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Production at Edison Declines

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While the Edison Manufacturing Company prospered, its rate of negative production (of new subjects) was significantly lower from the end of 1905 through the first seven months of 1907 than it had been over the course of the previous year. During this twenty-month period, Porter produced only fifteen fiction "features " for sale and distribution by the Edison organization. 18 Sales on a per-film basis, however, increased dramatically with DREAM OF A RAREBIT FIEND (February 1906), which sold 192 copies during its first year of release, twice the number sold by the most popular Edison subject of the previous year. Even at the low end, WAITING AT THE CHURCH (July 1906) managed to sell fifty-two prints. While sales per film roughly doubled from 1905 to 1906, fewer new subjects meant that total sales increased only 64 percent from one business year to the next. Yet increased sales allowed for more time to be spent on individual subjects. With the Edison factory working at full capacity in an effort to fill its print orders, the production team led by Porter and McCutcheon was under no pressure to increase output. DREAM OF A RAREBIT FIEND , while only 470 feet, took almost two months to make.

The production of actualities continued at Edison through the first months of 1907. News films were seldom made and rarely for general release; rather, most were travel scenes taken by Robert K. Bonine. These sold far fewer copies than the acted films, and some failed to sell at all. Bonine, who felt that the Edison Company was only interested in fiction subjects, left in May and was not replaced. Thereafter, virtually all attention was focused on satisfying the nickelodeons’ voracious appetite for story films.

Porter’s involvement in all phases of Edison film activities also made it difficult for negative production to increase. The filmmaker not only spent time refining the projecting kinetoscope but helped to supervise the building of Edison’s new Bronx film studio. Construction began in early 1906 and cost $39,556.97 (not including the purchase of land). Even after the studio officially opened on 11 July 1907, putting the facility in working order required large amounts of Porter’s energy. Despite such time-consuming responsibilities, Porter never assigned Wallace McCutcheon to his own film projects—an option that could have increased the output of new subjects. At Edison, McCutcheon worked collaboratively with Porter, much as he had worked with Marion during his previous stint at Biograph. In making a film, Porter not only produced but worked on scripts, served as cameraman, did lab work on the exposed negative, and “trimmed” the negative (apparently without making a positive print). McCutcheon worked on scripts and was responsible for the actors. It was perhaps because of tensions around their collaboration that McCutcheon left in May 1907 (and as we have seen, he returned to Biograph). In any case, his role was filled by James Searle Dawley, a dramatist and stage manager who had been working for the Brooklyn-based Spooner Stock Company. It took Porter and Dawley time to evolve a smooth working relationship and put the studio in full operation. Only in August did Edison begin to turn out two story films a month. By then the nickelodeon era had been under way for roughly two years.

Of the twenty films Porter made for Edison distribution between December 1905 (THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS ) and September 1907 (JACK THE KISSER ), several, such as LIFE OF A COWBOY , were 1,000 feet (sixteen minutes), while the great majority were between 755 feet and 975 feet, with shooting ratios still varying between 1.2:1 and 2.1:1. Half were comedies, a fourth melodramas, and the remainder fell into miscellaneous categories. These Edison films had much in common with their Biograph counterparts (the ratio of comedies to melodramas, for example, was quite similar); but while the companies operated within the same system of representation, their products had distinctive styles. Edison pictures were not as closely tied to the newspaper nor were its melodramas in the contemporary-crime genre. Although the heroine is kidnapped in KATHLEEN MAVOURNEEN (May 1906), the action is set in Ireland during an earlier era. Based on an immensely popular play of the same name, the results were promoted as a “new style of film” and helped lead to the adaptation of theatrical material that became common in later years. 19 DANIEL BOONE; OR , PIONEER DAYS IN AMERICA (December 1906) was also based on a well-known historical drama and thus set in a previous century. The violence in LIFE OF A COWBOY occurred on the distant frontier, where civilization had yet to penetrate fully. 20 Perhaps for this reason, in comparison with the pictures of other producers, Edison films were rarely considered “off-color.” 21

As with Biograph’s output, almost every Edison film focused on some well-known story or incident in American popular culture. Edison comedies included WAITING AT THE CHURCH (July 1906), which played off the song of the same title. T HE R IVALS (August 1907) was based on a T. E. Powers comic strip, often called Chollie and George , that ran intermittently in the New York American; here, the title characters compete for the affections of a young woman until she finally leaves both for a third. THE TERRIBLE KIDS (April 1906) was part of the popular bad-boy genre. After disrupting a community with their pranks, the boys are finally captured by the police; at the end, however, they escape punishment with the aid of their faithful dog (played by Mannie). THE NINE L IVES OF A C AT (July 1907) was inspired by the well-known saying in the title: a man repeatedly tries to kill a cat, but each time it survives. In these last three examples, the films are constructed out of “linked vignettes.” Built around a single premise, these variations on a gag do not portray a complicated story. In all Edison films, the main title performs a key naming function and provides a framework for audience response.

DREAM OF A RAREBIT FIEND was a trick film that took its title from Winsor McCay’s comic strip, Dream of the Rarebit Fiend; nonetheless, it was a close imitation of Pathé‘s popular RÈVE À LA LUNE (1905). THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS was a special holiday subject that closely followed Clement Clarke Moore’s well-known story and introduced scenes with lines of the poem, appealing both to children and to adult nostalgia. THE "TEDDY " BEARS (February 1907) was based on Goldilocks and the Three Bears but also referred to Teddy Roosevelt’s killing of a mother bear and his capture of her cub, said to be at the origin of the teddy bear craze then at its height. The penultimate scene reworks the 1902 political cartoon that made this incident famous: instead of nobly refusing to shoot the bear cub as in the cartoon, Roosevelt is deterred from his carnage only by the pleadings of Goldilocks. These adult references are crucial for a full appreciation of the picture, although one critic of the time chose to ignore them and thus viewed the picture as a macabre children’s film. 22 THREE AMERICAN BEAUTIES was a one-minute subject intended to close an evening performance with its hand-tinted images of a rose, a young woman, and the American flag. Expanding upon a well-established genre (shots of the American flag often brought an exhibition to a close), the picture was so popular that the negative wore out and the film had to be remade.

The 1906-1907 Edison films continued to operate within the representational framework that Porter and his associates had already established. Relying on wellknown stories, songs, and anecdotes, they avoided intertitles almost completely. The audience’s special knowledge, however, sometimes proved inadequate, and films such as DANIEL BOONE , with its complicated narrative, were considered best suited for a lecture. Sets routinely combining pasteboard props with three-dimensional elements retained a strong syncretic approach, and temporal repetitions were common. Page 465  Although studio head Edwin S. Porter would later resist any move away from early cinema’s system of representation, such resistance was not yet a problem, and Edison films remained popular. Their timely and often ambitious narratives, the cleverness with which the ideas were executed, and the care often taken in the actual production all served to distinguish them from their Biograph counterparts and at least partially account for the increasing profitability of the Edison Manufacturing Company.

Continued dependence on the specifics of American culture—key to Edison films and, to a lesser degree, those made by Biograph—meant that transatlantic sales, particularly on the Continent, were necessarily limited. WAITING AT THE CHURCH must have seemed bizarre to people unfamiliar with the song; likewise, KATHLEEN MAVOURNEEN was hardly an attractive purchase in a country where the play was unknown, and TRIAL MARRIAGES obviously lost some of its effectiveness when audiences did not know the humorous context within which it was made. Edison had European offices for its phonograph business, and these did make some motion-picture sales, but attempts to turn Europe into an important market did not succeed during this period. Biograph found that “the humorous and tragic scenes of American life are probably what they want and appreciate best,” and Marions contemporary crime films must have enjoyed some popularity overseas. 23 Yet Biograph’s foreign sales declined as the quality of its films deteriorated, and its reciprocal agreement with Gaumont ended in early 1907. The domestic market was the principal one for both Edison and Biograph.

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