Saturday, January 5, 2019

Born Today January 5: J. Stuart Blackton


1875-1941

Founder of Vitagraph studios J. (James) Stuart Blacktin was born on this day in Sheffield, England. His entire family emigrated to the United States ten years later,  changing their last name to Blackton. As a young man, he worked as both a reporter and illustrator at a New York area newspaper (New York Evening World); he supplemented his income by appearing on stage with stage illusionist, later turned filmmaker, Albert E. Smith.  As part of his newspaper duties, he was sent to interview Thomas Edison when the inventor unveiled  his Vitascope projector 1896 (in this regard, Edison was late to the game of film innovation).  Struck with the machine, and owed to Edison wanting a long write-up, he was keen to demonstrate the contraption to Blackton, he took Blackton to the famous Black Maria and filmed him sketching an illustration of his likeness.  Edison actually made two films of Blackton that day, the second of which comes down to us as Blackton Sketches, No. 2 (1896).  Blackton being so impressed with the experience, and owed to Edison's real talent--the art of salesmanship--the illustrator agreed to an investment of sorts in Edison's technology. Blackton and the above mentioned Albert Smith partnered in purchasing a Vitascope from Edison (and a print of the film in which the illustrator appeared) for purposes of making money on their own from paid public exhibition in New York.  Taking a name from the contraption to produce films of their own, Vitagraph Studios was born in 1897, with official name of the company being the American Vitagraph Company. It is hardly surprising that given Blackton's background in newsprint illustration, that Vitagraph would become one of the first major producers of animated films (Blackton starred in films based on the popular comic strip character Happy Hooligan; but these were not what we would regard as animated films). They were also major producers of dramatic narrative film works as well, becoming one of only a handful of major motion picture studios in early film (and, basically, the only one to avoid the lawsuits that Edison flung around like confetti, by purchasing "special licenses" from Edison's company).  They were also one of ten companies to make up the infamous Motion Pictures Patent Company.  Almost all of their films were released to public viewing after the turn of the new century (as far as films listed in their catalog as dating from the late 1890's--most appear to be manufacturing, rather than release dates).  By 1905 the company was well on it's way to being one of the biggest studios in the business.  The company was eventually sold to Warner Brothers in 1925 [Smith's book Two Reels and a Crank gives a very detailed account of the studio and it's complete history as an independent company.] While the company that Blackton helped found was one of the biggest in the early film industry, his personal contribution to the world of film is somewhat over looked.  His genius undeniably lie in animation, and his earliest films made use of tricks first pioneered by the likes of Mélèis, but he would go to invent (or at least partially invent) other forms of animation that would become the mainstay of films for generations.  For example, he basically invented stop-motion animation--even it was by accident (having noticed the effects of industrial steam in a film he shot--he would go on to attempt to reproduce it artificially--which lead to all types of animated images ideas).  I personally do not think that it can be wrong-headed to laud his animation contributions--even if the surviving films of his work don't seem to yield much to praise.  It is no small thing to be a founder of one of the very first major film studios (one whose name continued in use in some form into the 1960's) and to make contributions of any sort to the mechanisms of animation that led to the popularization of that as an independent art form apart from live action. On paper, his credits don't look that distinguished, but note his first directorial efforts are credited in 1897 as Political Cartoon; and all of his earliest work comes in the form of pure animated "cartoon" ideas.  Almost no other director of note started out this way. His directorial contributions continued into the sound era--just barely, but still...what a spansive career (his last direction came on a history of film piece made in England entitled March Of The Movies in 1933). His interest in cartoon artists also lead him to bring some of them to film--the most notable was Winsor McCay who showed up in a Vitagraph short Winsor McCay, the Famous Cartoonist of the N.Y. Herald and His Moving Comics in 1911 (McCay's work had been previously featured as a subject of a now famous surviving Edison short Dream Of A Rarebit Fiend in 1906).  Blackton would also direct some feature silent films that featured famous stars--especially in the 1920's (see for example The Redeeming Sin (1925) starring Alla Nazimova--the film was penned almost entirely by his daughter Marian-- and, she was the writer for most of the melodramas that he directed in the mid 1920's).  He continued to direct for Warner Bros. even after it's acquisition of his company. The first of four films--all contained in the year 1926--that he directed for Warner's was Bride Of The Storm starring Dolores Costello. The last silent film that he directed was a western made for the independent Natural Vision Pictures starring Bessie Love entitled The American in 1927. His life, like many in the business, took a sharp turn for worse in 1929 with the stock market crash. By 1931 he had to declare personal bankruptcy. He died ten years later on the 13th of August, two days after being hit by a car while crossing a street. He was cremated and interred at Forest Lawn in Glendale. He was 66 years old. At the time of his death, he was working on color processes with famed producer Hal Roach.  All four of his children had some footprint in the film world, but none of them would make as big a mark as his daughter Marian did--as she was a writer in the industry at a time when female writers were at the very least frowned upon.  In addition to his work in the film industry, he was the president of the well known Vitaphone Co.--manufacturer of records players (and vinyl).   He was also a avid boater.



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