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Tag Archives: Edwin S. Porter

Adventures in Early Movies: The Great Train Robbery and “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Pt. 2

Today’s post is a continuation of last week’s essay concerning Edwin S. Porter’s landmark 1903 production of The Great Train Robbery and the subsequent career of its star “Broncho Billy” Anderson.

The Great Train Robbery had its world premiere at Huber’s Museum in New York City on December 1, 1903, where it played at the end of a vaudeville show. Legend has it that the audience was so enthusiastic they demanded the film be run again . . . and again before they would leave the theater. The following week, it opened in eleven theaters in the greater New York City area. It is impossible to know the exact box office figures but, by all accounts, the movie was a commercial phenomenon. After watching the film with one of these early audiences and noting their rousing reception, Gilbert Anderson said to himself, “That’s it. It’s going to be the picture business for me. The future had no end.” (Brownlow) The Edison Manufacturing Company likewise quickly realized that they had something special on their hands as this description from a 1904 catalogue indicates:

“This sensational and highly tragic subject will certainly make a decided ‘hit’ whenever shown. In every respect we consider it absolutely the superior of any moving picture ever made. It has been posed and acted in faithful duplication of the genuine ‘Hold Ups’ made famous by various outlaw bands in the far West, and only recently the East has been shocked by several crimes of the frontier order, which fact will increase the popular interest in this great Headline Attraction.” (EDISON FILMS CATALOGUE, NO. 200)

One of the side effects of the film’s popularity was that other filmmakers immediately began to copy its techniques (one even remaking it shot for shot) as well as individual moments: train robberies, fights on top of trains, and scenes of men being made to dance by having their feet shot at soon became standard conventions of the genre. Another side effect was that everyone associated with the film found themselves in demand for future motion picture productions. Although The Great Train Robbery, like all movies of its era, does not feature credits, a movie star was nonetheless born: Anderson, who played three different roles in the film (a robber, a train passenger who dies a spectacularly melodramatic death and the aforementioned man who is “made to dance”), would change his moniker again, this time to “Broncho Billy” Anderson, and become the cinema’s first true cowboy star.

Anderson’s “spectacularly melodramatic” death in The Great Train Robbery:

Historian Kalton C. Lahue notes that it was both ironic and fitting, given the “make believe” nature of the movies, that its first western star was born with the “unlikely” (and, though Lahue doesn’t say it, Jewish) name of Aronson and that, at the time The Great Train Robbery was made, he couldn’t ride a horse and had never travelled “west” of Chicago. This irony is precisely what Clint Eastwood had in mind when he directed and starred in the poignant and highly personal 1980 comedy Bronco Billy, the fictional story of a New Jersey shoe salesman who decides to become the headliner of a modern day “Wild West show.” In an age of mechanical reproduction, long after the west had actually been settled, the story of the real Broncho Billy must have resonated with most of the “authentic” cowboy stars that followed in his footsteps.

Following The Great Train Robbery, Anderson starred in three more Edison westerns in 1904 and 1905 (Western Stage Coach Hold Up, A Brush Between Cowboys and Indians and Train Wreckers), all of which provided variations on the basic formula of their first big hit. But Anderson had his own ideas about what constituted “western authenticity” and wanted more creative control. In 1905 he left Biograph to work for their chief competitor Vitagraph. It was there that Anderson directed his first film, Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman.

The financial success of Anderson’s directorial debut led to an offer the following year by Colonel William Selig, who was willing to allow Anderson to both direct and star in his own movies. After making a few Chicago-shot shorts, Anderson convinced Selig to allow him to shoot a series of westerns and “stunt comedies” on location in Colorado. All of these were released in the spring and summer of 1907 and boosted Selig Polyscope’s profits considerably. (Of these, His First Ride and The Bandit King still exist today as fragments).

Anderson and Selig, however, were not a good fit. Anderson thought his brief but successful run at Selig Polyscope meant that he deserved more money but Selig thought differently. Anderson quit. Upon returning to Chicago, Anderson met George Spoor, whose Magniscope projector had made the inventor a fortune. In a 1915 interview with Motion Picture Magazine, Anderson recalled convincing Spoor to start a Chicago-based studio that would rival the Selig Polyscope Company. According to Anderson, the agreement was that Spoor would put up the cash and Anderson would do “the work.” In the summer of 1907, they incorporated as The Peerless Film Manufacturing Company, setting up headquarters at 496 N. Wells Street (1300 N. Wells in modern numbering).

Just as Spoor and Anderson were getting their new company underway, Thomas Edison was implementing a “licensing system” that would maximize the profits from the many motion picture camera and projector patents he owned. Soon, Selig, Spoor and Anderson and most of the nation’s other major studios (Kalem, Pathe Freres and Vitagraph) joined forces with Edison to form The Motion Picture Patents Company (also known as the MPPC or Edison Trust) in something of a Faustian bargain. This trust would control the industry for a decade by suing any motion picture producers who used cameras that allegedly violated Edison’s patents – but it also inadvertently opened the door to new innovations in filmmaking and became one of the reasons why southern California would ultimately become America’s filmmaking capital.

Anderson and Spoor recruited their cross-eyed janitor, Ben Turpin, to star in their first movie, the Anderson-directed stunt-comedy An Awful Skate; or, The Hobo on Rollers. The scenario, reminiscent of His First Ride, features Turpin crashing into things while roller-skating down Wells Street. The scenes may have been staged, but there was little acting involved – Turpin had no idea how to skate.

Ben Turpin, cross-eyed janitor-turned-movie star:

Ironically, the same sort of piracy that Spoor engaged in as an exhibitor became a problem for him immediately as a producer, as independent distributors began duping and circulating their own prints of An Awful Skate. Newspaper ads for the first Peerless movie were run with the following disclaimer: “P.S. ‘An Awful Skate’ has been copied by a rival concern who employed spies to follow our camera. Our picture is the original and best value for your money. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.”

Produced for only a couple hundred dollars, it has been estimated that An Awful Skate made between five and ten thousand dollars in profits in spite of the “bootleg situation.” The new influx of cash saw the studio change its name and move into a much larger complex of buildings on the city’s far north side. Rechristened Essanay Studios (a phonetic spelling of the first letters of the names of Spoor and Anderson – “S an’ A”), the studio opened for business in earnest in early 1908 at the address of 1333-45 W. Argyle Street in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood (St. Augustine’s College today). The rivalry between Selig Polyscope and Essanay was on – but that will be the subject of another post.

The Great Train Robbery is available on Kino Video’s essential The Movies Begin Vol. 1 DVD. It can also be viewed on YouTube here: 

Works Cited

1. Brownlow, Kevin. Hollywood, the Pioneers. New York: Knopf, 1979. Print.

2. Lahue, Kalton C. Winners of the West: the Sagebrush Heroes of the Silent Screen,. South Brunswick: A.S. Barnes, 1971. Print.

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Adventures in Early Movies: The Great Train Robbery and “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Pt. 1

Today’s post is the first part of a lengthy two part essay in which I analyze one of the most significant early films, Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery from 1903, as well as tell the story of its making. The second part will be published next week.

In the silent film era, trains and movies were a match made in heaven. Nothing symbolized movement in the industrial age like the locomotive, and the early filmmakers knew that movement is what excited audiences the most. Therefore, from the Lumiere brothers’ Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat) in 1896, which legendarily caused early audiences to flee in terror as a train progressed towards the camera (and therefore, by extension, the viewer) through the simple panoramic films dubbed “phantom rides,” which saw cameras being placed aboard trains to create a “you are there” effect, to the incredible locomotive imagery in late silent masterpieces like Buster Keaton’s The General and Dziga Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera, no other single image is more closely associated with silent cinema than that of the high speed train.

In 1896, there were at least six theatrical plays being produced in different parts of the United States that involved trotting out elaborate puffing locomotives onstage. Thomas Edison, who had dabbled in the development of electric trains before turning his attention to motion pictures, saw one such play in New York City, Scott Marble’s four-act melodrama The Great Train Robbery. Impressed by both the play’s narrative as well as its pull-out-the-stops special effects, Edison filed it away as a potential subject for a future motion picture. Seven years later, he would realize this ambition. (Bianculi)

In the late 1890s, movies had slowly transitioned away from one-shot actualities into more complex multi-shot narratives. In the first years of the twentieth century, copies of imported European “story films,” duped (not always legally) by Edison, George Spoor and others, were widely distributed in the United States and had become massively popular with American audiences. This was especially true of science-fiction/fantasy movies showcasing trick photography and special effects such as Georges Melies’ A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la lune) and crime films involving exciting chases between police officers and criminals such as Frank S. Mottershaw’s A Daring Daylight Burglary.

A Trip to the Moon:

American movie studios soon found it incumbent upon themselves to imitate both the form and content of their European counterparts in order to compete. Consequently, as the Americans imitated the Europeans and the Europeans returned the favor, the language of cinema began to develop at a very rapid pace, becoming extremely sophisticated by the end of the decade. In 1903, the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, an outfit headed by Edison’s former employee W.K.L. Dickson, ramped up its commitment to using motion pictures as a vehicle for telling stories. In September, they began producing the first “westerns,” a genre that combined the narratives of the English crime films of the day with the purely American iconography of the popular dime novels and stage shows about cowboys and Indians and the “settling” of the west. But it would be Edison himself who would produce the blockbuster movie that effectively inaugurated the new genre and established its conventions.

In 1899, former projectionist Edwin S. Porter joined the Edison Manufacturing Company as a camera operator and director. By the time he made The Great Train Robbery at the end of 1903, Porter had already directed forty-five short films and served as cinematographer on many more. In this astonishing and prolific run of movies, Porter proved himself a true pioneer (if not quite the “father of the story film” that some histories have claimed) who was responsible for popularizing many of the rules of film grammar that turn-of-the-20th century audiences were experiencing for the very first time. A case in point is Life of an American Fireman from early 1903, a “rescue film” that renders space cinematically (as opposed to theatrically) by showing the same event from multiple perspectives in consecutive scenes.

In the fall of ’03, Porter teamed up with Gilbert M. Anderson, the stage name of a theatrical actor born Maxwell H. Aronson, who would eventually co-found Essanay Studios with George Spoor and become one of the most significant figures in Chicago’s nascent movie scene. Tall, handsome and only in his early twenties at the time, Anderson was a natural in front of the camera but he also worked behind the scenes as a “gag man,” helping Porter to brainstorm story ideas. The two collaborated on multiple film projects for the remainder of the year, culminating in their final 1903 production, The Great Train Robbery, which was shot in November and released one month later. This game-changing movie would ultimately alter the destinies of both men forever. (Musser)

Color tinted publicity photo of “Broncho Billy” Anderson:

Although set in a nameless frontier region of the American west, The Great Train Robbery was filmed entirely in New York and New Jersey on both studio sets as well as actual locations. The film tells the story of a group of bandits who rob a telegraph office/train station, then board the train, where they proceed to rob both the safe and its passengers before making a daring getaway. Meanwhile, the telegraph operator enters a saloon and rounds up a posse to go after the robbers in an attempt to recover the stolen loot.

Among the innovative techniques employed by Porter are parallel editing (cutting back and forth between the bandits and the telegraph operator to suggest simultaneous action), double exposure composite editing (an early “special effect” that allowed multiple shots to be combined in a single frame), camera movement (tilt, pan and tracking shots are all utilized), as well as a primitive but delightful use of color tinting on some prints – since each frame was tinted by hand this was an extremely painstaking process.

One of the most unusual aspects of the film is its famous ending: after a shootout in the woods in which all of the bandits have been killed, Porter unexpectedly cuts to a close-up (the only one in the movie) for his final shot; one of the dead bandits has mysteriously reappeared to point his gun directly at the camera and “shoot” into the audience. The End. It should be noted that a now-famous letter sent by Edison Manufacturing to projectionists across America gave them the option of projecting this shot at either the end or the beginning of the movie. All versions of the film on home video place it at the end – where its impact is undoubtedly more effective.

“Assaulting the audience”:

Whereas the Lumiere brothers had scared audiences unintentionally with their train film, there was no doubt as to the frenzy Edwin S. Porter intended to incite with his more calculated assault on the audience. This shot would become one of the most iconic images of the early silent cinema, right alongside of the rocket ship hitting the Man in the Moon in the eye in A Trip to the Moon, and would serve as an inspiration for the opening of the James Bond movies as well as the ending of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas.

In an interview in the late 1950s, Anderson recalled Porter’s rapid pace of production: “We made it all in two days. Then it was finished and taken to the reviewing room. After it was reviewed, they all looked up and they were dubious whether it would go or not. And Porter said, ‘Well, the only way we can find out is to try it out in a theater.’” (Brownlow)

To be continued . . .

Works Cited

1. Bianculli, Anthony J. Iron Rails in the Garden State: Tales of New Jersey Railroading. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2008. Print.

2. Musser, Charles. Before the Nickelodeon: Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company. Berkeley: University of California, 1991. Print.

3. Brownlow, Kevin. Hollywood, the Pioneers. New York: Knopf, 1979. Print.


Top 25 Films Made Before 1920

Because the language of cinema was still dramatically evolving from 1895 to 1919 and because most of the films made during this period were shorts rather than feature length works, this list mixes shorts and features together and is presented in chronological order rather than order of preference. For the earlier, shorter films, I’ve included links to YouTube videos where they can be seen in their entirety.

As with all of my “best of the decade” lists, I’m also limiting myself to one film per director in the interest of diversity. Otherwise, D.W. Griffith and Louis Feuillade would have about half of the slots on this list locked up.

1. Rough Sea at Dover (Acres/Paul, UK, 1895)

2. Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (Lumieres, France, 1896)

Bertrand Tavernier has referred to this Lumiere Brothers masterpiece as the “first horror movie” because, as legend has it, early audiences reacted to the image of a train moving towards the camera by fleeing in terror. This is a simple “actuality” that depicts just what the title states in a single shot lasting approximately 42 seconds. But it’s also a good example of how well made the Lumiere Brothers’ films were: the dramatic contrast of the black and white cinematography, coupled with diagonal perspective of the composition, makes the film an aesthetically pleasing experience even when viewed today. It can be seen in its entirety on YouTube by clicking the image above.

3. Seminary Girls (Edison, USA, 1897)

4. As Seen Through a Telescope (Smith, UK, 1900)

5. Le village de Namo – Panorama pris d’une chaise à porteurs (Veyre, France/Indochina, 1900)

6. A Trip to the Moon (Melies, France, 1902)

Georges Melies was the polar opposite of the Lumieres; he made narrative films in the fantasy genre that showcased trick photography and special effects. He also shot all of his movies in an ingeniously constructed glass-walled studio in Paris. Melies’ most famous film is A Trip to the Moon, a 14-minute sci-fi adventure about astronomers making a maiden moon voyage, where they do battle with the moon’s alien inhabitants before triumphantly returning to earth. This gained renewed fame when it became a major reference point in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and was subsequently re-released in a splendidly restored color version. I’m including a link to a YouTube video above but please note that the image quality here is far inferior to what you will find on the magnificent Flicker Alley blu-ray.

7. A Daring Daylight Burglary (Mottershaw, UK, 1903)

8. Life of an American Fireman (Porter, USA, 1903)

9. New York Subway (Bitzer, USA, 1905)

10. Rescued By Rover (Fitzhamon/Hepworth, UK, 1905)

11. The Life of Christ (Guy, France, 1906)

Alice Guy, a true movie pioneer, began her directing career in 1896 and is sometimes credited as the first person to make a narrative film (as opposed to Lumiere-style actualities). A DVD compilation of her work released by Kino in 2009 is a revelation: it contains stunt comedies, panoramic views of exotic places, and fascinating early experiments with sound and color. My favorite of her films that I’ve seen is The Life of Christ, which recounts “the greatest story ever told” in 25 single-shot tableaux-like scenes that, at 33 minutes, made it relatively epic in 1906. Especially effective is the climactic resurrection, which is bolstered by a beautiful score on Kino’s DVD. This is my second favorite Jesus movie after Pasolini’s.

12. The Golden Beetle (Chomon, France, 1907)

13. Moscow Clad in Snow (Mundwiller, France/Russia, 1909)

14. A Child of Paris (Perret, France, 1913)

Also included in Kino’s “Gaumont Treasures” DVD set is a an entire platter devoted to Leonce Perret, an important director previously unknown in the States. The major revelation of the set is A Child of Paris, a feature film from 1913 that is shockingly sophisticated in terms of its cinematography (including the kind of camera movements and oblique compositions that wouldn’t become commonplace for years to come). The Dickensian story concerns a little girl who becomes an orphan, is sent to a boarding school, runs away and then is kidnapped by a gang of thieves. The acting is surprisingly naturalistic for the time and the use of real locations – in Paris and Nice – is impressive in the extreme.

15. Cabiria (Pastrone, Italy, 1914)

16. Child of the Big City (Bauer, Russia, 1914)

17. The Cheat (Demille, USA, 1915)

Forget what you think you know about the conservative purveyor of stolid 1950s epics and experience the raw power of Cecil B. DeMille’s scintillating “yellow peril” melodrama when the trailblazing director was just beginning his career in the mid-1910s. Edith Harvey (Fannie Ward) is a socialite who embezzles money from a charity, loses it in a bad investment and borrows money from shady Japanese businessman Hishuru Tori (Sessue Hayakawa) in order to pay it back. The film’s most outrageous scene involves the Asian Hayakawa (an ostensible “villain” who exudes more movie star charisma than anyone else onscreen) literally branding the caucasian Ward with a hot iron. The dramatic use of chiaroscuro lighting was way ahead of its time and anticipates the rise of German Expressionism a few years later.

18. Regeneration (Walsh, USA, 1915)

19. One A.M. (Chaplin, USA, 1917)

20. The Blue Bird (Tourneur, USA, 1918)

21. Tih Minh (Feuillade, France, 1918)

Jacques d’Athys, a French adventurer, returns to his home in Nice after an expedition to Indochina where he has picked up a Eurasian fiancee and a book that, unbeknownst to him, contains a coded message revealing the whereabouts of both secret treasures and government intelligence. This makes him the target of foreign spies, including a Marquise of mysterious origin, a Hindu hypnotist and an evil German doctor, who will stop at nothing to obtain the book. Louis Feuillade’s 12 chapter, 7 hour serial is overflowing with action, thrills, humor and romance and is a strong contender for the title of the most purely entertaining movie I have ever seen.

22. Blind Husbands (Von Stroheim, USA, 1919)

23. Broken Blossoms (Griffith, USA, 1919)

24. Madame DuBarry (Lubitsch, Germany, 1919)

Polish-born Pola Negri was a major international movie star and sex symbol during the silent era and Madame DuBarry, a biopic of Louis the XV’s mistress set (incongruously) against the backdrop of the French Revolution, is one of her finest star vehicles. Funny, tragic and sexually provocative for its time, this historical epic allowed German film studio UFA to break into the international market. Four years later, director Ernst Lubitsch would become the first of many German filmmakers to migrate to Hollywood (where he would achieve even greater fame).

25. The President (Dreyer, Denmark, 1919)


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