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Blackton, J. Stuart (1875-1941)

Director, Producer, Animator

Main image of Blackton, J. Stuart (1875-1941)

James Stuart Blackton was born in Sheffield on 5 January 1875, but while a child left England for America. He worked as a journalist and illustrator in New York, where he interviewed Thomas Edison, who was impressed enough with his drawings to make a cartoon film: Blackton the Evening World Cartoonist (1896). Blackton bought a Kinetoscope from Edison and went into partnership with A.E. Smith, and later William T. Rock, to form the Vitagraph Company. They opened a studio on the roof of the Morse building at 140 Nassau St, New York, and produced films in which they acted themselves. Tearing Down the Spanish Flag (1898), proved popular in recreating an incident from the Spanish-American war and Vitagraph went on to explore all types of filmmaking, including actualities of local events, comedy series (such as 'The Happy Hooligan') and adaptations of Shakespeare and Dickens. The company moved to Flatbush in Brooklyn to a new purpose-built glassed-in studio, where Blackton pioneered stop frame animation and shot one of his most successful films, Humorous Phases of a Funny Face (1906). He was also innovative in his development of editing techniques and camera work and he streamlined processes in the industrial organisation of the studio in order to supervise several productions at once.

Blackton left Vitagraph in 1917 to make patriotic subjects through his own company. In 1921 he came to England, where he directed three lavish costume dramas in 'Prizmacolor'. The Glorious Adventure (1922) and The Virgin Queen (1923) both starred the society beauty Lady Diana Cooper (billed as Diana Manners); Gypsy Cavalier (1922) starred the world light heavyweight boxing champion, George Carpentier. Blackton had failed to keep up with developments in film technique and his films were dramatically unsophisticated, but he was an expert showman. He used society premieres to launch these glossy spectacles with their large and glamorous casts, relying on favourable publicity to mitigate their limitations, and his showmanship impressed and inspired British directors such as Herbert Wilcox.

Blackton returned to the US in 1923 and directed several more films, including Beloved Brute (1924) starring Victor McLaglen, who he had used in The Glorious Adventure. When Warner Bros took over the Vitagraph company in 1926 he retired, but he lost all his money in the 1929 Crash and was forced back to work. He ended his days working for the Anglo American Film Company and died in a car accident in Hollywood on 13 August 1941.

Low, Rachael, A History of the British Film 1918-1929 (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1971)
Trimble, Marian Blackton, J. Stuart Blackton: A Personal Biography by his Daughter (Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press 1985)

Bryony Dixon, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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