Born: April 21, 1869, Scozia, Italy
Died: April 30, 1941, New York, NY
Editing is the only original and unique art form in film.
Shortly after Laurie Dickson’s tenacity helped make the simple mechanics of motion pictures into a viable industry, Edwin S. Porter’s cunning would turn the routine process of film production into a truly original art form. Porter’s clever method of snipping and splicing celluloid strips into coherent story-pictures became the foundation of film editing.
As a young machinist who emigrated to America in 1895, Edwin Porter put his mechanical aptitude to work for the Vitascope marketing company, setting up equipment for the historic first screening of a projected movie in New York City on April 23, 1896. After a brief side job in the laboratory at Thomas Edison’s manufacturing company, he left to become a free-lance projectionist at the Eden Musee theater in 1898. Among his responsibilities was the illegal duplication of George Méliès’s films: Porter would clip all identification marks off the French three-minute reels and glue them together to make a single fifteen-minute program.
After failed attempts to build his own camera and projector, Porter returned to Edison’s East 21st Street skylight studio in 1900, this time as a “producer” and “director,” glorified titles for the men assigned to wander the streets alone to capture new subjects with their hand-cranked contraptions. The experience Porter had accumulated early in his career separated him from the other cameramen, and he was allowed to experiment extensively. While there, he tried desperately to emulate the trick photography of Méliès, beginning with The Finish of Bridget McKeen (1901). Porter’s other notable efforts of this time were in the first demonstrations of night photography and the first attempts at time-lapsed, 360-degree panoramic recordings, featured in Pan-American Exposition by Night (1901). When President McKinley’s assassin was scheduled for execution later that same year, Porter staged a dramatized reenactment of the event and juxtaposed documentary footage he had taken at the prison for The Execution of Czolgosz (1901).
In the first U.S. documentary film, The Life of an American Fireman (1902), Porter once again mixed real footage with performed sequences. In the film, firemen dutifully knock out chores at the firehouse, while across town tragedy awaits. Porter shows the audience footage of a raging fire. He then cuts abruptly to a shot of an alarm sounding, then to more flaming scenery, then back to a fire engine leaving the station, racing toward its destination. Staged scenes of actors heroically saving a trapped child from a smoke-filled set were “intercut” with shots of an actual burning building. The narrative structure was relatively complex, and audiences were asked for the first time to follow two concurrent stories, developing simultaneously. While many people were captivated by the action, others were left bewildered by the frequent repetition of the same activity. The six-minute short is generally considered a landmark of editing technique, although some controversy exists as to its claim of being the first film to intercut between scenes.
However, Porter’s next film would definitively illustrate the power of intercutting. Chock-full of film firsts, The Great Train Robbery (1903) had a monumental influence on early motion pictures. It was not the first western, but it was the first epic western. It established many of the conventions of the genre: a holdup of a telegraph station, the formation of a posse, a chase and a shootout. It also featured the introduction of title cards. Plus, it featured a bona fide star in rodeo rider Gilbert “Broncho Billy” Anderson. A qualified “movie,” it had a rousing story line complete with sophisticated camera work and a shuddering climax. Shot in just three days and requiring a cast of forty actors, which was considered huge at the time, Porter’s most ambitious project used more than 750 feet of film; editing whittled it to twelve minutes. Its running time set the average length of silent western films for nearly twenty years.
More importantly, Robbery was the first use of film to present a cohesive narrative structure, guided by the first use of a script. Hailed as the beginning of modern editing, it revealed film’s ability to “jump” to other points of view and scene locations. Low-angle shots, perspective setups, fluid camera movement and close-up photography all contributed to its majestic power. However, its major achievement was its directional continuity; with the aid of assistant Fred Balshofer, Porter created a series of vantage points and cross-cuts to give the audience a feeling of being led through the story. He also introduced contrast editing; an exterior scene of cowboys chopping down telegraph wires in the desert is followed by an interior scene of a telegraph operator experiencing difficulty in his reception. The result of Porter’s editing was cinematic magic that baffled even its creator. When Robbery was tested to unsuspecting moviegoers on 23rd Street, in New York’s hobo district, the reaction was so overwhelming that the theater had to run it three times to the same audience to avoid a riot.
The film’s epilogue, in which a bandit turns a six-shooter straight at the camera, sneers down the barrel, and fires his pistol right into the audience, made the film an international success. Perhaps drawing on the thrill-seeker in all moviegoers, or simply the egocentric excitement of being singled out in a crowded theater, Porter’s awareness of the audience In this first-person vantage point has entranced millions. In fact, this scene inspired Hitchcock’s famous suicide finale in Spellbound (1945) more than forty years later. It also initiated a celluloid obsession with firearms that has never subsided.
The Great Train Robbery’s immense success after its premier in Broadway’s Hammerstein Theater signaled to motion picture investors that the movie business was a permanent American fixture. Audiences lined up to see it over and over, and its popularity piqued the curiosity of millions who had never seen a motion picture before. Charlie Chaplin would later cite the film as his first experience with the wonders of the silver screen.
Despite the film’s success, Porter nearly abandoned the influential editing techniques in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1903), The Ex-Convict (1904) and The Kleptomaniac (1905). Model animation became a new fascination in The Teddy Bears, and Porter experimented with cartoonist Winsor McCay on Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906), employing Méliès’s double exposures and stop-motion camera tricks to simulate surreal dreams, which awaken the hero to an it’s-all-a-dream resolution. The dream device is one of the most imitated structures in the history of movies.
In 1907, Porter purchased some scenarios for one-reel films from an actor named D.W. Griffith. Later that year, he cast the young Griffith in Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest and launched the film career of one of Hollywood’s greatest talents.
Porter left Edison’s studio in 1909 to pursue a career away from the assembly-line mentality that was necessary to compete in the fledgling film market. He formed his own production company in 1911, Rex Films, and sold it just one year later. His fame as a pioneer preceded him wherever he went, and he never seemed far from turning out another crowd-pleaser. His Count of Monte Cristo (1912), starring Eugene O’Neill’s famous father, James, in the title role, was one of Porter’s biggest commercial successes.
Riding on his reputation, Porter would join Adolph Zukor to share profits in his newly formed Famous Players, and there he directed several films, including Mary Pickford’s Tess of the Storm Country (1914), as well as experimenting with various new processes. After directing The Eternal City (1915), he retired from moviemaking as one of the most highly regarded innovators of all time. Porter’s career represents the important shift from cameraman to director, and he defined the ideal of a master craftsman for such silent-era directors as Griffith, George Seitz, Mack Sennett and King Vidor. But his most enduring contributions are the seminal editing techniques that form the building blocks of storytelling for the screen.
To read all the republished articles from ‘The Film 100,’ go to Reintroducing the Film 100 here on Keyframe.