Beginning his career as a journalist in the late 1880s, J. Stuart Blackton is today recognized as one of the American film industry’s first pioneers. He founded Vitagraph in 1896 along with Albert E. Smith and W. T. Rock, one of the first early production companies. Using simple props, they concocted films with fake footage as Spanish American War propaganda films in 1898, such as “The Battle of Manila Bay,” shot for $3 using miniature ships and cigars. They would go on to produce short films featuring comedy, animation, and drama through the mid-teens, when they began producing features as well. In 1906, Blackton gave birth to film animation when he drew caricatures for the Vitagraph short “Humorous Phases of Funny Faces,” shooting one frame of film at a time. Vitagraph would claim many firsts over the years, including creating the first newsreel, first full-length feature film, the first fan magazine, and the first complete color film. By the early 1930s, Blackton would produce the first true film documentary on the history of the medium as well, “The Film Parade.” Though Smith and Blackton sold the name Vitagraph in the mid-1920s, Blackton retained ownership of their films and other film footage. He would employ this footage in the documentary, detailing the birth of moving pictures and their evolution, tinkering with it for years.
Blackton approached old colleague and film director William P. S. Earle in 1931 to help him pull together footage for a documentary, as Earle possessed cameras. Both had fallen on hard times; the stock market crash had destroyed much of their fortunes, with Earle now selling Electrolux vacuum cleaners. Blackton’s son Jim appeared with $300 he had received from his veterans’ bonus, launching the project. They rented an office at 919 Lillian Way, with Blackton, his son, daughter Marion Trimble, Margerie Bonner, and others re-creating early historic uses of photography in film-like ways, basically reenacting scenes for the camera, shooting double exposures. They sold some of their real footage of the Romanoffs to MGM for usage in “Rasputin and the Empress” and found bootleg sound from a company across the street, per Trimble in her book, “J. Stuart Blackton: A Personal Biography of Her Father.” Trimble states that Paula Goldner took the huge amounts of jerky, incomplete footage shot with shoestring budgets and values, eventually editing it into something imaginative and fun. Blackton lost that first film to a shady promoter, and started over on a second version. This time he took segments from the finished film and combined them with old Vitagraph footage.
The film, called “The Film Parade,” previewed in early February with “A Farewell to Arms,” and Variety reported on February 7 that “It is fitting that the first feature length history of pictures should be turned out by J. S. Blackton, veteran producer and one time head of Vitagraph…It is a seven reel feature packed with interest. Blackton has dug deep into history.”
Soon after, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences sponsored a showing of the film along with a demonstration of sound showmanship at Warner Bros. on February 16, 1933. It was so popular that the screening required two stages to accommodate the crowd. Two prints ran simultaneously, “with one soundtrack synchronized to fit the visual picture.”
The August 22, 1933, Variety reported that Madeline Woods and Larry Rogers intended to roadshow the picture, accompanied by a Blackton lecture, but that failed to materialize. Blackton did gain a screening before “Curtain at Eight” at the Los Angeles Theatre to fair business, per the October 17, 1933, Daily Variety. From this, Principal Pictures signed a contract with Blackton to distribute the film in eleven western states on a straight percentage, only advancing print costs, per the October 31 Daily Variety.
Variety reviewed the film on December 26 of that year, describing Blackton’s evolution of motion and pictures into motion pictures. “A novel idea which makes interesting entertainment but it could have been developed into far more outstanding value. Picture was here for one day, along with a western, on a twin bill. That’s about it’s (sic) booking value but among the dualers it should have pretty wide circulation if for no other reason than that it’s a change from the usual diet.” They also stated, “It is perhaps of greater interest to people in the film business than out of it, but for the layman it should have sufficient appeal to make advertising or exploitation on it an effective instrument in aiding business.”
The Hollywood Reporter review thought that the film would fine a treasured place beside Terry Ramsaye’s “Thousand and One Nights” in libraries, as both did a swell job in describing the evolution of picture making. The trade considered the film something for more of an art house crowd, but called it “…interesting, educational, authoritative, and generally quite entertaining. Commodore Blackton, who has tastefully interwoven much autobiography into the production, has done a good job of assembling the material and his lecture adds much to the picture’s enjoyment.”
The film played to OK business into early 1934, when Blackton began booking it himself into clubs, schools, the American Legion, and universities, with much if not all of these proceeds benefiting these organizations. Blackton often appeared on the radio in these towns to drum up business as well. He bought ads in newspapers which extolled his background, noted excellent reviews, and quoted excerpts of letters from people like President Franklin Roosevelt, USC President Kleinsmid, Thomas Edison, and Louella Parsons, among others. Before these screenings, Blackton would reminisce about the history of the film industry and behind the scenes stories, followed by “stars of yesterday” who would appear to also talk about the old days. At the Santa Monica American Legion’s screening in 1935, Ben Turpin, Snub Pollard, Clara Kimball Young, and Flora Finch would also relate stories of bygone days.
To help promote the film, Blackton and the Legion sponsored an identification contest, where the person who could identify the most stars from photos would win an oil painting. Photos were placed in four areas around downtown Santa Monica, and people would fill out lists of names to turn in at the theatre.
The Los Angeles Examiner reported on a screening of the film in 1935 at Hollywood Concert Hall which featured stars such as Young, Finch, and Kate Price taking bows, which brought tears and lumps to the throat. Theda Bara’s appearance drew loud applause. The paper noted that when the crowd recognized their favorites on screen they cheered, and laughed at old hats and fashions. Rob Wagner in his “Rob Wagner’s Script” noted that, “Many of the spectators had toiled long and arduously in Hollywood’s celluloid garden, and they greeted with tense silence the shadows of favorites and co-workers who have answered the last casting call, Valentino, lovely Barbara LaMarr, Mabel Normand, Bobby Harron.”
By 1935, Blackton landed on the relief rolls after his investments were wiped out. He was appointed director of the Federal work-relief project in Hollywood, a motion picture production unit, that would make educational films “that would assist the progressive method of education which aims at having students learn to live by living and doing,” per the August 1, 1935 Los Angeles Times. Blackton tentatively hoped to produce six shorts a month, but so far only one reel monthly related to relief projects had been released since its inception in November, 1934. 200 unemployed studio technicians assisted in making the films.
Though Blackton died in 1941, seven scenes of “The Film Parade” appeared in a Cinerama production. Blackton’s widow, now Mrs. William P. S. Earle, sued in August 1956, claiming that the scenes were employed without her permission, asking that the film be pulled from circulation and all negatives be destroyed. Earle must have lost, because no further word appears in the papers, and no Cinerama film was ever destroyed.
The Earles must have been struggling as well, because Frank Sennes, proprietor of the bawdy “girlie” show at the Moulin Rouge nightclub, screened the film at the club in August 1957. The Los Angeles Times stated, “Mae Murray and Francis X. Bushman were at the Moulin Rouge in person and saw themselves in scenes from pictures that made them famous. Blackton himself did the narration on this film produced in 1935. In 1940 he made an attempt to release it with little success. In 1941 he was killed in an automobile accident and until now the picture has gathered dust.” On August 23, the film opened at the El Rey Theatre in a regular run.
The film seemed to disappear again until the 1970s, when film archivist Robert Gitt found scattered footage and reconstructed it, first in 1974, and then again in 2009, when it appeared as part of UCLA’s Festival of Preservation