Vitagraph: America’s First Great Motion Picture Studio
Film Historian is a term that can find itself in the middle of many hot debates. Those who have studied in college classes (for anywhere between 2-4 years) for the dubious distinction of being a “film historian” and those of us who have studied outside of a college setting (over the course… excuse the pun… of a lifetime) because we believe ourselves to already be “film historians” sometimes disagree over who can and who can’t claim the term.
I sometimes wish I had earned a degree to prove to others that I am a film historian, but then I wonder…. would I be a better cook if I had been to cooking school? No. (sorry, I’m full-on cocky about my cooking!).
Like all film historians – those with the college degree to prove it and those without – I arm myself with as many books as possible to feed my addiction. Biographies, autobiographies, memoirs… trivia books… if it has to do with old Hollywood, classic radio and classic television, it’s on the bookshelves, frequently consulted and forever treasured.
The book pictured here, Vitagraph: America’s First Great Motion Picture Studio by Andrew A. Erish is the latest to join my collection and quickly became a favorite. This fascinating and eye-opening book feels like a textbook (if only my Psychology textbooks had been half as fascinating!) – one that would be used when studying film history.
Yes, inside OR outside of college.
When I took photos of it to use for this review, I even created a new folder for it titled “Film History.” First time I’ve ever done that, which should tell you how informative and deliciously interesting this book is.
But, wait, there’s more.
I just created a whole new category (and Vitagraph is the first entry) called Film History because this book has renewed the desire within me to learn all I can about the fascinating subject.
Vitagraph is from the University Press of Kentucky and was sent to me to read in exchange for telling you about it. My review and opinion were, of course, left entirely up to me. I’m guessing they really had no idea just how much I would love this book.
The Vitagraph Review
When writing book reviews for Hollywood Yesterday (or my other blogs, for that matter), I’m always left with a quandary – describing how much I enjoyed reading the book without spoiling it for future readers. It’s the same with movie reviews, too, if we’re being honest, which is why my movie reviews and book reviews sometimes tend to be shorter than some – I figure, the less I say, the less apt I am to give anything away that I want others to discover for themselves AND the less I hold them here, the quicker they can get there to order the book or watch the movie!
From the Back Cover:
In Vitagraph, Andrew A. Erish provides the first comprehensive examination and reassessment of the company most responsible for defining and popularizing the American movie. This history challenges long-accepted Hollywood mythology that simply isn’t true: that Paramount and Fox invented the feature film, that Universal created the star system, and that these companies, along with MGM and Warner Bros., developed motion pictures into a multi-million-dollar business. In fact, the truth about Vitagraph is far more interesting than the myths that later moguls propagated about themselves.
Established in 1897 by J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith, Vitagraph was the leading producer of motion pictures for much of the silent era. Vitagraph established America’s studio system, a division of labor utilizing specialized craftspeople and artists, including a surprising number of women and minorities, whose aesthetic innovations have long been incorporated into virtually all commercial cinema. They developed fundamental aspects of the form and content of American movies, encompassing everything from framing, lighting, and performance style to emphasizing character-driven comedy and drama in stories that respected and sometimes poked fun at every demographic of Vitagraph’s vast audience. The company overcame resistance to multi-reel motion pictures by establishing a national distribution network for its feature films. Vitagraph’s international distribution was even more successful, cultivating a worldwide preference for American movies that endures to the present. For most of its existence America’s most influential studio was headquartered in Brooklyn, New York before relocating to Hollywood.
Finally, here is a historically rigorous and thorough account of the most influential producer of American motion pictures during the silent era. Drawing on valuable primary material long overlooked by other historians, Erish introduces readers to the fascinating, forgotten pioneers of Vitagraph.
Allow me to say, somewhat red-faced, that I had no idea how vital Blackton and Smith’s contributions were. When my daughters were small, we’d build elaborate homes for their Barbies. We’d use the largest, sturdiest building pieces for the foundation. Without saying it, we knew that was the most vital part of the entire creation. Certainly the foundation wasn’t the flashiest component, but everything else rested upon it and would come crashing down without it.
As I reached the end of reading Vitagraph (or as I nearly finished the film history course!), these Barbie mega houses came to mind. Blackton and Smith were the foundation upon which so very much (yes, flashier and more eye-catching) was built upon.
Mixed in with the excitement of meeting new faces and acquiring so much wonderful knowledge was a hint of melancholy. These names (Albert E. Smith and James Stuart Blackton) should be as remembered and honored today as other film greats. It’s my sincere hope that Andrew A. Erish’s wonderful, wonderful book helps make this happen.
What I Love Most About Vitagraph:
- I am, for better or worse, a VERY visual person, even when it comes to books. I appreciate efforts put into books to make them attractive and Vitagraph is a knock-out. Not only is the cover (from the image to the eye-catching fonts used) positively handsome, the nostalgic, wonderful photos throughout the book are a joy. I look at them over and over.
- For posts on Hollywood Yesterday, I often dive into research of a particular individual or film. It can be very time-consuming, especially if the individual has not had a great deal written about them. I can only imagine the time and effort that went into researching this particular subject and these bold, BRAVE, world-changing individuals (more about them in a minute!). The research, alone, boggles the mind. Author Andrew A. Erish’s respect for the people he has written about (and subsequently brought back to life for us to meet) is palpable. When you come across an author who has dedicated so much of their life to shine light on the life of others, it’s a beautiful thing. If we’re being honest, it’s something that never fails to make this book lover remember why she fell in love with books in the first place. Blackton and Smith would be so incredibly honored and happy with this book.
- This book is as bold as its subject. It doesn’t hesitate to let you know what is the truth, what’s close to the truth, and what couldn’t be further from the truth if Albert Pujols or Barry Bonds had taken a whack at it with a bat!
- There is no other book like this in existence. Erish has taken a subject that was buried deep in history and excavated it. Film history is better and richer for his efforts.
- About halfway through the book, I started fantasizing about a movie or documentary being made based on this book. I try not to allow myself to do that, as I am very much a “live in the moment with your eyes wide open” person, but every now and then I can’t help myself.
- As I often say in my Old Hollywood book reviews, I get a HUGE kick out of coming across names that are as familiar to me as my own when reading a book. Bumping into familiar faces on the pages of a book brings me the same type of joy as one feels when they bump into a friend in the store. A few encounters in Vitagraph: Buster Keaton, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Mary Pickford, Jean Paige, Theodore Roosevelt, Charlie Chaplin, and many others (I want to leave the reader a few surprises they’ll get a kick out of).
- Finally, what I love most about Vitagraph is simple: Albert E. Smith and James Stuart Blackton. Neither man was born anywhere near Hollywood. The fact that two English-born Americans contributed so greatly to Hollywood and American entertainment fascinates me. Imagine stepping foot in another country and, within a comparatively short amount of time, reaching far into its future and influencing it so much. Can you imagine the self confidence, boldness, and fearlessness? So far from your home in what must have seemed like a whole new world.
I always tell people that you can never, ever underestimate the power of films and entertainment. They influence so much in and around us – fashion, expressions, hairstyles, cars, ideologies… make no mistake about it, nothing stays solely “in the movie” or “on the tv.” It reaches out and touches us all.
It’s high time the fingerprints of Albert E. Smith and James Stuart Blackton get the credit they deserve and I very much hope you’ll add Vitagraph to your personal library. Andrew A. Erish has written a masterpiece.