The most significant extant film to be made in Chicago after the Lumiere brothers’ 1896 Chicago Police Parade is probably the Edison Manufacturing Company’s Corner Madison and State Streets, Chicago. Made only one year after the Lumieres’ pioneering effort, the Edison film, copyrighted in July of 1897, is a fifty-foot, one shot actuality that depicts exactly what the title states. However, like most of “Edison’s movies,” Corner Madison and State Streets, Chicago was not made by Thomas Edison himself but rather by his favorite director/cinematographer team of James H. White and William Heise. Although both men had been prolific in the motion picture business since the pre-projection days of 1890, it does not appear as though their technique had much improved in the ensuing seven years. When viewed alongside of Chicago Police Parade, with its incredible use of depth of field and impeccably composed diagonal lines, Corner Madison and State Streets, Chicago offers an object lesson in the difference between Thomas Edison and the Lumiere brothers (i.e., the difference between approaching movies as a business vs. approaching them as an art).
Corner Madison and State Streets, Chicago shows a jumbled mass of people, horses and trolley cars in Chicago’s Loop as they hurriedly move in every conceivable direction at the same time. Some of the subjects are carrying large placards advertising “BOATING” and “ELECTRIC POOL.” Just as Chicago Police Parade is of interest because it proves that 99% of all Chicago cops had mustaches in the late 19th century, so too is Corner Madison and State Streets, Chicago of interest because it proves that 100% of all Chicago civilians, including women, wore hats during this same era (and in the middle of summer no less!). In terms of style, it appears that White and Heise have taken little care with the composition of the image, which looks particularly chaotic when compared to the clean lines and artful compositions associated with the Lumieres. Still, however slapdash its technique, it is of tremendous interest (like so many films of its era) for being an evocative portrait of a specific time and place.
The complete description of Corner Madison and State Streets, Chicago from the Edison Films Catalogue reads:
“The busiest corner in Chicago. Cable cars and street traffic of all descriptions. Hundreds of shoppers. Fine perspective view looking north toward the Masonic Temple. 50 feet. $7.50.”
The film can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube, courtesy of the Library of Congress, here (although at only 25 seconds, the speed of this particular transfer appears to be too fast):
It should be noted that Andrew Erish, in his excellent new biography Col. William N. Selig, the Man Who Invented Hollywood, claims thatCorner Madison and State Streets, Chicagowas a Selig Polyscope film that Edison pirated and copyrighted as his own. Most other sources, however, cite it as an authentic Edison film. Edison copyrighted Corner Madison and State Streets, Chicago along with several other Chicago-shot films on July 31, 1897 (Sheep Run, Chicago Stockyards, Armour’s Electric Trolley, Cattle Driven to Slaughter, etc.) Selig Polyscope copyrighted the similarly-titled State and Madison Sts., Chicago in 1903.
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 . . .
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.
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).