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John Harris: a bestselling author over four decades

John Harris (1916-1991). Photograph: Picture Sheffield.

He might not have been from Sheffield, but Rotherham counts, and the steel city had a big impact on his career.

Ernest John Harris (1916-1991) was a sailor, airman, a journalist, travel courier, cartoonist, and a history teacher. He was best known as a productive author publishing a series of crime novels featuring Inspector Pel, as well as numerous war books. He wrote under his own name, John Harris, and under the pennames of Mark Hebden and Max Hennessy.

He wrote more than 80 novels, including The Sea Shall Not Have Them (1953) that became a film of the same name starring Michael Redgrave, Dirk Bogarde and Anthony Steel.

Harris was educated at Rotherham Grammar School before getting a job as a reporter at the Rotherham Advertiser in the early 1930s.

He married Betty Wragg in Rotherham and had a son, Max, and a daughter, Juliet, who carried on the Pel detective series after her father’s death.

Harris moved to the Sheffield Telegraph and during World War Two served in the RAF as a corporal attached to the South African Air Force. It was said that he served two navies and two air forces during the war.

Afterwards, he re-joined the Sheffield Telegraph as a political and comedy cartoonist, drawing comic strips such as the Calamity Kids and Amateur Archie, and published his first novel, The Lonely Voyage, in 1951.

Amateur Archie featured in the Sheffield Telegraph, as well as other regional newspapers during the 1950s. Photograph: British Newspaper Archive.

He stayed in Sheffield until the 1950s and following the success of The Sea Shall Not Have Them became a full-time author, moving to West Wittering in West Sussex.

After turning to full-time writing, Harris wrote adventure stories and created a sequence of crime novels around the quirky fictional character Chief Inspector Pel.

Covenant with Death was published in 1961 and despite critical acclaim has long-since been overlooked. Photograph: Sphere.

Harris’s books are still in publication, and for Sheffielders, a must-read is Covenant with Death (1961), a ‘fictionary’ account of the Sheffield City Battalion from its formation to catastrophe at Serre on 1 July 1916.

“When war breaks out in 1914, Mark Fenner and his Sheffield friends immediately flock to Kitchener’s call. Amid waving flags and boozy celebration, the three men – Fen, his best friend Locky and self-assured Frank, rival for the woman Fen loves – enlist as volunteers to take on the Germans and win glory.

“Through ramshackle training in sodden England and a stint in arid Egypt, rebellious but brave Fen proves himself to be a natural leader, only undermined by on-going friction with Frank. Headed by terse, tough Sergeant Major Bold, this group of young men form steel-strong bonds and yearn to face the great adventure of the Western Front.

“Then, on one summer’s day in 1916, Fen and his band of brothers are sent to the Somme, and this very ordinary hero discovers what it means to fight for your life.”

Harris interviewed battalion survivors for the book, and the central character, Mark Fenner, is partly based on his Sheffield Telegraph colleague Jess Richard ‘Roddy’ Robinson.

John Harris died in 1991.

A master of war and crime fiction. Photograph: Curtis Brown.

© 2021 David Poole. All Rights Reserved.

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J. Stuart Blackton: From Broomspring Lane to Hollywood

The land on which the Vitagraph Studios were situated can trace its motion picture history back to around 1906, when it served as a studio and backlot. In 2017 the site became an eight-story, 300-unit apartment building. Photograph: Google.

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.

Humorous Phases of Funny Faces is a 1906 short silent animated cartoon directed by James Stuart Blackton and generally regarded by film historians as the first animated film recorded on standard picture film.

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.

Broomspring Lane, Sheffield. James Stuart Blacktin lived here with his mother’s family before emigrating to New York and setting up Vitagraph Studios. Photograph: Google.
James Stuart Blackton (1875-1941), the British-born U.S. film director and producer who introduced animation and other important film techniques that helped shape and stimulate the development of cinematic art.

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.

In 1927, Hudson Maxim, the U.S. inventor and chemist, visited his ‘young’ friend James Stuart Blackton, who had invented a stereoscopic film, to examine the latest development in motion-picture technique. He was seen comparing a film of the new ‘natural vision’ negative with an ordinary roll of film. Photograph: British Newspaper Archive.

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.

Vitagraph was bought by Warner Brothers in 1925 and the name was briefly resurrected from 1960 to 1969 at the end of Warner Bros’ Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons, with the end titles reading “A Warner Bros. Cartoon/A Vitagraph Release”
The Vitagraph Studios were bought by NBC in 1951 and later used to film The Cosby Show, and soap operas Another World and As the World Turns. The famous old studios were demolished in 2015.
The surviving smokestack was part of Vitagraph Studios, which made silent films in Brooklyn, New York, more than a century ago. Actress Norma Talmadge got her start in the movies at Vitagraph’s Midwood facilities. America’s first film versions of William Shakespeare’s plays were shot there.

© 2021 David Poole. All Rights Reserved.