American Vitagraph was a United States movie studio, founded by J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith in 1897 in Brooklyn, New York. By 1907 it was the most prolific American film production company, producing many famous silent films. It was bought by Warner Bros. in 1925.
In 1896, English émigré Blackton was moonlighting as a reporter/artist for the New York Evening World when he was sent to interview Thomas Edison about his new film projector. The inventor talked the entrepreneurial reporter into buying a set of films and a projector. A year later, Blackton and business partner Smith founded the American Vitagraph Company in direct competition with Edison. A third partner, distributor William "Pop" Rock, joined in 1899. The company's first studio was located on the rooftop of a building on Nassau Street in Manhattan. Operations were later moved to the Flatbush (or more precisely Midwood) neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.
The company's first claim to fame came from newsreels: Vitagraph cameramen were on the scene to film events from the Spanish-American War of 1898. These shorts were among the first works of motion-picture propaganda, and a few had that most characteristic fault of propaganda, studio re-enactments being passed off as footage of actual events (The Battle of Santiago Bay was filmed in an improvised bathtub, with the "smoke of battle" provided by Mrs. Blackton's cigar). In 1897 Vitagraph produced the world's first animated film, The Humpty Dumpty Circus, which was also the first film to use the stop-motion technique.
Vitagraph was not the only company seeking to make money from Edison's motion picture inventions, and Edison's lawyers were very busy in the 1890s and 1900s filing patents and suing competitors for patent infringement. Blackton did his best to avoid lawsuits by buying a special license from Edison in 1907 and by agreeing to sell many of his most popular films to Edison for distribution.
The American Vitagraph Company made many contributions to the history of movie-making. In 1903 the director Joseph Delmont started his career by producing westerns; he later became famous by using "wild carnivores" in his movies — a sensation for that time.
In 1909 it was one of the original ten production companies included in Edison's attempt to corner movie-making, the Motion Picture Patents Company. Major stars included Florence Turner (the "Vitagraph Girl", one of the world's first movie stars), Maurice Costello (the first of the matinee idols), Harry T. Morey, Jean (the "Vitagraph Dog" and the first animal star of the Silent Era) and such future stars as Helen Hayes, Viola Dana, Dolores Costello, Norma Talmadge, Constance Talmadge, and Moe Howard. Larry Trimble was a noted director of films for Turner and Jean (he was also the dog's owner).
The first "Les Miserables" film adaptation, a short silent historical drama starring Maurice Costello as Jean Valjean and William V. Ranous as Javert, is distributed by the Vitagraph Company of America. The film consists of four reels, each released over the course of three months beginning on 4 September to 27 November 1909.
John Bunny made films for Vitagraph in the 1910s most of them co-starring Flora Finch, and was the most popular film comedian in the world in the years before Chaplin; his death in 1915 was observed worldwide. In 1910 a number of movie houses showed the five parts of the Vitagraph serial The Life of Moses consecutively (a total length of almost 90 minutes), making it one of many to claim the title of "the first feature film." A long series of Shakespeare adaptations were the first done of the Bard's works in the U.S.
The 1915 feature The Battle Cry of Peace (written and directed by Blackton) was one of the great propaganda films of World War I. Ironically, after America declared war, the film was modified for re-release because it was seen as not being sufficiently pro-war, thus it also earns a place in the history of censorship.
World War I spelled the beginning of the end for Vitagraph. With the loss of foreign distributors and the rise of the monopolistic Studio system, Vitagraph was slowly but surely squeezed out of the business. On January 28, 1925, it left the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (later MPAA); the owner, Albert E. Smith, explained:
"Vitagraph withdraws because it does not believe that justice to the distributors and to the public and to those independent producers who are not theater owning exhibitors, can be obtained through the labors of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America."
On April 22, 1925, Smith finally gave up and sold the company to Warner Bros. for a comfortable profit. The Flatbush studio (renamed Vitaphone) was later used as an independent unit within Warner Bros, specializing in early sound shorts. Among those performers who made early film appearances in Vitaphone shorts filmed at the Flatbush studios include Al Jolson, Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart, Bob Hope, Spencer Tracy, Jack Benny, Sammy Davis Jr., Sylvia Sidney, Pat O'Brien, Ruth Etting, Mischa Elman, Frances Langford, Betty Hutton, Burns and Allen, Giovanni Martinelli, Xavier Cugat, Bill Robinson, Lillian Roth, Joan Blondell, Ethel Merman, Abbe Lane, Eleanor Powell, Helen Morgan, The Nicholas Brothers, Milton Berle, Harriet Nelson, Brian Donlevy, Jane Froman, Jack Haley, Phil Silvers, Judy Canova, Nina Mae McKinney, Marjorie Main, Rose Marie, Joe Penner, Ethel Waters, June Allyson, Shemp Howard, Lanny Ross, Lionel Stander, Edgar Bergen, and Cyd Charisse among others.
The Vitagraph name was briefly resurrected from 1960 to 1969 at the end of Warner Bros.' Looney Tunes cartoons (starting with 1960's Hopalong Casualty), with the end titles reading "A Warner Bros. Cartoon / A Vitagraph Release". Merrie Melodies of the same period (starting with that same year's From Hare to Heir) had the same end title, with the last line being "A Vitaphone Release." (From August 1968 to the end of the original series in 1969, Merrie Melodies had the last line reading "A Vitagraph Release" while Looney Tunes of that same one-year period read "A Vitaphone Release.") This may have been done to protect the studio's ownership of the two largely defunct trade names.
Vitagraph's first office was in Lower Manhattan, on the corner of Nassau St. and Beekman St., where they shot their first film, The Burglar On the Roof, in 1897. They subsequently opened the first modern film studio in the U.S., built in 1906, at the corner of East 14th St. and Locust Ave. (near Avenue M) in the Midwood secion of Brooklyn. They created a second film studio in Santa Monica, California, in 1911, and a year later moved to a 29-acre sheep ranch on Prospect St. in Hollywood.
- Adventures of Sherlock Holmes; or, Held for Ransom (1905)
- San Francisco Earthquake and Fire (1906) (several short films)
- A Curious Dream (1907) (possibly the earliest adaptation of one of Mark Twain's works)
- Princess Nicotine; or, The Smoke Fairy (1909)
- Uncle Tom's Cabin (1910)
- The Life of Moses (1910)
- Vanity Fair (1911)
- Her Crowning Glory (1911)
- The Battle Cry of Peace (1915)
- The Juggernaut (1915)
In popular culture
The Big Bad Voodoo Daddy "Mr. Pinstripe" music video is about the making of a Vitagraph film.
- Eilseen Bowser, The Transformation of Cinema 1907–1915, University of California Press, 1990, p. 23. ISBN 0-520-08534-5.
- "First animated film". Guinness World Records. Retrieved 5 January 2013.
- Florence Turner and Florence Lawrence were tied for being the first big movie stars. Eilseen Bowser, The Transformation of Cinema 1907–1915, University of California Press, 1990, p. 113–114. ISBN 0-520-08534-5.
- Joplin Globe, p.7, January 30, 1925
- New York: the movie lover's guide : the ultimate insider tour of movie New York By Richard Alleman
- Hollywood on the Hudson: film and television in New York from Griffith to, By Richard Koszarski
- The Story of Hollywood: An Illustrated History, By Gregory Paul Williams, pg 63
- Youtube video of Vitagraph Film Company Brooklyn Today and a bit of the last film made there
- Article on Vitagraph by Tim Lussier for Silents are Golden
- "Where the Dream Was Made", an article on Vitagraph and the Flatbush studio by Irvin Leigh Matus
- Vitagraph Studio in Brooklyn
- "Smokestack of dreams," surviving remnant of Vitagraph at ForgottenNewYork.com
- Silent Film Studios of New York