Vitagraph America’s First Great Motion Picture Studio

Kevin Brianton

Senior Adjunct Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne

Andrew A. Erish is a historian who is not interested in the latest fashionable cinema or the trendiest director. Instead, his focus has always been detailed archive work of the origins of cinema. In doing so, he dismantles some of Hollywood’s most cherished legends. For example, his first book on Colonel William N. Selig was a riposte to those considered that D. W. Griffith or Cecil. B. DeMille had “invented” Hollywood, and he delivered detailed and grounded evidence to support his case.[1]

Erish has now produced a second book on similar terrain, and in this work, he wants to re-establish the reputation of Vitagraph, which he calls America’s first great studio. In his introduction, he argues that: “Unfortunately, if Vitagraph is mentioned at all in the histories, documentaries, and textbooks, it is usually in conjunction with its affiliation in the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC), better known as the odious Trust. By virtue of its membership in the MPPC, Vitagraph has been mischaracterized as being the product of unimaginative, short-sighted engineers who produced a primitive form of cinema solely in the pursuit of quick profits that ceased the moment those better-known, more talented and intelligent showmen took over the industry.”[2] Erish argues that Paramount, Fox, Universal, MGM and Warner Brothers took over the American motion picture industry from Vitagraph and history was written by the victors. Not only was Vitagraph their predecessor, but its techniques would also even predate the cinematic mastery of D. W. Griffith, and its impact was immense.

To achieve the goal of re-establishing Vitagraph, Erish did what an astonishing number of film historians fail to accomplish: he sat down and watched the films. It is no small task. The studio would run until 1925 and produce about 3500 movies, and it is estimated 700 survive in some form. Then having viewed all accessible prints, increasingly available on the internet, Erish then backs his viewings up with detailed archival research. The end result is a detailed and fascinating revisionist history.

Erish is certainly not a historian who recycles information, and his treatment of secondary sources is exemplary. For example, movie memoirs are notoriously inaccurate, and many historians would have lifted material from Vitagraph’s founder Albert Smith’s memoir Two Reels and a Crank published in 1952.[3] However, Erish does not take anything for granted and sees the book as being entertaining than accurate. It is a sound decision, as Smith worked with film publicist Phil Koury to produce the work, and Koury’s books are not renowned for their accuracy. His account of his working with Cecil B. DeMille is also highly entertaining with a mine of information, but it needs to be treated carefully. [4]

Erish takes the reader into the world of early cinema when short films were shown for a few cents in shops on street corners. Vitagraph Studios was established in 1897 by J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith, who as young men wanted to make it as entertainers, but never quite achieved great or lasting fame on the stage. The book’s opening section deals with the massive impact of Thomas Edison on the development of motion pictures. The story of the young men finding “Thomas Edison’s Latest Marvel, the Kinetoscope,” which implants a business idea, is almost straight from the novelist Horatio Alger. They certainly had Alger’s character’s thrift. As Erish points out: “One of Smith’s appointment calendars, though printed for the year 1896, has pencil notations indicating that he used it instead for 1897—an example of his thrift in the face of poverty.”[5]

Initially, filmmakers could show people getting off a hansom or getting their shoes shined. One of the first successes of the company was literally a flag-waver. Following a clash between Spanish and American troops, a film was made of a Spanish Flag being pulled down to be replaced by the Stars and Stripes. It lasted thirty seconds and was a smashing success. This film paved the way for more extensive and longer films. But interest in these simple films quickly faded. Instead, people began to be more and more demanding. Vitagraph was more than equal to the task. By 1907, Vitagraph was producing a film every week.

The book highlights some forgotten chapters such as Bobby Connelly. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Following its success, it would branch into other areas as time progressed, including a series of Shakespeare plays, drawing the wrath of one censor who warned about a cinematic production of Macbeth: “The stabbing in the play is not predominant. But in the picture show it is the feature. . . . You see the dagger enter and come out and see the blood flow. . . . Shakespeare is art, but . . . not [as] adapted . . . for the 5-cent style of art.”  The tension between theatre and the rising force of cinema was immediately evident. Theatre would decline in impact, and it was this 5-cent art that was going to transform the entertainment world, and Vitagraph would play a central part.

Vitagraph would become one of the pioneers of this new form of entertainment. In 1906, it developed the studio system, and its films would become more complex and artistic. In 1907, it would create The Mill Girl, which Erish sees as highly important for cinema’s developing craft, arguing:“The complex construction of The Mill Girl was successful because Albert Smith trusted the growing sophistication of the audience for which it was made. It serves as a prime example of Vitagraph developing fundamental cinematic language in the pre-Griffith era.”[6] It is a bold statement bolstering his view that Vitagraph should get greater attention in film history.

Erish has a comprehensive knowledge of the era and its films. For example, when he compares Fantasmagorie (1908), considered to be the first animated film, he argues persuasively it owes a great deal to one of Vitagraph’s early films. Erish demonstrates a strong and clear grasp of the subject derived from deep and prolonged study. In addition, almost every chapter contains ideas and original comments about the films. Some of its cinema have entered film history for various reasons, and Erish fleshes out some of their impact. For example, A Florida Enchantment (1914) is considered to be the first film depicting lesbians. A Vitagraph film Black Beauty was the first film that the future director Ingmar Bergman ever saw in Stockholm in 1924 as a little boy. He could recall the film decades later, and no doubt, it played some role in his influential career.

Larry Semon’s work for Vitagraph is highlighted in the book. Buster Keaton paid tribute to his comedic films. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

By 1908 Vitagraph employed close to two hundred full-time “painters, machinists, costumers, carpenters, lab technicians, editors, and sundry other specialized workers.” It would produce hundreds of films. In 1915, Vitagraph employed 1200 people, but the various legal battles with other parties and other circumstances eventually ran against the company. The Birth of A Nation, directed by D. W Griffith, rewrote the rules of the American film industry. Like all other studios, Vitagraph worked hard to create a rival in The Battle Cry of Peace, but they could not compete with the popularity of the Griffith epic. Unlike Griffith, Vitagraph released The Cambric Mask (1919), which would not provide a favourable description of the Ku Klux Klan.

During the First World War, business in Europe fell off a cliff as Vitagraph’s staff in Paris were conscripted into the war effort. However, when the conflict concluded, the company reached into new markets across Asia, becoming an international organsation. Eventually, the studio was not competitive against the newer studios, which employed fair means and foul to impede the growth of their long-established rival. Finally, in 1925, Vitagraph was bought out. The corporate historical revisionists such as Paramount head Adolph Zukor, who had long wanted Vitagraph destroyed, started to airbrush the studio from film history.

The Battle Cry of Peace was an attempt to cover the same ground as The Birth of A Nation. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster,

Of course, not all historians have followed the official story and some have done excellent work. Erish does pay tribute to the work of Anthony Slide, who wrote a short history in 1976 and then teamed with Alan Grevinson to produce a longer version published in 1987, which Grevinson further revised in 1993.[7] Charles Musser has recognised the contribution of Vitagraph in the first volume of History of American Cinema and elsewhere.[8]  Eileen Bowser also gave the studio respectful coverage in the second volume of the series.[9] Erish cites both extensively. While their work is important, it now clear that Vitagraph has found a suitable champion. Erish has demonstrated that the studio is far more crucial in American cinema history than previously considered. What is evident on almost every page is the deep knowledge that Erish possesses about early cinema and his overwhelming enthusiasm for it. While it is a demanding and detailed read, it is a fine piece of historical research as well as a testament to a largely unsung part of American cinema.

[1] Andrew A. Erish, Col. William N. Selig, the Man Who Invented Hollywood, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012.

[2] Andrew A. Erish, Vitagraph, America’s First Great Motion Picture Studio, Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2021, 1.

[3] Albert Smith and Phil Koury, Two Reels and A Crank, New York: Doubleday, 1952.

[4] Phil Koury, Yes Mr DeMille, New York: Putnam, 1959.

[5] Andrew A. Erish, Vitagraph, America’s first Great Motion Picture Studio, Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2021, 10.

[6] Andrew A. Erish, Vitagraph, America’s First Great Motion Picture Studio, Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2021, 47.

[7] Anthony Slide and Alan Grevinson, The Big V, A History of the Vitagraph Company, New Jersey: Scarecrow, 1987.

[8] Charles Musser, The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907. History of the American Cinema; v. 1. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994, 253 – 254.

[9] Eileen Bowser. The Transformation of Cinema, 1907-1915. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

2 thoughts on “Vitagraph America’s First Great Motion Picture Studio

  1. Both of my Grandparents worked for Vitagraph. My Grandmother started in New York and transferred to California. My Grandfather worked as an Editor in California. Is there any information available on the films he would have worked on?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s