The Innovators 1900-1910: Time After Time

Film still for The Innovators 1900-1910: Time After Time

We've all heard of D. W. Griffith, Eisenstein, Kurosawa and Disney, but who really made a difference to film history? Was it the technicians, the hustlers or the artists? In the first of a new series highlighting one key innovator from each decade of the twentieth century, Charles Musser looks at the storytelling achievements of editing pioneer Edwin S. Porter

Renowned as the maker of The Great Train Robbery, Edwin Stanton Porter has sometimes been called the "father of the story film" and the "inventor of editing". Such reductive claims ignore the contributions of his contemporaries - many of whom have been credited with the same achievements by rival historians. Nonetheless, Porter can with reasonable accuracy be called "America's first major film-maker".

Born on 21 April 1870 in Connellsville, Pennsylvania, the future film-maker was named Edward by his parents. A pudgy boy known as "Betty", he had changed his name to Edwin Stanton after Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, by the time he joined the US Navy in 1893. In the 1890s he worked as an exhibitor and equipment manufacturer and enjoyed considerable success as an operator at the Eden Musee entertainment complex - the leading showcase for motion pictures in New York City. Operators in those days were responsible for acquiring films from an array of often obscure sources and assembling them into individual programmes - what we now call post-production. Porter's programme The Passion Play of Oberammergau, for instance, integrated magic-lantern slides and some 23 short films into a coherent show that lasted 40 minutes or longer, accompanied by a lecture and music sung by a choir. Another favourite, Panorama of the War, offered a historical account of the Spanish-American War through a wide range of news films and re-enactments.

In the summer of 1900, as motion pictures were reaching a new low point in popularity, Porter tried his luck as a travelling showman. A fire at his New York City workshop further added to his woes. Meanwhile, inventor and businessman Thomas Alva Edison was having his own difficulties and came close to selling his motion-picture interests to the rival American Mutoscope & Biograph Company. In the end Edison renewed his commitment to the film business, and a few days before Thanksgiving hired Porter to improve the Edison Manufacturing Company's equipment (notably its Projecting Kinetoscope projector). Edison had built a glass-enclosed rooftop studio at 41 East 21st Street in New York City; Porter was asked to outfit the studio and then stayed on to work in the company's production unit as principal cameraman alongside actor and scenic designer George S. Fleming.

Porter and Fleming were typical of the collaborative production teams working in the US before 1908-09. As cameraman, Porter was responsible for all the filmic elements: not only cinematography but developing the negative and editing, which at first was little more than "trimming" the individual shot which constituted the film as a whole. In addition he worked with Fleming on the selection of subject matter and on story development. The Porter-Fleming team demonstrated a fiair for making comedies and other acted films. Kansas Saloon Smashers (February 1901) re-enacted and lampooned the widely reported antics of Carrie Nation and her brigade of hatchet-wielding prohibitionists. The women in this film were played by men in drag. Somewhat later, when Nation's husband was reported to be demanding a divorce, they made the obvious sequel, Why Mr Nation Wants a Divorce (May 1901), in which Carrie catches her husband taking a drink and treats him the way her brigade treated the saloon. These topical films fitted into a general conception of cinema as a visual newspaper.

Between 1899 and 1903 responsibility for key aspects of post-production shifted from exhibition services to production companies, making possible a new kind of storytelling. Those most responsible for this shift were a handful of men who had experience in film exhibition and film-making but were increasingly committed to the latter, including Edwin Porter in the US, James Williamson and G. A. Smith in Britain and Georges Méliès in France. Porter enjoyed a virtually unique position: Edison had sued all his rival production companies for violating his motion-picture patents, putting many of them out of business. So the Edison Manufacturing Company enjoyed total hegemony from mid-July 1901, when his patents were upheld in the circuit courts, to March 1902, when they were declared invalid on appeal.

In the first part of 1901 Porter and Fleming made a number of two-shot films. Terrible Teddy the Grizzly King (February 1901) burlesqued president elect Theodore Roosevelt's media-conscious activities on a hunting trip. The first shot of The Finish of Brigit McKeen (February 1901) shows a thick-headed Irish servant girl pouring kerosene into a stove and blowing herself up (ethnic gags permeate many of these early comedies). In the last shot a painted backdrop displays a tombstone, on which is inscribed: "Here lies the remains of Brigit McKeen who started a fire with Kerosine." The first shot imitated the Biograph film How Brigit Made the Fire (June 1900); the last literalised the ditty on which both films were based.

Having worked as a film editor for a number of years, I have always found Porter's surviving productions from 1901-02 - in which we can trace his evolving understanding of film editing, his unfolding approach to the temporal and spatial organisation of shots - deeply moving. In The Sampson-Schley Controversy (August 1901), based on an incident in the Battle of Santiago Bay during the Spanish-American War, Porter depicted the temporal relationships between three shots all taken in the studio. The opening scene represents Commodore Winfield Schley on the bridge of the battleship Brooklyn directing gunfire against the Spanish enemy. The second is of a gun crew on the Brooklyn firing their cannon at the same distant ship. The third, added a few weeks after the initial release, shows Admiral William Sampson sipping tea with a group of old ladies. Although Sampson was apparently at a tea party while the Battle of Santiago Bay was fought, he received credit for the victory - a fact Schley (a populist hero) and his fans resented. This film thus consists of three successive shots showing actions occurring more or less simultaneously in three different locations. But this simultaneity is clear only to audiences who know about the underlying political controversy. Like Griffith in the post-1908 period, Porter was interested in exploring ways of depicting simultaneous actions in different shots, in different locations and/or from different perspectives. But their solutions were radically different.

The Execution of Czologosz (November 1901) was one of many films made around the assassination of President William McKinley. His assassin, Leon Czologosz, was executed on 29 October 1901 at Auburn State Prison. According to Edison advertisements, Porter filmed two exterior shots of the prison that morning, using sweeping camera pans. Back at the New York studio he and Fleming filmed two more 'scenes', of Czologosz being led from his cell to the execution chamber and of the condemned man's electrocution. This film involved a sustained spatial progression from outside to inside the prison and then to a confrontation with the electric chair and deadly justice. In the interior scenes the action moves between two contiguous spaces, though the precise spatial relationship of cell to execution chamber is evident only from a reading of the newspapers. Since The Execution of Czologosz could be purchased with or without the opening panoramas, one question had been raised but not fully resolved: could the production company dictate the terms of the larger narrative unit or was editing the final responsibility of the exhibitor?

Despite the groundbreaking achievement of these two films Porter and Fleming undertook nothing as ambitious for another six months. They were employees, and it may have been that company executives - given their monopoly - wanted to curtail unnecessary production costs. But once Edison lost his patent-infringement case, renewed film-making at rival US companies sparked production at the Edison studio as well. Appointment by Telephone (2 May 1902), Jack and the Beanstalk (20 June 1902), How They Do Things on the Bowery (31 October 1902) and Life of an American Fireman (21 January 1903) each represented an impressive step forward. With editorial control more firmly located in the production company, the storyline could unfold in more coherent and unified ways.

How They Do Things on the Bowery and Life of an American Fireman are fascinating primarily for their ways of depicting time. Life of an American Fireman contains a number of shots which have overlapping action: firemen wake from their beds and go down the firepole in the third shot; in the fourth we again see them come down the firepole, then get on to their fire engines and drive off. In the fifth the door of the fire station opens and the fire engines come out and race off to the fire. From the point of view of classical Hollywood cinema this creates a kind of stutter that made Porter's work seem awkward and old-fashioned. From a different perspective, however, we can see how Porter treated each shot as a self-contained unit that was also part of a larger film. As No'l Burch described him, Porter was a two-headed Janus who looked backwards (editing the film as if he was still an exhibitor) and forwards (taking advantage of centralised creative control to plot continuity of action across shots in a way that created a coherent fictional world).

The last two shots of Life of an American Fireman, which show a fire company rescuing a mother and child from a burning building, are particularly interesting. The rescue is shown first from the inside (shot 8) and then from the outside (shot 9). So the last shot is a replay of the same event from a different perspective, enabling the spectator to see everything that happened. (As in Méliès' A Trip to the Moon, 1902, which has the spaceship landing on the moon twice, from two different perspectives.) Porter thus shows us actions unfolding in two contiguous spaces, but rather than cutting back and forth between them as Griffith did in The Lonely Villa (1909) he keeps the scenes unified in a way now familiar from instant replays of sporting events. Nonetheless, when actions occur off-screen (the journey to the fire) time is condensed. Time is not verisimiliar, but highly malleable.

Immediately Life of an American Fireman was completed Edison competitor Sigmund Lubin won a court case that invalidated established ways of copyrighting films. Once again Edison curtailed production for a number of months until this was reversed in the court of appeals. Meanwhile George Fleming left the Edison company. In autumn 1903 Porter began to collaborate on a freelance basis with actor Gilbert M. Anderson (later Broncho Billy Anderson). Their best-known project was The Great Train Robbery (1903). A contribution to the newly popular crime genre that had come out of Britain, The Great Train Robbery depicted the process of robbing a train in exciting detail. Its temporal organisation and the successive depiction of two separate lines of action (the train robbers, the posse) make it exemplary of pre-1908 cinema's method of representation. And it was without doubt the most commercially successful film of the pre-nickelodeon era, perhaps of any film prior to The Birth of a Nation (1915).

The Great Train Robbery arrived at an opportune moment. The US film industry was beginning to take off and the number of exhibition outlets was expanding rapidly. At the beginning of 1905 Porter found a new full-time collaborator in Wallace McCutcheon, previously production head at the American Mutoscope & Biograph Company. In this period Porter continued to make occasional films in the tradition of The Great Train Robbery, though not as many as is sometimes thought: Capture of Yegg Bank Burglars (1904) and The Train Wreckers (1905) are the two principal examples. In the longer one-reel format he displayed a continuing fiair for comedy (The Terrible Kids, May 1906; Getting Evidence, September 1906) and a new one for family melodramas (Stolen by Gypsies, July 1905). In his search for subject matter he borrowed from a wide range of popular entertainments: postcards (The Whole Dam Family and the Dam Dog, May 1905), songs (Waiting at the Church, May 1906), newspaper cartoons (The Rivals, August 1907) and films by competitors (Dream of a Rarebit Fiend, March 1906, is heavily indebted to Gaston Velle's Rêve à la lune, 1905).

An important element of Porter's work in the 1904-08 period was his sustained engagement with the world of theatre. As part of a larger change within film-making, his conception of cinema gradually shifted from having an affinity with the newspaper to one with the stage. In this period he reworked a number of popular plays, beginning with The Ex-Convict (November 1904). Porter took No. 973, a one-act drama highly dependent on dialogue, and transformed it into an eight-scene film with brief intertitles. A moving tearjerker, in which a child the ex-convict saves in an earlier scene in turn saves him after he unsuccessfully tries to rob her father's house to feed his family, it is the oldest film ever to make me cry. Other reworkings of plays included The Miller's Daughter (1905), Kathleen Mavourneen (1906), Daniel Boone; or Pioneer Days in America (1907) and The Devil (September 1908). Life of a Cowboy, which refigured Royale's The Squaw Man (1905) through a series of substitutions and inversions, was according to Porter the first film Western. The hero is the lone cowboy who displays a range of Western skills (lassoing, horse riding, gun fighting) and wins the girl from back east, even as he retains the devotion of the local Indian maiden.

The rising popularity of cinema and the demand for more and perhaps better films put increasing pressures on Porter and the Edison company. In May 1907 Porter found a new collaborator in playwright and stage manager James Searle Dawley. The two worked together for the remainder of Porter's Edison career, moving into the company's new, more spacious studio in the Bronx on 11 July 1907. Sets could be larger, and in films such as A Race for Millions (August-September 1907) a car could appear on stage. Edison films were becoming more elaborate (Stage Struck, August 1907), but what company executives really wanted was for Porter to increase his rate of production. This he found difficult to do.

In June 1908 new top management at the Edison company started a second production unit. Porter was designated studio head and oversaw both units even as he remained head of one. Meanwhile D. W. Griffith began to work as a director at the rival Biograph organisation, single-handedly outperforming both Edison units in terms of output. This was also the moment when film was becoming a form of mass entertainment with a quite different system of representation - one that served as the foundation for subsequent Hollywood cinema. This involved linear structures that eliminated overlapping actions and narrative repetitions, unfortunately a Porter trademark. Consistent screen direction, never one of Porter's concerns, also became important. And films were expected to display a narrative clarity that was not dependent on an audience's prior knowledge of the plot - again at odds with Porter's reliance on well-known stories. This new way of motion-picture storytelling was embraced by Griffith and resisted by Porter.

Porter's films received consistently positive reviews until June 1908, after which they were more and more criticised. The Edison company was losing ground rapidly, turning out more pictures but selling fewer and fewer prints. Edison executives soon concluded that the maker of The Great Train Robbery was washed up and over the hill. In February 1909 they removed him from his responsibility as studio head and in November 1909 he was fired.

The first decade of the twentieth century must have ended on as depressing a note for Porter as it began. In the interim, he played a key, at times dominant role in the development of the American film industry. The decade saw a transition from long-standing practices in which exhibitors provided their own form of individualised screen entertainment to cinema as a recognisable form of standardised mass entertainment. Porter's deep commitment to a system of production and representation - as well as his resistance to the large-scale, corporate mentality that followed - make him an exemplary figure of that time.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012