A burglar attempts to rob a New York high rise but he didn’t count on angry women armed with brooms catching him in the act. Very early film from the Vitagraph company.
If you’ve never heard of Vitagraph or J. Stuart Blackton, you are missing out on one of the most interesting innovators of early American film. Like Georges Méliès, Blackton had been involved in a stage magic act before entering the motion picture game with collaborator Albert E. Smith. Smith and Blackton had been born just six months apart in England (Blackton in Yorkshire, Smith in Kent) and as children, both immigrated to the United States with their parents.
Smith and Blackton jumped into movie production in 1897, just two years after motion picture projection had changed the entire business model. Their newly-formed Vitagraph studio had to compete with the Edison film company, which had invented the movie camera, as well as big names like Méliès, Gaumont, Pathé and Lumière.
The Burglar on the Roof is one of the earliest surviving Vitagraph films and it uses a classic formula that had worked well for other studios: a frenzy of funny violence.
A burglar (Blackton) is pulling up loot through the skylight when a pair of women, one armed with a broom, attack him. Some men join in the fray and the burglar attempts to fight back but he is clearly losing the battle. Hey, what else did you expect in a 30-second film?
Smith, who would later be more of a money man for Vitagraph, worked the camera for The Burglar on the Roof while Blackton took the starring role as the hapless would be bandit. The pair switched off duties before and behind the camera in their early days. Back then, a movie mogul had to be the chief cook and bottle washer.
In a 1925 letter, Smith wrote that The Burglar on the Roof was the first Vitagraph film, a claim that has been challenged. (First-hand experiences are valuable but human memory is faulty. Always ask for documentation.) He stated that the picture was shot in fall of 1897 but historian Charles Musser places the production date in late summer of 1898. What is agreed upon by all is that the picture was shot on the roof of Vitagraph’s lower Manhattan studio. (140 Nassau Street, if you were curious.)
This film is sometimes cited as the start of Blackton’s Happy Hooligan series but I have my doubts. In the first place, the series is generally reckoned to have launched in 1900. It seems odd to have two years between sequels in the fast-paced world of early cinema. Second, while the burglar is the title character, the film actually focuses on the residents defending their property. I guess Women Beating a Burglar with Brooms During a Daring Rooftop Robbery just didn’t have that snap to it.
The film is also sometimes listed as one of the roots of the gangster genre which is, let’s face it, a pretty weak claim. This picture is clearly intended to be a broad slapstick comedy and making the recipient of the broomstick blows a thief is a smart way to ensure that the audience is rooting for the right side.
I am similarly credulous about claims that this picture helped stretch the concept of the motion picture narrative. Both Lumière’s The Biter Bit (1895) and George Albert Smith’s The X-Rays (1897) show more sophisticated comedic storylines. (And those are just two random examples off the top of my head.) The Burglar on the Roof is cute but hitting people in a funny manner is neither a complex narrative nor particularly new to films in 1898.
And now let’s talk about copyrights. You know how sometimes the crazy paranoid guy actually has something happen to him? Like, he says that the government is out to get him and then he discovers that he was overcharged on sales tax that one time at WinCo? It’s not a big thing, really, but it makes his year. Well, that’s what happened here. Thomas Edison was famously paranoid and litigious about motion picture technology and happily sued all comers for decades. Blackton and Smith’s Vitagraph company had been a proper exhibitor for Edison’s films but then they were caught red-handed pirating his war pictures. Whoopsy!
Over a barrel, they were obliged to acknowledge Edison’s patents and then helped Edison to dupe the films of Méliès and, later, Lubin. (You can read more on this subject in Hollywood’s Copyright Wars: From Edison to the Internet by Peter Decherney.)
As you can see, this was a freewheeling time when movie moguls were more akin to bandits than businessmen. (Have things changed all that much, I wonder?) However, I should point out that Vitagraph (and Blackton in particular) was a real trailblazer in film technology, helping to pioneer animated films, American feature films, the star system and the comedy screen team concept.
The Burglar on the Roof is one of the earliest surviving Vitagraph films and it’s a droll little comedy too. If you really want to be a brat, you can hold it up as an early example of the action heroine, though I think that’s stretching things a bit. While the picture is not as innovative as Blackton’s later work, it is still enjoyable and historically important.
Where can I see it?
Released on DVD as part of the Edison: The Invention of the Movies box set from Kino. The box is a fascinating trip through American film history and is highly recommended.
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