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The Edison Company Resumes Production

film shoe porter clerk

The Edison Manufacturing Company resumed production activities in the United States in late April 1903, shortly after the copyright issue was resolved. In the meantime, James White had left for Europe to represent Edison’s phonograph and film interests. William Markgraf, brother-in-law of Edison general manager William Gilmore, assumed White’s title if not his role. Markgraf, who had little motion-picture experience, could not offer the know-how and experience that White had provided. By this time the Edison Manufacturing Company had three cameramen: Edwin S. Porter, Alfred C. Abadie, and James Blair Smith. Fleming had left and been replaced by William Martinetti, a scenic designer, but Porter was now in full charge of the studio, and the only one to photograph subjects made within its confines. Outside the studio, he usually worked only in the New York City area. Abadie, who had been responsible for Edison’s motion-picture interests in Europe, was freed from these obligations with White’s arrival. After filming in the Middle East and Europe from mid March to mid May 1903, he returned to the United States. In June, he was sent to Wilmington Springs, Delaware, to take local scenes for the exhibitor N. Dushane Cloward, who had a summer motion-picture theater at the local park. Abadie subsequently devoted most of his efforts to taking news films and actualities, including a flood in Paterson, New Jersey, the ruins of a fire in Coney Island, and the Princeton-Yale football game. Smith filmed a few news films and actualities but spent most of his time supervising the development of negatives and the production of prints at Edison’s factory in Orange.

When Edwin S. Porter returned to filmmaking in late April 1903, he collaborated with J. Blair Smith on a series of actualities showing the “other half” of city life with views such as NEW YORK CITY DUMPING WHARF ; SORTING REFUSE AT INCINERATING PLANT , NEW YOR CITY ; and NEW YORK CITY "GHETTO " FISH MARKET . Studio production resumed on 16 July with Porter filming a young vaudeville performer for LITTLE LILLIAN , TOE DANSEUSE . Short comedies, including THE GAY SHOE CLERK , followed. In this three-shot film, a shoe clerk helps a young woman try on some shoes, while her chaperone settles in a chair and reads the paper. This is followed by a close view of the woman’s leg as she discreetly raises her skirt and the shoe clerk’s hands slowly move up her calf. In a return to the establishing shot, the two kiss, but osculatory pleasure is interrupted as the chaperone hits the shoe clerk over the head with her umbrella. Presentational elements occur on several levels as the woman displays her ankle to the shoe clerk and, in turn, to the spectator. The close view takes place against a white background rather than the set, further focusing the spectator’s attention.

THE GAY SHOE CLERK is the site of two intersecting genres typified by WHAT DEMORALIZED THE BARBERSHOP and THE MAY IRWIN KISS . On one hand, the comedy makes use of the voyeurism of a hypothetical male spectator. Unlike the shoe clerk, who can touch and even kiss the girl but gets punished, the male viewer can see but runs no risk of chastisement. He can enjoy the shoe clerk’s fate in contrast to his own safety. THE GAY SHOE CLERK thus savors the spectatorial position of the male cinematic voyeur. The position of the female spectator is harder to construct (unless the woman assumes the role of a mock male self), for the camera’s point of view is male oriented. The film suggests the woman’s pleasure at being seen (at least the young woman in the picture seems to enjoy displaying her leg) and perhaps a slight sadistic satisfaction as she entices the young man toward his defeat. At the same time, THE GAY SHOE CLERK can be seen as a kiss film that places the young couple in opposition to the chaperone and Victorian norms of propriety. In this sense the camera exalts this intimacy taken on the sly.

None of these short studio productions was released for distribution as Porter and the Edison staff prepared for the making of UNCLE TOM’S CABIN , completed in late July. Like Biograph’s RIP VAN WINKLE , Edison’s UNCLE TOM’S CABIN was an example of filmed theater. Even more than RIP VAN WINKLE , this fourteen-shot “feature,” or principal film, evoked a story that native-born Americans outside the South knew intimately. The play was regularly presented in the nation’s small-town opera houses by touring companies, and it was just such a company that was hired to perform in the Edison studio. Porter’s skill came in adding a few special effects (such as Eva’s spirit ascending to heaven) and most important, in reducing the evening-length performance to approximately fifteen minutes. Taken at twenty frames per second, this yielded 1,100 feet of film, which was longer than any studio subject Porter had yet produced and too large for the standard 1,000-foot reel that equipped most projectors. Despite its length, the sets had already been built and the play staged, so it undoubtedly cost significantly less than JACK AND THE BEANSTALK . While production decisions made it difficult to create a spatial/temporal world as Porter had done in several earlier films, this was not a notable failing since audiences, like the producer, recognized that the film was operating in a different genre from either LIFE OF AN AMERICAN FIREMAN or THE GAY SHOE CLERK —that of filmed theater.

UNCLE TOM’S CABIN did inaugurate one important innovation in American production by borrowing a representational technique from the English fairy-tale film DOROTHY’S DREAM , made by G. A. Smith. Each scene was prefaced by a title on film, which helped the audience follow the story by identifying the scene and some of the principal characters. While films and scenes within multi-shot films had been previously announced by titles, they were the responsibility of exhibitors, who either purchased the necessary title slides or made their own. (Some exhibitors, of course, had simply provided an on-the-spot commentary to identify films and add needed information.) With UNCLE TOM’S CABIN and many subsequent films, the producer assumed control over the titles. This was not the case with every film (short comedies from this period still generally lacked main titles), but for the most ambitious ones, producers soon followed the lead of G. A. Smith and Porter.

Porter was responsible for two other notable multi-shot “features” during that summer, RUBE AND MANDY AT CONEY ISLAND and A ROMANCE OF THE RAIL . Both used actors and tentative stories yet remained tied to the travelogue and its repertoire of techniques (for instance, the frequently panning camera). RUBE AND M ANDY AT CONEY ISLAND was designed to show off the famed New York amusement park,


which fascinated Americans. Like Biograph’s THE HAYMARKET , it emphasized everyday events at one of New York’s famous “resorts.” A ROMANCE OF THE RAIL worked within the popular railway subgenre of the travelogue. Exhibitors frequently assembled programs of passing scenery, viewed from the front end of a train, with vignettes of actions taking place at the station or in the trains. Many of the vignettes were, of course, comic in nature. Whether or not a showman intercut A ROMANCE OF THE RAIL with railroad-travel films, the conventions would have been immediately recognized by audiences. Yet the picture differs from other such comedies because of its cultural specificity. This 275-foot, six-shot travel film lightheartedly spoofed the Lackawanna Railroad’s extensive advertising campaign, in which Phoebe Snow rode the company’s trains in a white gown. Despite the fact that the Lackawanna was known as a major coal carrier, her clothing never became soiled. Porter created a male counterpart, also dressed in white, who appears at the station and meets Phoebe Snow. They board and the train pulls out. Traveling through the Delaware Water Gap, the couple watch the scenery from the observation platform at the rear of the train: the camera is framed to present the passing scenery as much as their interaction. Romance blossoms and a minister—also in white—promptly marries them from the rear platform. Here a documentary genre is reoriented around the emerging story film.

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