s contribution to the evolution of cinema is undeniable, but sadly, not one memorable movie survives from their entire output. Even Captain Blood (1924) their most ambitious project, is overshadowed by Douglas Fairbanks’s awe-inspiring swashbucklers of the same period. Vitagraph created the first movie stars but none of them rank with the greatest silent players: Chaplin, Keaton, Swanson, Valentino, Pickford, Fairbanks, Gish.

Vitagraph Studio in 1924 (above) and 2020 (below).

Smith and Blackton indisputably led the way, but it was their successors who took on the task of transforming a craft into a mature art.

photos courtesy Kentucky Press

VITAGRAPH: America’s First Great Motion Picture Studio
Andrew E. Erish
Kentucky Press | Screen Classics Series
298 pages | 6×9 | 46 b/w photos | hardcover | June 9, 2021

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Terry Sheehan April 22, 2021 at 12:38 am

I enjoy movie history, especially the pioneers and the studios that made The Golden Years of film production great. Thanks for the review — I’m interested to read the full Vitaphone story.

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