Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Fire Fighters

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.

The Burning of Durland’s Riding Academy (1902)

Actuality footage of firefighters in action is spliced together in this topical Edison short from the early years of cinema.

burning-of-durlandsThe film was taken on location at a fire in an urban area. The first shot is a pan through the streets which stops at the firefighters spraying their hose into a gigantic cloud of smoke. Some spectators stand and watch, but as the movie proceeds, we see a lot of pedestrians pass by without apparent interest. A few stare at the camera. The second shot is taken from much closer to the group of firefighters and their hose, and seems to be later, as we see ruined walls and piles of rubble, but far less smoke. The camera pans away from them to show a half-collapsed wall and another hose further down the street. It then pans back to the main group of firefighter, training their hose into the midst of the smoke and passes them to find a man with a shovel digging through rubble. A final edit shows us a crowd watching a wall collapse, apparently from quite nearby. Once the dust clears a bit, a few of the men strike at the rubble with picks.

As I’ve noted before, firefighters were popular figures at the time, and we’ve seen them in a number of films, but this is the earliest example so far of them actually fighting a fire. It’s pretty much newsreel footage, nothing seems to have been faked, and the camera shows us what it can of the situation. We’ve moved into an era when Edison camera operators are comfortable with pans, and do them without much planning or preparation, to get as broad a view of the scene as possible. Durland’s Riding Academy was in Manhattan, where the Edison Studios were now headquartered, and the camera was mobile enough to get to the scene in time to get footage of the fire in progress. No doubt this fire was still in the news when this movie was being shown, and people were excited to be able to “see” the news as well as read about it.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: J.B. Smith

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 3 Min

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

Firemen Rescuing Men and Women (1899)

This short from Edison contains action and suspense, and even the beginnings of a plot as the bravery and selflessness of rescue teams is put at the forefront. While the melodramatic adulation of fire fighters may seem quaintly nineteenth century to us today, it is worth remembering that 9/11 raised similar emotions in audiences quite recently.

firemen-rescuing-men-and-womenWe see the front of a building, with four windows visible and ladders propped against it. Smoke billows from all of the window, and two teams of firemen work from the highest ones, helping people in civilian clothing out the windows and onto the ladders, where they descend below the frame line. At one point, a fire fighter tosses a doll out the window to one of his fellows on the ladder. He then tosses it casually to the ground. After two men and a woman have been rescued, the fire fighters themselves go in and out of the windows, seemingly uncertain, for a few seconds.

The original catalog entry by Edison emphasizes “the efficiency of modern life-saving methods and apparatus now in use by the fire departments.” All it looks like is a few men on ladders, but presumably this emphasis on modern efficiency would have carried over to the live narration an exhibitor would have used to accompany this film. I assume that this was a staged event or a training exercise, and not a real fire, although it might have been presented to audiences as authentic, and there’s nothing that actually proves it fake. The doll being tossed from the window is the one odd bit, and I wonder if it was intended to help simulate a child-rescue, but the performers didn’t understand this and just tossed it quickly aside to get to the “real” rescuing.

Director:  J. Stuart Blackton

Camera: Albert E. Smith

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Morning Alarm (1896)

This short from Edison Studios emphasizes motion and the excitement of a fire alarm to provide a thrilling “local view.” Shot in Harrisburg, as was “The First Sleigh Ride,” it is part of the location shooting that Edison engaged in to attract local audiences to screenings.

Morning Alarm_T1We see a street at a forty-five degree angle, on a cold day with snow on the ground. There are warmly-dressed spectators (apparently all men) lining the side of the street we can see. Horse-drawn vehicles charge past the camera, some with ladders or tanks of water, others carrying uniformed firemen. One of the tank-carriages belches smoke or steam as it races by. During a gap in the vehicles, several spectators enter the street to look up and see the next carriage approaching. A policeman ushers them back to the sidewalk before the horses arrive.

Morning Alarm_TThis movie is often confused with the one I’ve labeled as “A Morning Alarm,” and in fact the Library of Congress has this listed as “A Morning Alarm” and claims it was shot in Newark. I’m following the information from the DVD set “Edison: Invention of the Movies,” which tends to confirm information from Charles Musser’s Before the Nickelodeon. LoC could be right, however their description of “A Morning Alarm” mentions “the opening of the engine house doors,” which is visible in the other movie, but not this one, so I’m trusting Musser. The spectators in this movie are clearly interested in seeing the spectacle of their local fire department in action – they pay some attention to the camera, but actually endanger themselves to see the fire trucks, so I don’t think they are actors.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min, 10 secs

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

A Morning Alarm (1896)

I mentioned yesterday that firefighters were a popular subject in early film, and this short film, apparently shot the same day at a slightly different time and location, confirms that. Also made by Edison Studios, this movie once again shows off the development of a camera light enough that it could be taken out of the Black Maria and into the streets.

Morning AlarmA crowd of people lines a street, and we see them from the opposite side, at a slight angle. A horse-drawn carriage charges out of one of the buildings, with a long ladder attached to it side. It is followed by a carriage with a water tank, and another carrying several men in firefighters’ gear. The horses are not up to speed yet, just getting started on their run. In a way, this movie could be seen as a “pre-quel” to “Going to the Fire.”

There’s a fair amount of confusion about the titles of these Edison firefighting movies, and that’s understandable, given that they are so nearly identical, so short, and released at the same time. I’m using the titles given by Charles Musser in his “Before the Nickelodeon” book and confirmed on the DVD collection “Edison: The Invention of Movies,” but note that the Library of Congress has them listed differently. It occurred to me as I watched this that it’s possible this was shot almost at the same time as “Going to the Fire,” but that would have required two cameras to be set up on the same Newark street, and I don’t think they could do that, yet. I don’t know whether the crowds gathered every time there was a fire alarm, or if they’re there because of the camera.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Going to the Fire (1896)

This short from Edison studios appears to be an actuality shot on location on a city street. Again, it emphasizes movement and action to hold the attention of an audience that is becoming a little jaded about “moving pictures” already.

Going to the FireWe see a street in Newark shot at a 30-degree angle, so that oncoming vehicles cross the screen as they get closer. A man runs towards us and several horse-drawn carriages follow. One is quite large, and carries tall ladders as well as several men in fire fighter’s outfits. The last one carries a large water tank and hoses. At one point, a policeman begins to walk out into the street, turns and looks at the camera, and then backs out of the shot.

The catalog entry for this movie plays up the action: “This scene shows almost the entire Fire Department led by the Chief, responding to an alarm. The horses, said to be the finest of their kind in the country, present a thrilling spectacle as they dash rapidly by, flecked with foam, and panting from the exertion of their long gallop.” Clearly, it is becoming necessary for movies to stand out from the crowd and for advertisers to find good reason for people to be interested. Fire departments and fire alarms were a very popular topic for film in the late nineteenth century. In this case, it appears that the Edison camera crew may have set up a little way down the street from a fire department and waited for an alarm, although they may have arranged the shot with the fire department. There are large number of spectators gathered on the sidewalks, giving a sense that this was considered a big event in the community at the time.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Fire Rescue Scene (1894)

Fire Rescue Scene

This Kinetoscope short may be considered for the title of “the first disaster movie.” Apparently shot in the Black Maria, it gives us a tableaux of three firemen saving children from a burning building. We don’t see the fire truck or the building – just a ladder. Someone offscreen hands the children down to the fireman on the ladder from above, and he passes them along to one of the men on the ground. Smoke is billowing all around him, which makes it difficult to be certain it was shot inside the studio, but I think it was. It’s worth noting that in the late nineteenth century volunteer firemen were often idolized as heroes and seen as appropriate centers of dramatic narrative. The opportunity to show them in action was no doubt a draw for the kinetoscope parlors.

With this review, I have now completed all the movies made before 1895 that I know about and have access to. So far as I know, the others on my list are lost, although of course I am always finding more. As this project has progressed, I have discovered literally hundreds of century films I did not know about when I started, and I keep hearing about more. Even if I were to only go up to 1915, there would probably be more than I could watch and review in a lifetime. Nevertheless, I enjoy continuing to fill in the gaps as I watch more movies from the early period on up to the century mark. I invite you to follow me on this journey as it proceeds.

Director: W.K.L. Dickson

Camera: William Heise

Run Time: 27 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.