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The Moving Image
Three Americans created the art of the motion picture, and made it the universal language of the twentieth century
April 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 3
That Porter’s impetus came from Williamson’s Fire!, imported by the rival Biograph Company, shows how early the stage adage—“one hit deserves another”—was practiced by the new industry. Nothing was sacred. Williamson faked the Boer War and Boxer Rebellion in his backyard garden; the Spanish-American War was enacted in the Jersey hills, and so on. But Porter’s Life of an American Fireman (June, 1903) was not only Edison’s answer to Biograph’s Fire! It was the first drama to be photographed free from stage perspective. Porter released movies from their theatrical picture frame. His simple story of a fire chief, the trapped wife and child, and their rescue was primitive but genuine art.
Porter became the first in the new art to let content determine form. Thus, with the fire engines arriving before the burning building, a fireman hopping off with hose in hand, Porter makes us feel the excitement by pivoting his camera with the action from the road to the house. This is probably the first dramatic-narrative panoramic shot in history. At its very climax, Porter tilts his camera upward to reveal the mother in her nightgown waving in an upstairs window. Also, his use of the close-up (the fire box), though not new, has a dynamic effect of narrative surprise.
In this early masterpiece of twenty-six shots (Pathé version) Porter directs our attention to the action as he wishes to describe it. Starting with a shot in which the mother jumps out of bed and amid thick smoke rushes to the window, he begins to alternate interior and exterior shots in perfect counterpoint and in faster tempo until his climax. Some are mere flashes on the screen—a little over two feet of film—the mother frantic on the street, the fireman in the burning room reaching for the baby. Two decades later, Eisenstein and Pudovkin, the renowned Russian director-editors, won international acclaim for refining what Porter had inaugurated. Fireman has a rightful claim to be considered the single most important film in the history of the Moving Image.
Porter’s next revolutionary step was the juggling of narrative time. The trapped mother and child and the ride to the rescue in Fireman had suggested parallel action. What Porter now did in his second masterpiece, The Great Train Robbery, shot in the fall of the same year, was to relate parallel action with shifts in time. He had undoubtedly seen an English film, produced in May or June of 1903, called Robbery of a Mail Coach, which also had parallel story development. But in his new film Porter juggled time by having scenes start before previous scenes had ended, such as the cowboys dancing in the saloon, who are then interrupted by the arrival of the railroad clerk, the latter freed by his daughter from the bandits’ gag and ropes during an earlier shot.
Porter saved the film medium from being an extension of the stage. He went on to do social-content films, The Ex-Convict and The Kleptomaniac, and to outdo Méliès in fantasy with The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend . He founded his own company, Rex, and joined with Adolph Zukor in the Famous Players Company. He directed Pauline Frederick, John Barrymore, and Mary Pickford (in Tess of the Storm Country, which grossed a million dollars from a $13,000 budget—the best record in the business). But it is for The Life of an American Fireman and The Great Train Robbery that his fame is most secure. He was the first creative artist of the Moving Image. At forty-three he retired with his fortune, then lost it in the crash of 1929. He lived out his years in the Hotel Taft, near Broadway, virtually unknown and shamefully unhonored.
At this point, the motion picture having become independent as an art, it might appear that there were no new or basic contributions to be made. But Porter can be said to have charted only the iceberg above the surface. D. W. Griffith discovered how vast a bulk lay below.
Toward the end of 1907 Griffith, a young playwright from Kentucky who had already toured on the road and suffered his first flop, rode the Third Avenue “El” to the Edison studio in the Bronx. He offered Porter a script based on the opera Tosca, but Porter thought it too pretentious. Instead of a sale, the hungry author got an acting role. He was thirty-two.
All his life David Wark Griffith—a tall, lean man with an arresting face—remained in love with the theater. During his early successes at the Biograph studios in New York he confided to his wife, the stage actress Linda Arvidson, “They [motion pictures] can’t last, I give them a few years. … Nobody’s going to know I ever did this sort of thing when I’m a famous playwright.” In his twenty-three-year career he made 484 films, spent over twenty million dollars and earned sixty million. He died dodging lawsuits (he was actually unable to appear publicly in New York City), having made no pictures at all during the last seventeen years of his life. He was a man disappointed, but unbowed: shortly before his death in Hollywood on July 23, 1948, I lunched with this proud, lonely personage, and he had a play script under his arm!