Thursday, October 27, 2016

FILMBAY 2000 Greatest Films of All-Time (1888-2014) by Year # 0060 - PRINCESS NICOTINE; OR, THE SMOKE FAIRY (J. Stuart Blackton, 1909, USA, 5m, BW)


(J. Stuart Blackton, 1909, USA, 5m, BW)



Princess Nicotine

Published 1909
Comedic short that pits a smoker against a tiny fairy, brought to life through early special effects.
Preserved by the Library of Congress.
Run time 5:19
Production Company Vitagraph Company
Audio/Visual Silent, Black and White
Director: J. Stuart Blackton
Camera: Tony Gaudio
Starring: Paul Panzer, Gladys Hulette


A man is in a room, preparing to smoke his pipe. Suddenly, he drowses off and falls asleep. While he is asleep two tiny figures appear among his smoking accoutrements – one a small child and the other, a grown woman, both in fairy costumes. They appear to be only a few inches tall. There is an edit, and we see them at closer range, moving among the oversized implements. The woman gets into the cigar box, and the child hides in the pipe, putting tobacco over herself in the process. The man wakes up and starts smoking his pipe, but he notices something strange. He shakes it out and the child tumbles out happily (apparently unconcerned that she was almost burnt up!). She and the woman dance on the table for a bit, and the man smokes and tries to trap them in the cigar box. When he looks inside, all he finds is a flower, but when he removes it, the child is there smoking a cigarette. Then, he gets up and leaves. Now, there is an animated sequence which shows the matches arranging themselves and then a cigar rolls itself out of leaves and tobacco. The man walks into what looks like a different room and finds the cigar, lighting it and also breaking a bottle that holds one of the fairies. He begins smoking and blows the smoke at the fairy, which seems to annoy her. She builds a bonfire out of the remaining matches, and he extinguishes it with a spritzer bottle. He then uses the spritzer to spray the fairy off of the table.


Beautifully preserved short that shows the influence on American filmmakers by George Méliès, the pioneer of trick photography and special effects. This short is very much in the Melies tradition. It starts with a man in a parlour smoking a pipe. We then cut to an iris shot with oversized props of two mischievious tobacco fairies, one of whom is being stuffed into a pipe. The two humorously battle, playing pranks on one another. About halfway through the short, the background disappears, but this is to allow for some of the real highlights of this film.

Halfway through the film, we seen a fabulous stop motion animation sequence where a flower becomes a cigar, an fine early example of the art. (The first animated film only came out three years before this one reeler in 1906.) After the man returns to smoke the cigar, we are treated to a complicated inset shot, with the fairy first setting fire to some matches, and then the man retaliating with a spritzer bottle. Any time we see the fairy close, it is through an iris, but in this case, when we see the man, we also see the fairy on the table dodging the water. This effect is executed beautifully and looks believable nearly 100 years later. This is a wonderful gem of early film history.

there is a wealth of material here for a dedicated Freudian – even if “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” I alluded to the special effects, which were managed by shooting the women in a mirror at a distance that made it appear that they were small and on the table, rather than using double exposure and having to shoot everything twice. Keeping that technique in mind, this is a very interesting performance. I think the “different room” continuity confusion was a result of the trickiness of these effects: on a second viewing I noticed that most of the background was replaced with a black curtain starting just before the animated sequence.

Possibly they were having difficulty getting the effects to show up against the original backdrop. For the insert shots, we see the fairies interacting with large props (a barrel-sized pipe bowl, and matchsticks the size of their legs, etc). I’ve seen claims that the first time this was done was for the movie “Dr. Cyclops” (1940), but here’s an earlier example and there may be more.  The editing structure is relatively sophisticated, not just stringing together scenes, but allowing us to change our perspective on the action as it develops. The movie owes something to the French, in terms of its effects and overall tone, but there’s something quite unique in the subject matter and the ambiguous attitude towards smoking and tiny women.

This fascinating short from Vitagraph shows a very innovative approach to trick photography and allows more direct interaction between actors than double exposure would have. Director J. Stuart Blackton brings a fantasy to life that has elements of Guy and Méliès, while also displaying a distinctly American style.

James Stuart Blackton

James Stuart Blackton (January 5, 1875 – August 13, 1941), usually known as J. Stuart Blackton, was an Anglo-American film producer and director of the silent era. One of the pioneers of motion pictures, he founded Vitagraph Studios in 1897. 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. He was the commodore of the Atlantic Yacht Club.

James Stuart Blackton was born on January 5, 1875, in Sheffield, Yorkshire, England, to Henry Blacktin and Jessie Stuart. He emigrated with his family to the United States in 1885 and changed the family name to Blackton. He worked as a reporter and illustrator for the New York Evening World newspaper, and performed regularly on stage with conjuror Albert Smith. In 1896, Thomas Edison publicly demonstrated the Vitascope, one of the first film projectors, and Blackton was sent to interview Edison and provide drawings of how his films were made. Eager for good publicity, Edison took Blackton out to his Black Maria, the special cabin he used to do his filming, and created a film on the spot of Blackton doing a lightning portrait of Edison. The inventor did such a good job selling the art of movie-making that he talked Blackton and partner Smith into buying a print of the new film as well as nine other films, plus a Vitascope to show them to paying audiences (Reader was brought back in to run the projector).
Vitagraph Studios founders William T. Rock, Albert E. Smith and J. Stuart Blackton (1916)

The new act was a great success, largely despite the various things Blackton and Smith were doing between the Edison films. The next step was to start making films of their own. In this way the American Vitagraph Company was born. During this period, J. Stuart Blackton was not only running the Vitagraph studio, but also producing, directing, writing, and even starring in his films. He played the comic strip character "Happy Hooligan" in a series of shorts. Since profits were constantly increasing, Blackton felt that he could try any idea that sprang to his head. In a series of films, Blackton developed the concepts of animation. The first of these films is The Enchanted Drawing, with a copyright date of 1900 but probably made at least a year earlier. In this film, Blackton sketches a face, cigars, and a bottle of wine. He appears to remove the last drawings as real objects, and the face appears to react. The "animation" here is of the stop-action variety where the camera is stopped, a single change is made, and the camera is then started again. The process was first used by Méliès and others.

The transition to stop-motion was apparently accidental and occurred around 1905. According to Albert Smith, one day the crew was filming a complex series of stop-action effects on the roof while steam from the building's generator was billowing in the background. On playing the film back, Smith noticed the odd effect created by the steam puffs scooting across the screen and decided to reproduce it deliberately. A few films (some of which are lost) use this effect to represent invisible ghosts or to have toys come to life. In 1906, Blackton directed Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, which uses stop-motion as well as stick puppetry to produce a series of effects. After Blackton's hand draws two faces on a chalkboard, they appear to come to life and engage in antics. Most of the film uses live action effects instead of animation, but nevertheless this film had a huge effect in stimulating the creation of animated films in America. In Europe, the same effect was had from "The Haunted Hotel" (1907), another Vitagraph short directed by Blackton. The "Haunted Hotel" was mostly live-action, about a tourist spending the night in an inn run by invisible spirits. Most of the effects are also live-action (wires and such), but one scene of a dinner making itself was done using stop-motion, and was presented in a tight close-up that allowed budding animators to study it for technique.

Blackton made another animated film that has survived, 1907's "Lightning Sketches", but it has nothing to add to the art of animation. In 1908 he made the first American film version of Romeo and Juliet, filmed in New York City's Central Park and The Thieving Hand, filmed in Flatbush, Brooklyn. By 1909, Blackton was too absorbed in the business of running Vitagraph to have time for filmmaking. He came to regard his animation experiments in particular as being rather juvenile (they receive no mention in his unpublished autobiography).
Blackton and daughter Marian Blackton Trimble (1901–1993), author of a personal biography of her father that was edited by film historian Anthony Slide

Stuart Blackton believed that the US should join the Allies involved in WWI overseas and in 1915 produced The Battle Cry of Peace. Former President Theodore Roosevelt was one of the film's staunchest supporters and convinced Gen. Leonard Wood to loan Blackton an entire regiment of marines to use as extras. Upon its release, the film generated a controversy rivaling that of Birth of a Nation because it was considered as militaristic propaganda.

Blackton left Vitagraph to go independent in 1917, but returned in 1923 as junior partner to Albert Smith. In 1925, Smith sold the company to Warner Brothers for a comfortable profit.

Blackton did quite well with his share until the Stock Market Crash of 1929, which destroyed his savings. He spent his last years on the road, showing his old films and lecturing about the days of silent movies. His daughter Violet Virginia Blackton (1910–1965) married writer Cornell Woolrich in 1930 but their marriage was annulled in 1933.

He married Evangeline Russell de Rippeteau in 1936.

Blackton died August 13, 1941, a few days after he was hit by a car while crossing the street with his son. At the time of his death he was working for Hal Roach on experiments to improve color process backgrounds. Blackton was cremated and interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.

Select filmography

1898     The Burglar on the Roof     Short film
1898     Tearing Down the Spanish Flag     Short film
1898     The Humpty Dumpty Circus     Short film
1900     The Enchanted Drawing     Short film
1905     The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes; or, Held for Ransom
1906     Humorous Phases of Funny Faces     Short film
1906     The Automobile Thieves     Short film
1907     A Curious Dream     Short film
1908     The Thieving Hand     Short film
1908     Macbeth     Short film
1908     Romeo and Juliet     Short film
1908     The Airship, or 100 Years Hence     Short film
1908     Antony and Cleopatra     Short film
1908     Oliver Twist     Short film
1909     Princess Nicotine; or, The Smoke Fairy     Short film
1909     Les Misérables
1909     A Midsummer Night's Dream     Short film
1911     A Tale of Two Cities
1912     Richard III
1912     Cardinal Wolsey
1915     The Battle Cry of Peace
1917     The Judgement House
1918     Life's Greatest Problem
1922     The Glorious Adventure
1923     The Virgin Queen
1923     On the Banks of the Wabash
1924     Between Friends
1925     The Happy Warrior    
1926     Bride of the Storm
1927     The American    
1934     The Film Parade


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