Thoughts On: The Great Train Robbery (1903)
Today we explore the development of classical cinema and continuity.
Today we’ll be taking a less intense, yet focused, approach to a topic by concentrating on Edwin S. Porter’s role in Edison’s Manufacturing Company and his film The Great Train Robbery, as opposed to assessing a wide swath of films and taking a broad look at a career. So, in talking about this topic and film, we’ll be discussing the still-flourishing American cinema and the development of continuity.
The last time we talked about early American cinema and The Edison Manufacturing Company concerned 1893, Dickson, Heise, Kinetoscopes and The Black Maria. Since then, much has changed in the company and the American film industry. Firstly, Dickson left Edison’s company in 1895 to start Biograph (a.k.a The Biograph Company, or, American Mutoscope and Biograph Company). This would go on to become one of the most integral American film companies in the first half of the silent era with D.W Griffith and performers such as Mary Pickford and Lilian Gish being the faces of the company. With the emergence of Biograph came new competition for Edison. This saw a notorious conflict emerge in the New York film industry (Hollywood is still a patch of farms, ranches and humble homes at this point). The conflict between Edison and anyone in America trying to make films was all to do with patents. Edison essentially believed that, because he owned the rights to the most successful filmmaking devices (cameras, projectors and film stock) in America, he, singularly, held the right to make films. This, especially to the modern day person, is like an painter patenting paint brushes, easels and oil paints and then claiming the soul right to the practice of painting. As absurd as this sounds, because cinema was not – at least on a governmental level – recognised as an art (and wouldn’t come close for decades), the courts essentially favoured with Edison, granting him what was essentially a monopoly over all film production. Nonetheless, competition was out there, and it was strong.
There are many tales of the New York film industry in its earliest days, a lot of which concern hired goons smashing camera equipment, roughing up and threatening independent filmmakers on behalf of Edison’s company, who, seemingly so, had decided to police ‘their’ industry themselves. Edison did, however, form the Motion Picture Patents Company in 1908. This was the establishment of a slightly more complex monopolistic entity that merged many of the New York film companies under one trust. This meant that companies such as Biograph wouldn’t come into conflict with other studios, and also wouldn’t have to work between the lines of copyright law by, for example, using 70mm film format as opposed to the standard 35mm. However, independent filmmakers that weren’t apart of the Edison Trust were still having a very hard time, which signified the start of Hollywood – a topic we’ll return to at a later date.
All the way up until the WWI era, Europe still dominated international cinema with France, Germany and Sweden making the best films, producing the best artists and, generally, accounting for most financial success. This will be no surprise to anyone, especially in regards to France, as it is almost impossible to talk about early cinema, its industries and filmmakers, without, at the very least, mentioning the Lumiéres, Méliès or Pathé. So, whilst the American film industry was still flourishing, one of its main attributes was the distribution of European products. This was often done illegally, and Edison’s company was certainly a part of this, until the Motion Picture Patents Company was formed and European companies such as Pathé and Méliès’ Star Film company (who were apart of the trust) could regulate and prevent the piracy. Whilst the The Motion Picture Patents Company would go on to be dissolved and Edison’s monopoly disintegrated, the first couple of decades of American cinema was very much so focused on mass commercialised film production and a bit of fighting on the side.
As we know, cinema started with simple shorts (dances, jokes, vaudeville acts, actualities, street scenes, etc.). Around 1903, however, there began the heavy development of narrative, long-form cinema. This was motivated by numerous sources; audiences getting bored of monotonous shorts; studios wanting to attract larger audiences; filmmakers wanting to test themselves and the form; distributors wanting to sell more feet of film; exhibitors wanting to make more money off of longer programmes and bigger audiences. Much of this saw the kinetoscope parlours replaced by the nickelodeons. These were generally converted storefronts (films would also play in vaudeville theatres) that would seat anywhere between 200 to 1000+ people who all paid about 5 cents (a nickle) to sit in the Odéon (a roofed theatre). Programmes often ran at around 15 minutes, and would cycle through street scenes, trick films and dramas with an accompanying piano, sometimes percussion, too, but could also involve various live performances. The nickelodeons would, however, eventually be outmoded by the form they helped develop: the longer narrative film. This was because the small rooms and hard chairs were not very comfortable places to be for prolonged periods. Moreover, these facilities weren’t very well regulated – and this was the case abroad, too – and so could prove to be deadly places (as we discussed when mentioning the infamous fire in Paris in 1897 that killed over one-hundred people). As a result, better establishments and eventually cinema palaces emerged to become a symbol of the prestige of the greatly evolved form of art and entertainment as we moved towards and into the 1920s.
Before we can come anywhere near this, we need to come all the way back to 1895. After Dickson left Edison’s company to start his own, William Heise became head of production. Soon after, in 1896, James H. White took Heise’s position. White would hire an electrical expert to aid with the company’s expansion as they were working on projectors (the Vitascope) and, later, moved to a new studio. This man was, of course, Edwin S. Porter.
Porter had worked with electricals from a young age and would work as a merchant tailor until 1893’s economic depression, “The Panic”. After filing for bankruptcy, Porter enlisted in the U.S Navy where he would further develop his skills concerning electricity and communications. Following his four year service, he briefly joined an agency that marketed Edison’s films and equipment, Raff & Gammon. This marked his entry into the early film industry, which is where Porter remained, in some shape or form, for the majority of his career. After working in the Edison agency, Porter would become a travelling projectionist for a rivalling machine, the Projectoscope – which was initially seen as a perfected Projecting Kinetoscope. For a few years, Porter would travel throughout North and South America as well as the West Indies with this projector, showcasing films as a travelling exhibitor, sometimes being promoted as Thomas Edison, Jr. In such, as innumerable entrepreneurs would be, he was participating in the spreading of cinema across the world, often projecting films to people who had never come into contact with them before.
Porter would return from his travels in 1898. In this year Edison had licensed the Eden Musée, an amusement park in New York, to regularly show his films. This would make the Eden Musée one of the first entities in America to regularly and officially showcase moving pictures. Porter would work here as a projectionist and programmer, and soon became an integral part of the park’s development, putting on programmes that would draw and affect large audiences. One of the most notorious periods of this time concerns the Spanish-American war.
Throughout America and even Europe (Méliès was reconstructing news reels, for example) the Spanish-American war became a particular focus for filmmakers. After all, cinema wasn’t really thought of in the same respects as the modern day; the cinema was not yet a place of high entertainment, a place where, in its most prestigious form, you’d have to dress the whole family up to visit for the night. The cinema of the 1900s has often been compared to newspapers and magazines. The programmes that Porter would be constructing, which were made up of street scenes, splices of news actualities or reconstructions, and then various types of narrative and spectacle films, would emulate and bring to life newspapers that not only informed, but also entertained audiences with a variety of articles. So, much like the then-contemporary newspapers, cinema utilised current events like the Spanish-American War to rouse audiences and provide information (the reliability of which could be very questionable). This, of course, was a long-standing tradition, but it was the Spanish-American War that was one of the first instances with which cinema proved itself to be an influential form of mass media. Porter, all the while, would then be screening films from Edison and Biograph, who were competing over the highly lucrative ‘war film’, to ever increasing audiences.
After the Spanish-American War ended in the summer of 1898, cinema attendances in Manhattan were dropping off as no longer was there a strong motivation to go to the cinema every day. Attendances remained low for companies such as Edison’s until the turn of the century. In this period, Porter would still be working at the Eden Musée as a projectionist and programmer as well as an engineer of motion picture devices, but would soon be hired to work in Edison’s Manufacturing Company. It was then in 1899 that Porter decided to work for Edison because many of his filmic devices had been destroyed in fires and the economic climate didn’t seem too sympathetic for more travelling showmen. To earn his way, he turned to a company who he respected and was at the heart of his industry. But, as implied, the company was not in very good shape around 1900.
Tied up in legal battles over patents with Vitagraph (which was, along with Biograph, was one of the most important American filmmaking entities in the silent era), and unable to produce enough commercial draws, Edison’s Manufacturing Company was actually in pretty bad condition. It was clear that the company then had to re-structure and improve. Porter became a significant part of this in 1900 as he worked on projectors and cameras, re-designing and tweaking them so they could better compete in the market place. This is, of course, where he’d draw upon all of his experience as an electrical engineer in the navy and as apart of the Eden Musée, but this was only one element of the company’s re-structuring. It was in 1900 that a new studio, a glass-ceiling warehouse, was established.
It’s this new facility that begins to resemble the archetypal silent film studio that would be seen in films such as Singin’ In The Rain. However, Edison’s studio was quite different from the others of its day. Companies such as Biograph and Vitagraph worked on rooftops, in open air studios.
This was of course to escape the rush of the city, but also to capture as much sunlight as possible. After all, electrical lighting wasn’t very wide-spread, nor a standard, in this period. Lighting was initially only feasible with the sun. For instance, the Black Maria would have a roof that would open, rails that it could rotate on to stay in line with the sun and heavy curtains that would have to be drawn with gaff poles (long poles with hooks on the end).
Those that pulled the drapes, the first versions of lighting crews, were then called ‘gaffers’, which is a term that has stuck to this day for those that work in lighting. However, what would have gave companies such as Biograph a lot of trouble in their rooftop studios would have, of course, been weather. In France, Méliès would have solved this issue with his glass studio, so that, come rain, wind or sun, the studio wasn’t in jeopardy. Edison took a similar approach with his new studio and such marked the further development and expansion of film production.
Despite little experience as a cameraman, only with expertise in projection, engineering and programming, Porter was soon put in charge of this studio as Edison was in need of a camera person and a producer. He would quickly prove himself to be able to maintain the studio, making films alongside other employees such as James H. White, J. Stuart Blackton and George S. Fleming. It has been noted by Charles Musser (author of Before The Nickelodeon, a highly informative book on Edwin S. Porter and Edison’s company), that Porter worked in a collaborative production system. As we first discussed with our look at Segundo de Chomón, there was a new wave of filmmaker that emerged from the 1900s, a generation who weren’t the very first filmmakers to touch cameras, but learned from those before them. Porter, too, was apart of this wave; he not only spent many years consuming films, but would work closely with those that had been in the industry longer than he. This gave him certain advantages as well as motivations to progress the form.
Porter’s first few years of film production, which we won’t delve too deeply into, further evidence the idea that early cinema was, in many respects, like a motion picture newspaper. He not only re-created/dramatised news stories and shot street scenes, but would bring to life satirical articles and take direct inspirations from cartoons strips. But, one of most important aspects of Porter’s first years of filmmaking was certainly his participation in the shifting practices of editing. As he would have been very familiar with, programmers in the late 1890s would purchase one-shot films from agencies and then create something close to narratives with them. For instance, in the Spanish-American War period, Porter would gather various on-location shots depicting different stages of, for example, the explosion of the battleship Maine, and compile them into a chronological narrative across time that showed the consequences and peripheral happenings around the primary event. His programmes are said to have been so good that they would cause audiences to cheer patriotically in the theatres. Of course, this had much to do with the basic content of the films, but its organisation, as we would be very familiar with in the modern day, is a key influence on the reception of film. So, it was as a programmer that Porter first came into contact with ‘editing’. However, with the turn of the century things began to change.
Around 1900, filmmakers would begin offering exhibitors a selection of short films that could be purchased pre-programmed; they were edited into an order that the filmmaker intended for a certain effect. Porter was one of these filmmakers who, for instance, would provide a package of panoramic shots of a prison that would precede the staged Execution of Czolgosz (who assassinated President McKinley in 1901). This was an integral step in the evolution of editing as, at this point, most editing would be done in camera with trick shots of various kinds. Most of the actual cutting and assembly would be done by the exhibitors, but, with this paradigm being taken out of their hands, filmmakers were granted further artistic powers that opened up innumerable possibilities with multiple-shot narratives.
With this hugely important step taken, filmmakers like Porter would begin further developing multiple-shot films. Let it be reiterated, however, that America wasn’t necessarily on the forefront of film innovation. Méliès, for example, would be the first to utilise dissolves to bring together numerous scenes in 1899 with his version of Cinderella. Moreover, British filmmakers such as George Albert Smith would be playing with various shot types and perspectives in sensational films such as As Seen Through A Telescope and Grandma’s Reading Glass. Porter, on the other hand, was a little more cautious with his use of cinematic language around 1901-02. The typical approach to cutting, say for instance, cutting from an exterior shot to an interior one after a subject has walked in the door, always had a delay that often ensured the two shot types were seen as separate (and such was the function of dissolves, too). As he began to make more complex films, telling classical stories like Jack and The Beanstalk and constructing comedies, Porter would become even more cautious with this kind of cutting, and so would begin repeating action. He was inspired to do this by Méliès’, A Trip To The Moon (which he pirated and duped for Edison).
As most will know, this iconic shot of the bullet hitting the moon in the eye is followed by repeated action: the bullet again landing on the moon’s surface. In 1902, this may have helped audiences keep with the narrative, but, in the modern day, you would expect cross-cutting, a cut on action or simply no repetition. Nonetheless, Porter saw this as a form of continuity editing, editing across new and different spaces in time, to reshape his filmmaking approach around as to develop multiple-shot narratives that could move through space and time with greater agility.
In late 1902, Porter then makes his second most famous film, Life Of An American Fireman, which would be released in early 1903.
The version of this film you just watched is a giant misrepresentation of Porter’s work. With the final sequence, as the fireman carries the woman out of the window, there is a series of cross-cuts on the action. Porter never edited his film in this way. This version was cut together at a later date, probably in the 1930s, when this kind of cutting was the norm. The original Life Of An American Fireman would have held its interior shot until all action was completed and then repeated it with the exterior view:
What this is an indicator of is Porter’s ‘continuity’. Whilst he was joining shots together and utilising multiple angles of action, his work still required sophistication and for it to be accepted that audiences could keep up with more complex cinematic language.
It is at this point that we come to our subject for today, The Great Train Robbery. After A Trip To The Moon, this is probably one of the most iconic early silent films, and, in such, it has gained some mythos – which is to say that all that is said about it isn’t entirely true, or is slightly exaggerated. But, such is to be expected. The Great Train Robbery wasn’t the first narrative film, nor was it, in many senses, the most complicated film to have thus far been produced, and it was not necessarily the first western either. The Great Train Robbery was is a milestone film, and almost certainly one of Porter’s most complex and sophisticated pictures. Moreover, it is an early example of a film made up of numerous shots that could be followed despite its unconventional structuring. And though this can’t be considered the first ‘western’ as films meant to capture the old west such as Annie Oakley and Bucking Bronco were being made ever since 1894, it is generally accepted as the first epic western that popularised the genre. So, in many senses, a film such as A Trip To The Moon is far more impressive than The Great Train Robbery as its techniques are far more complex and it of course predates (and even inspired) Porter’s film. Added to this, British chase films such as A Daring Daylight Burglary also pre-date and inspired Porter. So, whilst the tricks present in A Trip To The Moon are far more elaborate than those in The Great Train Robbery, the narrate structure of A Daring Daylight Burglary is just about as complex – though not as long – as The Great Train Robbery’s. Assuming most will be familiar with A Trip To The Moon already, let’s take a quick look at A Daring Daylight Burglary…
What is so impressive and important about this film is the multiple, sometimes parallel, plot lines; the burglar breaking into the house; the child running to the police; the group of police chasing after the burglar; the injured police officer meanwhile being taken away in an ambulance; the police catching up with and then arresting the burglar. This is one of the most significant steps in film structure as cinema was becoming more dexterous in its sculpting of time. In such, earlier multiple-shot films such as Cinderella from 1899 would follow one time-line from beginning to end; it would be somewhat free to jump ahead in this time-line, but it would be followed linearly and singularly with dissolves. A Daring Daylight Burglary doesn’t move forward in one time-line, instead, it will select a couple of connected plot-lines and jump backwards and forwards between them as we assume other events are still on-going. The filmmaker now then becomes a plate spinner of sorts. Whilst they wouldn’t be spinning plates in the manner in which is done in hyperlink films such as A River Called Titas, Nashville, Pulp Fiction or Magnolia, filmmakers such as Frank Mottershaw (who made A Daring Daylight Burglary) and soon after, Porter, would still be guiding an audience through multiple strains and patches of space and time in a ‘juggling’ capacity.
Having likely seen an example of cross-cutting in A Daring Daylight Burglary, Porter would expand and Americanise it with The Great Train Robbery. When we then watch this film, it is important to then recognise how Porter utilises multiple causal and connected plot-lines as well as some special effects (composite editing, stop tricks, colouration, etc.). It is the combination of these technical elements into a, contextually, expansive narrative that makes The Great Train Robbery a milestone film. (Click here for a colourised version with different music).
Not a first and not perfect (the camera movement is not very refined at all), The Great Train Robbery still contains Porter’s segregated continuity which turns shots into separate scenes on the same time-line, and a general lack of film language par the final iconic shot that was meant to shock audiences, and was placed in the end, as opposed to spliced into the shooting sequence, as not to confuse audiences. However, the cross-cutting, or parallel editing, in this film is far more integral to this narrative’s plot than it is A Daring Daylight Burglary’s. After all, there is only one segment of cross-cutting (the boy running to the police) in Mottershaw’s film that advances the plot. The second parallel plot, the inured police officer being taken away, is somewhat tangential. It could be argued, however, that this choice was far more sophisticated than any seen in The Great Train Robbery as it gives some motive to the officers chasing the criminal and appealed to the audience’s emotions. There is nonetheless much more going on in The Great Train Robbery, and for the way that everything within is managed, the iconic nature of this film is more than understandable.
In essence, The Great Train Robbery, whilst it was not a strike of ingenious originality that came from nowhere, signified a new and expanding narrative cinema that was integrating the idea of “meanwhile” into its structuring. This would welcome new cinematic language and opportunities to create drama and spectacle on an unprecedented emotional scale that would be best represented by D.W Griffith’s iconic parallel action chase scenes that roused and engaged audiences.
Concerning Porter, The Great Train Robbery represented the pinnacle of a long career both artistically and critically. As Edison’s studio continued to expand, he employed a mass manufacturing business plan that paralleled that which you’d expect to see in a production line factory. Porter was then making 7-15 minute narrative films every 3 days, and he did not like this very much as he felt that he didn’t have the time or means to properly execute a substantial film. Whilst he made some notable films after 1903, films such as The Kleptomaniac, Dream Of A Rarebit Fiend and Rescued From An Eagle’s Nest, he never again made significant evolutionary steps, instead, would focus on separate elements of filmmaking such as structure (as with The Kleptomaniac), special effects (as with Dream Of A Rarebit Fiend) or drama (as with Rescued From An Eagle’s Nest). He was met with differing responses to his films, for instance, Rescued From An Eagle’s nest was not received very well and is only so notable in the modern day as this featured D.W Griffith in an early acting role, and never integrated multiple approaches and techniques into his films. His choice to not evolve eventually had him demoted and then fired from Edison’s company. He would nonetheless work in other studios, making films up until 1915. From here on, he would serve as the president of the Precision Machine Company who manufactured Simplex projectors, and even when he retired in 1925, would continue to work on electrical appliances and devices, securing multiple patents. By the time he died in 1941, Porter was more or less forgotten, which is not an unfamiliar story. Whilst very little is known of the man himself as few public records were kept and he had no children, Porter’s legacy developed over time with his most iconic work being referenced in films such as Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid and Goodfellas.
To conclude, what Porter’s The Great Train Robbery represents above all else is a turning point in American and international cinema that saw longer, more complex and expressive narrative films become commercialised and sought after by producers, exhibitors, filmmakers and audiences alike. So, thus we take another important step along the evolutionary road of moving pictures towards the feature film and the ‘first cinema’.
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