Jul 16, 2021

Book Review--Vitagraph: America's First Great Motion Picture Studio


Vitagraph: America’s First Great Motion Picture Studio 
Andrew A. Erish 
University Press of Kentucky, 2021 

Before I picked up Vitagraph: America’s First Great Motion Picture Studio, I’d seen a handful of its films, knew of some of its stars, and even vaguely recalled seeing the word “Vitagraph” in the opening credits of films a few times. I didn’t have the faintest idea of how important the studio was though and how many things it pioneered in the industry, like animated films, the essential visual language of film, and even the use of “studio” to describe where movies are made. 

J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith founded Vitagraph in 1897. When they set up shop, movies weren’t yet shown in theaters made for their exhibition, audiences didn’t know the stars of films by name, and the litigious Thomas Edison had the industry in a stranglehold because of his claims to film technology patents. 

The pair probably wouldn’t have stayed in business long if it weren’t for the grit and savvy of William T. “Pop” Rock, the man they hired to steer the company as president. Rock knew how to play the game, he’d even thought about going after Blackton and Smith before they joined forces. With his guidance, Vitagraph still had a rough ride, but was nevertheless able to become the most successful American film production company in the early years of cinema. 

Many of Vitagraph’s performers set the template for the industry: like John Bunny as the friendly, portly comedian, Maurice Costello as cinema's first matinee idol, Florence Turner, the beautiful "Vitagraph Girl" and Jean, the Vitagraph Dog, who preceded many a canine star. These stars were the first to learn what it was like to be adored, sometimes a little too much, by thousands of fans. They ignored the scorn of theater snobs and prospered as worldwide celebrities, though that success was not always enduring. 

Aside from facing frequent lawsuits and jockeying for power from Edison, Blackton and Smith fended off an attempted takeover from businessman Benjamin Hampton, and severe harassment from Paramount films founder Adolph Zukor. There are other factors that led to the eventual downfall of Vitagraph, but it would have thrived longer and been more creative and productive without these pressures. Indeed, it is amazing how long the company endured given all the aggression it faced. 

It’s a shame Vitagraph wasn’t allowed to thrive the way it could have, because if it had, it could have influenced the shaping of a whole industry. Aside from the loss of creativity and innovation, the way in which Blackton and Smith did business could have set a healthier standard for the studios to come. The pair was trustworthy, frequently made handshake agreements, and created a mutually supportive community which several employees referred to as a family atmosphere. This was a place where women in particular could find a more pleasant work environment than in the factories. While a larger salary could easily whisk a star away, everyone who worked with Vitagraph seems to have been happy and often at their most successful. 

While reading the book, I wondered how many of these intriguing films I was learning about I’d be able to find. It turns out that while thousands of Vitagraph films are believed to be lost, there are a few hundred known to still exist and many are easily accessible. This includes several of the titles Erish references. The Eye Filmmuseum YouTube channel and the Library of Congress website and YouTube channel both have several titles available to view for free, and some of them with remarkably good image quality. 

Of the Vitagraph films I’ve watched so far, I’ve been most impressed with the early animation Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906), a fun early special effects flick called Princess Nicotine (1909), the moving interracial adoption drama Father and Son (1912), and the slightly ghoulish comedy The Thieving Hand (1908). 

This is a richly-detailed, well-researched, and much-needed history of an important aspect of film history. It deserves to endure as a valuable resource. 

Many thanks to University Press of Kentucky for providing a copy of the book for review.

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