Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Edwin S Porter

The Kleptomaniac (1905)

This is another social message movie from Edwin S. Porter, which contrasts poverty and riches, and the double standard of justice which existed between them. It also gives us some very interesting images of New York at winter time.

The movie begins by showing a wealthy woman getting into a horse-drawn carriage for a day on the town. She crosses from her front door to the street, which we see is covered in snow. The next shot is of a snow-free street, although the visible breath of the horses indicates that it is still quite cold. The woman gets out of the carriage and crosses the sidewalk to a door marked “Macy’s.” The next scene is the interior of a department store, and we see a number of well-dressed women as they move from counter to counter, asking clerks to display various items for them. The woman from the previous shots is there also, and she takes something from one of the counters when she thinks no one is looking, then moves to the center of the stage to speak to a friend she recognizes. She has been observed by the store detective, however, who comes over and escorts the two women off screen. The next scene is in the manager’s office, where the friend tries to plead for the rich woman, but when the rich woman produces the goods, the manager has her escorted down to the street and into a carriage that takes her to the police station (more snow here than in any other shot).

The story is now interrupted and we see “The House of Poverty,” where a small child sits on the floor screaming while a woman is doubled over at the table. Her older daughter comes home and asks her mother for something to eat, but the cupboard is bare. The poor woman puts on a scarf and goes out to find food. The next scene shows a snowless sidewalk in front of a simple storefront. A delivery boy comes out of the door with a basket, but the shopkeeper calls him back inside, so he puts his basket carelessly on the sidewalk. The poor woman walks up and sees the unguarded basket, looks around to see if anyone is watching and takes a small loaf of bread. The shopkeeper instantly runs out of the store and grabs her by the elbow. He hails a cop, who takes the loaf and the woman back to the same snowy police station. Next, we see the police court, where a series of minor criminals, including a prostitute and a hobo, are quickly processed. Then it is the poor woman’s turn, and the shopkeeper testifies angrily about his stolen goods. The only advocate for the poor woman is her daughter, who runs up and hugs her mother, but the judge orders them separated, and the mother is taken away. Then it is the rich woman’s turn. The manager of the department store is also fervent, but her friend is there to testify and she has a lawyer as well. The judge decides to let her go. The closing shot is an image of blind justice, holding a scale where a bag of money clearly has more weight than a loaf of bread.

This movie has a lot in common with the later movie by D.W. Griffith, “A Corner in Wheat,” which contrasts the rich and the poor and the effect of stock manipulation on hungry people versus the rich who profit from it. Porter’s style is a bit less sophisticated, but the message is still clear: a woman who acts from desperation is punished for something while a rich woman looking for a thrill is let off. Porter does not so much use cross-cutting to get this across as he shows one story almost to the end, then interrupts it and tells another story before giving us the conclusion of the first one. Withholding the end of the first story still serves to build a degree of suspense as we wonder how it will turn out. I made a point of noting the level of snow we see in the various location shots, because I suspect that it demonstrates that these were shot on different days, although it’s also possible that Macy’s just had better street-clearing service than the other locations. We still get to see some great images of New York from another era. The interior of the department store is also illustrative: there is little merchandise on display or accessible to the customers, most of it is kept in drawers behind the counter, and customers have to ask to see it. Interestingly this system is not shown to prevent theft very effectively.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Aline Boyd

Run Time: 11 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Ex-Convict (1904)

Edwin S. Porter adapted a popular vaudeville story to the camera, and made an early “message picture” at the same time. While it may seem a bit melodramatic to our tastes today, it stands out among its contemporaries as an unusually effective drama.

The movie begins by showing us an apparently “normal” nuclear family, of mother, father, and daughter, as the father leaves home in the morning for work. All seems well, but the next Intertitle tells us, “That Man is an Ex-Convict.” We see him working in front of a shop on an urban street, moving some large crates and then painting words onto one of them. As he works, a bearded policeman walks up from behind him, examines him, and goes into the shop. The store owner comes out with the policeman, and the two speak for a moment, and the ex-convict is discharged. Evidently the policeman warned his boss about the man’s criminal past. The next scene is titles “Have You Reference?” and it shows the ex-convict joining a line of hopefuls in front of a warehouse that has a sign reading “Wanted 10 Men.” Each man shows the foreman a piece of paper, which is examined closely before he is admitted, but the ex-convict has no paper and so gets no job. The story suddenly leaves the ex-convict and we see a small girl being escorted by a maid in a wealthy neighborhood. The maid stops to speak with a man on the street corner, but the little girl goes into the street without her, then turns and stamps her foot to show that she is annoyed at the delay. Suddenly, the ex-convict comes running from off screen, grabs the child and dives to the ground. A moment later a car speeds through the spot where the child had been standing. The maid and other bystanders congratulate the ex-convict for his heroism, and he is given a bandage for his head (apparently he wounded himself in the fall).

Despite this act of courage, however, the ex-convict returns home to find his wife and daughter hungry, the girl in bed without any supper (possibly we are meant to understand that she is ill). He feels the desperation of his situation, then goes back out into the night. He walks the streets in the snow without an adequate coat, and tries to tell his story to passersby who have no interest or sympathy. Finally, looking at a low window to a rich house, he makes the desperate decision to attempt burglary. The next scene shows the inside of the house, where a mother, a father, and a child live in bourgeois comfort. The child is the same one that the ex-convict saved earlier. She drowses off, and the mother and father take her up to bed. Then, the ex-convict enters the empty room. The father catches him instantly, and holds him at gunpoint. The ex-convict offers no resistance, and the father leaves the room to call the police. The ex-convict considers flight, but at that moment the child comes back downstairs and recognizes him. The two of them speak to each other, and soon the child is sitting in the ex-convict’s lap, while he tells a story. The father comes back in and observes this, and puts his gun away. Soon, the police arrive and the ex-convict puts out his hands for the cuffs, but the child intervenes and the father sends them away. The ex-convict is grateful to them both for the second chance.

The movie clearly supports a progressive attitude that people should not be stigmatized for their social condition or past actions. If a man can’t get a job after his release from prison, by the logic of the film, he will have no choice but to return to crime, and people should be given the chance to redeem themselves, as the hero does when he saves the child. In contrasting the comforts of the rich home with the simplicity and squalor of the man’s apartment, Porter also makes an argument about class in America. As is often the case with early films, I found the location shots more interesting than those in the studio, particularly the images of the workplaces: the store and the warehouse. These would have been shot in New York or possibly New Jersey, but they could have been anywhere with a reasonably urban appearance. The editing structure is simple but effective. It’s not quite clear whether we’ve “jumped back” a bit in time when we move from the snow-covered (studio) street into the bourgeois home, but this could be an example of early parallel editing, if we assume that the ex-convict is waiting outside for an opportunity to come in when the living room is empty. All of the scenes of this movie are shot in long-shot, so that we never get a clear look at the actors’ faces, but there are some interesting angles. The rescue scene involves the ex-convict running onto screen diagonally from behind the camera, and the car zips past at a different diagonal. The camera also pans slightly to follow the child into the street at the beginning of that scene. It’s not a brilliant movie, but it is an interesting entry in Porter’s portfolio.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 10 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Strenuous Life, or Anti-Race Suicide (1904)

This is a multi-shot short comedy by Edwin S. Porter for Edison Studios, that tells a story by implication, winking at and nudging the audience without ever being explicit, although it deals with childbirth, one of the more sensitive topics at the time.

The movie opens on a set designed to represent an office, which is shot for some reason at a very low angle, so that the actors only come to about halfway in the frame vertically when standing. A man is sitting at a desk, and his secretary (a woman) sits across from him. He receives a phone call that excites him greatly. He gets up to leave and almost puts on the woman’s hat by mistake as he leaves. She points out his mistake so that he is not arrested for cross-dressing. The next shot is a New York street scene. The streets are covered in snow, and a horse and carriage pulls up to the sidewalk, lurching over large piles of snow. The man from the previous scene gets out and runs up to a door. The camera pans to follow him – but a large older gentleman has gotten into the foreground and seems to be the center of action until he passes out of frame (he looks a little annoyed to be photographed, although I could be imagining this). Once our attention is back on the actor, we see that he is collecting someone from the house he has gone to, and they return together to the horse and carriage and drive off.

The next scene takes place at the man’s house, where he is greeted by female servants. The man he has brought with him carries the black bag of a doctor, and the doctor and servants go upstairs while the man remains below. After he has removed his hat and coat, he proceeds into a lounge, which also has a staircase leading up. He paces back and forth excitedly for a little while and then one of the female servants brings a bundle down to him. They put the bundle on a scale, and then a close-up reveals that it is a baby. They weigh the baby and the servant congratulates the man. He picks up the baby (the camera now returns to long-shot) and coos at the child. The servant runs back upstairs, and soon is back with another bundle. This repeats until there are four bundles being held by the man and his servants, and the man collapses on a chair and faints. The doctor comes downstairs to see to him, and when he wakes up he kicks the doctor for delivering quadruplets!

This is an awfully long walk to get to a simple punchline, but I liked it for a couple of reasons. One is that wonderful location shot of a New York street in winter. There isn’t a lot of early footage of wintry days in New York, and you can really see that the streets are covered in snow here. It appears that the passers-by are not extras, just real New Yorkers going about their day, and it apparently didn’t occur to Porter to make sure the actor would be at the center of the action in the pan. The close-up is effectively a jump-cut, but it’s nice to get a better look at the baby and the actors. I’m not sure that the baby was in any of the long shots, maybe the parents were concerned about someone dropping it with all the running around. The other good part is that you can see the joke about the four babies coming pretty early, but the final joke about the man blaming the doctor comes as a funny surprise that actually works to elicit laughs – or it did for me, at least.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 5 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Scarecrow Pump (1904)

This simple comedy short from Edison follows established patterns of early comedy and could easily have been made years earlier. It’s a reminder that not everything director Edwin S. Porter made was another “Great Train Robbery” – a lot of his product was very basic in its appeal.

A set has been decorated to represent the front yard of a rural home, with a large water pump at the center of the screen, and a bucket beneath it. A boy in a Huckleberry Finn outfit comes out in to the year with a large ball or round object, which he place on top of the pump, quickly sketching a face on it. Then he puts a coat over the pump so that the handle goes up one sleeve, making it appear to be an arm outstretched. He adds a few other accoutrements and steps back to admire his work. He then hides in the bucket to see what will happen. A large bearded man in a country bumpkin outfit now walks up to the gate, carrying a jug of liquor. He sees the strange “scarecrow” in his yard, and mistakes it for a man, going up to greet the stranger. He clasps the “hand” of the scarecrow firmly and pumps it up and down in a friendly greeting – which, of course, douses the young miscreant in water as the pump is primed.

This joke is along the simple lines of “The Sprinkler Sprinkled,” except that this time the adult “victim” doesn’t really suffer for being tricked into believing that the scarecrow is real, and the child is the victim of his own lack of foresight. The “country  yokel” is a standard comic foil at this point in film history, and the movie uses traditional American images (like the Huck Finn straw hat and the liquor jug) to give a sense of place. There is no editing and the camera is stationary throughout, so this was a very simple movie for Porter to make, possibly on the same day he shot several others.

Director Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Unknown, possibly Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1903)

This early version of the famous novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe is a little hard to accept in the modern world, because of the associations we have with the title and the way it portrays the African American experience. Nonetheless, at the time of its release it was an important attempt to recreate an important work of literature on the screen, and compared to other movies of the time, it demonstrates high production values and a seriousness of tone.

The movie begins with the Intertitle “Eliza pleads with Tom to run away.” We then see some actors in blackface on a proscenium-style set that depicts a cabin in the snow. They talk with each other and pantomime their conversation. “Eliza” is accompanied by a small child, and “Tom” seems to have a wife or other woman living in his cabin. The next scene is “Phinias outwits the slave traders.” Here, on a set built to resemble a tavern or store, Eliza speaks to a white character, who shows her out the back door, then distracts a well-dressed white man with liquor. Other men come in and “Phinias” keeps them in a huddle while Eliza re-enters the stage, then sneaks her child and herself out through the window. When the men turn around, Phinias holds them at bay with pistols. “The Escape of Eliza” involves an elaborate outdoor set that re-creates a river with ice floes floating along it. Eliza and the child run upriver, pursued by dogs and a group of men, then float past the other direction on one of the ice floes. Some men who try to catch them fall into the river and have to be rescued. Next is the “Reunion of Eliza and George Harris,” which takes place in a large room with a spinning wheel. George tries to hide Eliza, and when the pursuers show up he shoots one of them in the  foot from a high vantage point, then shoots another one dead when they don’t leave.

The narrative now shifts away from Eliza with “Race between the Rob’t E. Lee and Natchez.” This river-boat race is shown with very obvious miniatures, and the losing boat explodes and catches fire at the end. I was expecting “Rescue of Eva” to be rescuing someone from the burning boat, but rather it shows a group of slaves dancing in front of the disembarkation of the winner. Eva, a small white child, trips and falls off the gangplank into the river, and Tom leaps in to save her. The next scene is “The Welcome home to St. Clair Eva Aunt Ophelia and Uncle Tom” [sic]. This shows what seems to be the entryway to a plantation home and more slaves dancing. Eva rides in on a pony. Tom is now dressed in a very fine butler’s uniform. “Tom and Eva in the Garden” is an extension of this happy home life sequence, with a cakewalk-style dance. This is then broken by “Death of Eva” in which a double-exposed image of an angel floats down and takes Eva’s soul from her body on the sickbed. Tom pantomimes his profound sorrow at the child’s death. In “St. Clair Defends Uncle Tom,” we see Tom and his owner enter a fancy saloon. Tom stands deferentially to one side while St. Clair drinks and reads the paper, but some white men start trouble with him and St. Clair gets up and fights them. He is killed in the fight.

The next scene, “Auction Sale of St. Clair’s Slaves” is often criticized because it shows the slaves dancing (again) before the auction begins. Even more stereotypically, two of them are playing craps as well (as if they would have anything to gamble). I think what was more significant to audiences at the time is that Tom is no longer in his servant’s finery, he now is clothed as a field hand. In the next scene, “Tom Refuses to Flog Ema’line” and is flogged himself. This takes place before a backdrop of the plantation field. Then, back at the plantation home of Tom’s new owner, “Marks Avenges Death’s of St. Clair and Uncle Tom” [sic] by coming on stage and unceremoniously shooting the white man. The movie concludes with “Tableau: Death of Tom,” which includes superimposed shots from a magic lantern of the eventual emancipation of the slaves over the broken figure of Tom, chained to a wall and dying.

The movie assumes either a live narrator or an intimate familiarity with the story, despite the forward-facing Intertitles that precede each screen, which was itself an innovation in 1903. I was able to follow some of it. It helps to know that Stowe was an abolitionist, and created the character of Tom as a good Christian whose basic decency and humanity was contrasted with the white slave drivers, whose Christianity was often hypocritical. We don’t think of “Uncle Tom” today as a term relating to showing African Americans as human beings, but that was the original intent of the novel. This version undercuts that somewhat by using blackface and portraying stereotypes, but the basic message is still there: Tom rescues a little girl and refuses to whip another slave and dies for it. It doesn’t really seem like the Eliza sub-plot adds much to this in this version, but presumably audiences familiar with the book would have expected to see it, and I was reasonably impressed with the special effects on the ice floe sequence.

Michelle Wallace, who gave the introduction to “Scrap in Black and White,” also introduces this movie on the “Invention of the Movies” DVD, pointing out the popularity of Uncle Tom’s Cabin during the period (the same year, there was a version released by Lubin, a studio dedicated mainly to filmed versions of the classics), and to some degree defending it against its reputation as an agent of racism. I have some problems with the way she expresses this, saying that it is perhaps not “100% racist-fascist” and that it does not support the idea of “extermination” of black people in its interest in showing them at play or dancing. The problem is that these concepts do not apply in 1903. Fascism was still almost twenty years away in Italy and had no roots in American racism, which was never based on a need to exterminate black people. American racism did devalue black lives, and supported killing individual blacks, but the idea was to “keep them in their place,” as second class citizens, not to wipe them out. Of course, Stowe’s novel challenged this by arguing that a black man might be a better Christian than his white owners, but this version of the story preserves only part of that message, which is undercut by the stereotypical portrayals of African Americans on the screen.

Director:Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 19 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here with music).

 

Rector’s to Claremont (1903)

This short movie from Edison seems to be a kind of reversal of “How a French Nobleman…” using various locations in Manhattan for a comedic chase sequence. I’m not familiar with either of the names in the title, which may mean I’m not getting the context of the movie.

The opening shot shows a busy downtown sidewalk, with an awning as of a theater or nightclub in the foreground. A large group of well-dressed women come out from the doorway under the awning and pile onto a horse-drawn carriage. Some men climb onto the sides of the carriage as well, then it takes off down the street. The carriage drives down various streets, mostly through parks and wooded areas, and the Midtown entrance to Central Park is recognizable at one point. Along the way, they pick up a pursuer. A man with a top hat and a jacket is running after the carriage. The women wave their parasols at him, but it’s hard to tell if they are encouraging or discouraging him. At one point they drive past Grant’s Tomb, and he stumbles and falls, but the camera is slightly pointed away so we miss the pratfall he does. The camera pans slightly afterward to see him get up and begin his pursuit again. Finally, the carriage arrives at a large well-appointed building like an academy or school of some kind, and the women disembark. There is no sign of the man at this point.

Although I don’t fully understand this movie, it is a good depiction of New York from the period. It’s interesting how it seems to become more suburban and woodsy as the carriage proceeds further North. Today, apart from the parks, most of this drive would be through heavily populated urban areas. Probably the movie would make more sense to an audience that knew what “Rector’s” and “Claremont” were, and I assume that the exhibitor would provide a narrative to explain the mysterious pursuer. As it is, it is of more interest in terms of architecture and fashion than filmmaking. Near the “Rector’s” opening, we see a building with a full-size ad painted on the side: a woman in Victorian dress looming several stories tall over the street. That’s an exciting image right there!

Director:Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 3 Min, 45 secs

You can watch it for free: here (no music).

What Happened in the Tunnel (1903)

This is a short comedy from Edison that exploits racial stereotypes as well as gender relations but isn’t likely to offend modern viewers.

We see the interior of a railroad car from a slight angle and above. In one seat, near a window, sits a young white woman and a large black woman in a maid’s outfit. Behind them is a white man with a large nose. The white woman is reading, but the man behind her strikes up a conversation. We can see by her reactions that he is being somewhat forward, and that she’s embarrassed, but the maid keeps smiling broadly. Suddenly the screen goes black (the train enters a tunnel). When the lights come up again, we see that the white woman and the black woman have changed places, and the masher is now kissing  the black maid! He shows extreme embarrassment and consternation and hides behind his newspaper.

Part of the reason that this movie still “works” in the context of modern sensibilities is that the only person shown as having racist attitudes is the masher, who we already don’t like because he is forcing his attentions on the white girl. In a totally non-racially charged context, the movie can still work: he is attracted to one girl and not the other, and gets tricked into kissing the wrong one in the dark. However, the known racial order makes this more effective: he isn’t just annoyed that he’s kissed the “wrong” woman, he’s worried about the judgment of others on the train who have seen him kissing a black woman. If you analyze it more closely, the racism under the surface becomes clearer. The black woman is in on the joke from the outset – we conclude from her smile that she has a plan to get rid of this obnoxious fellow from the beginning – but doing so requires her to experience the humiliation of being the butt of that joke. She has to accept being seen as undesirable or not entirely human by onlookers in order to effect her punishment on the villain (this would still apply if she were just a fat white woman in the same role, but it has further implications because of her race). It’s notable that they brought in a real African American for this role, instead of a woman or even a man in blackface.

Director:Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Gilbert M. Anderson, Bertha Regustus

Run Time: 1 Min, 20 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Turning the Tables (1903)

This is a short comedy from Edison that shows that the very basic humor established in “The Sprinkler Sprinkled” and “The Lone Fisherman” continued to have its appeal even after seven or eight years of cinematic development.

turning-the-tables

We see a small watering hole, with a sign that reads “No swimming allowed in this lake.” Two shirtless boys are frolicking in it, and soon another little crowd of boys runs up and starts stripping down to their shorts to jump in. Not long afterward, a policeman (distinguishable because of his hard cap and billy club) runs up and yells. All of the boys climb out of the lake to what seems to be a stream of abuse from the angry policeman. Finally, having taken enough, they push him into the water. While he blusters and drips in the water, they gather up their clothes and run off. The policeman climbs out of the water to pursue.

Although 1903 saw the release of a number of relatively sophisticated films from Edison, incorporating editing, multiple angles, and complete narratives, there were still dozens of releases that year that followed the established formulae. In this case, we have a variation on a theme that is as old as the movies themselves: the young miscreants getting the better of the adult authority figure, only to be pursued (and presumably punished) by that authority. The policeman’s uniform is very simplistic in this example, more suggesting a sketch of a costume than the full thing, which makes me wonder if this movie was even planned out very much in advance.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min, 15 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Life of an American Fireman (1903)

This is a famous early movie by Edwin S. Porter, released earlier in the same year as “The Great Train Robbery.” It is one of the best-known examples of early editing structure, and gives us an opportunity to discuss the development of cinema beyond the single-shot film to the multi-shot narrative, and how this concept has changed over time.

lifeofanamericanfiremanThe first shot in this movie is an interesting trick shot, or special effect. A fireman is seen dozing at work, and over his shoulder is an image of his dream. He is dreaming about a woman putting a small child to bed (perhaps his own wife and child). The next shot is a close-up on a street-corner fire alarm. An anonymous hand opens the case and pulls the alarm. Then we cut to an image of the bunks inside the firehouse, with all of the firemen sleeping. They wake up to the alarm, and then leap out of bed, put on boots and trousers, and slide down the pole to the stables below. We see each one mount the pole and disappear in turn. Then we cut to the stable, and watch as each man slides down the pole in the center of the screen, and runs over to mount the wagon he will ride. Once they are all aboard, the ropes before the horses are taken down, and they race across the screen. Next we see the exterior of the firehouse, and watch as each wagon bolts out the doors and runs onto the street. We cut to another street corner, and watch the fire trucks race by, while crowds of spectators gather to watch them. There are two such shots in sequence, and each one allows each wagon to rush by, the second panning to follow them. This pan ends at the burning house, where we see the fire fighters preparing their hoses.

lifeofanamericanfireman2Now, the scene cuts to the interior of the house, which looks like the same bedroom in the man’s dream from the opening. Smoke is billowing into the room, and the woman and child sleep on the bed. She gets up and runs to the window, screaming for help, then collapses back on the bed. A fire fighter breaks down the door with his axe and runs in. He tears down the curtains and breaks the window open. A ladder appears at the window, and he picks up the unconscious woman, carrying her to it and climbing out on the ladder. A moment later he (or another fire fighter) reappears on the ladder and runs to pick up the sleeping child, taking her out the same way. Now two fire fighters enter from the ladder, wielding a hose, which they spray liberally around the room. The final shot reproduces this last sequence of events, but does so from outside the house (the same shot as the end of the pan, above). A fire fighter enters the burning house from the first floor at about the same moment as the woman appears in the window above. Others set up the ladder from below, and still more train their hose on the house, spraying water in through the open door and windows. Meanwhile, the first fire fighter carries the woman down the ladder and revives her, then runs back to the ladder to recover the child. Finally, the men with the hose climb the ladder, having put out the fire in other parts of the house.

lifeofanamericanfireman1This film s famous for showing Porter’s developing understanding of editing, being a great example of a narrative created by inter-linking shots sequentially. For many years, it was also controversial, because there were two versions – one which followed the sequence I have just described, and another which cross-cut the scenes outside and inside to create a more “modern” style of storytelling. It is pretty well established now that this version is correct: first we see the rescue played out in entirety from inside the house, then we see the entire sequence again from the other perspective. This lines up with audience expectations of the time. People would quite probably have been confused by parallel editing, not being used to seeing shots inter-cut at the time. This gives us a chance to talk a bit about how this whole idea of stitching shots together came about in the first place. The old narrative was that certain “genius” directors like Georges Méliès and Edwin S. Porter “invented” it. Actually, this isn’t really true. As we have seen in this project, for many years a “film” equaled a single shot of relatively fixed length, that played out some kind of story, with a beginning, middle, and end. But often they had related themes, fire fighting being a classic example. So, what various ingenious exhibitors started doing was to create narratives by showing related films in sequence, with their own narration filling in names of characters, etc. So, perhaps you would see “A Morning Alarm” followed by “The Burning of Durland’s Riding Academy” and then “Firemen Rescuing Men and Women” while a narrator told you that this was all footage of the same fire. This is where Porter and Méliès (whose “A Trip to the Moon” was a multi-shot film from the previous year) got the idea to make longer movies out of a series of shots. It also explains why they did not cut within their shots – this would have broken the established logic of narrative at the time.

Director: Edwin S. Porter (possibly with James H. White and/or George S. Fleming)

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Arthur White, Vivian Vaughn, James H. White

Run Time: 6 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Electrocuting an Elephant (1903)

This short actuality from Edison is a fairly unpleasant film, which will upset some viewers. Fair warning: it does depict the actual death of an animal. It also has been frequently misinterpreted by modern viewers, and therefore is an important part of our study of the history of movies.

electrocuting_an_elephant_edison_film_1903We see an elephant being led from an enclosure in the middle of what seems to be a construction site. Its trunk is bound in a complex harness that almost looks like a bondage garment. The camera pans to follow the elephant and we can see that there are crowds of spectators in the background. After a cut, we see the elephant is strapped in place, apparently roughly in the same place as it was before the edit. Suddenly the elephant stiffens, and you can see a puff of smoke from below its feet. After a few moments, it falls slowly over to the left. It twitches a few times on the ground before the end of the movie.

The story of Topsy the elephant is a tragic one, speaking to why laws regarding elephants in captivity have become increasingly restrictive in recent years. Topsy was a circus elephant who got a reputation for being “bad” after she killed a drunken spectator who deliberately burned her trunk with a lit cigar (classic movie fans will remember “Mighty Joe Young” when reading this story). She apparently became increasingly difficult to handle after this, and was sold by Forpaugh Circus to Luna Park, which was still under construction. There she encountered the abusive animal handler William “Whitey” Alt, who did nothing to improve her temperament. Finally, the owners decided that she would need to be put down, as she was no longer safe to display in a public environment. The original plan was to hang her, but the ASPCA objected, and the idea of electrocution (combined with poison and strangulation) was suggested as more “humane.” This movie depicts that event.

THIS IS NOT TRUE.

THIS IS NOT TRUE.

Now, you can find various places on the Internet that blame Thomas Edison for the death of this elephant. These claims are inaccurate, and result from poor historical study. Having heard that Edison waged a war against alternating current that inflated its dangers and suggested that people would be electrocuted by it, they have concluded that this movie was part of that campaign. It is not. The “war of the currents” was over for more than ten years by the time this was produced, and alternating current was already the standard at Edison’s remaining plants at the time. Because of the early date of the War of the Currents, no movies were produced to support it. The movie “Pan-American Exposition at Night” depicts a display of alternating current lights one year before this movie was made. In short, this movie represents a tragic execution of an animal in no way at fault for its inability to get along with human beings after they had systematically mistreated her, and it exploits the pain of that animal for purposes of spectacle, but Thomas Edison did not use it to make an argument regarding alternating current.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Jacob Blair Smith

Starring: Topsy the elephant

Run Time: 10 Min

You can watch it for free: here (viewer discretion advised).