Old Hollywood’s Forgotten Filmmaker

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James Stuart Blackton was an innovator in the early days of Hollywood but was unable to maintain success, constantly walking the line between rich and poor.
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"Buccaneer: James Stuart Blackton and the Birth of American Movies" by Donald Dewey tells the life story of a man who helped build the American film industry.

Buccaneer: James Stuart Blackton and the Birth of American Movies (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016) by Donald Dewey exposes the man created the first movie studio, adopted the system of making movie stars, and pioneered film animation. This man was James Stuart Blackton, who not only did all of the aforementioned but was also the first to yell ‘action’ and ‘cut’ while making movies. Despite all of the ground broken by Blackton in the film industry he remains mostly unknown, even to film enthusiasts and cinema scholars. This excerpt comes from the introduction to Dewey’s biography of Blackton and explains why Blackton is not more notable.

The motion picture industry is unequal parts of creative imagination, financial extravagance, and bullshit. Specific proportions depend on a given project and the people involved in it, but the basic ingredients have always been present to one degree or another. If artistic creativity is the dominant component, the result can often be a memorable film. When the financing rules, the ingredients can be translated into epic splendor or special effects giddiness on the screen, or simply into obscene budgets equal to some gross national products behind it. The bullshit can cover anything from delirious advertising campaigns and hushed-up scandals to
memoirs as self-important as those of a Kentucky Colonel, and pieties from participants and critics alike comparing the insights of a film to the epiphanies of the Second Coming.

Long before there was even such a thing, James Stuart Blackton was very much of the motion picture industry.

And the first to deny that he was, were the moguls and flacks of the motion picture industry.

If Blackton hadn’t existed, Hollywood would have invented him in order to ignore him anyway. Ambling down Sunset Boulevard, you can step on the cement stars of scores who worked for him, of hundreds who turned out a mere fraction of the pictures that he made, and of countless hacks and plagiarists who made fortunes off his cinematic innovations, but you won’t be able to step on a star bearing his name. In industry towns, some rancors become infrastructure. In the context of film history, what the Blackton story recounts is East Coast versus West Coast, the silents versus the talkies, and blue-blood aspirations versus red-white and- blue demagoguery — and he lost every one of those battles in spite of making an effort sometimes to cross to the other side. Thanks to fires, fragile film stock, and tender memories about the Brooklyn-based Vitagraph Studios, the battles themselves have depended on significant hearsay for evidence that they ever took place. When organizations such as the American Film Institute decry the chemical decay of more than 70 percent of the pictures ever produced in this country, they are reinvoking these conflicts.

And all of that constitutes only one scrim set before a focused picture of Blackton. Another one is that, no matter how many opportunities he had to tell his story — whether through his own writing or through that of others — he was almost obsessive about sliding away to talk instead about the film industry’s earliest days, substituting tales of corporate machinations for any personal details. And the older he got, when universities as well as the media were beginning to look upon him as a grand old master with history to share, even the machinations started sounding benign in the accounting of someone who had taken it upon himself to act as the
public relations envoy for the industry.

A third problem with Blackton, often related to the second one, is that he seldom let facts spoil a good story. We’re not talking about a blowhard trying to impress saloon companions. In stretching an inconvenient truth, he went at the task expansively, making sure his concoctions acquired a life of their own, daring contradiction from skeptics and savoring their hesitations. While his fabrication instincts preceded his film career, they proved an ideal preparation for it. Blackton the Sketch Artist, Blackton the Newspaperman, Blackton the Magician (what else?), even Blackton the Son, never found it hard to distract an audience with his left hand while his right hand worked at some under-the-table manipulation. The path he took, from his earlier careers to writing, producing, directing, and acting before a camera, accommodated without difficulty zigzagging opportunism and improvisation. The resulting controversy was its own reward. If his course surprised at all, it was for the relatively few times it led to a civil court and for the fact that he never ended up in a criminal court at all. This was no mean feat, considering that, among other things, he once threw somebody out a third-floor window.

The backdrop for Blackton’s antics had nothing in common with the gimcrack sets he applied his carpentry skills to in his earliest years as a film impresario. Only the sturdiest, most panoramic stages suited his long-range ambitions. In one form or another, encompassing a very literal meaning of the term, he considered himself a citizen of both the United States and England with an obligation to represent what he construed as their values. Most conspicuously, this entangled him in the Spanish- American War, the Boer War, and World War I — as the hostilities were taking place in reality, as he fantasized they were taking place, and as he decreed they should have been taking place. His zealotry involved him with both English aristocrats and their equivalent in America — the Roosevelts, Pratts, and Tiffanys. He liked to see himself as born to the purple while visiting British castles, and was always home when Admiral George Dewey knocked on his Long Island door. On both shores of the ocean he also liked being called Commodore, by family members as much as by others.

But none of his notable acquaintances were there to man the net when the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression forced him, his children, and the last of his serial wives to pry open soup cans for supper. As one writer put it, when Blackton was worst off, his career was “a curious zigzag from poverty to success to poverty again.”

The customary definition for a life such as Blackton’s is picaresque. It also offers enough recognizable way stations to suggest a prototype for the Hollywood powers that would follow him to far greater celebrity. But both the adventuresome and the precursory were retrospective judgments having little to do with the life as it was being lived. The living Blackton provided none of the comforts of historical or philosophical distance. He perspired a great deal. For somebody who accomplished so much, in fact, his 66 years were spent as much in pipe dreams and failures as in any tangible success. His relentless social climbing didn’t allow for savoring the journey more than the destination, either. No one craved diamond scarf pins, elaborately appointed yachts, and sprawling estates more than James Stuart Blackton, and nobody was more anxious to display them — until his creditors seized them and he sought to act indifferent to the loss. He always had the rubber bands he played with incessantly in his pockets.

As with other period emblems, like the nonfictional Teddy Roosevelt and the fictional Ragged Dick tales of Horatio Alger, the heart of Blackton’s morality was resilience. This played into minimal, if any, selfcriticism for his anti-Semitism, philandering, and alternating spasms of sanctimoniousness and alcoholism; indeed, by his lights even conceding a shortcoming would have been moot since character flaws, like everything else, had an expiration date. If tomorrow promised to be better than today, why squander time worrying about today? And Blackton didn’t, at times to a rococo extent. Inspired to make a feature surveying the history of the American movie industry (then about 30 years old), for instance, he undertook it exclusively with his own films for Vitagraph. Informed that many had disintegrated or were otherwise unavailable, he recreated key scenes by playing the original roles himself, trumpeting the footage as “authentic history.” When a money backer seized the picture because of unpaid loans and pulled it out of circulation, Blackton simply came up with another partner to help him make a second authentic history to rival the first authentic history.

History has gotten even. Although he was the first to put his name on everything from a major film studio to a fan magazine, though credited with being a pioneer in everything from animation to serials, though no one was more responsible for making movies a commercial enterprise as much as an artistic form and technical innovation, Blackton — the first to shout “Action!” and “Cut!” to actors and cameramen — has attained none of the notoriety to be expected from such accomplishments. And that may have been the Nimble-Fingered Blackton’s greatest trick of all.

Reprinted with permission from Buccaneer: James Stuart Blackton and the Birth of American Movies by Donald Dewey and published by Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.

  • Updated on Jul 26, 2021
  • Originally Published on Nov 10, 2016
Tagged with: film, movie
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