In 1896, English émigré Blackton was moonlighting as a reporter/artist for the New York Evening World when he was sent to interview Thomas Edison about his new film projector. The inventor talked the entrepreneurial reporter into buying a set of films and a projector. A year later, Blackton and business partner Smith founded the American Vitagraph Company in direct competition with Edison. A third partner, distributor William "Pop" Rock, was added around the turn of the century. The company's main studio was located in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY. The company's first claim to fame came from newsreels: Vitagraph cameramen were on the scene to film events from the Spanish-American War of 1898. These shorts were among the first works of motion-picture propaganda, and a few had that most characteristic fault of propaganda, studio re-enactments being passed off as footage of actual events ("The Battle of Santiago Bay" was filmed in an improvised bathtub, with the "smoke of battle" provided by Mrs. Blackton's cigarette).
Vitagraph was not the only company seeking to make money off of Edison's motion picture inventions, and the inventor's lawyers were very busy at the end of the Nineteenth Century filing patents and suing competitors. Blackton did his best to avoid lawsuits by buying a special license from Edison and by agreeing to sell many of his most popular films to Edison for distribution.
The American Vitagraph Company made many contributions to the history of movie-making. It was one of the original ten production companies included in Edison's attempt to corner movie-making, the Motion Pictures Patent Company. Major stars included Florence Turner (the "Vitagraph Girl"), Maurice Costello (the first of the matinee idols), and Jean (the "Vitagraph Dog" and the first animal star of the Silent Era). Larry Trimble was a noted director of films for Turner and Jean (he was also the dog's owner). John Bunny made films for Vitagraph in the 1910's, and was the most popular film comedian in the world in the years before Chaplin; his death in 1915 was observed worldwide. In 1910, a number of movie houses showed the five parts of the Vitagraph serial The Life of Moses consecutively (a total length of almost 90 minutes), making it one of many to claim the title of "the first feature film". A long series of Shakespeare adaptations were the first done of the Bard's works in the U.S. (the surviving A Midsummer Night's Dream is considered one of the classics of the Silent Era). The 1915 feature The Battle Cry of Peace (written and directed by Blackton) was one of the great propaganda films of World War I--ironically, after America declared war, the film was modified for re-release because it was seen as not being sufficiently pro-war; thus it also earns a place in the history of censorship.
The Great War spelled the beginning of the end for Vitagraph. With the loss of foreign distributors and the rise of the great production-distribution houses, Vitagraph was slowly but surely squeezed out of the business. On April 22, 1925, Vitagraph owner Alfred Smith sold the company to Warner Brothers for a comfortable profit. The Flatbush studio (renamed Vitaphone) was later used as an independent unit within Warner Brothers, specializing in early sound shorts.