Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Films of Edwin S. Porter, Part 2


Another of Porter’s “one-joke” films, this short contains a few little special effects as well. An old maid wanders into a portrait studio to have her picture taken. Her appearance causes the hands of the clock to fly around before it falls to the ground. Next, she looks into a mirror which promptly cracks. And when the portrait photographer sits her down in front of the camera, the camera explodes!

The joke itself is nothing remarkable. What is rather interesting about this film is the framing of the shot to include the mirror’s reflected images. From the angle that the mirror is positioned at, it appears we can see the glass roof of Edison’s New York studio, where this was shot, letting in the necessary sunlight. It is little touches like this, totally unintentional on Porter’s part no doubt, that can make these films doubly interesting to watch today.


I find that, in going through the Edison films in general, the travelogues and “actualities” (to borrow a term from Lumiere) are more interesting to watch on repeat viewings. This is perhaps because of the wealth of visual information they provide about the time and place in which they were shot.

This is by far one of the best of these types of films included on the Edison set. The sight of the exposition halls is simply breathtaking, especially when you realize how hard it is to find anything like it today. Porter begins with a camera pan across the exposition grounds, before fading to black. Fade in on the same exposition, only now at nighttime, lit entirely by electric bulbs that outline every building. The main building even includes a spotlight that casts its glow around the entire landscape. This is truly one of the most visually memorable films on the set.


This is the type of film that it seems Porter, and the Edison company in general, should have moved on from by 1902. It is a newsreel-style coverage of the burning and aftermath of a fire. It isn’t particularly imaginative in the way it’s shot, nor does it offer anything that hadn’t already been shown in a number of earlier Edison films. Films such as this were no doubt considered good fodder for vaudeville bills and fairground shows, but compared to the more sophisticated work coming out of Europe at the time, it can’t help but look just a trifle pale in comparison.


Another one-joke film, albeit with a cute topper gag. Some girls, who are swimming in a lake, are interrupted by two men who flirt with them and then steal their clothes. As the girls swim off-screen and the men depart, one girl walks across the screen wearing just a barrel. This type of film, playfully dealing with sex and with a coy sense of humor, no doubt would have been a hit on burlesque bills or at sideshows.


It is unclear whether or not this was, in fact, directed by Edwin S. Porter, or his frequent co-director of this period, James Blair Smith. The film is notorious today for its frank and brutal depiction of an elephant being executed via electricity. Visually, the film itself is unremarkable, taken in a single shot, but the image of the elephant being killed is one that sticks with modern viewers in the worst way possible. It does show how attitudes toward death have changed (it’s important to remember that, in its time, the humane society considered electrocution to be the most humane method of putting down the elephant, rather than the public hangings that had been attempted in the past). It’s impossible to imagine a film today that depicted real death, let alone even simulated animal abuse. I suspect audiences of the time took it as a necessary step to protect the public against a potentially dangerous animal. There is little doubt, however, that the spectacle of watching a might beast felled with an electrical shock was no doubt a big part of the film’s appeal.


One of the more enjoyable Edison comedies from this period, this film sees a young woman enter a shoe store with an older woman (presumably her mother). The young woman sits while the shoe clerk tries on different shoes for her. She lifts her skirt and the clerk stands up, kissing and flirting with the girl, while the mother beats him with her umbrella. There is a kind of playful fun about the film which still makes it amusing a century later.

This would be another largely unremarkable film if not for two things: 1) The pacing of the film is much tighter than other Edison comedies we’ve seen up to this point. The film runs just long enough to accommodate all the necessary visual information and serve the gag without becoming drawn-out. 2) The single close-up of the girl’s foot is a breakthrough in the editing of this type of film, which was most often played in a single long shot. Here, the closeup serves to emphasize certain action on the screen, conveying the visual information much more clearly. This single close-up represents quite a breakthrough in this type of filmmaking.


Another well-paced comedy short, and well-framed, too. Instead of playing the action straight-on as if on a stage, the camera here is slightly angled, and positioned closer to the actors, emphasizing their facial features and characteristics to help us identify with them.

It is also interesting to watch the train window on the left side of the frame, which is a matte shot with the passing scenery superimposed. It’s rather amazing that this technique was developed so early on, and is used in a completely “natural” way. I find it interesting, too, that Porter and other directors saw the advantage of providing that moving scenery that could not be replicated on a stage.

The set-up here involves a man and a girl flirting on a train, while her black maid listens excitedly, laughing at their playfulness. The train enters a tunnel, whereupon the screen goes dark. As soon as it leaves the tunnel, and the light returns, we see the girl has switched places with her maid as a joke on the man, who reacts in surprise.


This film begins with a shot of a large group of people boarding a carriage. The camera pans with them as they climb aboard. A man who has missed the carriage chases after it in a series of imaginatively set-up shots. The visual look of this film is quite nice, and Porter is once again framing his shots slightly at angles to accommodate a wider range of visual information, including, once again, the facial features of his actors. The film ends when the carriage arrives and the passengers disembark. While rather light on actual plot of any kind, the film represents a visual step-up, both in terms of its framing, but also in terms of its use of locations.

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