|The Theatre of Science by Robert Grau, 1914|
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When I first discovered the shelf of film books at the Anza Branch Library, I read a lot about director Edwin S Porter, in books like The Film Till Now by Paul Rotha and Richard Griffith (1930) and The Western from Silents to Cinerama (1973) by George N Fenin and William K Everson. Various books said that Porter invented the fiction film or he invented editing or he invented directing. Later studies found that he didn't do all of those things, but he did do a lot. I have chosen to focus on 1903, a particularly productive year in his career.
|Showmen's Trade Review, 18-January-1947|
Edwin S Porter was born in Connellsville, Pennsylvania in 1870. He worked a variety of odd jobs until he wound up working in the electrical department at the Cramp and Sons shipyard in Philadelphia. In 1893 he enlisted in the US Navy as an electrician. In 1896, he went to work for Raff and Gammon, which handled Edison's Vitascope projector. Porter toured from Canada to South America as a projectionist.
Porter went to work for the Edison Film Manufacturing Company in 1899. Within a few years, he was in charge of production at Edison's New York studio. He produced, directed, edited and photographed many movies each year. He worked with other people like Gilbert M Anderson and J Searle Dawley, but there are no credits to tell who did what.
By 1903, Porter was established as an important figure in the film industry. Most movies produced at this time were made up of single shots or a few shots, which might represent an actuality or a staged event. The staging could be very elaborate (see anything by Georges Méliès), but it was usually presented in one shot or a limited number of shots.
In January 1903, Edison released "Life of an American Fireman." It became a very influential movie in a very short time. The movie tells a complete story in about half a reel. It starts with a fireman dozing at a rolltop desk. In a circular insert, we see a woman put a young child to bed. Most viewers assume that they are his wife and daughter. This was a double exposure, which was not common in 1903. The vignette fades away. A sign by the desk carries the Thomas Edison Company logo. The light from the lamp over the desk, and probably the lamp, are painted on the backdrop. The fireman wakes up, paces, then exits to the right. There is a quick fade out.
And a quick fade in to a close shot of a fire alarm box. This is not the first close up, but it is an early and influential one. There is not a painted backdrop. We can see people walking in the background. Note how clear the instructions are.
A hand reaches in from the left and follows the instructions perfectly. "Turn handle to right until door opens..."
"then pull inside hook ONCE ONLY and"
"SHUT THE DOOR" The shot fades out more slowly than the previous shot.
The next shot fades in on the firehouse dormitory. We see the firefighters sleeping. When the alarm sounds, we assume, they jump out of bed and don their gear. Then they slide down the pole in the foreground. We see all eight men in the dormitory go down the pole. The first two men are wearing dark shirts. The shot fades out.
Firepoles are one of the great movie clichés about firehouses. Nowadays, most firehouses don't have them because of safety issues.
Stall doors in the background spring open and horses run out to their places. Hostlers hitch the horses to the steam pumper on the left and the ladder truck on the right. An excited dog dances in the foreground. We see six people slide down the pole and climb onto the equipment. The first man down wears a white shirt and the second has a dark vest with a white shirt. This lack of continuity looks odd to modern audiences, if they notice. I think the scene, set inside a firehouse, was shot outside on a set because of the bright lighting and the dirt or grass floor.
The film cuts directly to a shot of a firehouse that appears to be two buildings side by side. Three sets of doors open and we see a pumper, a hose wagon and a ladder truck pull out and run past the camera. There is some speculation that this shot and the following ones are from Edison actualities and they were edited together for this movie. The shot fades.
We cut to a scene on a snowy street. A crowd of people watch the street. We see a chief's carriage go by, carrying one man, then a ladder truck, and then a pumper, putting out plenty of black smoke as the boiler warms up. This shot does not match with the group of vehicles from the shot in the firehouse. The chief's carriage is first and it carries only one man. It is followed by the ladder truck. The white horse in the first shot is hitched to the left side of the pumper. In this shot, a white horse is hitched to the right. Two more fire wagons and another hook and ladder follow the pumper. Then another pumper, another wagon, and a third pumper. That is a lot of fire equipment. This is the only snowy scene in the movie. The scene fades out.
We see a shot taken along a sparsely settled road. A chief's carriage with two men passes. Then a short wagon and a hook and ladder. Two excited dogs run back and forth across the road. Then another wagon. The camera pans slightly as each vehicle goes by.
Many people enjoy looking for dogs in early movies. They turn up frequently in actualities and dramatic films.
The pan stops in front of a nondescript house. We see a fireman deploying a hose line. The shot fades.
The next shot fades in on a bedroom with a smoky fire, or at least a lot of smoke. A woman jumps out of bed and reacts to the fire. She looks out the window in the background and tries to open it. Unsuccessful, she collapses on the bed.
We see a fireman chop through the door on the right with his ax. The door bumps the Thomas Edison sign that hangs between the door and the window. He tears down the curtains and knocks out the window. We see the top of a ladder appear at the window.
The fireman picks up the woman and carries her down the ladder.
In a moment, he appears again, picks up a previously unseen little girl from the bed and takes her down the ladder.
Two firemen climb the ladder with a hose line and spray water everywhere but the source of the smoke, which is behind the trunk on the right. The first man wears a dark coat and the second wears a light coat. The shot fades out.
Some people think the woman and the child are the ones who appeared in the vignette at the beginning. The wallpaper is similar, but there is no lamp by the bed, and the bed looks different.
The next shot shows the front of the house, with smoke pouring from under the front porch. A fireman chops down the front door and rushes in.
A woman appears at the upper left window and opens it. We soon realize that this is the same woman whom we saw rescued earlier. A later movie would have intercut the interior and exterior scenes. Porter was still learning and inventing. Having the woman open the window was also a mistake in continuity.
A fireman appears in the window and does something it is hard to identify in the dark, probably knocking out the window. He carries the woman down the ladder and sets her down on the ground. She begs for him to rescue her little girl, so he goes back. All of this takes much longer than the time he was gone in the previous shot. He brings the little girl down, then two firemen with a hose line start up the ladder. Both men wear dark coats, another lapse in continuity. The film ends.
"Life of an American Fireman" was a hit. Other studios copied it, either making their own versions or duping (duplicating) copies of the Edison film. The Edison signs were an attempt to prevent that.
|New York Clipper, 28-February-1903|
|New York Clipper, 04-April-1903|
This Vitagraph ad offers the movie, even though Vitagraph was an Edison rival.
|New York Clipper, 21-October-1903|
The movie is worth watching.
In August, 1903 Edison released a very short movie, less than one minute long, called "The Gay Shoe Clerk." An older lady and a younger lady, probably mother and daughter, visit a shoe store. The clerk shows the young lady a few pairs of shoes and she selects one. The clerk sits down let her try them on.
The unusual feature of this film is a close up that shows the young lady's lower leg. Things get risqué when the hem of her skirt creeps up to show her ankle, then her calf and then a glimpse of a white garter. Shots like this were not common in 1903.
Excited by the display of the young lady's limb, the clerk leans forward and kisses her. This is not a peck on the cheek, but a lingering smooch. The older lady notices and reacts broadly.
The older lady picks up her umbrella and beats the clerk, knocking him off of his stool.
|New York Clipper, 15-August-1903|
The gag is an old one, but people still laugh at it. If you'd like to watch the movie, several versions are available on YouTube.
In September, 1903, Edison released an ambitious production of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." I love the style of the lettering in Edison titles of this time. I grew up hearing people called Uncle Toms, and it was not a compliment. The character in the novel, which I have read, was not meek and submissive. He stood up for his Christian beliefs. However, the character as he appeared on the stage throughout the second half of the Nineteenth Century was not always so noble. The movie reflects the stage tradition. In fact, I think it looks as if Porter brought in the company and perhaps the sets of what was called a Tom Show.
This is the first movie we have looked at in this essay which has intertitles. In fact, it is the only one. They are necessary to hint at what is going on in most scenes. Even with them, people today would probably be puzzled by many of the events. Contemporary audiences would have been familiar with the story. I thought I would go through this one in a little more detail to try to clarify what is going on.
Uncle Tom and his wife Chloe are played by white actors in blackface. Eliza and her son Harry are also supposed to be slaves, but they wear relatively light blackface. In this single shot scene, it is not clear why Eliza wants Tom to run away. It is because their impoverished owner, Arthur Shelby, plans to sell Tom and Harry to slave traders. Eliza and Harry are escaping north. The scene ends with a direct cut rather than a fade.
Contemporary viewers would probably have remembered that Phineas Fletcher was a convert to Quakerism who struggled with the concept of non-violence. The Quakers were major participants in the Underground Railroad.
Note that the potbelly stove is painted on the backdrop. Eliza and Harry enter a tavern and are confronted by a wicked slave trader. He puts them in a room off to the right. Phineas Fletcher enters. Phineas is the man in the foreground dressed like WC Fields playing Mr Micawber in David Copperfield. The wicked slave trader is in the background, talking to the bartender. Other slave traders arrive and Phineas keeps them busy by talking to them while Eliza and Harry climb out the back window. The wicked slave trader sees the open window and pulls a pair of guns on everyone. Everyone freezes, as they might have at the end of a scene in the play. This seems like a good spot for a fade out, but the shot ends with another direct cut.
Eliza's escape across the ice was a famous set piece in the Tom shows. We see Eliza and Harry enter in the right foreground. Ice flows down a river in the background. Eliza makes a gesture of determination and runs off to the left. We see a dog run by from right to left. Then another dog, or the same dog after a jump cut. Then another dog. Then we see the slave traders. The wicked slave trader sees something that Eliza has dropped.
We notice Eliza and Harry behind the tree on the left. Then they begin to slide along, presumably on the ice. Phineas and the slave traders follow them to the tree. Phineas falls in the river and the slave traders stop to pull him out. Eliza and Harry drift off to the right.
We see a small cottage on the left. At the right edge of the cottage, we see a glimpse of the white apron of the lady who is waiting to enter through the door. We can tell she is a Quaker because she is quaintly dressed. The Quaker lady checks to see if the coast is clear and Eliza and Harry follow her out. A man enters from the right. He is George Harris, Eliza's husband and Harry's father. They embrace warmly.
A Quaker man (quaint clothes again, this time resembling the Quaker Oats man) enters and greets his wife. I assume they are Simeon and Rachel Halliday. He warns the escaped slaves that someone is coming and leads them off to the right, behind what may be a pile of rocks or a hill.
The slave traders and Phineas enter. They spot the Quaker man and the escaped slaves on a cliff and threaten them. George shoots a pistol and scares Phineas, who needs to take a drink.
George keeps shooting. One of the slave traders falls. Phineas makes a funny reaction. In the book, George pushed a slave trader off of a cliff. Eliza made him take the injured slave trader to the Quakers to save his life. We have no time for that in this version.
But we do have time for a cute recreation of the famous 1870 race between the steamboats Natchez and Robert E Lee. One of the boats explodes. This did not happen in the real race, which The Robert E Lee won. The lightning effects at the end of the shot are nice. This scene is not only superfluous and inaccurate, but it is an anachronism, since the story was set before the Civil War.
We see a group of slaves dance on the wharf by the Robert E Lee. Slaves dancing was a popular stereotype. At least they appear to have been played by African Americans.
We see the boat tied up and the gang plank deployed. The first passenger to disembark is a young girl. This is Evangeline (Eva) St Claire, the daughter of Augustine St Claire. Eva stops to shake the hand of someone who must be Uncle Tom. Then she falls off the gangplank and into the water.
Uncle Tom jumps in to rescue Eva. Augustine shakes his hand and buys him from the slave trader.
A group of slaves stand in front of a columned mansion, celebrating the return of their master.
Augustine greets his wife Marie. Eva rushes to her for a hug. Augustine is accompanied by his New England cousin Miss Ophelia and Uncle Tom.
Eva jumps into Uncle Tom's arms.
Marie enters the house, followed by Eva, who pulls Uncle Tom by the hand. He stops to get Augustine's permission. Augustine gestures off to the right. Topsy enters and starts dancing wildly, amazing Miss Ophelia. Topsy has never known love. She snatches Miss Ophelia's scarf. Miss Ophelia hits Topsy with her fan.
In a night scene with a painted moon, another group of slaves enters and does a cakewalk. This was a form of dance created by slaves to mock their masters. It became widely popular in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries.
Uncle Tom and Eva enter and sit on a bench. He reads to her from a book, which may be the Bible.
Augustine and Miss Ophelia enter the garden. Eva rushes to his arms, then has Tom pick her up. Augustine kisses her goodnight and Tom takes her inside. Augustine looks sad and Miss Ophelia criticizes him, perhaps for letting Eva stay outside at night.
Perhaps Augustine was sad because Eva was sick. We see a slave woman, Marie, Augustine, Uncle Tom and Topsy gathered around her bed. Eva sits up and talks to them, then falls back, dead.
Two men enter a fancy barroom, greet the bartender, and sit at a table on the right. One is dressed like Phineas, but turns out to be Marks, one of slave hunters who was pursuing Eliza and Henry. Augustine and Uncle Tom enter. Augustine sits and Uncle Tom stands.
A big man enters and approaches the bartender with a broad gesture, probably offering drinks all around. We later learn that he is Simon Legree, a horrible slave owner. The slave hunters join him. He approaches Augustine, who refuses to join him. Legree takes a drink from the bar.
Angry at the perceived insult, Legree throws his drink in Uncle Tom's face.
Augustine punches Legree, knocking him to the floor.
The brave slave owner stabs Augustine with a knife, killing him, and runs away.
Augustine has died before he can free Uncle Tom. Marie puts all the slaves up for auction. But first we have more dancing (the little boy is especially good) and another stereotype, craps shooting. Uncle Tom stands quietly in the background. The lady next to him is probably Emmeline.
Legree grabs Emmeline's arm and she turns away. Marks clowns around, but Legree wins her in the auction.
Legree wants Uncle Tom and wins him despite the interference of Marks.
Uncle Tom and Emmaline beg for someone to rescue them from Legree, who is a cruel master.
Legree lifts his whip to beat Uncle Tom and the scene freezes, as it might in a stage production.
A group of slaves pick cotton in front of a painted backdrop. Uncle Tom kneels on the left. An overseer stands on the right. Emmaline stands near him.
Simon Legree enters and Emmaline does something that displeases him. He orders Uncle Tom to whip her.
Uncle Tom raises the whip and Emmaline pleads for mercy.
Uncle Tom throws down the whip, refusing to hurt her. Simon Legree is angry.
Legree has the two overseers, who are slaves, tie Uncle Tom to a cross-shaped whipping post and whip him.
Emmaline takes the whip from the overseer and threatens Legree with it. There is a long freeze and then a very slow fade out.
Simon Legree stands on the veranda of his home and orders a servant to bring him a drink.
Legree orders the two overseers to bring Uncle Tom. Legree throttles him and threatens him with a whip, but Uncle Tom begs him for mercy.
Legree knocks him down and orders the two overseers to take him away.
A man in a black top hat and a frock coat appears on the veranda and Legree motions him away. I assume this is George Shelby, the son of Uncle Tom's first owner, who tries to buy him from Legree.
Marks appears on the veranda and holds out some sort of a paper, perhaps, because it appears to bear a seal, a legal document. Legree swings at him and Marks ducks.
Legree threatens Marks with his whip and Marks shoots him dead.
Marks places the paper on the corpse, celebrates the death of the villain, and then exits.
A theatrical tableau is usually a scene where the performers pose but do not move. In this scene, we see Uncle Tom lying in a dark room, with painted light shining on him from a painted window. He is on the verge of death. A lady enters. Perhaps she is Emmaline. She gives him a drink of water.
The man in black, George Shelby, enters and kneels by Uncle Tom. Uncle Tom has a vision of a superimposed angel, then falls dead.
As Shelby weeps by Uncle Tom's side, we see a series of magic lantern slides which show scenes leading up to the Civil War and during the war, culminating with Abraham Lincoln freeing the slaves and then reconciliation between North and South. The print I watched ended abruptly at that point.
If you would like to see the film, here is a version on YouTube. I hope my notes will help to make it more understandable.
|New York Clipper, 05-September-1903|
In December, 1903, Edison released "The Great Train Robbery," a film that revolutionized the industry. I remember when I was a kid that a television station advertised that it was going to show "The Great Train Robbery." I think I looked forward to it for a week. I enjoyed it when I saw it.
Like "Uncle Tom's Cabin," "The Great Train Robbery" opens with a title. Unlike "Uncle Tom," it does not include any intertitles. They are not necessary to explain what is going on.
Inside the car, we see the express agent. He hears someone trying to get in the door. He locks the strongbox, throws the key out the open side door and crouches behind a pile of trunks and boxes. We see the bad guys crash through the door with an ax. The agent exchanges shots with the criminals until he is hit. The bad guys can't find the key to the strongbox, so they blow it up. It is hard to see in this screen capture, but double exposed scenery passes rapidly by the open side door. The smoke from the explosion was hand-colored.
This is the only movie of the set to have a surviving end title, although it was not on the version I watched for this essay.
|New York Clipper, 12-December-1903|
I recommend watching this one, especially if you haven't seen it before. This version runs at a good speed and has some hand coloring.
Other directors were exploring similar innovations in 1903. Frank Mottershaw made "A Daring Daylight Burglary." William Haggar made "Desperate Poaching Affray," which is supposed to have influenced "The Great Train Robbery."
Porter continued to churn out movies for Edison until 1909l Some are well worth a visit:
The Ex-Convict (1904): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ie0hAujJCRU
The Kleptomaniac (1905): https://youtu.be/yewVk4EKTzs
Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906): https://youtu.be/JPCcQN28hk8
The "Teddy" Bears (1907): https://youtu.be/uv92LWq4xFc
Rescued From an Eagle's Nest (1908): https://youtu.be/rrxlY5VTyqA
|Motion Picture News, 27-October-1917|
|Moving Picture World, 04-February-1911|
|Motion Picture News, 07-March-1914|
Porter also directed Mary Pickford in the 1914 version of Tess of the Storm Country. There is version available on YouTube. See if you think it is stodgy and unimaginative:
Porter stopped directing in 1915. Porter retired from the Precision Machine Company in 1925 and spent his time working on inventions, including a 3-D movie process. He died in 1941.
But I wanted to end on a happier note. In 1905, Porter made "The Little Train Robbery," a parody of "The Great Train Robbery," using children as actors and featuring a miniature park train. The leader of the desperados is a girl.
This post is part of the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon II, hosted by Fritzi at Movies Silently, Ruth at Silver Screenings and Aurora at Once Upon a Screen. Thank you to all three of them for all the hard work. Thank you to everyone who visited and I encourage you to read and comment on as many posts as you can. Bloggers love comments.
News of the Week As Shown in Films will appear tomorrow.