I have written briefly about J. Stuart Blackton in the past. The most I have ever written about him was in my 2017 article “The Pre-1900s History of Motion Pictures” in which I said he was inspired by Thomas Edison to enter the film industry and founded the production company Vitagraph. But there is a lot more to be said. Especially if you are an animation fan, because his contributions to that medium are among his most significant contributions to cinema, but not the only significant ones. Some historians have called him the father of animated cartoons but he also helped establish a lot of film techniques as cinema was still being shaped in the beginning of the 20th century.
The British-American film pioneer J. Stuart Blackton of the silent era was born in Sheffield in Yorkshire, England in 1875 and emigrated to the United States in 1885 where he became a reporter and a cartoonist for the New York Evening World.
After American inventor Thomas Edison demonstrated the Vitascope in 1895, which was one of the first film projectors (following his Kinetoscope which was an early film exhibition device in which you watched films through a peephole), the Evening World sent Blackton to interview Edison and illustrate drawings of how Edison’s Vitascope films were technically made. Edison liked the drawings so much that he even produced a one-minute film of Blackton drawing funny faces at Edison’s New Jersey studio called Blackton the Evening World Cartoonist, released in 1896.
Edison and Blackton’s collaboration led to Blackton buying a Kinetoscope from Edison, and Blackton went on to co-found American Vitagraph Company with Albert E. Smith in 1897 and produce a number of his own Kinetoscope films, including the 1898 short film The Burglar on the Roof (seen above), which was popular enough to make Blackton a millionaire.
With Blackton’s fortunes he was able to experiment with animation. He used stop motion to animate the 1898 short film The Humpty Dumpty Circus, although that one is impossible to watch because there are no known copies left in existence. His earliest surviving film to feature animated effects is The Enchanted Drawing (1900), which starred Blackton as an on-screen cartoonist and used photographic tricks to make his sketches come to life.
While French sci-fi film pioneer and special effects wizard Georges Méliès had accomplished similar feats earlier, Blackton was one of the earliest filmmakers to apply stop-frame animation to cartoon characters.
In 1906, Blackton made the first fully-animated American short film Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, which showed a human hand illustrating chalk-line drawings of human faces which began moving on their own. It also used stop motion to bring its characters to life.
He would capitalize on the success of these films by making the similar Lightning Sketches (1907) but he would also experiment with more ambitious stop-motion techniqies like in the 1907 short film The Haunted Hotel, starring Paul Panzer as a hotel customer who is in for a surprise when food starts moving on its own, ghosts start surrounding his bed and the house tilts left and right, all through the use of camera tricks like stop motion and superimposed images. This film was so popular in Europe and the United States that it has a reputation as the “first animated picture.”
In 1908, Blackton implemented further film tricks with The Thieving Hand, a short film about a one-armed beggar who gets a new arm, although the arm has a mind of its own and ends up getting him into even more trouble.
Blackton was also the first filmmaker to adapt pre-existing books and plays to the screen. Among the short films he directed are MacBeth, Romeo and Juliet, Oliver Twist, Les Misérables, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and A Tale of Two Cities.
Blackton spent about two decades making films for Vitagraph, although during that time he began focusing less on the production side and more on the business side of the company, even disregarding his animation later in life as a juvenile gimmick. In 1915, a year after World War I began, he started making patriotic films like The Battle Cry of Peace, a movie Teddy Roosevelt loved but was criticized as militaristic propaganda by others.
In 1917, Blackton left Vitagraph to go independent and he relocated to England to make a few costume dramas, which were less impressive than his earlier work. This work was less fulfilling so he eventually returned to America and Vitagraph in 1923, but only until 1925 when Albert E. Smith decided to sell Vitagraph to Warner Bros. for over $1 million.
Blackton retired with the money he got from Warner Bros. but the 1929 stock market crash made him bankrupt by 1931, which forced him back to work. He spent the Great Depression exhibiting his old shows and films and later lecturing about silent films. He eventually got a job experimenting with color for the traditionally B&W film producer Hal Roach, but in 1941 Blackton died being hit by a car while crossing the street in Hollywood. It was a tragic end to a pretty amazing career.