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article number 406
article date 12-23-2014
copyright 2014 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Our Movies Tell a Story and We Begin to Want Movies, 1903
by Terry Ramsaye

From the 1926 book, A Million and One Nights.

‘Twas the dark hour just before the dawn in the motion picture history in the early twentieth century. The film was again on the wane.

Men who were before long to become masters of millions won in the new art, were then running tent shows, furriers stores, haberdasheries, peep shows, pants pressing shops and loan offices.

The public was weary of pictures of prize fights, snatches of acrobatics, freaks and tricks on the screen. The picture had nothing new to say.

What with the depressing effect of the patent wars, inhibiting initiative that might have come to freer minds, and the falling off of patronage, it appeared probable the films would disappear even from the screen of the vaudeville houses where they were used to mark the end of the show and clear the house.

There had been tiny, trivial efforts to use the screen to tell a story, exemplified by Cecil Hepworth’s ‘Rescued by Rover’, the adventures of a little girl and a dog, photographed in London, and ‘The Burglar on the Roof’ made by Blackton and Smith of Vitagraph. They were mere episodes.

Now in the Edison studios, where the art of the film was horn, and also where it was best bulwarked against the distractions of the fight for existence, came the emergence of the narrative idea.

James H. White was in charge of Edison’s “Kinetograph Department” and Edwin S. Porter, becoming a cameraman, was the chief fabricator of picture material. Between them evolved a five hundred foot subject entitled ‘The Life of an American Fireman’.

This picture was built up from the germinal thrill of the first fifty-foot subjects showing a fire department run. White cast himself for the lead in this picture. When W. E. Gilmore, general manager for Edison, screened the picture he ordered retakes to eliminate White, on the ground that it was subversive of corporation policy for an executive to be an actor. He did not state it in exactly those words.

‘The Life of an American Fireman’ portrayed the routine duties of a fire chief. The audience was taken the rounds of the firehouse and inspection with the chief.

Then cutting in with an inspirational beginning of a new technique, came a scene showing a simple cottage, with a baby asleep in a crib, by a window with curtains fluttering close to the burning gas jet turned low. The curtains flicked into the flame and the fire crept up the window and licked along the window casings.

The mother awakened in the smoke-filled room. Then the picture cut back to the fire house where the alarm tapped out a signal.

The firemen leaped to action, sliding down the brass poles from their dormitory into the engine house, The horses were hooked up in a flash, and with smoke and sparks flying the outfit thundered down the street.

Scene from ‘Life of an American Fireman’: “the outfit thundered down the street.”

Then the long arm of old John R. Coincidence, the perennial first aid to scenario writers ever since, reached out and got into the first motion picture drama. It was the fire chief’s house.

The picture cut back to the baby’s crib again, back to the frenzied mother in the swirling smoke. Then again to the rushing fire engine.

Mark this: it was the grand staple situation of dire peril, with relief on the way, the formula that has made Griffith famous, or that Griffith has made famous, as you choose to view it. It was and is yet the greatest screen situation, of unfailing power.

It may be the innocent man on the gallows with the pardon on the way; it may be the pursuing vengeance of the K. K. K.; it may be the maid in desperate conflict with the villain as the hero speeds towards the scene; but the bleached abstract barebones of the situation are the same.

In this ancient drama, ‘The Life of an American Fireman’, the chief arrived at last and leaping down rushed into the fire, emerging with his wife and child in his arms. Saved at last.

The breathless race was over and the happy ending came in the closing close-up.

All this was crudely done measured in the light of our day. It was a gripping masterpiece then. It swept the motion picture industry.

Now Porter of Edison made a casual subject of no great screen importance that was to prove a stepping stone to an important extension of the story film idea. In the advertising department of the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western railroad was Wendell P. Colton, a young man with a highly successful advertising idea—the famous “Phoebe Snow,” a mythical girl in white who rode on ‘The Road of Anthracite’ without soiling her gowns, all to the rocking horse rhythm of accompanying jingles.

Marie Murray, a photographer’s model, was cast for a motion picture rendition of the Phoebe Snow role by Porter. The picture was made on the Lackawanna and Porter got on friendly terms with the officials of the railway. This was soon to prove valuable.

Not long thereafter Porter was talking of possible actors for some bit of a playlet with Billy Martinetti, acrobat, scene painter and handy man.

“I know a fellow that used to be in ‘The Great Train Robbery’ on the road,” suggested Martinetti.

Porter got a flash of an idea from the title. ‘The Great Train Robbery’ was a stage production and was of no relation to the motion picture that resulted from this casual mention.

Porter went to work on the idea, writing a memorandum of the scenes of a simple story of a train hold-up, a pursuit, a dance hall episode, and an escape. This was a step a little farther into the creative realm than ‘The Life of an American Fireman’ had been.

EDWIN S. PORTER, the cameraman-director of “The Great Train Robbery,” with an early model of the Edengraph, a projector invented tinder the auspices of the Eden Musee.

In the fall of 1903 Porter started ‘The Great Train Robbery’. He looked about for a cast. At this time the benches of Union Square, the rendezvous for variety actors and unappreciated Hamlets, were the hunting ground for Biograph, Edison and Vitagraph in quest of performers.

But this picture was a shade more exacting. It was necessary to have stunt actors. Frank Hanaway, an actor with experience in the U. S. cavalry, was induced to work in the picture because he could fall off a galloping horse without killing himself. George Barnes, a performer at Huber’s Museum, a Fourteenth street variety house, was selected for the role of the robber.

At this juncture a vaudeville performer, with a sketch of his own to put on, appeared at the Edison studio casting about for a possible engagement. He was Max Aronson, who by the theatrical transmutation of names, had by this time become Max Anderson. It was not long after that he became G. M. Anderson by another stage in the process—the same who became world famous as Broncho Billy, which is another story.

“Can you ride, Anderson?”

“I was born on a horse and raised in Missouri,” Anderson snapped back, in just that dashing western way. He had come on from St. Louis.

“Good,” Porter decided. “You’re a train robber in this picture.”

Then Porter prevailed on the Lackawanna to loan him a special train. The train scenes were made near Paterson in New Jersey.

As one of the thrills, the fireman, doubled by a dummy, was tossed from the train as it neared the high bridge on the Passaic river. The dummy fell on a trolley track below in front of a speeding car.

George Barnes, actor from Huber’s Museum, the desperado of the closing close-up of that dime novel classic of 1903 ‘The Great Train Robbery,’ first of the “story pictures”.

The emergency brakes screeched, and the car came to a violent stop, filled with fainting and screaming passengers. A riot followed when the unintended victims of the scene discovered the deception.

The riding scenes were made in the wilds of Essex County Park in New Jersey. Porter with his cast started from a livery stable in West Orange to ride to location. When the company arrived Max Anderson was missing. It was too late and too expensive to trouble about a missing star then. Porter doubled the part and went ahead. Essex Park resounded with rough riding and loud shooting.

In the evening when the horses were returned to the stable, Porter made inquiry about the missing Anderson.

“Lost a man somewhere along the line—did you see anything of him?”

“Oh, that guy—yep, the hoss throwed him about a block down the street and he led him back and took the next train back to New York.”

So the legend runs of the first horse exploit of Broncho Billy. Anderson returned to appear in the train scenes only.

Marie Murray, the Phoebe Snow model, appeared in the dance hall scenes.

‘The Great Train Robbery’ vibrated with inserts and cutbacks in true photoplay fashion, and closed with a punch, consisting of a close-up of George Barnes as a robber pointing a revolver into the eye of the audience.

The picture was, for its day, the sort that the picture makers now would advertise to the public as “an epoch making achievement of the art of the motion picture” and to the exhibitors as “a box office knockout.”

‘The Great Train Robbery’ went on its first runs at Huber’s Museum, at the Eden Musee and at Hammerstein’s.
With the picture as their principal property, numerous exhibitors started with temporary store shows and traveling picture outfits. There was a new invasion of the back country with this thriller.

Porter swiftly followed this initial success with ‘The Great Bank Robbery’ of like calibre.

The motion picture was now abreast of the dime novel.

THE FIRST MAE MURRAY — she was the model for the famous ‘Phoebe Snow’, all in white who rode on ‘The Road of Anthracite’ — which led up to ‘The Great Train Robbery’.

Here was the first long step since the Hollaman-Eaves version of the ‘Passion Play’ in 1897-98. ‘The Great Bank Robbery’ was staged in a New Jersey village where one of the merchants, deciding it was real, opened fire on the company with lead, adding to the realism considerably.

Sigmund Lubin in Philadelphia hurried a competitive production to the market with an advertisement in ‘Billboard’ of October 15, 1904:

The Greatest Production in 30 Motion Tableaux.
- Length 600 feet Price . . . $66.

“Send for Illustrated Catalogue, which contains 30 half-tones and full description. Lubin’s 1905 Exposition Model Cineograph and Stereopticon combined, together with Electric Lamp, Adjustable Theostat and Calcium Light . . . $75.00.
- Two Cineograph Films (100 feet each), 200 ft. films at $11.00 per 100 feet . . . 22.00.
- Two Monarch records, playing the music for the above Cineophone Films, $1 each . . . 2.00.
Total $99.00.

“With this outfit complete for $99.00 we will give FREE OF CHARGE Victor Talking Machine Complete, including horn and sounding box. This Victor Outfit is the latest improved model and could not be purchased at retail for less than $37.50.
23 South Eighth Street
Philadelphia, Pa.”

“Pop” Lubin’s advertisement shows how a motion picture exhibitor could begin his career on ninety-nine dollars.

It points to the primitive conditions of the time when calcium lights had to be carried for communities that had no electric service. And there, too, was one of the several early day synchronizations of film and phonograph with the “cineophone” pictures and the little Victor talking machine.

In tracing the development of the screen drama it is significant to note the use in this advertisement of the term tableaux for scenes. The very words used then show the reluctance with which the screen story idea developed.

Vitagraph was following a course of screen development parallel to the evolution that we have seen sharply outlined in the efforts at the Edison studio. About contemporary with ‘The Life of an American Fireman’ was Vitagraph’s tabloid version of ‘A Gentleman of France’ with Kyrle Bellew.

It was something between the embryo of a screen play and a mere photographic reproduction of an excerpt from the stage play, in which Bellew was appearing under the auspices of Theodore Liebler & Company.

This film was really an excuse for the topical function of picturing the famous sword combat on the stairs, the high point of the play. But it was in such indirect and in cidental paths that drama was beginning to creep into the motion picture.

The next milestone in the development of the screen as exemplified by Vitagraph, was a most pretentious effort in one whole reel, a thousand feet of film, ‘Raffles the Amateur Cracks-man’, made in 1905 in the little studio among the steam clouds atop the Morse building. This was also a Liebler stage play.

Vitagraph paid for the motion picture rights by an agreement to give Liebler & Company credit on the main title. Stage plays cost the screen more now. In 1920, D. W. Griffith paid $175, 000 for ‘Way Down East’.

‘Raffles’ in a thousand feet was produced about a year later than ‘The Great Train Robbery’ in its eight hundred feet.

It is an interesting coincidence that both of these pictures, so significant as indices of the development, should each have brought to the films names destined to fame in the years to come—G. M. Anderson in ‘The Great Train Robbery’, and Jimmy Sherry, now J. Barney Sherry, in the title role of ‘Raffles’.

Sherry is still a star appearing in current productions. He was probably the only figure on the screen of 1925 whose career before the camera extended back so early as 1905.

SIGMUND LUBIN of Philadelphia, the humorist of the Patents Company, and the founder of the Lubin theatres, which under Stanley Mastbaum became the first important booking combine, now known as the Stanley Company.

By this time G. M. Anderson had entered the service of Vitagraph and was a collaborator with Blackton and Smith in the making of ‘Raffles’ and a number of pictures which followed.

Porter wrote the scenario for ‘The Great Train Robbery’. Vitagraph took a ready-made stage play. The issue between the original script and the borrowing from the media of the stage and printed page began we see, at the very birth of the photoplay.

Tracing the development of photoplay technique we find Porter following ‘The Great Train Robbery’ with ‘Kleptomaniacs’, a picture play of about equal length. It presented the parallel stories of a rich woman caught shoplifting and considerately treated as a victim of kleptomania, and of a poor woman arrested on the same charge and ruthlessly rushed to jail.

The two stories ran through the film neck and neck. Both in treatment and theme there is something about it that suggests an early conception of the treatment that Griffith used in ‘Intolerance’.

Biograph swung into the new trend toward the story picture following up the success of ‘The Great Train Robbery’. McCutcheon, the director, evolved a story around an advertisement in the “personal” column of the ‘New York Herald’. This column was celebrated and notorious and popularly considered immoral in many of its aspects. It eventually involved the ‘Herald’ in a deal of trouble.

The plot of the Biograph picture concerned itself with the adventures of a beau-gallant who advertised his willingness to meet a pretty girl at Grant’s Tomb on Riverside Drive. The picture derived its action largely from an ensuing chase involving citizens, policemen, workmen and a general wild miscellany.

J. STUART BLACKTON, a collaborator with Blackton and Smith in the making of ‘Raffles’, with the first Mrs. Blackton and their son “Buster,” pictured when the motor car was young, at the old Brighton Baths, near Coney Island.

This mammoth production ran a full reel in length. It was released August 8, 1904, and may be considered a landmark as being first to present the chase idea in full bloom. The chase, dramatic action in its simplest form, remains the most valuable element of slapstick comedy today.

Lubin, as was inevitable, joined in this great institution of a new school of action art by a masterful imitation of ‘Personal’ entitled ‘Meet Me at the Fountain’.

Lubin was willing to follow the flaming torch of progress anywhere, but it was the lament of his later days that in twenty years of production he never surpassed the success of his triumph of 1897, entitled ‘Horse Eating Hay’.

Biograph, developing the story picture idea, produced ‘The Moonshiners’ with its climax in the first big screen fight, a conflict enacted by Wallace McCutcheon and Harold Vosburg. This was the archaic, primiparous film translation of the combat emotion from the simple record of the prize ring into terms of drama.

Biograph archives of the period reveal that the present Prince of Wales was photographed for the screen for the first time by the British Mutoscope & Biograph company in 1901.

A peep show machine with this picture was installed on H. M. S. Ophir when the present King of England went on his cruise around the world, and a special showing was given for King Edward and Queen Alexandra at St. James’s Palace. Joseph Mason was the cameraman of the occasion, and with him was William Kelley, who had come on from New Jersey to London to fresco peep show parlors.

Ten years later Kelley appeared in motion picture affairs as the inventor of the Prizma color process.

In Chicago, William N. Selig, busily making and showing pictures, competitively responded to the story picture inspiration of ‘The Great Train Robbery’ by the making of a one reel subject entitled ‘Trapped by Bloodhounds’, or, ‘A Lynching at Cripple Creek’.

It is regrettable that the cast of this first Selig dramatic effort is unknown. The Selig establishment was still at this date at 43 Peck Court, a little alley in downtown Chicago. At the saloon on the corner the cast was picked up and hired for a Sunday’s picture work in the wild suburban district of Rogers Park. The wages consisted of lunch and one barrel of beer.

Viewed as a drama, ‘Trapped by Bloodhounds’; or, ‘A Lynching in Cripple Creek’ lacked something of the finish of later screen work from the Selig studios.

The opening scene depicted the murder of a lone woman, neatly choked to death by a marauding tramp. Thereafter the picture, for some hundreds of feet, consisted of a pursuit by men and dogs, said to be bloodhounds. The dogs did not want to go along and they were dragged through the woods and the picture by the posse.

The great dramatic climax was the handsome hanging scene at the finish. It would have been rather realistic if the actor had not twisted on the rope and displayed the improvised harness which supported him.

In spite of those minor imperfections the picture was an important success, the first Selig drama. Some hundreds of prints were sold to the trade.

The photodrama idea was born, but it was advancing none too rapidly. Evidence is submitted in the primitive record character of an outstanding success of 1905, described in the catalogue of Paley & Steiner of New York, producers of Crescent Films, thus:

—This side splitting scene was taken January 25, 1905, when the wind was blowing a gale, and gives one a general idea of what women experience on a windy day around this noted corner. The great velocity of the wind can be plainly seen by the manner in which the pedestrians are clutching at their hats and skirts and grasping at anything for support.

“It is at this corner where one can get a good idea of the prevailing types in hosiery and lingerie. ‘This is the finest picture that has ever been taken at this corner, and we can safely recommend it as something exceptionally fine’.”

In those distant days ankles were a treat and knees were an orgy. While we are smiling at the crude obviousness and low status of the movies of 1905, let us turn to the ‘New York Times Magazine’ of December 13, 1925 in which we discover a page cartoon entitled: “Number Ten, Tony Sarg’s New York—A Study of Action at the Flatiron Building.”

Sarg’s cartoon is obviously addressed to the cultured customers of that publication. The optical center of his linear composition is occupied by precisely the material which attracted the discerning eye of William C. Paley, the cameraman of twenty years before.

After all art culture is merely a matter of media, traditions, technique and decor. The stories are basic, identical, eternal. The apogee tends to the hypogee.

As long as the wind blows around the Flatiron it will be a good story.

Scene from ‘The Flatiron Building on a Windy Day’.
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