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Blackton, James Stuartfree

(1875–1941)
  • Ian Christie

James Stuart Blackton (1875–1941)

by unknown photographer, 1921 [right, with his colour-camera operator, working on The Glorious Adventure]

Blackton, James Stuart (1875–1941), film pioneer, was born on 5 January 1875 at 121 Broom Spring Lane, Ecclesall Bierlow, Sheffield, the son of Henry Blackton, saw manufacturer, and his wife, Jessie Stuart. The family emigrated in 1885 to America, where after his father's death in 1888 young Jim became its sole supporter as an apprentice carpenter in the Bronx. His artistic ambition first surfaced in an amateur variety act, formed with two other English immigrants, in which he executed rapid sketches and oil paintings. This led to a job with the New York World, interviewing and sketching celebrities, then to a commission from Thomas Edison in 1896 to appear as a cartoonist in three short films. Together with one of his stage partners, Albert E. Smith, Blackton acquired an Edison projector which they converted into a camera, and used to produce films from 1897, under the title Vitagraph.

Blackton took the lead in one of their first successes, The Burglar on the Roof, shot on an improvised set in downtown New York, and caught the public mood during the war with Spain in a topical allegory, Tearing Down the Spanish Flag, using a miniature. In 1903 he supervised the building of America's best-equipped studio, at Flatbush, New Jersey, which enabled the company to make increasingly lavish films and become the leading producer during the nickelodeon boom that started in 1905. He also returned to graphic and trick work with a series of films that laid the foundations for much subsequent animation and special effects, including Humorous Phases of Funny Faces and a virtuoso display of single-frame magic in The Haunted Hotel.

Showing a remarkable ability to anticipate new trends, Blackton launched a realist drama series, Scenes of True Life, in 1908. And as cinema owners sought to attract more sophisticated audiences, he produced one of the first biblical spectacles, The Life of Moses (1909), followed by a series of Shakespearian and other classic adaptations. Seeing how different aspects of the business supported each other, Blackton and Smith launched a fan magazine in 1911 and an exclusive Vitagraph cinema on Broadway in 1914, by which time Blackton had become a millionaire, enjoying an affluent Long Island existence, with a succession of yachts and Theodore Roosevelt as his neighbour. Encouraged by Roosevelt, in 1915 he produced a sensational propaganda film, The Battle-Cry of Peace, which urged American armament in the face of the war raging in Europe.

As America entered the war, Blackton resigned from Vitagraph and worked briefly for Adolph Zukor's Famous Players, before returning to his native country in 1920 to inject American ‘know-how’ into the stagnant British post-war cinema. Using the newly developed Prizma colour process, he produced two historical romances, The Glorious Adventure (1921) and The Gypsy Cavalier (1924): the former starred Lady Diana Manners and was set during the fire of London and the latter featured the French boxing champion Georges Charpentier. When a third period romance, with Lady Diana as The Virgin Queen, failed to achieve major success, Blackton returned to Flatbush for the last years of the Vitagraph company. After its sale to Warner Brothers in 1926, he turned to a series of quixotic ventures, including an experimental 3-D film, and in 1930, after losing much of his fortune, an eccentric history of cinema, The Film Parade, which he continued to show until his death.

Blackton was married four times. His first marriage, in 1898, was to Isabelle Mabel MacArthur, with whom he had a son and a daughter. The couple divorced in 1906, and in the following year he married an actress in Vitagraph films. This was Paula Hilburn (d. 1930), known professionally as Paula Dean, with whom he had two more children. A third marriage, in 1931, was to Helen Stahle, who died at some point in or before 1936. In that year Blackton married another actress, Evangeline Russell (d. 1966), who survived him. In his last years, living happily in North Hollywood with his fourth wife, Blackton was supported by the New Deal Works Program Administration and was exploiting a newly invented colour effects process at the time of his death. This was caused by a road accident, in Hollywood, on 13 August 1941. The figure that emerges from his daughter's biography, published in 1985, is a breezy, optimistic, and endlessly inventive, if also gullible, character who embodied much of the brashness and energy of the early years of cinema, as well as the cultural ambition that drove it.

Sources

  • M. Blackton Trimble, J. Stuart Blackton: a personal biography by his daughter (1985)
  • A. E. Smith and P. A. Koury, Two reels and a crank (1952)
  • D. Gifferd, Who's who of Victorian cinema (1986)
  • C. Musser, ‘The American Vitagraph, 1897–1901: survival and success in a competitive industry’, Film before Griffith, ed. J. L. Fell (1983), 22–66
  • D. Gomery, ‘Blackton, James Stuart’, ANB
  • A. Slide, The big V (1987)
  • C. Musser, The emergence of cinema (1990)
  • b. cert.

Archives

Film

  • BFINA, home footage

Likenesses

J. A. Garraty & M. C. Carnes, eds., , 24 vols. (1999)