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Vitagraph Becomes the Leading American Producer

studio production films

By the end of the period covered in this volume, Vitagraph had emerged as the leading American producer with a repertoire of films conveying a dynamism that was closely associated with urban life. In THE 100 TO ONE SHOT; OR , A RUN OF LUCK (July 1906), a farmer facing foreclosure on his home goes to the city, where he pawns his remaining possessions and looks for last-minute salvation. Deciding to risk everything at the horse races, he plays a hot tip and wins. With some of his new wealth, he hires an automobile and races home to prevent the landlord from expelling his aged parents. The city provides new opportunities, just as it had for Blackton and Smith, who had found a hot tip in moving pictures, bet on their future, and won. In this film, the “evil” of gambling serves a positive function, violating the moralistic messages of conservative religious groups. In THE JAIL BIRD AND HOW HE FLEW (June 1906), an escaped prisoner outwits the prison wardens by assuming different disguises. Finally they catch an innocent bystander (a man in a white suit who sits down on a newly painted park bench) as the escapee waves at the departing guards. Once again, cleverness, luck, and the unexpected are valued more than conventional morality.

Vitagraph’s fast-paced, energetic style drew the attention of a Brooklyn Eagle reporter who visited the company’s offices in the summer of 1906 and wrote that the scenario writer (probably J. Stuart Blackton) “must have something happening every minute, allowing for no padding with word-painting, following climax with climax, and developing all kinds of intricate situations so that the interest of the onlookers will never sag from the picture on the canvas.” 25 THE AUTOMOBILE THIEVES (September 1906), in preparation at the time the article was published, is exemplary of this approach. During the course of the 985-foot, twenty-three-shot drama, the thieves—an attractive young couple—commit a string of holdups and robberies. They are indifferent to the fate of their victims, who are often beaten or shot. They manage to escape a police trap, largely because of the fearless intervention of the woman, but the ensuing chase ends in a shootout and the death of the couple. At the conclusion, the dying man staggers to his beloved, kisses her, and dies. (In fact, his actions throughout appear based on sexual obsession, and his periodic sense of guilt is assuaged by alcohol.) Romance, traditionally the domain of the hero and heroine (THE TRAIN WRECKERS , etc.), is shifted to those outside the law. The thieves become the protagonists and the police the antagonists in this explosive mix of sex and violence.

Vitagraph comedies contained important slapstick elements and often lampooned authority. OH ! THAT LIMBURGER: THE STORY OF A PIECE OF CHEESE (April 1906) is a bad-boy comedy in which mischievous youngsters hide some smelly cheese in their father’s suit pocket. Putting on his coat and going to work, the father alienates all acquaintances and receives various beatings in a series of linked vignettes. The jokesters are ultimately discovered and receive a thrashing in kind. In PLEASE HELP THE BLIND; OR , A GAME OF GRAFT (May 1906), a cop emulates undersocialized boys and a tramp by using a “Please Help the Blind” sign to beg from passersby. Soon this figure of authority must flee from a squad of fellow policemen seeking his arrest. He ultimately escapes by hanging the sign (and the responsibility) on an unsuspecting housepainter. In THE SNAPSHOT FIEND; OR , WILLIE’S NEW CAMERA (July 1906), the boy uses his new camera to take portraits. This activity serves as an excuse for a variety of facial-expression shots, including one of a preacher in the arms of an old maid.

Most scenes for these 1906 films were filmed outdoors in Brooklyn or Manhattan. The few interiors were shot on the open-air stage above Vitagraph’s New York office. The schematic sets were photographed in ways that generally reproduced the frontality and framing of theatrical space. In AUTOMOBILE THIEVES , the opening scene includes a fake-looking bookcase constructed of pasteboard, an actual writing table (which is reused in a later, unrelated scene), and a convincing safe. Police headquarters is an almost barren stage with handcuffs and nightsticks painted on the back wall running perpendicular to the camera. Spatial and temporal relations between shots are frequent though inconsistently handled, with overlaps in some instances and a strong linearity across cuts in others.

The company’s new Brooklyn studio, started in 1905, was designed to provide facilities for increased, more efficient filmmaking and to improve production values, thus silencing the criticism that was sometimes directed at the slapdash quality of Vitagraph releases. 26 Completed in November of the following year, the studio cost approximately twenty-five thousand dollars:

The building which is made of concrete blocks is supplied with a 100 horse-power engine which will operate dynamo to furnish electric light, heat and power for the machine shop and dark room. There will be a complete outfit of Cooper-Hewitt lights in the studio.

Special apparatus and stage have been made for taking novel pictures with special scenic effects. The entire roof and upper part of the building is covered with a specially designed prismatic glass. This construction of glass diffuses and intensifies the rays of light so that shadows are not perceptible ( Film Index, 25 August 1906, p. 6).

Vitagraph thus opened the first American studio of the nickelodeon era, beating Edison, Selig, and Lubin by almost a year. 27 As Jon Gartenberg has noted, the studio allowed for a big jump in production quality. The studio sets were so large that in a film like FOUL PLAY (December 1906), the camera panned across one room and (relying on an absent fourth wall) followed the characters into the next. In other scenes, the framing became closer and more intimate, reducing the sense of stagelike compositions. The combination of artificial and diffused natural light resulted in superior images and a heavier reliance on sets.

During late 1906 and early 1907 Vitagraph frequently produced accomplished dramas and comedies. FOUL PLAY , for example, is an effectively told tale of a bank clerk who steals money and frames a fellow employee for the crime. The victim’s wife subsequently tracks the clerk, drugs his drink, steals incriminating evidence, and soon has the real crook exposed and arrested. Justice triumphs though the victory is achieved by underhanded means. AND THE VILLAIN STILL PURSUED HER; OR , THE AUTHOR’S DREAM (November 1906) and ON THE STAGE; OR , MELODRAMA FROM THE BOWERY (April 1907) burlesque the conventions of melodramatic theater and cheap literature. In the first, an impoverished playwright works in a garret where the signatures of William Shakespeare and melodramatist Charles E. Blaney—presumably two of his role models—comically coexist on the back wall. He falls asleep and dreams of a story in which a dastardly villain pursues a beautiful young

woman. The dream ends with the author—who casts himself as the hero to the rescue—leaping from a cliff and crashing into his own bed. He then wakes up and begins to write. A MID-WINTER NIGHT’S DREAM; OR , LITTLE JOE’S LUCK (December 1906) was a Christmas story in which a street urchin falls asleep and dreams of being taken in by a wealthy family. Although his dream proves a mirage, he is befriended by a kind policeman who rescues him from the snowy cold.

Vitagraph became a pioneer in various animation techniques. HUMOROUS PHASES OF FUNNY FACES (April 1906) elaborated on earlier films of Blackton executing “lightning sketches” on an easel. Through the use of object-animation techniques and various stop-motion substitutions, Blackton extended the form while keeping many presentational elements intact from his days as a vaudeville performer. LIGHTNING SKETCHES (July 1907) further elaborated on many of these achievements: the execution of still more complicated animation techniques was aided by the new studio with its electric lights. Object animation using toy animals was introduced in A MID-WINTER NIGHT’S DREAM . Similar techniques were employed for other Vita-graph subjects during 1907, including THE HAUNTED HOTEL (February 1907) and possibly THE DISINTEGRATED CONVICT (September 1907). These films were closely related to trick subjects such as the immensely popular LIQUID ELECTRICITY; OR , THE INVENTOR’S GALVANIC FLUID (September 1907), where an old professor sprays people with galvanizing fluid and, through accelerated action ( i.e., undercranking the camera), unleashes hidden reservoirs of energy.

Although Vitagraph pictures were closely bound to American popular culture, they rarely focused or depended upon specific antecedents. Typically, the producers worked within a wide range of previously established genres, from the fire rescue (MAN WITH THE LADDER AND THE HOSE , February 1906) to the Western ("THE BAD MAN "—A TALE OF THE WEST , January 1907). More than Biograph and Edison, they managed to steer a middle course between very simple, minimal stories and those so complex that they were difficult to follow without special assistance. In fact, surviving Vitagraph films from 1906-1907 consistently avoided intertitles until FRANCESCA DIRIMINI; OR , THE TWO BROTHERS (September 1907), which used titles to clarify otherwise elusive narratives. Only thereafter does it seem to have become a regular practice.

These Vitagraph films incorporated a rich array of well-executed representational techniques. The filmmakers used a panning camera for both interior and exteriors. Cutting in to closer views or cutting back to establishing shots was quite common (particularly in A MID-WINTER NIGHT’S DREAM ). The company’s production increasingly adopted a linear time line. In THE BOY, THE BUST, AND THE BATH (August 1907), for example, there is a whole series of match-cuts as the characters move between the hallway and bathroom. Yet later conventions of screen direction involving exits and entrances are not employed between the opening two shots. Some scenes also rely on frontal compositions, and a presentational approach remains evident as the male characters communicate extensively with the camera/spectator. Nonetheless, the unsuspecting female housekeeper (played by Florence Lawrence) is unaware of the camera’s presence, a mixed convention that was continued in the comedies of the 1910s. Its genre (the omnipresent bad-boy genre) and many narrative elements (the infantile sexuality and voyeurism of the male boarders) are squarely within the parameters of early cinema, but the elaboration of a single prank over the course of the film points toward a later era.

Vitagraph subjects were so popular that the company found itself sixty days behind on print orders even though its developing rooms operated night and day. This strong demand was due not only to domestic consumption but to the company’s international activities. At first, Charles Urban sold Vitagraph films in Europe (just as Vitagraph sold Urban films in the United States). But by February 1907 the company had opened its own sales offices in London and Paris. The Vitagraph partners, all of European birth, paid particular attention to these markets and soon were the one American company with large foreign sales. By the end of March, Vitagraph was expanding its Flatbush facilities, adding a new and much larger building. 28 In May, the company began to release one new fiction film a week (often more when short [ ca, 250 feet] subjects were involved). By August the company was selling at least two new pictures each week, though most were half reels of approximately 500 feet.

Vitagraph’s methods of production underwent a profound reorganization during this period. Between October 1906 and early 1907, there were three production units, headed by cameramen J. Stuart Blackton, Albert E. Smith, and their senior and most trusted employee, James Bernard French (Vitagraph’s first-hired projectionist). Working with each was an “artist and general assistant” who was responsible for the “posing and arranging of scenes.” These included G. M. Anderson (until spring 1906), William Ranous, and George E. Stevens (between October 1906 and March 1907). Clearly it would be inaccurate to consider these stage directors/stage managers to be “film directors” in the somewhat later sense of the word. They worked collaboratively with the cameramen, who were, in two of the three cases, the producers and company owners. Each unit was largely autonomous, functioning independently under the protection of a key figure. At the same time, almost everyone had multiple responsibilities. French was also in charge of the production department, which hired operators. Stevens was occasionally responsible for camerawork on exterior scenes. Out-of-work operators often served as extras. 29 Lack of specialization and broad expertise thus characterized production at Vitagraph, the most successful American producer, into early 1907.

Things began to change when Albert Smith left for Europe to establish Vitagraph’s European branch offices at the beginning of 1907. With his departure, French assumed responsibility for managing the increasingly large studio, and Blackton remained as producer to oversee all three units, each headed by a director. While Blackton and even Smith remained actively involved in production, less experienced cameramen, among them perhaps operators who took local views for Vitagraph’s now-disbanded traveling exhibition units, were hired to work under these directors. 30 The cameramen, however, reported not only to the new directors but also to the producer and the studio manager. Nevertheless, a new hierarchical organization of production, fundamentally different from the previous horizontal one, was emerging.

The increasing level of production likewise encouraged Vitagraph to establish a stock company of actors, and by 1907, many leading players and stars of later films were working for the studio in some capacity. Leo Delaney appeared FOUL PLAY (1906) and THE WRONG FLAT (June 1907). William J. Shea, who later appeared with John Bunny in such comedies as DAVY JONES IN THE SOUTH SEAS (January 1910), had a role in AMATEUR NIGHT; OR , GET OUT THE HOOK (April 1907). Florence Turner teamed up with Florence Lawrence in ATHLETIC AMERICAN GIRLS (July 1907) and BARGAIN FIEND; OR , SHOPPING À LA MODE (July 1907). Elements of the studio system were beginning to emerge in the second half of 1907.

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