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Midwood on the Silver Screen

“Midwood, before Hollywood” - a retrospective look at Brooklyn’s contribution to film. PHOTO/ M.A. Rahman
“Midwood, before Hollywood” – a retrospective look at Brooklyn’s contribution to film. PHOTO/ M.A. Rahman

By M.A. Rahman

Published: October 11th, 2017

Filmmaking: This is a word that has allowed men of its craft to usher in countless thoughts and ideas to be projected onto the minds of audiences around the world. Synonyms for ‘filmmaking’ are often attributed to locations known for contributing to the industry, ranging from the obvious, Hollywood, to the more ‘exotic,’ Bollywood. However, in the eyes of filmmaker and professor Melissa Friedling, ‘Midwood, Brooklyn’ would also be a suitable term.

Observe Vitagraph Studios, located in Midwood, Brooklyn, as it was for a time one of the frontrunners of today’s Hollywood studios according to Friedling, who discussed its history and providence in the aptly named “Midwood, before Hollywood” presentation. The presentation was held on Thursday, October 5th in the Woody Tanger Auditorium of the Brooklyn College Library. Friedling, assistant professor of filmmaking and director of undergraduate programs in media studies at the New School University, presented alongside Brooklyn College’s adjunct professor Nellie Perera.

“The first modern film studio was here,” Friedling said, referencing the Vitagraph studio in Midwood, which was able to accomplish what few of its competitors at the time could. Founded in 1897 by Albert E. Smith and J. Stuart Blackton in Midwood, the studio would see a gradation of success in a world relatively new to film. In less than two decades after the advent of Edison’s kinetoscope, Vitagraph Studios was already regularly producing silent films and installing some of the earliest movie theatres in Manhattan.

In time, it would become regarded as “one of the most prolific American film production companies” by film archivist Eileen Bowser. In her presentation to the Brooklyn Lifelong Learning program, Freidling iterated the great strides made by Vitagraph Studios, saying “…things that we think about film started here, things like full length feature films, movie stars, the adaptation of classic literature, etc.”

Despite this, its time in the spotlight would shine for less time than expected. Moving into the Great Depression-era, it became clear that with the incorporation of sound in films, Brooklyn may not have been an ideal location to set up a studio. As it turned out, Vitagraph Studios was situated near a train station in the already noise-polluted city, which posed problems with the noise sensitive microphones of the time. Thus began the studio’s descent into relative obscurity and its eventual demise in the age of sound.

The 1933 short film “Buzzin’ Around” was one of Vitagraph Studios first foray into sound films. It also became one of its last independently produced films before the company was acquired by Warner Brothers and ceased productions. Friedling highlighted the struggling transition from silence to sound in films, which was reflected in films like “Buzzin’ Around,” in which sounds were loud and dialogue was muffled out.

Another telltale sign of the impending end of Vitagraph and the age of silent film could be seen in the film’s casting choice. The protagonist in “Buzzin’ Around,” portrayed by veteran silent film actor Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, had recently been acquitted of a murder case and was in desperate need of work. Arbuckle’s performance was not well received and came off as somewhat out of place.

Silent actors were becoming few and far between, the exception being one Arbuckle’s own pupils, Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin, as many would come to know, would see the demise of his career over political conspiracy later on, which ultimately marked the end of silent film altogether.

The Vitagraph Studios building was eventually demolished. Although no commemorative plaque or monument for the studio exists, the aged Vitagraph Smokestack still subsists, like a beacon to an age long forgotten. Yet from perspective of Friedling, the impression of the area that the Vitagraph building gives is not one of gloom, but of excitement: “For filmmakers like myself, who’s from Midwood, it’s exciting to know their was a major entertainment atmosphere here, even for a time…especially when you realize a lot of the credit really should go to Midwood.”

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