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Monday, April 11, 2016

Edwin Porter's The Great Train Robery

Few lights, one camera, but lots of ACTION!
If there's one word most beloved by historians, it's the word, "first." One might argue that their second most favored word is "last." The problem with both words is coming to a general agreement as to the criteria involved. Around 1890, a new art form was taking shape--motion pictures. Everyone always wants to know the first movie ever made. Immediately, such a definition starts to involve criteria. Does three seconds count? How long should the first movie be? In 1891 Men Boxing was twelve feet long--a breathtaking five seconds. (I wonder if they had an intermission between rounds.) Even as late as 1896 they were still measuring most films in seconds rather than minutes. Then the following year came more men boxing--The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight, a sports documentary directed by Enoch J. Rector. The first film shot in widescreen, running an astounding hour and 40 minutes. At that early date and with that sizable jump in length, it's safe to say this was the first feature-length film ever made.

After the Ball, 1897, Georges Melies. She really wasn't completely naked.

Once there is little doubt as to the first "first"...whatever...the next step is to trace a long chain of developmental firsts. In cinematic history that means everything from the first kiss in a film (The Kiss, 1896) to the first nude scene (After the Ball, above, from 1897). Due to the limits of technology, films of the 1890s were mostly under a minute long and, until 1927 motion pictures were without sound. The first decade saw film moving from an experimental novelty to becoming an entertainment industry. Films became several minutes long consisting of several shots making up sequences (as with scenes in a play). In talking about technological firsts, the first rotating camera allowing panning shots arrived in 1897. The first film studios were built about that time. Special effects were introduced and film continuity, involving action moving from one sequence into another, began to be used in the late 1890s. In the 1900s, continuity of action across successive shots was achieved and the first close-up shot was introduced (some claim by D. W. Griffith). Most films of this period were what came to be called "chase films." Edwin S. Porter's classic The Great Train Robbery, released in 1903, set the early standards for this genre.

Click above to see the film in its entirety.

Producer-director, Edwin S Porter
When Edwin S. Porter set about filming The Great Train Robbery, he came to the task with a great deal of experience (if anyone could make such a claim in an industry barely a decade old). Porter had been Thomas A. Edison's cameraman during the 1890s filming such block-busters hits as Monkeyshines 1 (1890) and its sequels Monkeyshines 2, and 3. None were ever released to the public. They were internal tests designed to discover what "worked" and what didn't (mostly the latter). Nonetheless, Porter was in on the ground floor. The Great Train Robbery may not have been the first movie ever made or even the first ever made in the United States (Mon-keyshines 1 has that distinction) but it was the first "western" ever made (even though it was shot in New Jersey). At twelve minutes in length, it was much longer than most films being made even as late as 1903.

A century later, still a classic.
The Great Train Robbery ,was based on an 1896 story by Scott Marble. Featuring the first parallel development of separate, simul-taneous scenes, and the first close-up (of an outlaw firing off a shot right at the audience), The Great Train Robbery is among the earliest narrative films with a "Western" setting. The opening scenes show the outlaws holding up the passengers and robbing the mail car in the train, before escaping on horseback. After being knocked out by the bandits, the tele-graph operator regains consciousness and heads to the dance hall to get a posse together. The posse takes off to hunt down the outlaws and the chase is on. I won't give away the ending but the photo below might provide a clue. It was originally intended for the begin-ning of the picture.

Justus D. Barnes: BANG...BANG...BANG, you're all dead.

Broncho Billy Anderson,
the chief thief.
Inasmuch as The Great Train Robbery was made in the days when actors received no film credits, it's only appropriate that I should mention them here: Alfred C. Abadie, Broncho Billy Anderson, (right, who went on to become the first cowboy "movie star", playing the lead role in over 140 Broncho Billy pictures as well as many other westerns).Justus D. Barnes (above), and Walter Cameron. As of 1903, the "western" genre hadn't gelled yet in that all the stars of the film were the bad guys. The Great Train Robbery ran for twelve minutes and was made on a budget of $150 ($4,170 today). In 1805, Porter made a parody of The Great Train Robbery titled The Little Train Robbery, (below) with an all-child cast featuring a larger gang of bandits holding up a mini train to steal their dolls and candy.


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