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Fiction "Features" at Biograph and Edison

film scene shot films

The three Edison “features” discussed above were specifically American in their subject matter and depended heavily on the domestic market for sales. Although the UNCLE TOM’S CABIN narrative was known overseas in book and even play form, its audience was much more limited there than in the United States. Since familiarity greatly facilitated the spectators’ understanding of the film, many foreigners must have considered the film a puzzling American curiosity. A ROMANCE OF THE RAIL would have been even more puzzling, since it depended on familiarity with an advertising campaign that only Americans could be expected to have seen. Biograph often took a similar U.S.-oriented approach. The ten-shot KIT CARSON (NOS. 2538–2547) and the six-shot THE PIONEERS (NOS. 2555, 2557–2561)—both made by McCutcheon in early September—revolved around heroic actions of the famed American scout, who was the subject of various plays and many dime novels that were particularly popular in the United States.

In KIT CARSON , the scout and his companion are trapping in the woods and are attacked by Indians. Carson is captured and escapes, then is recaptured. Tied to a tree in the Indian village, he is rescued by an Indian maiden who cuts him loose. In the last scene, he is reunited with his family. In THE PIONEERS , Indians kill a family of settlers except for one girl who is taken captive and eventually freed by Carson and his band of scouts. All the scenes were photographed in the Adirondack Mountains in an effort to provide appropriate scenery. Nonetheless, their mise-en-scène is highly theatrical: the performances are frontal, the camera is at eye level, and the landscape is often treated as a stage. As a result, the potentially dramatic impact of the scenery is largely lost, revealing the limitations of McCutcheon’s camerawork. While there is one camera pan, the scenes are disconnected spatially and temporally. Though later Biograph brochures offer introductory titles for each of the scenes, they were not copyrighted with the images. For almost a year, Biograph’s exhibition service retained exclusive use of these pictures and continued to use slides for titles rather than switching to filmed intertitles as Edison had done.

In November, Biograph and Edison each made a picture that synthesized many of the advances apparent in their previous film practice: THE ESCAPED LUNATIC (NO. 2693) and THE GREAT TRAIN ROBRERY . Both films were strongly influenced by a group of English imports—story films of violent crime in which burglars, thieves, and poachers are pursued by representatives of the law. In Biograph’s ten-shot THE ESCAPED LUNATIC , these elements are employed for comic purposes. Photographed by Weed, but also the responsibility of Wallace McCutcheon and Frank Marion, the film was the first American production to be structured around the chase. In addition, it displays continuities of space, time, and action at opportune moments. In the opening, interior scene, the title character, who believes himself to be Napoleon, breaks his cell window and climbs through it. The action overlaps slightly with the following exterior shot as he climbs out of the window, drops to the ground, and makes good his escape—with the guards in close pursuit. Several chase scenes follow as the lunatic eludes his pursuers. The lunatic loves the chase: when he discovers the guards asleep on the grass, he wakes them up so their “game” can be continued. Internal cuts often occur within shots. A “take” photographed in reverse motion and another using regular forward motion are incorporated into a single shot using an “invisible” cut. This allows the lunatic to climb quickly and easily up a rope, creating a crazy world that distorts normal expectations.

THE ESCAPED LUNATIC contains one particularly notable scene in which a guard grapples with the patient on a bridge. Here, the filmmakers cut to a distant shot of the two combatants taken from a different angle, with a dummy substituted for the guard. The cut, recently experimented with in OFF HIS BEAT (NO. 2679) and A GUARDIAN OF THE PEACE (NO. 2680), is a perfect match. The change of angle functions within the trick-film repertoire and conceals the substitution more effectively than if executed using a single camera position. After the guard is thrown off the bridge and into a rocky stream, a conventional stop-action substitution (executed from one camera position) replaces the dummy with the actor, who continues on his way. Eventually the lunatic returns to his cell, where the exhausted guards find him reading a newspaper. The chase, violence, a simple but effective narrative as well as a coherent spatial and temporal world: all these mark the film as a significant breakthrough.

Edison’s THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY was—and still is—the best known and most commercially successful film of the pre-Griffith era. Edwin S. Porter was responsible for producing and photographing it in November 1903, but the young actor G. M. Anderson probably helped him with the staging. Anderson, who had just appeared as the man trying to steal a kiss in WHAT HAPPENED IN THE TUNNEL , played several small roles (the passenger who is shot trying to escape, the tenderfoot dancing to the sound of six-shooters, and an outlaw). Another actor, Justus D. Barnes, played the bandit chieftain Barnes, while many of the passengers were employees at Edison’s factory. Professional and nonprofessional actors were used, and Porter, as he had done earlier with Fleming, worked collaboratively.

The film had a plethora of antecedents. The title and basic story were inspired by Scott Marble’s play The Great Train Robbery (1896). Some scenes, such as the fight on the tender in scene 4, were modeled on train robberies in the Far West. 12 The film carefully analyzes the robbery and the bandits’ getaway in the first nine scenes, starting with the false message that the outlaws force the telegraph operator to hand the engineer. The outlaws board the train at the water tank (scene 2) and overpower

the messenger in the express car (scene 3). Another bandit hurls the fireman off the tender (scene 4); the engine is uncoupled from the rest of the train (scene 5); passengers are forced onto the tracks and relieved of their valuables (scene 6). The bandits escape on the engine (scene 7), scramble down the embankment (scene 8), and race across a stream to their horses (scene 9). An operational aesthetic, with its emphasis on process, was at work.

Although THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY lacks repeated actions that signal temporal overlaps, the film nevertheless returns to earlier points in time. The catalog description indicates that scenes 3 and 4 occurred simultaneously. As André Gaudreault has pointed out, a second line of action developed in scenes 10 and 11 (the freeing of the telegraph operator by his daughter and the raising of the posse at the dance hall) is unfolding while the robbery takes place. 13 These two lines of action come together in scene 12 as the posse chases the bandits on horseback. The opportunity for chase, maximized in Biograph’s THE ESCAPED LUNATIC , is limited to this single shot. The final scene is the shootout, in which the posse is victorious.

In making his famous film, Porter included one emblematic shot of the outlaw leader Barnes shooting his gun directly at the camera and audience. Labeled “Realism” in the catalog, this extra shot could be placed at either the beginning or end of the film. At the beginning, it introduced the leading character just like the opening shot in Edison’s earlier LAURA COMSTOCK’S BAG-PUNCHING DOG . Shown at the end as an “apotheosis,” it abstracted a single moment from the narrative as had been done with RUBE AND MANDY AT CONEY ISLAND . In either position (but more effectively at the beginning) the shot added realism to the film by intensifying the spectators’ identification with the victimized travelers. It reiterated and intensified the vieweras-passenger convention of the railroad subgenre.

The term “realism” can also be applied to the entire film, reflecting the ways in which the filmmaker integrated common cinematic practices into an effective whole. Although the opening scene was filmed at the studio, a view of the train pulling into the station was matted into a window frame. This striking ability to show outside activities through the window set the tone for later scenes. As David Levy has pointed out, camera movement, particularly in scene 7, where the cinematographer struggled to keep the outlaws in frame by panning and tilting simultaneously, provided a cinematic technique that was already associated with the urgency of news films. 14 The careful attention to the details of robbing a train, the emphasis on process as narrative, almost takes THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY out of the realm of fiction and suggests a documentary intent.

While the Edison Company was working on THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY , Biograph made yet another story film, THE STORY THE BIOGRAPH TOLD (NO. 2705). As with Porter’s epic, Biograph confronted the problem of depicting actions occurring simultaneously in two distant locations. The film was loosely inspired by a vaudeville skit, In the Biograph (© 29 May 1901 by Wilfred Clarke). In this nineteen-minute playlet performed by Wilfred Clarke and his acting troupe, a motion-picture camera catches a doctor in a compromising situation:

“In the Biograph” is full of action and calls for a new laugh each moment. It deals with the adventure of a prominent physician who, seated on a bench by the seaside, suddenly has an infant thrust into his arms, the mother of the child hastening away. It develops that the incident has been photographed for biograph reproduction. The physician’s wife, who is jealous, and the father of the child, said father being a professional strong man, chance to see the picture reproduced and recognize the principals. Stormy scenes follow, but, of course, all ends happily (Washington Star, 28 January 1902, p. 10).

The act “goes briskly and creates a great deal of laughter,” reported one vaudeville manager.

In THE STORY THE BIOGRAPH TOLD , the office boy at a film company is shown how to use the camera. When the boss and his pretty “typewriter” ( i.e., secretary) arrive, work is forgotten as she sits in his lap and they kiss passionately. Meanwhile, the proprietor’s wife calls on the phone, and the naughty office boy surreptitiously uses his new talents to grind away with the camera. In the next shot, the husband and wife are in box seats at the theater and a card onstage announces the biograph. The third shot shows the close-up of the screen: the kissing scene taken by the “bad boy.” In shot 4, the outraged wife beats her husband and leaves the theater. In the fifth and final shot, the wife enters the husband’s office and replaces the “typewriter” with a young man.

In the first shot, the producers were faced with the problem of showing the husband and the wife in two locations as they spoke to each other on the phone. Neither a split-screen effect nor a narrative repetition seemed suitable, and crosscutting between the two scenes, which would be the logical procedure at Biograph within another five years, was not yet possible. Instead, the two scenes were shown simultaneously by double exposure: the image of the wife begins when the husband pick up the phone and ends when it is placed on the hook. In certain respects, this

solution is more “advanced” than the one offered by Porter in THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY , where viewers had to infer the temporal relations between shots. Here the temporal relationship between the two shots is made explicit. Yet, what Biograph gained in specificity it lost in clarity; the image became muddied and hard to decipher. For this reason, Biograph’s experiment was discarded, and overlapping action and temporal repetition remained the dominant means of spatial/temporal and narrative construction through 1907.

Both Edison and Biograph made fewer “headline” fiction films during the winter and spring of 1904. In this respect, Edison output was particularly meager, and one factor may have been the dismissal of kinetograph department head William Markgraf after he had gone on a drunken binge in late December. It was not until March that a replacement, Alex T. Moore, was found, and he lacked any previous filmrelated experience. The commercial success of THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY also may have kept the Edison factory operating at full capacity to produce positive prints, thus allowing several months to pass before the need for new negatives was felt. At any event, it was not until early March that Porter completed BUSTER BROWN AND HIS DOG TIGE (copyrighted as THE BUSTER BROWN SERIES ), a 710-foot, seven-shot film that was based on the well-known Buster Brown cartoon strip. The opening scene showed the strip’s creator, Richard F. Outcault, making a charcoal sketch of Buster and Tige. Remaining scenes were live-action vignettes of Buster creating his comic mayhem. It was sold “in one length only,” a departure from the marketing of earlier comedy series on an individual-scene basis. A common character thus provided the production company with sufficient justification to assume editorial control, suggesting that the centralization of production and postproduction under one roof was rapidly advancing, at least when fiction filmmaking was involved.

Biograph, meanwhile, moved most of its production activities into the studio for the winter and likewise curtailed its efforts to create ambitious fiction films. A modest exception was OUT IN THE STREETS (NO. 2864, copyrighted as THE WAIF ), the story of a desperate, impoverished woman who is unable to feed her children, and abandons the youngest on the doorstep of a rich but childless couple. Four studio sets—two interiors and two exteriors—depict the woman’s garret apartment and the house of the wealthy family. The abandonment and subsequent discovery of the infant at the mansion occur simultaneously with the eviction of the woman’s older child in the middle of a snowstorm. A policeman befriends the child and takes him home. 15 Discovering this second loss, the bereft mother collapses on the wealthy couple’s doorstep, is brought inside, and is reunited with her baby. At the end, the rich couple take the mother to her dwelling, the policeman returns the child, and all is well. THE WAIF is filled with the characteristic elements of nineteenth-century melodrama: contrasts, extremes of emotion, coincidence, and a moral ending. The causes of the woman’s impoverishment and the couple’s wealth are never suggested, and class barriers are easily bridged, though only in a charitable, paternalistic fashion.

While Weed and McCutcheon worked in the studio, Bitzer filmed scenes of daily life at St. John’s Military Academy in Syracuse, New York. During his stay there, he also made THE BATTLE OF THE YALU (Nos. 2846–2848, 2855), in which the military cadets reenacted a battle in the recently begun Russo-Japanese War. Costumes were credibly authentic, and its four scenes trace the ebb and flow of battle with attack and counterattack. The film received extensive publicity, including a full-page article in the Hearst newspapers, and was a featured presentation in Keith theaters. 16 Rather than keep it as an exclusive for the exhibition circuit, Biograph quickly put it on the market in both 400-foot and 623-foot lengths. The Edison Company quickly responded by making SKIRMISH BETWEEN RUSSIAN AND JAPANESE ADVANCE GUARDS (565 feet), which was virtually identical.

Production records testify to the diversity and scope of Biograph’s other filmmaking ventures. Of the 653 films made from 1 May 1903 to 1 May 1904, more than 120 were sponsored by large corporations or the United States government. In late July, Weed was sent to Washington, D.C., to film United States Post Office Department employees sorting letters, loading cars, and delivering mail. Other agencies of the federal government soon wanted to promote their services. Extensive series were made for the United States Navy, showing recruitment, training, the administration of first aid, and the auctioning of personal property left behind by deserters. The Department of the Interior commissioned films of its Indian schools (FIRE DRILL , ALBUQUERQUE INDIAN SCHOOL , No. 2654) and daily life on the reservation (NAVAJO SQUAW WEAVING BLANKETS , No. 2659), as well as views of the Grand Canyon and Yosemite National Park. Films taken for the Missouri Commission showed students from various schools across the state; these were probably made for exhibition at the forthcoming St. Louis World’s Fair (Louisiana Purchase Exposition).

Bitzer photographed the Westinghouse works in East Pittsburgh, Wilmerding, and Trafford, Pennsylvania, in April and May 1904. Many of these films show factory interiors with women punching their time cards and winding wire on armatures for generators (GIRLS TAKING TIME CHECKS , No. 2887 and COIL WINDING , SECTION E, No. 2889). Several stunning traveling shots were taken from overhead cranes that moved the length of these huge buildings. Today they offer some of the earliest film documentation of the American workplace. Designed for lecture formats rather than amusement, the pictures then enjoyed significant sales overseas. Frank Marion reported:

Among all the nations of the world the Japanese are among our best customers. They are intensely keen in regard to everything that shows the interior workings of American establishments, the factory, the hotel, the store, the municipal and Government buildings. We sent a portrayal of the postoffice department and that vied in popularity with the Westing-house factories ( Pittsburgh Post, 11 November 1906, p. 66).

Biograph also made a small number of advertising films for Shredded Wheat Biscuits, Mellin’s Baby Food, and the Gold Dust Twins. More than a dozen films taken in October and November 1903 were for “thumb books”—"riffle" or “flip” books of still photographs that are transformed into a moving image when the viewer bends back and then releases the pages in rapid succession. Made for the New York Journal, these featured its leading comic-strip characters: Foxy Grandpa, Alphonse and Gaston, Toodles, Happy Hooligan, and the Katzenjammer Kids.

Biograph’s diverse output thus included many sponsored films, mutoscope subjects, and pictures for Biograph’s own exhibitions or outright sale to independent showmen. But with this impressive array of films, it is worth considering why the Edison Manufacturing Company and Porter retained a higher profile both at the time and in subsequent histories. The most important reason would seem to be that Edison sold its films as soon as they were completed. By Christmas week of 1903, all the major exhibition services in New York City owned copies of THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY and were showing them in eleven Manhattan and Brooklyn theaters. Throughout the country exhibitors quickly acquired the film. 17 In contrast, Biograph retained its most attractive productions for its own exhibition circuit, and even at these limited outlets, the films were not displayed immediately. Rather, the company waited until the winter months, when weather conditions created a shortage of new products, before unveiling its exclusive story films. KIT CARSON , for example, was not shown at Keiths Boston theater until late January, four months after it was produced and well after THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY was seen in Boston. And although the hand-tinted print was hailed as the star feature on the bill—"It is splendidly worked out, much of the photography is almost stereoscopic and the coloring is the work of the artist"—Keith’s patrons were warned, “It will not be seen elsewhere in New England.” 18 Likewise, THE ESCAPED LUNATIC was shown at Keith’s in late March. Since neither film was sold to exhibitors, their distribution was primarily limited to vaudeville. Both Edison and Biograph found effective ways of achieving profits, but the Edison policy assured more immediate impact and greater diffusion.

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