Monday, April 21, 2008
Edwin S. Porter is, perhaps more than any other filmmaker, known best for a single film, one that he directed in 1903, The Great Train Robbery. He is often credited as the American filmmaker who brought film out of the fairground and the vaudeville bill and into the nickelodeon, where the moviegoing experience became an event in itself.
For years, it was difficult to see much of Porter’s work. Often, it was assumed that after directing The Great Train Robbery, he slid into relative obscurity. However, his films are now available to view on a number of home video collections, including The Movies Begin, and most importantly, the Museum of Modern Art’s Edison: Invention of the Movies collection which, at least for those interested in the history of film, may be the most important DVD release of all time.
Using these sources, I decided to review the Porter films that are available, and compare them not only with his other films, but also with films being made by others at the same time. This is the first part in that series of reviews.
WHAT HAPPENED ON 23RD STREET, NEW YORK CITY (1901)
The earliest Porter film in the collection, this film gives an excellent idea of the appeal of motion pictures to early audiences. It’s short, filled with moving scenery of a bustling location, and includes people walking through the frame who may or may not be actors. Surely the many background figures seen are actual passers-by,
The camera is positioned on a sidewalk, and in front of the camera is a grate. Various figures walk around the grate, some stopping to look at it before moving on, causing the audience to anticipate some sort of gag to top off the short.
Finally, a couple come walking toward the camera. The woman, wearing a long dress, walks over the grate, causing her dress to be blown up, like Marilyn Monroe fifty years later. These two are obviously performers, but what makes it so interesting is that clearly, they come from far off in the distance, so their performance was very much “timed” to the length of the film. As soon as the woman steps off the grate, she is seen waving to someone across the street, and another passer-by as well as a policeman look into the camera.
There is clearly much blurring between “fiction” and “documentary” here, as it becomes unclear to us, especially a century later, just who is aware of what is going on, and who is being taken by surprise.
The short must have fulfilled all the demands that an early audience would have had for such a film. A documentary glimpse at a big American city, moving figures in the frame, a little humor with some sex thrown in, and above all, a short, sharp payoff to the whole thing.
TRAPEZE DISROBING ACT (1901)
This short plays like a burlesque comedy. A trapeze artist, hanging over a painted stage on a trapeze, performs a strip act, while two men cheer her on from their box seats at the side of the stage. It is shot in a single take, with the actors strategically placed in the frame for maximum effect. The whole film is clearly designed as a very basic mix of sex and comedy, and feels unsatisfying to a modern viewer looking for Porter’s narrative touch.
BURLESQUE SUICIDE, no. 2 (1902)
This is a strange little film. We see a man, sitting in a tight medium shot, at a small table, taking drinks of liquor and debating whether or not to blow his brains out, apparently. He finally lifts the gun, places it to his head just above the frame of the camera’s field of vision, then places it back on the table and laughs hysterically into the camera.
It’s difficult to know just how to take this film today. It seems like a morbid joke, especially considering that audiences at the time had no way of knowing whether or not the man really would commit suicide right then and there on camera. As it is, the film seems like another one-note film best designed for a very short “peepshow” screening.
JACK AND THE BEANSTALK (1902)
This is the type of film that Porter would become known for and really make his mark as a filmmaker at directing. We are shown the traditional fairy tale of “Jack and the Beanstalk”, played in an exaggerated, pantomime-style (two actors obviously playing the cow that Jack sells in exchange for the beans, for instance).
Porter’s set is obviously flat and painted, not unlike what Melies (no doubt his major influence) was doing in Paris at the time. However, watching Porter’s film, it seems too straddled between the physical immediacy of the motion picture as it existed in the US at that time, and the kind of outright fantasy and theatricality that Melies embraced rather than trying to conceal. It’s as if Porter wants to make us believe what we are seeing is real, rather than a kind of gloriously artificial illusion. That, I think, is the key to understanding where Porter’s trick films lack the kind of effectiveness seen in the best films of Melies, Zecca, and others. He seems, here, unwilling to fully let go of the “realistic” opportunities provided by the camera. In addition, his painted sets appear drab and uninspired compared to those in, say, “A Trip to the Moon”, which was released the same year. His special effects also feel somewhat clunky and uninspired. Porter was clearly still finding his style, although imitating the Melies fantasy narratives provided an important first step in that process.
LIFE OF AN AMERICAN FIREMAN (1903)
With this film, Porter found his style. He finds the perfect match for the documentary realism of the camera and the kind of stylized narrative that he was interested in exploring more. This is best evidenced by the opening sequence, in which a napping fire chief dreams of his family at home. The images of his family are superimposed, projected onto a black space almost like a magic lantern show.
The narrative of the film really gets underway when the fire alarm begins to sound, and the audience takes an active part, becoming emotionally involved, in the race to the rescue. There is one shot that I find particularly interesting. A seemingly endless parade of fire trucks drive by a small house, probably out in the suburbs of New Jersey, as people watch them drive by. It is an interesting reminder of how people of the time sought entertainment in every possible venue, even the thrill of rushing out of the house to watch the fire trucks on the way to some heroic rescue nearby. The fireman himself is portrayed as a kind of action hero, not unlike a Western cowboy star riding to the rescue to save a runaway coach from running off a cliff. Porter combined newsreel footage with footage of his actors to create a more convincing set-up.
It is during the rescue sequence that we catch a glimpse of why this is a key work in Porter’s filmography. The rescue is seen from two angles-once from the interior of the house, and once from the exterior. Unlike what Griffith would be doing in a couple of years, Porter shows us the entire action from both angles. It is important to remember that this is not a deficiency in Porter’s filmmaking skill, but rather the conventional screen grammar of his time.
The ending of the film is dramatically satisfying, and leaves the 21st-century viewer with a feeling of exhilaration, not only at the story, but also at the technical accomplishment they have just witnessed.
UNCLE TOM’S CABIN (1903)
With this film, Porter takes a decided step backward. The filming of this traditional play takes place entirely in front of painted backdrops suggesting the Old South.
Supposedly, an “Uncle Tom” company was hired to re-create key scenes from the play in front of Porter’s camera. Unless the viewer is familiar with the story, the film is virtually impossible to follow. A single title card announces which “scene” we are about to watch, and then it plays out.
The film shows, too, how Stowe’s novel was twisted into a kind of late-19th century variety show. The original novel is a quite serious and moving work, but this film, which is based on a popular abridgement that was a staple of touring companies in the US at the time, features many “musical” and dance interludes, as well as much comic relief.
It was certainly the most popular entertainment of its time; it’s doubtful there will ever again be another single show that is so deeply ingrained in a country’s popular culture, but this film is an interesting record of what such a show must have been like, even if, as cinema, it’s basically filmed theatre.
THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1903)
I’ll end the first part of this review with the film that Porter best known for. Based on a recent train robbery, Porter shattered notions of just how big an audience could be had for motion pictures with this exciting prototype of the Western. It’s rather difficult to find anything new to say about what is surely one of the most seminal, landmark American films. G.M. Anderson, a stage actor who had been doing some work here and there in films, was chosen to play the lead role, or “roles”, as he turns up in at least a half-dozen parts. Anderson, of course, went on to become “Broncho Billy” Anderson, one of the first “name” movie stars and the first “cowboy” actor of real note.
Porter’s filmmaking here was so skillful, so masterfully in control of his subject, that it’s easy to see why the film was a success. I have a hard time thinking of any film made prior to this one that “feels” so much like a piece of contemporary moviemaking. The editing, the depth of the shots, and especially the use of locations (including the moving train) add to this.
The print of “The Great Train Robbery” that was used for the Edison set includes the original hand-tinting, which emphasizes the lengths that filmmakers went to at the time to enhance the “spectacle” elements of these films.
With “The Great Train Robbery”, moviegoing became an American pastime and an event unto itself. The nickelodeons that sprang up around the country were able to do so largely by advertising “The Great Train Robbery”, just as “The Birth of a Nation” would usher in the era of big-theatre screenings and the era of the Movie Palace for the major films. Although it would take a couple more years before the transition was fully complete, it was at this time that film stopped being just a short peepshow diversion to be seen in boardwalk arcades, or brief tent shows at US fairgrounds, and began to move toward becoming an art form.
Interestingly, it is said that Porter lacked the ego and temperament to be a successful director in the era of Griffith and others. That may have been true, but he certainly was instrumental in opening up the possibilities of film as a mass art form rather than sideshow curiosity.