Edwin S. Porter (1870-1941) was a prominent innovator in the early years of cinema. He worked collaboratively, producing, directing, and editing a variety of films, including the first blockbuster motion picture, The Great Train Robbery in 1903.
Edwin Stratton Porter grew up in Connellsville, Pennsylvania, a small manufacturing town famous for its production of coke, a type of processed coal used for making steel. Porter was the fourth of eight children. His father, Thomas, managed Porter and Brother (later Thomas Porter and Co.), an enterprise that began as an undertaking business and later expanded to sell factory-made furniture. As the Connellsville coke industry expanded, the family business flourished and Porter grew up in a relatively secure, middle-class home. The coke industry, however, depended on large numbers of unskilled workers who worked long hours. As a child and a young man, Porter witnessed the tension between laborers and industrialists sometimes erupt into violence.
During the early 1880s, Porter worked at the Newmeyer Opera House in Connellsville, where he became acquainted with theatrical life. There he probably watched minstrel shows, melodramas, operettas, and various dramas, comedies, and tragedies. At one time, the opera house also exhibited a medicine show by the Kickapoo Indians and was the site of a visit by boxing champion, John O'Sullivan. The variety of entertainment Porter was exposed to would help shape the content and direction of his early films.
By the early 1890s, Porter had mastered the telegraph and was experimenting with electricity. He worked with his friend, Charles Balsey, to develop a device that would regulate electric current for the light bulb. This early experimentation demonstrated Porter's ability to use and adapt new technology. He chose instead to become a tailor and, like other members of his family, opened a small business. Mass production was already changing many family-based industries in America. By 1893, excessive competition (largely from manufacturers producing ready-to-wear clothing) forced him to close down.
Porter joined the U.S. Navy as a telegraph operator and electrician. In 1895, he read about the Vitascope, an invention of Thomas Edison that projected short films onto a screen for a mass audience to view. Porter convinced several friends to invest in licensing rights to the new device. He began working as an exhibitor and projectionist in Los Angeles. One of Porter's first challenges was to design a more consistent power supply for the Vitascope. As designed by Edison, the machine ran on direct electrical current. At the turn of the twentieth century, no consistent standard existed for how electrical current was supplied. In response, Porter developed a battery system for his Vita-scope. After a difficult opening night, he was soon exhibiting regularly.
Porter's achievements as an early film innovator and producer cannot be separated from the context of the Edison Manufacturing Company, which was the leading American film-producing company from 1894 to 1908. Porter joined the Edison Company as a full-time employee in 1900 when he was offered the position of production head at the company 's skylight studio in New York City. Prior to 1900, most film was distributed to various exhibitors as a series of short scenes. The exhibitors could decide how to combine these scenes and whether to add music, narration, or other elements to the production. The exhibitors, in other words, controlled how film was presented to an audience. At the Edison Company, however, a revolution in cinema was occurring. For the first time, the people involved in the production of film began to control how a particular story would be presented to an audience. Rather than filming disconnected vignettes of everyday life, these early film pioneers began to construct entire narratives that would then be delivered as a single program to an exhibitor. For the first time, it became the responsibility of the film producers to decide what audiences would see.
Porter soon became indispensable to the Edison Company. He was technically adept at numerous tasks and became Edison's chief cameraman. His early experience as an exhibitor in Los Angeles helped him understand what type of films would appeal to mass audiences. He began with simple one-shot films such as The Finish of Bridget McKeen in 1901, and was soon making multi-shot films. Kansas Saloon Smashers (1901), one of Porter's first hits, poked fun at Carrie Nation, a famous temperance advocate who had been mentioned in newspaper articles after she led a demonstration in Wichita, Kansas against the evils of alcohol. Many films from this period borrowed material from popular newspaper headlines. The story of a woman invading a Wichita saloon in order to destroy it proved to be irresistible to audiences at the time.
While at the Edison Company, Porter perfected a number of techniques that became standard film practice, including the close-up of an actor's face and the dissolve from one scene to the next. Both of these techniques, which were borrowed from the early magic lantern shows that predated cinema, became hallmarks of the Edison studios. Magic lantern shows featured slides that portrayed famous people. Dissolving from slide to slide was a common way for exhibitors to move through a particular program. Once the projector was introduced, however, these techniques became virtually impossible for the exhibitor to execute. Porter's ability to import these techniques into the film itself established a new creative authority for the filmmaker at the same time that it reintroduced familiar forms to American audiences.
Porter also contributed to film "actualities," a kind of precursor to today's documentary, or non-fiction film. When President McKinley was assassinated in 1901, Porter filmed his funeral procession in Buffalo, New York. The film consisted of four separate films that were connected by a series of dissolves. One of Porter's more startling actualities was the multi-shot Execution of Czolgosz with Panorama of Auburn Prison in which a stark series of shots depicting the execution of McKinley's assassin is preceded and followed by panoramic shots of the prison grounds.
The following year, the Edison Company released The Life of an American Fireman, one of the first films to inter-cut footage of a fire with dramatically acted interior scenes of fire-fighters saving a woman and child from a burning building. Porter's colleague, James H. White carefully orchestrated the fire and also acted in the film. Life of an American Fireman was one of the first "story" films ever produced. Its depiction of heroic feats by ordinary men helped make the film a popular success. Though an early attempt to develop the "story" film or narrative cinema, Life of an American Fireman also borrowed certain conventions from the magic lantern shows. The scene of rescue, for instance, was shot twice; once from an interior point of view and once from an exterior point of view. Film historians now believe that these scenes were repeated one after the other. The technique, which would confuse modern viewers, was probably a familiar one to magic lantern audiences. In Before the Nickelodeon: Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company, Charles Musser argues that the technique was significant because it "signaled a further shift in the editorial function from exhibitor to production company and a tendency toward producing longer and, therefore, more complex films."
Porter is probably best know for The Great Train Robbery, which was filmed at Edison's New York studio and in New Jersey's Essex County Park in November of 1903. This 12-minute narrative, broken up into 14 separate scenes, set a new standard in film length for the industry. It was also an important experiment in continuity editing, featuring scenes that were non-continuous and non-overlapping. The story is based on a true incident, a train robbery committed in Table Rock, Wyoming by four members of Butch Cassidy's gang on August 29, 1900. The four men stopped a train, forced the conductor to uncouple the cars, and blew up the safe in the mail car. They escaped with an estimated $5,000 in cash. Featuring shifting points of view and sophisticated editing, Porter's film depicted the robbery, the bandits' getaway, an extended chase scene, and, finally, the death of the bandits. Most critics agree that The Great Train Robbery, with its core elements of crime, pursuit, and retribution, established the "western" as a film genre in American cinema.
The Great Train Robbery introduced a number of techniques that helped establish the dominance of realist cinema. The film featured an extra scene of the bandit leader pointing a gun at the camera and shooting directly at the audience. The shot, labeled "realism" in the film catalog, could be used at either the beginning or the end of the film. When it was used at the beginning of the film, the audience's identification with the victimized passengers was intensified. In addition, Porter used oblique camera angles for some scenes, departing from the frontally composed, theatrical staging of some of his competitors.
As the process of film making became more mechanized and less collaborative, Porter gradually lost interest. He left Edison in 1909 to work as a producer and equipment manufacturer. He formed Rex Films in 1911, but soon afterward was offered a position as director-general for Adolph Zukor's Famous Players. While with Famous Players he directed or co-directed five Mary Pickford films including In the Bishop's Carriage (1913), Hearts Adrift (1914), A Good Little Devil (1914), Tess of the Storm Country (1914), and Such a Little Queen (1914). His final film before retiring from movie-making, The Eternal City, was completed in 1915.
Porter turned his attention to the production of motion picture equipment. He founded and served as president of the Precision Machine Corporation, once again enjoying the technical aspects of filmmaking. Although his business was extremely successful, his company failed with the stock market crash of 1929 and never recovered. After the crash he reestablished a shop and spent the balance of his work-life repairing motion picture machinery. Porter died in New York City on April 30, 1941.
History of the American Cinema, edited by Charles Harpole, 1993.
Musser, Charles, Before the Nickelodeon: Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company, 1991.
"Motion Picture, History of," Encyclopedia Britannica Online. http://search.eb.com/bol