Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: J. Stuart Blackton

Lightning Sketches (1907)

This very short film from Vitagraph beats Windsor McCay to the punch by several years in his claim to be the “first animator” – though it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that there were even earlier examples. It serves as an example of developing film techniques in America as the Nickelodeon Era was beginning.

The screen shows a large pad of artist’s paper, hung up on a wall before the camera. J. Stuart Blackton appears on the left side and writes the word “coon,” then rapidly transforms the letters into a caricature of a black man. All of the action is undercranked, to make Blackton’s movements appear rapid when played at normal speed. He now writes the word “Cohen” on the paper next to the first cartoon, and transforms these letters into a caricature of a Jewish man. The paper is rolled up and removed in animation, but we do not see the hands of the person doing it. Next, a bald man comes out and takes a seat before the paper, and Blackton sketches him, giving him a cigar at the end and then adding it to the caricature. A few animated puffs of smoke are visible coming out of the drawn cigar. This paper is also rolled up and removed in animation. Now, Blackton sketches a glass, a bottle labeled “Medoc” and a spritzer bottle, then he departs the screen and the bottle is animated to pour into the glass, followed by a spritz of soda, which causes the glass to overflow. This paper is torn apart in animation and the film ends.

Although there’s only a few seconds worth of animation between the papers getting rolled up and the pouring of the bottle, this was probably a pretty exciting film for an audience of 1907. Even the speeded-up action qualifies as an “effect” and seems to have been done to emphasize Blackton’s ability to work quickly, without mistakes. The unfortunate racial stereotyping at the beginning was probably meant to be humorous and not offensive, though it hasn’t aged well. It was interesting how he integrated the letters into images of people’s faces, it was just an unfortunate choice of words to use to demonstrate this. Blackton barely looks at the bald man as he sketches him – the point of having him “sit” for the picture seems to be so that the audience can see how accurate Blackton’s portrayal is. The final animation of the wine and the spritzer bottle is the climax, and by modern standards it wouldn’t amount to much, but it may have fascinated audiences to see a moving drawing at the time.

Director: J. Stuart Blackton

Camera: Unknown

Starring: J. Stuart Blackton

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

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The Cavalier’s Dream (1898)

I’m jumping back a bit in my “history of horror” this October because I just found this early Vitagraph short that is clearly an attempt to imitate Georges Méliès, even though it’s still very early in his career as well. It’s not a terribly frightening film, but it is an example of an American movie showing the supernatural.

The “cavalier” of the film is a man with a long ponytail dressed in knee breeches and a frilly shirt. The movie begins with him bent over a table in a large room or hall. A figure in a hooded cowl approaches his sleeping form. She wakes him up by poking him and when he gets up, the table is suddenly filled with food and the witch has disappeared. When he sits to eat, the figure of the Devil appears and confronts him, and the witch reappears in the seat across from him. He approaches her and she turns into a woman in ordinary dress. He goes to embrace this new figure and suddenly she turns into an old crone. He turns to leave and suddenly two witches and the Devil appear in front of him. He tries to go the other way and a new witch and the Devil appear at that side. Now the Devil climbs atop the table and he is flanked on all sides by the hooded figures. He collapses into the chair and they dance in a circle around him. Then the Devil gestures and all of the apparitions disappear. The cavalier awakes to find himself alone.

The original Edison catalog emphasizes the “startling and instantaneous” transformation effects achieved through stop trick photography. This had been pioneered by Méliès in just the previous years, although Edison used it for a “horrific” effect in “The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots” even earlier. Like many of these early films, one expects that the intention wasn’t so much to frighten to audience as to fascinate them, but this film does seem to have a somewhat darker atmosphere than Méliès movies of the same period. The Devil isn’t “funny” per se, nor do the dancing figures appear to be having fun so much as acting to threaten. Perhaps the American attitude towards horror was already a bit more serious than the French, even at this early date.

Director: Unknown, sometimes attributed to Edwin S. Porter (though Charles Musser says not possible).

Camera: Unknown, possibly J. Stuart Blackton or Albert E. Smith

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 46 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Firemen Rescuing Men and Women (1899)

This short from Edison contains action and suspense, and even the beginnings of a plot as the bravery and selflessness of rescue teams is put at the forefront. While the melodramatic adulation of fire fighters may seem quaintly nineteenth century to us today, it is worth remembering that 9/11 raised similar emotions in audiences quite recently.

firemen-rescuing-men-and-womenWe see the front of a building, with four windows visible and ladders propped against it. Smoke billows from all of the window, and two teams of firemen work from the highest ones, helping people in civilian clothing out the windows and onto the ladders, where they descend below the frame line. At one point, a fire fighter tosses a doll out the window to one of his fellows on the ladder. He then tosses it casually to the ground. After two men and a woman have been rescued, the fire fighters themselves go in and out of the windows, seemingly uncertain, for a few seconds.

The original catalog entry by Edison emphasizes “the efficiency of modern life-saving methods and apparatus now in use by the fire departments.” All it looks like is a few men on ladders, but presumably this emphasis on modern efficiency would have carried over to the live narration an exhibitor would have used to accompany this film. I assume that this was a staged event or a training exercise, and not a real fire, although it might have been presented to audiences as authentic, and there’s nothing that actually proves it fake. The doll being tossed from the window is the one odd bit, and I wonder if it was intended to help simulate a child-rescue, but the performers didn’t understand this and just tossed it quickly aside to get to the “real” rescuing.

Director:  J. Stuart Blackton

Camera: Albert E. Smith

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Burglar on the Roof (1898)

An early narrative short from Edison Studios, this film seems to have comedic intentions. While it’s too short to give a developed plot or characters, it shows that expectations of some kind of story were beginning to develop quite early in cinema.

burglar-on-the-roofWe see a man hunched over a skylight, removing coats and other objects. Two women walk up from behind him and one begins swatting his bottom with a broom. He falls to his knees, and then some men rush up and engage him in fisticuffs. At first, he acquits himself well, but his opponents overwhelm him and the woman continues hitting him with the broom while he is held in place.

I’d call this movie an early example of slapstick, since it relies on simulated violence for its humor, although it is not reliant on difficult or dangerous stuntwork to make this point. The audience presumably is meant to get pleasure from seeing the burglar get his comeuppance and there is a “vulgar” element in that he is hit on his behind by a woman at first – hardly noticeable today, but far from “proper” in the nineteenth century. It’s worth noting that Alice Guy was also making movies about burglars on rooftops the same year, although I  don’t know for certain which came first.

Director: J. Stuart Blackton

Camera: Albert E. Smith

Starring: J. Stuart Blackton

Run Time: 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here (no music).

Princess Nicotine (1909)

This fascinating short from Vitagraph shows a very innovative approach to trick photography and allows more direct interaction between actors than double exposure would have. Director J. Stuart Blackton brings a fantasy to life that has elements of Guy and Méliès, while also displaying a distinctly American style.

Nicotine PrincessA man is in a room, preparing to smoke his pipe. Suddenly, he drowses off and falls asleep. While he is asleep two tiny figures appear among his smoking accoutrements – one a small child and the other, a grown woman, both in fairy costumes. They appear to be only a few inches tall. There is an edit, and we see them at closer range, moving among the oversized implements. The woman gets into the cigar box, and the child hides in the pipe, putting tobacco over herself in the process. The man wakes up and starts smoking his pipe, but he notices something strange. He shakes it out and the child tumbles out happily (apparently unconcerned that she was almost burnt up!). She and the woman dance on the table for a bit, and the man smokes and tries to trap them in the cigar box. When he looks inside, all he finds is a flower, but when he removes it, the child is there smoking a cigarette. Then, he gets up and leaves. Now, there is an animated sequence which shows the matches arranging themselves and then a cigar rolls itself out of leaves and tobacco. The man walks into what looks like a different room and finds the cigar, lighting it and also breaking a bottle that holds one of the fairies. He begins smoking and blows the smoke at the fairy, which seems to annoy her. She builds a bonfire out of the remaining matches, and he extinguishes it with a spritzer bottle. He then uses the spritzer to spray the fairy off of the table.

Nicotine Princess1As the DVD notes observe, there is a wealth of material here for a dedicated Freudian – even if “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” I alluded to the special effects, which were managed by shooting the women in a mirror at a distance that made it appear that they were small and on the table, rather than using double exposure and having to shoot everything twice. Keeping that technique in mind, this is a very interesting performance. I think the “different room” continuity confusion was a result of the trickiness of these effects: on a second viewing I noticed that most of the background was replaced with a black curtain starting just before the animated sequence. Possibly they were having difficulty getting the effects to show up against the original backdrop. For the insert shots, we see the fairies interacting with large props (a barrel-sized pipe bowl, and matchsticks the size of their legs, etc). I’ve seen claims that the first time this was done was for the movie “Dr. Cyclops” (1940), but here’s an earlier example and there may be more.  The editing structure is relatively sophisticated, not just stringing together scenes, but allowing us to change our perspective on the action as it develops. The movie owes something to the French, in terms of its effects and overall tone, but there’s something quite unique in the subject matter and the ambiguous attitude towards smoking and tiny women.

Alternate Title: Princess Nicotine; or, the Smoke Fairy

Director: J. Stuart Blackton

Camera: Tony Gaudio

Starring: Paul Panzer, Gladys Hulette

Run Time: 5 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).

The Thieving Hand (1908)

This odd little short from Vitagraph has a kind of reputation as a (pre-)Surrealist masterpiece. It does involve the use of trick photography to bring an arm to life, but how does it look from a modern viewpoint?

Thieving HandWe see a one-armed man begging on the street. He is selling pencils or some other time-honored item to get handouts. He sells to a man in an expensive-looking coat and the man walks away. Shortly thereafter, the beggar notices something on the ground and picks it up – it seems to be a ring or small piece of jewelry. He runs after the man and catches him in front of his house. The man is very grateful to get back his ring and starts to reach for another handout, but thinks better of it. He takes the beggar to a shop called “limbs” and buys him a new arm! The shopkeeper demonstrates that the arm works by winding it up on the display case. It moves by itself (actually a jump cut has allowed it to be replaced by the arm of an actor hiding behind the case). The shopkeeper attaches the new arm and cranks it up for the beggar. The beggar is thrilled, but doesn’t seem to notice the arm stealing from his benefactor. When the shopkeeper notices, he takes back his goods and sends them on their way. The beggar scolds his new arm.

The beggar goes back to his corner and continues trying to sell pencils. While he does so, his new arm flails about and grabs things off of each passerby while the beggar distracts them with the pencils in his other hand. Several come back, annoyed, and take back their possessions. Finally, returns the arm to the shop, but when the shopkeeper puts it in the window, it steals a bunch of rings and goes back to the beggar! The shopkeeper discovers the theft and has a policeman arrest the beggar. Once in jail, he meets a one-armed convict who recognizes that it is his arm. He returns the arm, and the convict now has back his thieving hand – no doubt his main means of labor.

Thieving Hand1

As I suggested above, this film stands out by its very weirdness, and seems reminiscent of some of Alice Guy’s more bizarre comedies, like “The Drunken Mattress” or “The Truth Behind the Ape Man” in which the animate and inanimate world become blurred for comic effect. It’s pretty pedestrian, really, in terms of camera-work, editing, and effects, but it feels new because we’ve never seen this particular story before, although it might fit into the strange world of “Felix the Cat” or another of the wilder cartoon series. There’s an interesting irony to the fact that the beggar is rewarded for his honesty with a gift that makes him appear dishonest, and even gets him arrested.  There’s also an element to this movie that makes me think of David Cronenberg, a Canadian director whose horror films often explore invasions or mutations of the body. A hand acting of its own volition is right up his alley. This is a good memorable movie from the early Nickeloden Era, when American film makers were just starting to think about their possibilities.

Director: J. Stuart Blackton

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Paul Panzer

Run Time: 6 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).

Inventor Edison Sketched by World Artist (1896)

Inventor Edison Drawn

“Lightning sketches” that showed an artist at his work during the short running time of the early motion picture camera were a common format for movies in 1896. This example is noteworthy because it brings the celebrity of Thomas Edison together with the novelty of his newest invention, in this case without his having even been filmed in person. The artist in this case was J. Stuart Blackton, at that time a cartoonist for the New York World newspaper. He later claimed that Edison was present for the sketch, however this is discounted by historians, and seems pretty dubious to the casual viewer, given the fact that he never looks up from his drawing during the run time of the movie. Blackton apparently gained considerable fame from this movie, and became so enthusiastic about cinema that he went on to help found the American Vitagraph Company, going into competition with Edison, and then getting in trouble due to patent infringement, before becoming one of the first “licensed” motion picture exhibitors. This movie suffers a bit from the fact that quality of the print has diminished to where it can be hard to make out the drawing, but it’s still an interesting piece of film history.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Starring: J. Stuart Blackton

Run Time: 1 Min, 20 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1909)

A_Midsummer_Night's_Dream_(1909_film)

This is the first American attempt to interpret Shakespeare that I know about. Unlike the ambitious British efforts I’ve reviewed before, they took Shakespeare’s lightest, most accessible comedy, and gave it a child-friendly treatment. At just over 11 minutes long, it doesn’t get into a lot of the plot complications, and there’s no effort at all to utilize Shakespearean language for the intertitles. Each scene begins with a forward-facing intertitle to tell the audience how to interpret the action, albeit the first one that sets the action is rather complicated (as is the plot of the play, if you think about it). The static camera frames everything in long-shots, and most of the characters are hard to tell apart, although Bottom is quite memorable and over-the-top, as he should be (he also has about the least convincing ass’s head I’ve ever seen). Puck, the fairie, gets most of the effects (and also the skimpiest outfit), which are generally simple appearances and disappearances, with one flying scene that reminded me of “The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend.” Again, I’m inclined to read this as being intended for an audience that was either already familiar with the play, or as an introduction for younger viewers that showed them the light side of Shakespeare without the heavy language.

Directed by: Charles Kent, J. Stuart Blackton

Starring: Willaim V. Ranous, Maurice Costello

Run Time: 11 Minutes

You can watch it for free: here (silent) or here (with music)