Vitagraph 5 continued from page 4


A new, unadorned building joins the original studio.Shot as work on the Brighton Beach / Manhattan Beach right-of-way neared completion in 1907, the Vitagraph smokestack had yet to be built. Paul Matus Collection.

    Two additional buildings had been completed and two more were abuilding in 1908, moving the studio well along the way to becoming the Vitagraph Village. One important addition was a large water tank, far removed from the tub where the Battle of Manila Bay was fought. It was big enough for a real-life tableau replicating Emmanuel Leutze's famous painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware, in Vitagraph's historical entries on the American icon, Washington Under the British Flag and Washington Under the American Flag, both produced in 1909. Earlier in that year the studio had given equal treatment to Napoleon (Vitagraph, coincidentally, had an office and laboratory in Paris), two one-reelers entitled The Life Drama of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Empress Josephine of France and Napoleon, The Man of Destiny . A poem in honor of these films, and their place of origin, appeared in the New York American :

The great, immortal Washington
Can nowadays be seen
To cross a local Delaware
With ice cakes painted green.
Napoleon, too, is pictured
On the field of Waterloo;
The field looks quite familiar
With its peaceful Flatbush hue.

The Big V ended 1909 with the release of the first of five one-reelers of The Life of Moses, the high-water mark among its high-art biblical films. High water, indeed, for in this epic, the Flatbush tank may have reached new heights, literally as well as figuratively; a stand-in for the Red Sea, after much trial and error, and with the benefit of double exposure, walls of water towered over the Israelites in what was advertised as "The Miracle of the Red Sea / A $10,000 Water Scene." The studio's sense of purpose was underscored by the man put in charge of the entire production, the ecumenical reverend Madison C. Peters, whose terms for involving himself in the project were unequivocal: "I consented to make 'The Life of Moses' only on the condition that the work be thoroughly done; that those taking part in the picture reverently approach the subject and that no expense be spared in the artistic production."
     Vitagraph fulfilled its part of the bargain, especially the last, averaging $10,000 per reel on the Moses epic at a time when rival Biograph averaged $500 to $600 per reel. Each installment was released upon completion between about December 4, 1909, and February 19, 1910; after the release of the fifth reel, however, a number of movie houses showed all five consecutively, making The Life of Moses, with a running time of about an hour-and-a-half, the first feature film.
     The most prolific and diverse, and perhaps the most challenging of Vitagraph's quality films were based on literary works, the greater number of them classics. 1908 had just dawned when a popular drama, Dion Boucicault's entertaining play, The Shaughraun, was directed by Blackton, who played a powerful role in the artistic flowering of the studio. February brought Francesca da Rimini, a film traced to a more formidable source: a play of the same name written in 1855 by George H. Boker that drew its inspiration from Canto V of Dante's Inferno.

Continued on page 6

 

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Updated July 21, 2000.