This story starts with an apartment complex in Brooklyn, bounded by East 14th Street, Locust Avenue, Chestnut Avenue, and the Brighton Line of the New York City Subway. The smart new development is called The Vitagraph, built on the site of Vitagraph Studios (1906), the first modern motion picture production company in the U.S.. Apart from the name, the only thing that survives is an adjacent smokestack on which you can still make out the VITAGRAPH name.
In 1896, James Stuart Blackton, a journalist and illustrator for the New York Evening World interviewed Thomas Edison about his new Vitascope, and the man was impressed enough with Blackton’s drawings to make a cartoon film with him: Blackton the Evening World Cartoonist. This was twenty-eight years before Walt Disney formally introduced us to Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie. Blackton bought a Kinetoscope from Edison and went into partnership with Albert E. Smith, and later William T. Rock, to form the Vitagraph Company.
The studio produced films in which they acted themselves. Tearing Down the Spanish Flag (1898), proved popular in recreating an incident from the Spanish-American war and Vitagraph went on to explore all types of filmmaking, including actualities of local events, comedy series (such as The Happy Hooligan) and adaptations of Shakespeare and Dickens.
At the Vitagraph Studios, Blackton pioneered stop frame animation and shot one of his most successful films, Humorous Phases of a Funny Face (1906). He was also innovative in editing techniques and camera work and streamlined processes of the studio to supervise several productions at once.
This was long before Hollywood established itself as the centre of the movie industry and at its peak, Vitagraph was producing up to eight films a week on the Brooklyn lot, and all because of one enterprising Sheffield lad.
James Stuart Blacktin was born in Sheffield in 1875, the son of Henry Blacktin, a saw-maker, and Jessie Stuart, but weeks after his birth his mother filed for divorce.
“She had been beaten regularly by a drunken Henry Blacktin prior and during her pregnancy, he raped her when she refused sex, denied her food at home if she didn’t put in slave hours at the saw-making shop, was told she would have to become a prostitute if that was the only way he could get back money to pay a loan to her father, threatened her with death if she informed her family of the state of her marriage, and cut her off from all her friends.”
Mother and son moved into her family home at 121 Broomspring Lane, and James attended nearby Eton House Collegiate School. In 1886, when he was aged 11, they travelled from Liverpool to New York aboard the SS Celtic to start afresh. He changed his surname to Blackton and ten years after arriving met up with Thomas Edison.
Blackton left Vitagraph in 1917 selling his stock for $1.5million and became an independent producer making four big productions a year that were released through Paramount.
In 1920, Blackton visited Sheffield for the first time in 34 years and presented a private showing of his latest picture Passers-By at the Electra Palace in Fitzalan Square (later to become the Classic).
Accompanied by his beautiful young wife he had been looking around the country with an eye to producing pictures here.
“I think there is a splendid opening, and I expect to be over again by the New Year ready to start work.” he said. “I shall never produce a photo-play that I would not like my wife and children to see. I want all screen plays to reflect the beauty of the home, of motherhood, and of life, and to appeal to clean-minded people.”
In 1921 he came to England, where he directed three lavish costume dramas in ‘Prizmacolor’. The Glorious Adventure (1922) and The Virgin Queen (1923) both starred the society beauty Lady Diana Cooper (billed as Diana Manners); Gypsy Cavalier (1922) starred the world light heavyweight boxing champion, George Carpentier.
Blackton returned to the US in 1923 and directed several more films, including Beloved Brute (1924) starring Victor McLaglen, who he had used in The Glorious Adventure.
His world came crashing down after losing his fortune in the Wall Street Crash of 1929. He then made a living from showings of his old films and giving lectures about silent movies.
He ended his days working for the Anglo American Film Company and died in 1941 when he suffered a fractured skull after being hit by a car while crossing the street with his son. He was buried at Glendale, Los Angeles County.
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