Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: George S Fleming

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.

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Interrupted Bathers (1902)

This short comedy from Edison by Edwin S. Porter and George S. Fleming uses several tropes that will be familiar to comedy fans from any era. It is a very simple movie, with a quick punchline at the end, that plays on the viewer’s expectations and desires.

interrupted-bathersWe see the bank of a stream or possibly a small lake, shot from the water, with a line of shrubbery in the back. There is a woman reclining there, amid various scraps of clothing. Three other women frolic in the water, splashing one another and themselves with water. Two men dressed as hobos come out of a hole in the bushes, and approach the reclining woman. She screams and runs off and the women in the water splash at the men. They gather up the clothes and wave at the women as they leave. The women swim toward the left side of the screen and disappear. After a jump cut, we see a woman cross the screen left to right, wearing a barrel to cover her lack of clothing.

The thing that stands out about this movie is that all of the women in the water appear to be fully clothed. I suppose that they might be wearing demure bathing suits of the period, but to me it looks like they are just swimming in their street clothes. That makes the entire conflict of the film, and its punch line, seem a bit silly. However, in all likelihood, an audience at the time understood that a woman could not just climb out of the water in a bathing suit or whatever it was she wore and allow herself to be seen in public. It’s also possible that Porter assumed that the audience would understand that the women were “really” nude, even though they could see clothing. At any rate, wearing a barrel (which may have already been established on the vaudeville stage) would continue to be a comedic symbol of modesty and nudity in movies and cartoons for decades.

Director: Edwin S. Porter and George S. Fleming

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 46 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

 

Burlesque Suicide No.2 (1902)

This short film from Edison challenges certain truisms about early movies and their techniques and subject matter. It also demonstrates the ways in which narrative fiction could establish suspense without using editing.

burlesque-suicideThe film consists of a mid-shot of a man sitting in front of a table. On the table in front of him is a decanter with a dark liquid, a glass, half full of the same liquid, and a revolver. He alternates between reaching for the glass and the gun, never quite taking a drink or putting his finger on the trigger. He pantomimes his despondency and sense of loss. At the end, he picks up the gun and begins to point it at his head, when suddenly he bursts into laughter and points at the camera.

Every now and again you’ll come across an over-simplified history of film that claims that all movies were shot full-figure prior to Griffith or until 1914 or some such nonsense. While it’s true that close-ups were fairly rare in the early days, you can find examples of films showing people in mid-shot and other close ranges going back to the very beginning. In this case, Porter and Fleming have taken advantage of the closer view in order to allow the actor to convey his emotions using his face, rather than overly large, theatrical body language. Another interesting aspect of this movie is the actor’s breaking of the fourth wall in order to convey the “burlesque” (meaning parody at this point in history). He laughs at the audience for believing in his determination to kill himself, reminding them that what they see on the screen is not real but illusion, and also making the dark subject matter less threatening. Still, we spend most of the movie anticipating the possibility of this grim act, wondering whether he will pull the trigger, and waiting to see how it can be resolved. The suspense of this film relies entirely on his performance, and on the intimacy of the camera to the actor.

Directors: Edwin S. Porter, George S. Fleming

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

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

Trapeze Disrobing Act (1901)

This suggestive short Edison comedy derives from the vaudeville act of then-popular trapeze artist Charmion, who performed it in live theaters before it was captured on film. It once again confirms the close relationship between sex and cinema in America, but I believe the joke may have been on the audience in this case.

trapeze-disrobing-actA set has been constructed to replicate the upper part of the vaudeville stage. We see the curtains and the top of the proscenium and over to the right a woman sits on a trapeze in full Victorian street clothing. Behind her a backdrop is visible, but we cannot see the stage floor; it is below the frame. To the left of the picture is a theater box containing two men in false beards. The woman begins undoing her buttons, and removing her outer garments, to the enthusiastic response of the two men. She throws them pieces of her clothing and soon is in very unrevealing Victorian undergarments. In the process, she occasionally does stunts like hanging from the trapeze and twirling, and so forth. She now removes the undergarments, her stockings, etc., again throwing bits of clothing to the applauding and leaping men in the box. When she is finished, she is in leotards and a tutu.

I said above that the joke was on the audience – despite all of Charmion’s stripping, she remains fully clothed to the end of the act, and is wearing what would be today a ridiculously demure outfit for a trapeze performer. Now, if it’s true that men would gather on 23rd street for an occasional glance of an ankle, this is fairly revealing, but I suspect that women in leotards were hardly unknown on the stage, even in 1901. That’s probably part of why the movie wasn’t banned outright. Charles Musser, in Before the Nickelodeon, suggests that while this movie was intended to titillate, the two comedy characters in the box were necessary to mediate the voyeurism of the audience and make it seem acceptable. Otherwise, it would have been too much of a breach of the accepted standards of morality.

Director: George S. Fleming, Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Charmion

Run Time: 2 Min, 40 secs

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

What Happened on Twenty Third Street, New York City (1901)

This short comedy is a wonderful location shoot of my home town, allowing a window into the past by showing a city street on an average day at the turn of the century. It also repeats some of the tropes of gender and voyeurism that we’ve grown accustomed to in Edison movies.

what-happened-at-23rdWe see a busy city street, looking directly down the street from the edge of the sidewalk. Crowds of people pass by in all directions. There are electric streetcars and many horse-drawn vehicles in the street, but no motorized vehicles are in evidence. A boy in a cap stands to the left of the frame, staring directly at the camera, and one man, who crosses in front of it suddenly steps back as if he were told to get out of the shot, but for the most part people act naturally, as if the camera were not there. A number of people jaywalk by crossing the street in the middle, not far from the camera’s position. A couple, quite distant at the beginning of the film, approach it slowly through the running time. Finally, when they are just close enough to be centered in the shot, they step over a grate in the sidewalk and the woman’s dress is blown up around her ankles, rising almost to her knees before she grabs it and demurely holds it down and steps off the grate. She looks embarrassed at first, but suddenly bursts into hearty laughter at the end.

New York's Flatiron Building

New York’s Flatiron Building

Before I get into analyzing this film, I want to talk about an odd piece of Americana. A fascinating architectural structure, known as the Flatiron Building, is located at Twenty Third Street and Fifth Avenue in New York. This building, because of its odd shape, famously channels a great deal of wind onto the nearby sidewalks. Supposedly, a certain class of New York male began to congregate there to observe women’s dresses blown up by the wind, because it offered a rare sight of female legs. The story goes that the phrase “23 Skidoo” comes from these men being regularly rousted by policemen on patrol. This may all be more or less legend, but this movie adds some credence to the idea that Twenty Third Street was associated with opportunities for voyeurism and exhibitionism, and offers its audience a safe opportunity to engage in it. What really stands out to us today is the wonderful location shooting, and the chance to see fashions, architecture, and vehicles of a previous century in excellent detail and under more or less documentary conditions. Nearly all of the men are wearing straw hats and neckties, and most of the women do wear long, heavy dresses that conceal their bodies from view. One interesting question it raises is whether the “star” of this movie was played by a woman or a man in drag, as was the case with many Edison pictures. Imdb credits a female actor, but the Library of Congress does not specify. Either way, she definitely breaks character at the end when she bursts into laughter, I think because of some comment a passerby has made. Of course, she would have been in on the joke from the beginning, so her apparent embarrassment is an act, whatever her gender identity may have been.

Director: Edwin S. Porter possibly with George S. Fleming

Camera: Unknown, possible Edwin S. Porter or George S. Fleming

Starring: A.C. Abadie and Florence Georgie

Run Time: 1 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Another Job for the Undertaker (1901)

This early short from Edison Studios is another early comedy from Edwin S. Porter, but it draws heavily from another of the icons of early film: Georges Méliès. It’s something of a remake, or maybe a parody, of his movie, “The Bewitched Inn,” only with a surprise punchline at the end.

another-job-for-the-undertakerWe see a set dressed as a hotel room with a sign reading “Don’t Blow Out the Gas.” A man is shown into the room by a boy in a bellhop’s uniform, but instead of caging for a tip, the boy does a somersault. Partway through the stunt, he vanishes! The man looks confused, but he begins arranging his hat and coat and umbrella, each of which disappears when he puts it down. He takes off his boots and they proceed to walk away from him, disappearing when he tries to grab them. He finishes preparing for bed and climbs in. Suddenly the film cuts to an image of a hearse in a funeral procession.

In traditional film histories, Porter is often given credit for “inventing” parallel editing. Whether that’s strictly true or not, he definitely was among the early experimenters in creating meaning by juxtaposing film of different scenes, and the ending of this film appears to be one of the earliest examples. If the imdb version of the Edison Catalog entry for this film is accurate, the audience is to understand that he has blown out the gas and thereby caused his death. It’s a fairly clunky edit, and ending, but that’s to be expected in an early experiment. Otherwise, the movie closely parallels its apparent source, “The Bewitched Inn,” except that the effects aren’t as good and the physical performance is less amusing. I still think it might be a kind of spoof, in that Porter seems to be using the audience’s expectations that it will follow the same storyline as a deliberate misdirection to make the ending more effective. It’s worth noting that Méliès himself remade this movie repeatedly, including in the 1903 film “The Inn Where No Man Rests,” and that many of his trick films dealt with much the same theme of a person in a room having objects suddenly disappear or appear. In the early days of cinema everyone remade each other’s successful movies, so it’s not really fair to accuse Edison or Porter of being unoriginal, but this doesn’t quite stand up to Méliès’s version.

Director: Edwin S. Porter (possibly with George S. Fleming)

Camera: Unknown, possibly Edwin S. Porter or George S. Fleming

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

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

Old Maid Having Her Picture Taken (1901)

This is an early comedy short from Edwin S. Porter, who would become the chief director for Edison Studios in the early twentieth century and the creator of the famous “Great Train Robbery” just a few years later. While this is a far less sophisticated film, it remains interesting as a stage in the development of American film and its celebrated director.

old-maid-having-her-picture-takenWe see a proscenium-style view of the interior of a photographer’s studio, with photo samples on the wall, a full-length mirror, a chair for portraits, and a camera to one side. A woman with a pinched face speaks to the photographer, who leaves her alone after a few seconds. She turns to look at the samples, and the display suddenly crashes to the floor. She then looks and the clock, and its hands suddenly spin crazily before it also comes crashing down. Then she checks her look in the mirror, which seems fine until she holds her fan up to her chin, and then it shatters. The photographer returns to see the destruction, and hastens the woman into the chair, perhaps hoping to avoid further chaos. He poses her, and she once again raises the fan to her chin. Suddenly she is flung back and a moment later a puff of smoke emerges from the camera, which has exploded because of her ugliness.

There are a number of interesting points about this movie. In “The Emergence of Cinema,” Charles Musser reveals that the old maid is actually Gilbert Saroni, a “professional female impersonator,” apparently a vaudeville actor who specialized in ugly women. It’s a reminder of both the fact that early film was largely a male-dominated world and also that camp humor is older than Gay Liberation, though arguably its meaning is different in such a world. On the subject of both gender and sexuality, the Edison catalog ends its description with the line, “The picture finishes up with the old maid tipping back in her chair and losing her balance, displaying a large quantity of fancy lace goods. A sure winner.” This once again emphasizes the degree to which Edison was comfortable appealing to “vulgar” interests in its movies and ad campaigns. The movie is shot in a very typical style for the period, with a single shot from a single angle, with exits and entrances (by the photographer, at least), and a series of effects occurring for real in front of the camera. No camera trickery here: this could have been performed on a stage just as it appears. A final observation is the problematic timing of the explosion: the old maid observably reacts before the camera has exploded, but it never occurred to Porter to do a re-take.

Director: Edwin S. Porter and George S. Fleming

Camera: Unknown, possibly Edwin S. Porter or George S. Fleming

Starring: Gilbert Saroni (or “Sarony”)

Run Time: 1 Min, 20 secs

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