VITAGRAPH: AMERICA’S FIRST GREAT MOTION PICTURE STUDIO Book Review — Boldly Reclaiming Greatness

VITAGRAPH
It’s a three story, boxy building in then-rural Brooklyn. From the front it looks like a farmhouse, but from the side, large two-story windows are visible, the only obvious design detail that shows this building is more than what it seems. This 50’ x 100’ foot building was the modest home of what was once the foremost movie studio in the world, Vitagraph.

Within a few years this building will have tripled in size, and in a few more there will be an even larger production facility across the country in sunny California. This new campus will sport a gate that spans a stately driveway, connecting from two Spanish-style terra cotta roofed buildings — what is now almost cliche for a Hollywood movie studio.

It’s just another example of what Vitagraph did first. Among other firsts that Vitagraph pioneered, asserted by author Andrew A. Erish, was casting the first It Girl actress, shooting the first close up shot, acting as the first film distributor, presenting the first lesbian on-screen kiss, and showing silent movies with the first Wurlitzer organ.

“For years, France’s contribution to the invention of cinema has been overstated. British, American, and German filmmakers designed and constructed the equipment necessary to record and show motion pictures, which the Lumiere Brothers and other then made improvements on.”

For cinephiles, these are bold claims. Yet Erish backs up his claims with scholarship that calls into question many years of cinematic history assumptions. Readers can feel his satisfaction at righting this decades-long wrong, and putting Vitagraph back in it’s place as one of the most important founders of the modern day movie business.

The fall of Vitagraph is also well-detailed, in this writer’s view, explaining how the names behind the company faded into obscurity, while names like Warner, Lasky, and Zukor remain.

Though this book may be most enjoyed by movie historians and lovers of the silent age, it neatly fits into the genre of eye-opening revisionist history that is beloved by many. It also serves as an overarching history of the early days of the movie business, so could easily serve as a jumping off point for readers who want to get it right from the start. Long live Vitagraph!

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For more information and to purchase VITAGRAPH: America’s First Great Motion Picture Studio, please visit the Kentucky Press website.

Images courtesy of University Press Kentucky

Ryan Davis

About the Author: Ryan Davis

Ryan Davis (@indieartsvoice) is a film publicist and communications professional with over ten years experience in the film industry and arts marketing. She is co-founder and Principal at Smarthouse Creative. Named by Media Inc. as one of Washington State's most influential women in film, TV, and media, Ryan has worked with outlets ranging from CNN and The New York Times, to community newspapers and local radio. She has worked in almost every aspect of the film business--from production and festivals to distribution, exhibition and sales.

Ryan worked for Arab Film Distribution/Typecast Films where she was part of the production and release of the Academy Award-nominated Iraq in Fragments. She has worked for a variety of nonprofit arts groups and organizations, including heading the marketing departments for Northwest Film Forum and Northwest Folklife, and was the assistant director of Couch Fest Films from 2010-2014. Ryan was on the jury for the International Documentary Challenge for 2012-3, and a juror for the 2015 Seattle Shorts Festival. Ryan currently sits on the board of The Grand Cinema in Tacoma, WA.

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