J. Stuart Blackton Films Ranked
Note: “The Ranks of the Auteurs” is a written series that traces notable people, studios, and series throughout film history and ranks their work. This is the ninth installment, featuring J. Stuart Blackton, who was born on January 5, 1875 in Sheffield, England and died on August 13, 1941 in Los Angeles, California.
I think J. Stuart Blackton, an Anglo-American film pioneer, doesn’t get enough credit as the foremost director/producer of American films that emerged immediately on the heels of Thomas Edison (preceding that great American journeyman Edwin S. Porter). Immigrating to America from England at age 10, Blackton went on to become a reporter and magician alongside his creative/business partner Albert E. Smith. Blackton was sent by the New York Evening World to cover Edison’s new moving pictures in 1896, and Blackton fell for the new invention. Edison convinced Blackton and Smith to buy films and Vitascope to exhibit them, and in 1897, the pair formed the American Vitagraph Company to make their own movies.
Edison swiftly took to legal suits against Vitagraph, and other “imitators” springing up in the late 1890s. Vitagraph escaped oblivion by obtaining a special license from Edison and agreeing to sell films to Edison for distribution (for as long as that was necessary, until Edison’s patent for movies was no longer upheld). Vitagraph ended up being one of the foremost American film studios throughout the early years of film. Its peak was during the first half of the 1910s, until World War I disrupted its operations. Vitagraph was sold and absorbed into Warner Bros. in 1925, where the brand was used as a sort of imprint for certain films.
Before the end of Vitagraph, however, and indeed at its beginning, Blackton made his mark with early animated experiments, which he eventually came to find as inconsequential. There’s a sort of echo of the Lumière brothers’ belief that movies in general were a fad. But Blackton transitioned from groundbreaking animation to adaptations of classic literature that served to transition the film industry from the trick films of the 1900s to a more “mature” era of dramatic shorts that served as an in-between for the development of feature films in the middle of the 1910s. Blackton left Vitagraph in 1917, making movies independently, but returned in 1923 until, as mentioned, Vitagraph was sold to Warner Bros. He was financially ruined by the Stock Market Crash of 1929, and made his last film in 1934. He toured and lectured about his old movies and silent cinema until he died from being hit by a car in 1941.
Blackton’s career is defined by a versatile and creative approach to genres and techniques now considered embedded into the film industry; things like animation and dramatic adaptations. Like Vitagraph itself, his most impressive films came during the peak of the early 1910s, but the swath of his career illustrates greater longevity than his peers that were making films as early as 1898. Without further ado, here are his 17 most accessible films, from a filmography of 188, ranked.
#17/16 — TEARING DOWN THE SPANISH FLAG/RAISING OLD GLORY OVER MORRO CASTLE (1898/1899)
I haven’t really been able to tell if this reenactment of an event from the Spanish-American War, which happened to give Vitagraph its huge start due to its propagandistic newsreels, is actually two films. Regardless, it’s a super simple shot of flag being taken down/raised. Interesting historical relic as a part of the Spanish-American war coverage that defined the “journalistic” possibilities of film.
#15 — LITTLE MISCHIEF (1898)
This super simple comedy short features a little kid messing with an adult (father?) and pulling him down on his chair. Not super amusing, even by 1898 standards.
#14 — THE MYSTERIOUS CAFE, OR MR. AND MRS. SPOOPENDYKE HAVE TROUBLES WITH A WAITER (1901)
Co-directed with Albert E. Smith, MYSTERIOUS CAFE messes with some substitution splices that frustrate some people attempting to dine. Another simple comedy short that at least shows a further display of technique by way of Georges Méliès.
#13— ASTOR BATTERY ON PARADE (1899)
Also co-directed with Albert E. Smith, this actuality just shows some soldiers walking past the camera. But its display of reality holds some historical value.
#12 — THE BURGLAR ON THE ROOF (1898)
Blackton’s debut, filmed on a real roof (!), features the titular criminal getting caught and beaten up by some women with brooms. It’s some amusingly vicious slapstick.
#11 — THE CLOWN AND THE ALCHEMIST (1900)
I’m always a sucker for clown humor. The titular funnyman messes with an alchemist with some teleporting provided by substitution splices. (Co-directed by Albert E. Smith).
#10 — THE CONGRESS OF NATIONS (1900)
Another Smith collab, THE CONGRESS OF NATIONS is a magic act facilitated by substitution splices (someone was obviously fired up by Méliès) and based in some political/world history aesthetic.
#9 — THE ENCHANTED DRAWING (1900)
Blackton’s first groundbreaking animation experiment is presented in the style animated films would adhere to, for the most part, until the introduction of Felix the Cat. That is to say, the animation is always presented within the universe of the film as a sort of wizardry on the part of the artist, not as a stylized world of its own. But this “animation” should come with a qualifier: THE ENCHANTED DRAWING is really just another display of the substitution splice, which could be considered an early form of stop motion. So instead of traditionally animating a series of drawings, Blackton pauses filming then reintroduces the edited drawing to emulate movement; for example, changing a frown to a smile. It’s super simple, but promising for the future of animation.
#8 — THE THIEVING HAND (1908)
This more elaborate trick and comedy film (it should be elaborate, it’s been like ten years since I wrote about others of its ilk on this list) features a fun “disembodied” hand that causes all kinds of consternation. It’s just a dude reaching out his hand through/behind a surface, but it’s a simple trick that works. The sets have some impressive depth as well.
#7 — LADY GODIVA (1911)
This literary adaptation features some fun costumes and sets, and some less than fun early silent era dramatic performances. But it’s a great display of the evolving nature of the film industry and Blackton’s own jump start of the brief dramatic short trend of the late 1900s and early 1910s.
#6 — LIGHTNING SKETCHES (1907)
Some preceding racial caricatures and stop motion reminiscent of Segundo de Chomón (Blackton became a Chomón stan after his Méliès infatuation) don’t necessarily tarnish the final sequence of brief, smooth animation of a bottle pouring its own contents in a glass. LIGHTNING SKETCHES looks like much more of a traditional animated film, albeit presented in the genre’s style of the time.
#5 — THE HAUNTED HOTEL (1907)
This de Chomón “emulation” (copy?) would be more obviously an “adaptation” of the Spanish filmmaker’s THE HAUNTED HOUSE (1908), the more well-known film, except I don’t actually know what came first. I marked THE HAUNTED HOUSE for 1908, but it’s also commonly cited as a film from 1907. Either way, both films are super similar, but THE HAUNTED HOTEL isn’t less entertaining for it. The “spooky” theme, and the brilliant establishing shot of the haunted abode, are right up my alley. Add in a dude with bizarro makeup and animated glassware and you get the same ingredients that made me love THE HAUNTED HOUSE.
#4— HUMOROUS PHASES OF FUNNY FACES (1906)
The most elaborate of Blackton’s stop motion/animation experiments, HUMOROUS PHASES OF FUNNY FACES is, yeah, humorous. This amusing little short carries a lot of weight as such an early animated film with some goofy Victorian era cartooning design.
#3 — PRINCESS NICOTINE; OR, THE SMOKE FAIRY (1909)
Perhaps Blackton’s most bizarre film, this little trick film melds some early product placement with trick film high jinks in which a little sprite messes with a smoker. The enlarged paraphernalia create a great sense of scale, making the little fairies look truly small against the cuts to and from the “normal” shots.
#2 — A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (1909)
This Shakespeare adaptation was co-directed by theater veteran Charles Kent, and together, he and Blackton actually made a compelling short film based on A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. I love the doofy Nick Bottom donkey head costume, and there are some great effects involving Puck’s travel through the air, over a superimposed globe. The filming locations in the woods provide a lot of great depth that preceded the trend to move outside of the stage bound sets of film’s earliest years.
#1 — LITTLE NEMO (1911)
This movie might be a little bit of a stretch as the greatest film in the Blackton filmography. Famed and influential cartoonist/animator Winsor McCay’s film debut, as co-director and animator, had a whole live action segment that came before his brief, yet imaginative and beautiful, display of artistry. I imagine Blackton had his hand in the live action and supervising McCay’s animation, so he had his hand in the part of LITTLE NEMO that isn’t really the reason to watch it. Nevertheless, his co-director credit implies a certain sense of control over the movie’s production, and as perhaps the first truly great animated short, LITTLE NEMO deserves credit as a part of Blackton’s legacy.