While Alice Guy was blazing new cinematic advances in France and later in the United States, Edison was moving ahead with the development of the motion picture with the aid of Edwin S. Porter, whose films The Life of an American Fireman and particularly The Great Train Robbery revolutionized the cinema. The Life of an American Fireman (1903) is a brief film of six minutes, in which a fireman, dozing at his station, dreams of his wife and child at home. Suddenly, the alarm sounds, and the fireman is off to put out yet another blaze – but this time, it is at his own home. The fire brigade pulls up, and in a neat mixture of actual “newsreel” footage (Porter and his crew waited at a firehouse until a call came in, and then documented the crew in action) and staged footage, the fireman’s wife and child are rescued from the blazing house.
Interestingly, the rescue is shown twice, once from the inside of the house, as the firemen break in through the window, and again from the outside, as the firemen ascend the ladder to the woman’s bedroom and then descend with the wife and her child.
Intercepting for suspense is limited to the opening sequence of the dreaming fireman at the station, juxtaposed with his dream image of his wife and child at their home, but at this early date, Porter felt compelled to use the interior and exterior angles as separate units, rather than intercutting them to create the illusion of one continuous act. In addition, the film was shot on paper film, rather than cellulose nitrate film, and so has a rather flat and misty look to it. Nevertheless, the technical innovations in the film are many: a close-up of the fire alarm being activated, the use of both medium and wide shots, the intercutting of actual footage with staged sequences, and the use of dissolves as transitions between scenes to suggest the passage of time.
Even more daring is Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903), which, as with Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon, presents in microcosm the basic generic conventions of the western in a violent, one-reel short film. The plot is simple: a train is hijacked by bandits intent on stealing the mail, and they successfully carry out their nefarious plans, killing the train’s engineer and the mailroom attendant in the process. They force the train’s passengers to disembark, line up, and hand over their valuables. When one man tries to make a break for it, the robbers shoot and kill him in cold blood.
Escaping with their loot, the robbers are followed by a posse in hot pursuit, who shoot them down in the woods of Fort Lee, New Jersey (where the film was actually shot), and recover the stolen goods. In the film’s famous final shot, one of the actors aims his gun directly at the audience and fires twice, in a stark and completely disconnected close-up.
Running only twelve minutes and containing just fourteen shots, The Great Train Robbery nevertheless represented a significant step forward in cinematic grammar. The film used intercutting for suspense (a telegraph operator knocked out at the beginning of the film is revived by a young girl who discovers him by accident; will he be able to spread the alarm in time?); parallel editing (the robbery takes place as the telegraph operator is being revived, and the robbery concludes as the posse is being formed to pursue the front of the camera. In addition, The Great Train Robbery served as the training ground for one Gilbert M.
“Broncho Billy” Anderson, who played several roles in the film (the man who tries to escape and is shot; a tenderfoot whom the posse forces to dance with gunfire at a square dance) and later became the movies’ first cowboy hero. As effective as the film was, Anderson realized that it lacked one key element: a central protagonist for the viewer to identify with. As “Broncho Billy,” he pioneered the “aw, shucks” cowboy hero, later personified by Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, and Roy Rogers, in a string of silent westerns starting with The Bandit Makes Good (1908). Anderson’s concept was so successful that he ultimately cranked out four hundred films in the “Broncho [later Bronco] Billy” series from 1907 to 1914, establishing him as one of the screen’s first bona fide film stars. Porter, however, would experience his greatest success with The Great Train Robbery, and although he made many other films, he was unable to adapt to changing times and ultimately retired in 1915.
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Edwin S. Porter