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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Film Folk (Rob Wagner, 1918)

I’m uncertain whether to call this book fiction or nonfiction. It’s a collection of anecdotes about filmmaking in the silent era written in narrative form from the perspective of a star, an extra, a director, a writer, and a publicist. The names and places are admittedly fictionalized, but often only just. It takes very little to connect the book’s “Jackson X. Kerriman” to the real Jack W. Kerrigan, for example. The studios as well — there are fairly transparent references to shooting jungle adventures at Selig or slapstick comedies at Keystone. I imagine the stories are punched-up, so to speak, and reimagined as though they were all coming from the same source, but that they’re ultimately based in somebody’s real experiences.

Inscription: Pasted on the inside front cover is a plate that reads “Brainerd Memorial Library, Haddam, Connecticut, No. 114, July 17, 1918”. Beneath it is carefully written “In memory of Martha E. Brainerd”.