Sunday, May 01, 2011

Porter's Chase Comedy

A prototypical “chase” comedy, How the French Nobleman Got a Wife Through the New York Herald Personal Columns (1904) demonstrates just how quickly things were developing in these early years of cinema. Directed by Edwin S. Porter for the Thomas Edison Company just one year after The Great Train Robbery, it is heavily influenced by the French farces of the early period, and is most interesting today for its use of the chase to structure its narrative.

This was, in fact, not even the first version of this same idea produced that year. Biograph had produced the first version earlier in 1904, and then after Edison’s version appeared, the Lubin company would make their own version. Such copying was not at all uncommon during this period, and it provides for an interesting comparison between the different versions to see minor variations on the same idea.

The premise finds a French Count placing an ad in the personals, “object: matrimony”, instructing the bride-to-be to meet him in front of Grant’s Tomb. The next day, the Count is shocked when dozens of women show up, expecting to marry him. In a sequence that may have very well inspired the second half of Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances twenty years later, the outraged women give chase, over hill and dale, across streams, over a fence, finally pursuing the Count into a stream, where he gives up. One of the women wades into the stream, consoling him, and then walks off camera with him. The film ends once the characters (and the story) have effectively run out of steam and exhausted themselves.

Much of the film’s running time is devoted to the chase, which seems drawn out and protracted by the standards introduced several years later by Griffith and especially – in the comedy film – by Mack Sennett. The chase had emerged in the British cinema through films like Daring Daylight Burglary and Desperate Poaching Affray (both 1903), in which it served as a way to link shots taken in a variety of locations, as well as to propel the narrative events forward. Porter borrowed the chase structure from the British, and the inclusion of the comic elements into this structure suggest the influence of the French farces produced by the Pathé company, particularly those of Ferdinand Zecca. Of course, given that the film itself is a remake of the version directed by Wallace McCutcheon for Biograph (Personal), Porter was really working from an established model to begin with.

Instead of building the tempo through editing the way that Sennett did at Keystone, Porter instead holds on a static shot of each set up as all of the characters make their way through the frame, not cutting away until the final participant has exited the frame. The pursuers move in a long line straight through the frame. There was still an expectation at this time that all of the action must be presented in its entirety in order to maintain a sort of cognitive logic for the viewer. Similar concerns were expressed over the use of cutaways such as the closeup, which early producers feared would confuse audiences accustomed to seeing actors presented in full proscenium framing. Like so many other conventions, the chase would eventually fall out of favor due to over-use, and it was really through the work of D.W. Griffith at Biograph, and especially his protege Mack Sennett, at Keystone, who would revitalize the chase and help transform it not only in to a staple of American comedy film, but a crucial part in the development of editing action sequences.

A final note: the film is interesting for its use of locations. By 1904, the Edison company had re-located to the Bronx, where a new studio space was constructed (their Manhattan location, which they moved to in 1901 – a small, glass-roofed studio on top of a building - was a short-term solution to finding more space and better open-air lighting conditions). Biograph’s version had been shot in Asbury Park, New Jersey, but Porter filmed in front of a New York landmark, Grant’s Tomb. It’s interesting, purely for the sake of comparison, to see how barren the surrounding area was in 1904, compared to today, when the Tomb is surrounded by trees.

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