Buccaneer: James Stuart Blackton and the Birth of American Movies (Donald Dewey, 2016)

I don’t as a rule mention the nonfiction books I read here, but I have before and I might as well this time.

This is a biography of J. Stuart Blackton, one of the founders of the pioneering film studio Vitagraph. I should say, the larger part of the book is simply a history of Vitagraph — it spends as much time on Smith, Reader, and Rock as it does Blackton — but I’m not complaining. The focus does shift more to Blackton in the later part, after Warner Bros. takes over the studio and the once millionaire director descends rapidly into poverty, never losing his optimism or delusion that his fortunes are just about to turn.

The trouble with biographies of the Vitagraph founders is that Blackton and Smith were both, depending on your outlook, either tireless self-promoters or bald-faced liars. It’s difficult to untangle fact from fiction in their and their families’ personal versions of the past. This account doesn’t accept Blackton at face-value, but is less cynical than some and takes Blackton’s own words and Trimble’s memories of her father as being broadly speaking true.

Inscriptions: none, it’s brand new.

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The Saint of the Speedway (Ridgwell Cullum, 1924)

Two Alaskan boys set out to Australia chasing a mythical river of gold that turns out to be real. There’s millions of dollars worth for the taking, but it’s far too big a project for them to handle themselves in their little boat. They charter a ship and Jim Cleaver, one of the Alaskans, leaves with its captain and crew and $500,000 in the hold, but on their first voyage, the ship is caught in a storm and sinks.

Back at home, Saint Claire Cleaver and her mother are left to fend for themselves, which Claire decides to do by becoming a professional gambler. She proves to be poker player without equal and regularly breaks the bank at the Speedway Casino in Beacon Glory, Alaska. Beacon Glory was a boom town back in the gold rush, but now it’s a disreputable hive of scum and villainy. Enter the Aurora Clan. The Clan, who are replete with white gowns and conical hoods, make it their mission to clean up the town. None knows the identify of their leader, known only as the Chief Light.

Enter now another mysterious individual, Cy Liskard. Liskard’s struck it rich somewhere up north and is banking his gold in Beacon Glory — a curious, red gold not at all like the sort typically found in Alaska. Hint, hint. He insults Claire at the casino and thus makes an enemy of her boyfriend, Ivor McLagan. Ivor only drops into town occasionally, being preoccupied with his oil work further up the coast. When he returns, he’s met with the singularly remarkable sight of an abandoned ship drifting toward the rocks. When it finally beaches, he examines the wreck. Not unlike the Mary Celeste, it seems to have been abandoned quickly and for no obvious reason. There’s also evidence that it’s name plate has been altered, and recently so.

You’ve in all likelihood solved the puzzle already, so we’ll skip to the end. Chief Light Ivor sees that Captain Julian Casper, alias Cy Liskard, is hanged for the murder of Jim Cleaver. The gold, or what remains of it, is returned to Jim’s partner. A massive oil deposit is discovered that will at once reverse the fortunes of Beacon Glory. Ivor and Claire marry.

(Edit:) Also, ghosts. It would be remiss of me to not mention that there are ghosts.

Inscriptions: On the front endpaper and flyleaf there are three-ish lines of curious asemic writing in navy blue wax crayon. It’s not a childish scribble, it’s quite deliberately done. On the flyleaf there are even some faint pencil markings that appear to be a rough draft.

The Story of a Play (W.D. Howells, 1898)

Maxwell, a newspaper reporter and an aspiring playwright, marries Louise. Louise is a wealthy woman in her own right and her family is fabulously so. Louise’s father so much as offers to buy the newspaper for Maxwell, but of course Maxwell would never accept such a gift. He’s built up a little nest egg and has decided to quit the paper and try his hand in the theatre. Louise is overjoyed — she, at least, is convinced of Maxwell’s genius. Perhaps she’s a bit too enamored. To her, Maxwell’s play is Maxwell’s alone, and she resents the intrusion of actors and directors and producers into the mix. She fails to see the collaborative nature of the theatrical business, and she fails to see that it even is a business —  a play may be a great work of art, but if fails to sell tickets, nobody is going to stage it. Add to that the irrational jealousy Louise develops over the female lead and you begin to imagine that Louise, as tireless and enthusiastic a champion for her husband’s work as she is, isn’t exactly helping.

Inscription: a plate pasted on the inside front cover reads “Limerick Public Library, no. 1254”. Open on Saturdays, 2 to 9 pm. Two cents per week late fee.