Old Hollywood's Forgotten Filmmaker

Take a closer look at James Stuart Blackton, a revolutionary filmmaker in old Hollywood who has received little credit.


| November 2016



Film

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.

Photo by Fotolia/rommma

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.

To find more books that pique our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.

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.