Sunday, March 07, 2010

The Films of Edwin S. Porter, Part III

How a French Nobleman Got a Wife Through the New York Herald Personal Columns (1904)

The film opens on a French nobleman, in slightly grotesque makeup, looking at the ad he has placed in the personals for a wife. The ad says to meet at Grant’s Tomb.

The next scene finds the nobleman waiting at Grant’s Tomb, framed in a magnificent long shot. A woman enters the frame, introducing herself to the nobleman. Then another enters. And another. Finally, an entire crowd of women has shown up, and outraged, give chase to the nobleman through the city and countryside. Finally, they chase him into a stream. The basic idea for this chase was perhaps the inspiration for Buster Keaton’s later “Seven Chances”.

What follows is a typical Porter chase, with each shot allowing all of the figures to run through the frame, all the way from the very far background and up past the camera. This is not the way audiences came to expect chase sequences to be shot or edited, of course. It provides an interesting glimpse at the developments that were taking place before settling on anything approaching a Classical style of filmmaking.

While humorous, the comedy wears thin after a while due to this approach to creating the chase sequence. The idea itself is a good example of the ways in which early producers borrowed (read: stole) from eachother: the film is a remake of a Biograph picture from earlier in the year, and later, Lubin would remake the same idea.

The European Rest Cure (1904)

This is without question the funniest and sharpest comedy Porter ever made. A brilliant parody on the kind of “sightseeing” approach to travel that lives on in the Rick Steves programs today, the film seems positively ahead of its time in its mocking of the stereotype of the “American abroad”.

The very beginning of the film is as much a travelogue as anything else, this film begins with a couple embarking on a boat headed for Europe. Porter takes advantage of the location shooting to hold on long shots of the crowd waving goodbye to the passengers on board, as the ship sails off. There is a nice traveling shot of the Manhattan skyline from the boat as well.

Porter cuts into a theatrical interior for the “storm” sequence, in which the man is shown becoming seasick due to the rocking of the boat (an effect which appears to have been achieved by rocking the camera, as the action lacks the kind of physical movement achieved by Chaplin with his stage built on rockers that was used for “The Immigrant”).

From this sequence, Porter cuts to an entirely different scene: “Kissing the Blarney Stone”. The set is a patently fake painted flat. The man is held over the edge of the castle to kiss the Blarney Stone when he is suddenly dropped, falling out of frame. The tour guide seems strangely unfazed.

The next scene is “Doing Paris”. A goateed, beret-wearing, cigarette-smoking Frenchman sits at an outdoor cafĂ© while the traveling American husband and wife talk loudly, the husband excitedly pound his fist on the table and calling for the waiter. After a little too much wine, they stand and begin dancing a kind of manic, drunken Can-Can, while the Frenchman continues to look on silently. This scene is one of the few instances of truly sharp satire in the films of Porter, whose comedy usually took the lower approach of sex- and slapstick-based humor. Some women try to settle them down. One of the American tourists stands on the table and pours wine over the man’s head.

Next up is “Climbing the Alps”. The party arrives in the gloriously fake, painted alps wearing Swiss alpine get-ups. One of the men falls over the edge of the cliff, but is miraculously pulled back up.

“Hold Up in Italy” is the next scene. The tour guide takes the group into one of the roughest sections of the city, and after one of the party gets separated from the rest of the group, is targeted by some thieves and is mugged at gunpoint.

We next find the party “Climbing the Pyramids of Egypt”. There is a brilliant bit of comic timing, as one of the men begins to climb the pyramid, and after climbing out frame, the camera holds for what seems like an unusually long time, until the man comes crashing back down in to the frame.

Finally, they visit the “Mud baths of Germany”, where the older American man is forced into a tub and covered in mud, then has buckets of cold water hurled at him.

The couple returns “home sweet home”, thoroughly exhausted from their trip. This is a unique film in the sense that it runs 14 minutes, which is rather long for a 1904 production. Even though it lacks the imaginative editing of Porter’s best work, the painted flats representing the different locations have a certain charm about them, and as satire, Porter never did better.

The Strenuous Life; or, Anti-Race Suicide (1904)

It’s the little moments that make a film like this one so interesting. In the scene when the office manager is brought come in a horse-drawn carriage, the streets of New York are covered in snow. It’s amazing how, before films were routinely shot on the West Coast, weather elements were a natural part of so many films. In this same shot, the camera happens to catch an elevated subway train racing past in the background.

This film itself is nothing terribly interesting in Porter’s output. The overworked office manager comes home and finds his wife has apparently given birth to quintuplets. I can’t help wondering if there is footage missing from this film, as it seems to end rather abruptly and doesn’t make terribly much sense as it currently runs. It is perhaps only notable otherwise for a use of a medium shot when the husband and wife are weighing their first child.

The Ex-Convict (1904)

Porter opens this film on the shot of a man leaving for work, saying good-bye to his wife and daughter. A title announces him as an ex-convict. When his boss finds out about his past, the man is fired. Looking for work, the man is discriminated against everywhere he goes. Walking home, he saves a little girl from being hit by an oncoming car, but is gone before the family can thank him. Returning home discouraged and humiliated, the man is out of options. In a fit of desparation, he heads out into the night to burglarize a home, which just happens to belong to the family of the young girl whose life he saved. The girl’s father catches him, and holds him at gunpoint while he calls the police, but the girl, recognizing the man, identifies him to her father as the man who saved her life. The police arrive, but the father sends them on their way.

An incredibly powerful film, this is perhaps Porter’s masterpiece as a filmmaker. It lacks the kind of narrative structural techniques that marked “The Great Train Robbery” as his most important contribution to the medium, but unlike that film, contains deeply believable characters and profound character dynamics. The discrimination faced by the reformed ex-convict is all too believable, and the sight of the man humiliated in front of his family is just painful to watch. The film avoids going over-the-top in its display of emotions or performance style, and as such, remains a model of restrained expression in the early cinema.

Cinematically, Porter seems to have been fairly well set in his ways by this point. As a cutter, it seems that “The Great Train Robbery” is something of an anomaly in his career. By 1904, working in a more complex narrative mode, Porter chooses to emphasize performance and mise-en-scene over editing. “The Ex-Convict” is a film that must be seen by anyone interested in tracing the development of early narrative forms.

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