Forget About Disney: This is the Real Father of American Animation

Joe Donan

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James Stuart Blackton, 1912 — Source: Wikimedia Commons

Twenty-eight years before Walt Disney formally introduced Mickey Mouse whistling and piloting a river sidewheeler in Steamboat Willie, the British-American film producer James Stuart Blackton had successfully created a short film featuring the very first animated sequences ever put in a film.

Inspiration from an industry giant

The year was 1896. Blackton was working for the New York Evening World newspaper. Along with his partner Albert Smith, he was commissioned to interview Thomas Edison on his new film projector — the Vitascope.

Edison, seeing this as an opportunity for publicity, invited Blackton and Smith to his private filming cabin where they created a short film of Blackton portraying Edison. Blackton was so impressed with this new technology that he used the opportunity to buy a series of films from Edison, along with a Vitascope so they could play these films to paying audiences.

Experiencing financial success from these showings, Blackton and Smith started contemplating the idea of producing their own films. And so, in 1897 in Brooklyn, New York, and with the help of William T. Rock, the American Vitagraph Company was born.

Blackton had to buy a special license from Thomas Edison, so he could use his technology to create new films. This agreement included the production of movies exclusively for Edison, which he would later distribute on his own.

In the following years, Blackton wrote, produced, directed, and often starred in several silent films. As the public acceptance of his material was favorable and profits were steadily rising, Blackton decided to let his imagination run wild and started conceptualizing a series of experimental films with animated effects.

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American Vitagraph Company founders. From left to right: William T. Rock, Albert E. Smith, and J. Stuart Blackton; July 1916. — Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Enchanted Drawing

In 1899, Blackton produced and directed The Enchanted Drawing, a one-and-a-half-minute silent film produced for Thomas Edison, and featuring a combination of live-action footage and stop-motion animation.

In the film, Blackton himself draws the face of an expressionless bald man, a bottle of wine, and a glass cup. Then, as if by magic, he “grabs” the bottle and the cup straight out of the paper, serves himself some, and has the man drink the rest directly from the bottle. Next, he “steals” the man’s hat and cigar, upsetting him in the process. The movie ends with Blackton returning all the borrowed objects to their original position, much to the cartoon man’s delight.

The Enchanted Drawing was released on November 16th, 1900. The short contains the first animated sequences recorded in 35mm film; making it the earliest movie to feature a primitive form of hand-drawn animation.

You can watch The Enchanted Drawing here.

Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906)

Six years later, Blackton produced, directed, and starred again in Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, a 3-minute silent film featuring a combination of live-action footage, stop-motion, and cutout animation.

In the film, Blackton’s hand is seen again drawing a bald man on a chalkboard. Then, the drawing of a woman appears next to the man, and they start interacting with each other — fully animated — until the hand appears again and erases them. Next, a big-bellied man materializes and starts playing with his hat and umbrella, followed by the disappearing profiles of a man and a woman looking at each other. The film ends with a cutout animation sequence of a dancing clown and a dog jumping through a hoop. Blackton’s hand makes a final appearance to erase the drawings.

Moving at twenty frames per second, the film shows an unintended flickering effect during its stop-motion sequences, due to the film being overexposed every time it was cut. Despite this flaw, audiences were shocked and amused by the sight of drawings coming to life. Humorous Phases of Funny Faces is credited with inspiring the boom of American animation during the first half of the 20th Century.

You can watch Humorous Phases of Funny Faces here.

The Haunted Hotel (or Strange Adventures of a Traveler) (1907)

Following the success of Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, in 1907, Blackton produced The Haunted Hotel (or Strange Adventures of a Traveler), starring Paul Panzer, and once again combining live-action footage with stop motion animation. The hand-drawn animation elements are kept to a minimum, and they’re featured only at the beginning of the movie.

In the film, a small hotel is shown, accompanied by animated effects of lightning and moving trees. The door starts moving until the hotel’s facade takes the form of a face. Inside, the Traveler is confronted by a series of objects moving on their own — apparently, the antics of unseen ghosts — until a white sheet materializes before him. He then proceeds to change his clothes for his pajamas and goes to bed.

Vitagraph advertised the film as “Impressive, indefinable, insoluble, positively the most marvelous film ever invented.” It was a commercial success in Europe, particularly in France, where filmmakers studied the footage closely to discover its animation secrets. The film inspired the production of the 1908 movie La Maison Ensorcelée (French for “The House of Ghosts” or “The Enchanted House”), which was a European remake of The Haunted Hotel.

You can watch The Haunted Hotel here.

On top of the world and back to the street

After The Haunted Hotel, Blackton once again produced, starred, and directed Lightning Sketches, a short film that starts as live-action and ends in cartoon format. In it, Blackton quickly draws a series of sketches that spring to life whenever he’s off-screen.

This film was Blackton’s final production featuring hand-drawn animation. Despite the success of his groundbreaking animated productions, he would later regard these films as “juvenile experiments,” as he decided to focus on producing more serious and dramatic films.

In 1917, he left the American Vitagraph Company to start a solo filmmaking career but eventually came back to it in 1923. Two years later, Warner Brothers acquired the company for more than $1,000,000, with Blackton taking a reasonable share of it. This is why the title card of several Merrie Melodies cartoons during the 1960s feature the phrase “A Warner Bros. Cartoon / A Vitagraph Release.”

Blackton enjoyed a wealthy life until he lost his fortune due to the Stock Market Crash of 1932. He then made a living from showings of his old films and giving lectures about silent movies. He got married to actress Evangeline Russell in 1936 and fathered four children, including actress Marian Constance.

Five years later, Blackton suffered a skull fracture after he was hit by a vehicle. This unfortunate accident led to his untimely death a few days later, on August 13th, 1941.

Her daughter Marian Constance Blackton wrote his biography, which was later edited by film historian Anthony Slide. It is the story of an ambitious and prolific filmmaker and animation pioneer whose legacy deserves more recognition today. He may not be Disney, but he paved the way for him.

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