Vitagraph Films at MoMA

Although New York City was the first center of the film industry, almost nothing survives from those early years. The Biograph studio on Manhattan’s Fourteenth Street, where D.W. Griffith perfected his craft, is long gone, as are studios erected in Westchester and Fort Lee. Surprisingly, one of the earliest studio complexes is not only still standing, but is still being used in part as a production facility. From November 9th to the 13th, the Museum of Modern Art celebrates the centennial of the Vitagraph Studio in Brooklyn with Vitagraph: The Big V on Avenue M, a series of representative films from the studio.

The company was formed in 1896 as American Vitagraph by British immigrants J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith. Its first successes were largely faked documentaries and travelogues, such as a view of Niagara Falls that was actually shot in New Jersey. Blackton directed one of the earliest fiction films, The Burglar on the Roof, in 1897, but for the next ten years the studio struggled to survive while fending off a series of lawsuits from rivals like Thomas A. Edison. At first Vitagraph sold its films outright to exhibitors, but in 1905 Blackton and Smith realized that they could earn more money by renting their films to “exchanges” that would take over the tasks of delivering and picking up individual films.

The producers’ decision to concentrate on making films instead of distributing them happily coincided with a boom in nickelodeons, which grew from a handful to thousands within two years. Since programs changed twice a week, theater owners were desperate for product. That August, Vitagraph started work on a new studio in what was then a largely rural area of Flatbush. When it opened over a year later, the Vitagraph Studio spread between East 14th and East 15th Street and between Avenue M and Locust Avenue in what is now called Midwood. It was a state of the art facility that offered glass-enclosed stages, a tank for water scenes, a self-contained laboratory for processing film, and areas devoted to editing, props, and costumes.

The building gave Vitagraph an edge over rival studios, one that it exploited with high quality films. Vitagraph appealed to upscale viewers with films based on literary heroes like Raffles and Sherlock Holmes, but also delivered crowd-pleasing car chases, trick films, and slapstick. With their large sets and lavish production design, Vitagraph films looked better than those from other studios. Blackton experimented with animation and stop-motion photography, and was one of the forces behind Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo (1911), one of the landmark early cartoons.

With The Life of Moses (1909), the studio may have released the world’s first feature film, although it was originally shown in five separate parts. There’s no disputing that Vitagraph was one of the key players in developing the “star” system. Florence Turner, better known to filmgoers as “The Vitagraph Girl,” is just one of many performers the studio nurtured. Others who started out at Vitagraph include Norma Talmadge, Rudolph Valentino, Adolphe Menjou, and John Bunny.

Spotlighted in a half-dozen films in the series, Bunny grew up in Brooklyn before touring the country in a minstrel show. Over the years he became an actor and director in legitimate theater, working with stars like Maude Adams. In 1910 he left the stage for Vitagraph, and within the year became a sensation in a series of comedies. Over a five-year period Bunny made almost two hundred shorts, predominately comedies but some dramatic works as well. Weighing close to three hundred pounds, and with a florid, expressive face, he was an expert mime and an even greater judge of comic timing. Dressed in a suit and vest, he is like a Tenniel drawing brought to life, and wearing a straw hat, drink in hand, he is a clear inspiration for W.C. Fields. In films like Stenographer Wanted (1912), Bunny is a revelation, playing with a restraint and intuition rare for his time. He was often paired with the gaunt, shrewish Flora Finch in domestic slapstick like Bunny Backslides (1914), which features an extended visit to the old Washington Park baseball field, home of the future Brooklyn Dodgers. Since dialogue didn’t have to be dubbed or subtitled, the actor was especially popular overseas, but sadly succumbed to Bright’s disease in 1915.

After writing and directing The Battle Cry of Peace, which imagined New York City invaded by foreign terrorists, Blackton withdrew from day-to-day operations at Vitagraph. The executives who replaced him made a crucial miscalculation by failing to establish a chain of theaters to show the studio’s films. Apart from comedies starring Sidney Drew and Larry Semon, Vitagraph floundered in the 1920s. Warner Bros. bought the company in 1926, and used the Flatbush complex to film many of its Vitaphone sound shorts. The original building eventually became the site of Warners’ Ace Film Laboratory before being sold to Yeshiva University High School in the 1960s. It is now being used as the Shulamith School for Girls.

Warners built a studio across the street from the Vitagraph complex at the end of the 1920s. NBC bought this building in 1952. It was used for everything from Mary Martin’s version of Peter Pan to The Cosby Show and Another World. Since 2000, it has been the site of JC Studios. Currently the space is being used to shoot As the World Turns, a soap opera that is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary.

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