Vitagraph

"Three men and their 'baby' "

by Tim Lussier

"Our initial plunge was $936, spent in building of the first machines and purchase of films. . . In less than a decade, two youths and a kindly, blustery gentleman who they had invited into their partnership were earning a figure close on the heels of a million dollars." -- Albert E. Smith, Two Reels and a 0000, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1952.

The Vitagraph Company could be said to have had its genesis as the International Novelty Company which is what three Englishmen -- Albert E. Smith, J. Stuart Blackton and Ronald A. Reader -- called their vaudeville act which made its first public appearances in 1894. The act included magic, cartooning, magic lantern slides, and more. All three had migrated to New York from their homeland in search of their fortunes.

When the vaudeville act failed, the three men went to other jobs. Blackton was serving as a cartoonist for the New York Evening World when he was sent to interview Thomas Edison. He and Edison hit it off when Blackton did some sketches of him, so much so, in fact, that Edison asked Blackton to do some of his drawings for the motion picture camera. He did, and as a result of Blackton's exposure to this new means of making money, he and Smith purchased a projecting machine and 10 films from Edison for $800.

Albert E. Smith gave a different story in his 1952 autobiography. He claimed that he and Blackton were intrigued by Edison's peep show kinetoscope but realized that being able to project the images on a screen, the same way they had done magic lantern slides in their vaudeville show, would be much more profitable. So, Smith invented a projector. They secured some of the kinetoscope films, and Vitagraph made its debut at Tony Pastor's New Fourteenth Street Theatre March 23, 1896.

Smith and Blackton, with Reader as projectionist, continued their vaudeville acts, but with the addition of motion pictures that were typical of the day -- a train coming into the station, Niagra Falls, a man shoveling snow, a boy romping with his dog and anything else that showed movement. As Smith noted, audiences were intrigued by "clouds that floated, branches that waved, and smoke that puffed."

Their first "story" picture was shot May 16, 1897, on the roof of their office building and was entitled "The Burglar on the Roof." The film was supposed to only involve a burglar (played by Blackton) and a policeman, however, when the "policeman" began struggling with the "burglar," Mrs. Olsen, the wife of the building's janitor, came on the scene. Thinking she had happened upon the real thing, she began beating the "burglar" with her broom. At first worried that their film was ruined, they were pleased to see the favorable reaction from the audience at Pastor's the next evening.

The reputation of the American Vitagraph Company was bolstered greatly by the filming of some major historical events around the turn of the century. One of these was the Spanish-American War. When the dead from the Maine explosion were brought back to Arlington Cemetery in Washington, D.C., Vitagraph was there to film it with very successful, and emotional, results. Smith and Blackton then managed to gain passage to Cuba on the same ship that Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders were on eventually accompanying him on his famous "charge" up San Juan Hill.

When Smith and Blackton returned to New York, everyone was hungry for news from the battlefront, so, of course, their films were a tremendous success. They also foolishly claimed to have taken film of the Battle of Santiago Bay, although they had not! So, to accommodate this demand to see their films of the battle, they staged the confrontation in what was probably the first use of miniatures in a film. Crude as it was, it still proved believable to the movie-goers of the day and was very, very popular.

Another major event that helped establish Vitagraph's reputation was the Boer War in South Africa. In late 1899, Smith sailed for the conflict and spent quite a while there in the midst of some of the worst fighting. Smith mentioned in his book that England's jubilation over their victory in the war couldn't have matched his and Blackton's jubiliation over the fact that the Boer War pictures netted them Koster and Bial's Music Hall as a regular venue.

Some of the other notable historical events filmed by Vitagraph during these early years were the Galveston flood of 1900, the 1901 assassination of President McKinley, the 1904 inauguration of President Theodore Roosevelt and the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. They were present at the first successful flight by the Wright Brothers Dec. 14, 1903, at Kitty Hawk, N.C., but failed to get pictures because of their skepticism once they saw the brothers' "fool contraption." Vitagraph was also the first to film one of Mark Twain's stories (A Curious Dream, 1904) with the author's blessings!

The most notable event for Vitagraph prior to the turn of the century was the addition of a third partner to the company -- William "Pop" Rock, a fellow Englishman. Anthony Slide says in his book, The Big V: The History of the Vitagraph Company (Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1976) that it is unclear why Blackton and Smith invited Rock, a local film distributor, to join their ranks, especially with Rock being named President, Smith as treasurer and Blackton as secretary in the new partnership. Rock was a good 20 years older than his youthful partners, and Slide speculates that Rock's maturity was a major factor. Smith said in his autobiography that Rock had "mature business judgment" while Blackton was the creative force in the team and he (Smith) was "a sort of trouble shooter." Smith is being modest about himself, though, because it was Smith's acute business sense that carried Vitagraph through some of it hardest times.

Smith reported that Vitagraph's profits in 1899 were $7,975 and fell to $6,742 in 1900, but he attributed the decrease to the expenses he incurred on his Boer War excursion. However, the first years of the new century were successful, indeed, for the blossoming company as they moved to new and larger offices, began to add employees to their roster, and, in 1905, built their first studio in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn.

In 1904, in spite of the construction of the new studio and opening a film office in Chicago, the company was able to claim profits of $25, 750. The profits rose to $38,860 in 1905 which Smith said was attributable to increased foreign operations. By 1906, they had leaped to $120,749. So successful were the foreign operations that Vitagraph opened offices in London, Paris and Berlin in 1908.

During those first 10 years of the century, Vitagraph claimed such luminaries on their acting roster as Broncho Billy Anderson, Annette Kellerman, Paul Panzer, Florence Lawrence, Florence Turner, Maurice Costello, Gladys Hulette, Julia Swayne Gordon and many others. One of their most successful series of films was the "Happy Hooligan" comedies about a tramp in which J. Stuart Blackton played the lead.

During these early years Vitagraph and other film companies were constantly under threat of suit from Edison who claimed, according to Smith, that he owned the very concept of making pictures move. However, the situation was clouded somewhat by the fact that many patents were floating around controlling various aspects of the motion picture camera, and not all of them belonged to Edison. Vitagraph and several other companies got together in 1905 to discuss pooling their patents so that all could benefit from them. However, they realized the endeavor was futile unless the major patent holder, Edison, was in on the deal.

Amazingly, Edison liked the idea, and, in 1905, Edison, Kleine, Melies, Pathe, Vitagraph, Selig, Essanay, Lubin, Kalem, and Biograph formed the Motion Pictures Patent Company (MPPC) in which any producer could make use of the patents by paying the patent holder a license fee. The arrangement proved to be very lucrative for Edison but virtually locked out any company from the motion picture production field unless they were a member.

The MPPC went a step further. The formed a distributing company called General Film, which became known as "The Trust." No theatre could obtain a film produced by one of the "Big Ten" except through General Film. The "Trust" would not go unchallenged by some very innovative and strong-willed independents.

By 1909, "film had come of age, thanks, to a large extent, to the Vitagraph Company," according to Slide. In his book, he notes that in February of that year, the company began to release three reels of film a week and had 30 actors and actresses and seven directors under contract, in addition to technical and business staff.

Smith states in his book that by 1908, the Vitagraph directors were producing eight films a week, "mostly one and two-reelers cast from the studio's stock company of four hundred players."

The second decade of the twentieth century saw the first of the John Bunny films released by Vitagraph with "Doctor Cupid" gracing screens in January, 1911. Bunny, who had come to Vitagraph from a very successful career on the stage and was 48 years old at the time, became one of the most popular comedians in the world during the next few years, predating Charlie Chaplin. Rotund Bunny, who was a butterball of a man, reached his peak when teamed with tall, thin Flora Finch in a series of marital situation comedies. When he died April 26, 1915, the world mourned his death, and Vitagraph lost possibly its most famous comedian.

1910 seemed to be a pivotal year in Vitagraph's history, not only because it was the year John Bunny came to the company, but due to several other significant events, too. July 2, 1910, a fire destroyed virtually all of the negatives of every film the company had made since 1896. In his diary, Smith simply commented, "All heartbroken over the loss."

1910 was also the year the company initiated a monthly newsreel, "The Vitagraph Monthly News of Current Events." (Smith quotes 1910 in his book while Slide says the newsreels were first released in 1911). This soon became the "Hearst-Vitagraph Weekly News Feature" with semi-weekly releases.

In 1910, Vitagraph sent their first permanent company to California. According to Smith, the company had twenty or more directors making films at Flatbush and one in California. "Ten years later, the situation was reversed, and activity at Flatbush confined almost entirely to laboratory work," he added.

Profits had risen to $695,372 in 1910, more than doubling the previous year. Films were being turned out in greater numbers requiring the construction of a new laboratory building for processing the films.

Vitagraph's reputation was growing, too, due to the quality of their films. "The Life of Moses," the the first of a series of Biblical pictures was released in five parts between December 1909 and February 1910. The next year Vitagraph continued to test the public's reaction to longer films and released a pair of three-reelers "A Tale of Two Cities" and "Vanity Fair." "A Tale of Two Cities" was released in three parts; however, "Vanity Fair" was released at one time as a three-reel feature. "In doing so," Slide said, "Vitagraph moved one important step ahead of its competitors by accepting that audiences were willing to sit through a film more than one reel in length."

Smith said the company made two "superproductions" in late 1913, early 1914 ­ "A Million Dollar Bid" at five reels and "The Christian" at eight reels. According to Smith, exhibitors claimed the public would not sit through a film lasting more than an hour. "We sent them reams of material telling them how to put a feature picture over, how to bring patrons into their houses in greater number than ever before," Smith said, but the exhibitors were still unconvinced.

Smith said he and Blackton decided to "test our faith in big pictures" and did something no other producing company had done at that point -- they became exhibitors. They leased the Criterion Theatre on Broadway in New York, renamed it the Vitagraph Theatre, and opened it Feb. 7, 1914, with a sketch, a short and the feature "A Million Dollar Bid" which starred Anita Stewart and Julia Swayne Gordon. The opening was a success.

In May, they leased the Harris Theatre on 42nd Street and opened with "The Christian" which starred Earle Williams and Edith Storey. This, too, was a success. Exhibitors became very concerned about this new venture and confronted Vitagraph about their concerns. After a meeting with a committee of exhibitors, Vitagraph announced it would acquire no more theatres, although this was to become a common practice of film producers in the ensuing years. However, Vitagraph was the first to do it.

Vitagraph was growing by leaps and bounds, and they soon began to release their features through their own exchanges. The General Film company continued to handle their shorts. By 1915, it became necessary to form a new releasing organization, and Vitagraph, Lubin, Selig and Essanay joined forces to form the VLSE. The partnership proved to be very lucrative, mostly for Vitagraph as the company purchased the stock and interest of Lubin, Selig and Essanay in September, 1916.

Other names began to be added to Vitagraph's roster during these years that would be some of the most famous names of the silent era. Norma Talmadge and Anita Stewart came to Vitagraph straight from Erasmus High School in Flatbush. Norma joined the company in 1910, and Anita followed soon afterwards at the suggestion of her brother-in-law Ralph Ince. Wallace Reid joined in 1911 after a short stint with Selig. One of the most famous cowboys stars of the 1920's, Fred Thomson, started his career with Vitagraph. Jane Novak came to the studio in 1913 because her aunt, Anne Schaefer, was already a star with Vitgraph. Clara Kimball Young made her first Vitagraph film in 1912. Both Bebe Daniels and Mabel Normand spent a short time with the company. Antonio Moreno entered films with the Vitagraph Company in 1914. Alice Joyce's name was added to the roster in 1916 when Vitagraph purchased the Kalem studio where she was already a popular star. Also, one of the company's most popular stars during this period was actually not a human -- it was Jean, the Vitagraph dog!

Probably the most popular series of comedies to come out of the Vitagraph studio next to the films of John Bunny were those of Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew. Slide notes in his book that during the teens " Sidney Drew, with his second wife, Lucille McVey, introduced to the screen, and became the chief exponent of, polite, domestic comedy. It was a comedy style totally opposite to the slapstick humor perfected by Mack Sennett. . ."

Smith asserts in his book that there were three great Vitagraph comedians. Already mentioned are John Bunny and Sidney Drew. The third, he said, was Larry Semon who joined the company in 1917. Semon worked well in the Vitagraph family for the first couple of years, but, according to Slide, as his popularity grew, so did his ego. He began spending extravagantly on his films which resulted in many conflicts with Smith, even to the point of a lawsuit against Semon at one point. Semon finally left Vitagraph in 1924, his career rapidly declining.

Vitagraph was also a leader in making serials. They released their first feature, a tongue-in-cheek affair, in 1915 entitled "The Fates of Flora Fourflush or The Massive Ten Billion Dollar Vitagraph Mystery Sequel." It starred Clara Kimball Young in an uncharacteristic comedy role. The company's first serious serial was "The Goddess" released in 1915 and starring the romantic team of Earle Williams and Anita Stewart. They only released one serial in 1916, but released three in 1917 and several more in the ensuing years. Their last serial was "Breaking Through" starring Carmel Myers and Wallace McDonald which was released in 1921.

"Pop" Rock died in 1916 leaving Smith and Blackton to run the company without their elder mentor, however, Blackton resigned in 1917. He went into independent production for awhile, but it proved to be an unsuccessful venture. He also unsuccessfully took a turn at producing films in England, but he returned to Vitagraph as 1923 as an equal partner once again with Smith.

Some of Vitagraph's most difficult days were heading their way in the late 'teens and early twenties. Due to the war, the foreign market for films was gone, and in 1919, the General Film Company folded. In the early twenties, the company was feeling the effects of the bigger film companies who were emerging, buying up theatres across the country and releasing more and bigger pictures than Vitagraph. In September, 1922, the company estimated its losses to be nearly a million dollars.

Though most of the company's features in the 1920's were programmers, two top quality productions enjoyed both critical and financial success. "Black Beauty" in 1921 and "Captain Blood" in 1924 both starred Smith's wife, Jean Paige.

Nevertheless, Smith's acute business sense had always kept the company alive and solvent. In 1925, the estimated value of Vitagraph was $4.2 million with no indebtedness. However, that same year, ready to retire after 29 years at its helm, Smith reached an agreement with Warner Brothers to purchase Vitagraph for $735,000 which was split equally between Smith, Blackton and "Pop" Rock's son. Smith would continue, however, as chairman of the board.

In his autobiography, Smith poignantly recalled the day the company changed hands. "I remember that day in February, 1925. I shook hands with Harry Warner. He walked out and there was a terrible silence in the room, as if every living hope had gone with him and I was left in a vast empty amphitheater swept clean of memories near and dear."


copyright 1999 by Tim Lussier. All rights reserved.

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