J. Stuart Blackton

J. Stuart Blackton


J. Stuart Blackton

January 5, 1875: Silent Era filmmaker and the father of American animation

James Stuart Blackton was a British-American film producer and director of the silent era. One of the pioneers of motion pictures, he co-founded Vitagraph Studios, a film studio that was the first to bring many classic plays and books to the screen. He was one of the first filmmakers to use the techniques of stop-motion and drawn animation and is considered the father of American animation.

Born on January 5, 1875, in Sheffield, Yorkshire, England, he emigrated with his family to the United States in 1885. Working as a reporter and illustrator for the New York Evening World, Blackton was sent to interview Thomas Edison, who showed off his early filmmaking tools in the Black Maria, a special cabin used for filmmaking. This writing assignment introduced Blackton to his lifelong obssession of filmmaking. It was in the Black Maria that Edison created a new film in front of the future filmmaker and convinced Blackton and his partner, magician Albert E. Smith into buying a print of this new film, as well as prints of nine other films, plus a Vitascope to show them to paying audiences.

Vitagraph Studios was founded by Blackton and  Smith in 1897 in Brooklyn, New York, as the American Vitagraph Company. By 1907, it was the most prolific American film production company, producing many famous silent films. The studio produced the first film adaptation of the novel Les Misérables in 1909 consisting of four reels, each released over the course of three months, making it one of the earliest known “film franchises.” The following year, Vitagraph released the five part serial The Life of Moses at almost 90 minutes in length, what many consider today as the “the first full lenght-feature film.” Vitagraph was purchased by Warner Bros. in 1925.


Blackton’s first film to feature “stop-action” animation is The Enchanted Drawing from 1900. In this film, Blackton himself sketches a face, a bottle of wine and a glass, a top hat, and a cigar on a large paper pad on a pedestal. Toward the end of the short film, he appears to remove the wine, glass, hat, and cigar as real objects, and the face appears to react. Stop-action is where the camera is stopped, a single change is made, and the camera is then started again.

In 1905, Blackton accidently transitioned to stop-motion animation. After reviewing a complex series of stop-action effects on a roof while steam from the building’s generator was billowing in the background, a new effect created by the steam puffs scooting across the screen was discovered. Most of Blackton’s use this effect was used to display ghosts or to have toys come to life,  have been lost.

One film that has survived is Humorous Phases of Funny Faces in 1906, a stop-motion short, combined with stick puppetry. Once again, Blackton is seen on camera (only his hand) and draws two faces on a chalkboard. The two faces they appear to come to life and engage in silly antics. Although the most of this short film uses live action effects instead of animation, it had a profound impact of animated films in the United States.

Too busy in running the day-to-day operations of Vitagraph, Blackton retired from directing films in 1909.  His  animation experiments,  in his opinion, were juvenile and received no mention in his unpublished autobiography.

Masonic Career

Blackton was a member of Centennial Lodge No. 763 in New York, and was part of a group of New York Freemasons to form their own Masonic Temple in Hollywood. Named after Pacific Lodge F. & A.M. No. 233 in New York, the 233 Club had an exclusive membership of entertainment and theatrical brothers. Chartered on August 16, 1924, the group elected Edward Davis, former president of the National Vaudeville Association as President. The charter stated in part,  that a member must be “a Master Mason in good standing in any lodge in the world and a motion picture worker in any capacity.”

One of the 233 Club’s earliest public events was supporting the Shriners National Convention in Los Angeles on May 5, 1925, with a parade from the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street up Highland Avenue to the Hollywood Bowl.

Plans to construct a twelve-story clubhouse, providing auditorium, meeting, and social space, as well as apartments for “visiting Masons” never materialized due to lack of funds. By the club’s one year anniversary at the end of 1925, membership totaled 1233, and the celebrations included a fourteen-act vaudeville show performed by the brothers. The club’s popularity with the Hollywood masonic crowd soon counted Douglas Fairbanks and Harold Lloyd among its ranks. 

Later Life

In 1915, Blackton produced The Battle Cry of Peace, a propaganda film supporting the United States entry into World War I. Strongly supported by former President and Masonic brother Theodore Roosevelt, General Leonard Wood loaned Blackton an entire regiment of marines to use as extras.

Blackton lost most of his fortune in the Stock Market Crash of 1929, which forced him to file for bankruptcy in 1931. He spent his last years on the road, showing his old films and lecturing about the days of silent movies.

Blackton died August 13, 1941, a few days after he suffered a fractured skull after being hit by a car while crossing the street. But his passion for filmmaking never ceased; at the time of his death he was working for Hal Roach improving the color process backgrounds in motion pictures.


Written by Wor. Bro. Ronald J. Seifried, DSA
Trustee Chairman and Historian, Jephtha Lodge No. 494 F. & A.M.
Area 1 Historian, Nassau and Suffolk Masonic Districts
Co-Editor, Craftsmen Online NY Masonic History column
32° Scottish Rite,  Valley of Rockville Centre
Companion of Asharokan Chapter No. 288, Royal Arch Masons
Member of Suffolk Council No. 76, Cryptic Masons
Author, “Long Island Freemasons,” Arcadia Publishing, 2020

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