Edwin S. Porter - Director

Nationality: American. Born: Edwin Stratton Porter in Connellsville, Pennsylvania, 21 April 1869. Military Service: Served in U.S. Navy, assisted in development of gunnery range finder, 1893–96. Career: Left school at age fourteen, worked as sign painter, theater cashier, and stagehand; after military stint, worked for Raff & Gammon, marketers of Edison Vitascope; helped arrange first New York screening of motion pictures, 1896; invented and manufactured projector, 1898; business ruined by fire, rejoined Edison Company, 1900; director and cameraman, then supervisor of production at Edison studio, New York City; quit Edison, founded Defender Pictures, 1909; organized Rex Film Company, 1910; sold interest in Rex, founded "Famous Players in Famous Plays" company, 1912, with Adolph Zukor; director general and treasurer, supervisor and director at Famous Players until 1915; became president of Precision Machine Corp., manufacturer of Simplex projector, which he helped develop, from 1915. Died: 30 April 1941.

Films as Director:

(partial list, also frequently sc, ph and ed)


The America's Cup Race


Why Mrs. Jones Got a Divorce ; Animated Luncheon ; An Artist's Dream ; The Mystic Swing ; Ching Lin Foo Outdone ; Faust and Marguerite ; The Clown and the Alchemist ; A Wringing Good Joke ; The Enchanted Drawing


Terrible Teddy the Grizzly King ; Love in a Hammock ; A Day at the Circus ; What Demoralized the Barber Shop ; The Finish of Bridget McKeen ; Happy Hooligan Surprised ; Martyred Presidents ; Love by the Light of the Moon ; Circular Panorama of the Electric Tower ; Panorama of the Esplanade by Night ; The Mysterious Cafe


Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show ; Charleston Chain Gang ; Burlesque Suicide ; Rock of Ages ; Jack and the Beanstalk ; Happy Hooligan Turns Burglar ; Capture of the Biddle Brothers ; Fun in a Bakery Shop


The Life of an American Fireman ; The Still Alarm ; Arabian Jewish Dance ; Razzle Dazzle ; Seashore Frolics ; Scenes in an Orphans' Asylum ; The Gay Shoe Clerk ; The Baby Review ; The Animated Poster ; The Office Boy's Revenge ; Uncle Tom's Cabin ; The Great Train Robbery ; The Messenger Boy's Mistake ; Casey and His Neighbor's Goat


The Ex-Convict ; Cohen's Advertising Scheme ; European Rest Cure ; Capture of Yegg Bank Burglars ; City Hall to Harlem in Fifteen Seconds via the Subway Route ; Casey's Frightful Dream ; The Cop Fools the Sergeant ; Elephant Shooting the Chutes at Luna Park


The Kleptomaniac ; Stolen by Gypsies ; How Jones Lost His Roll ; The Little Train Robbery ; The White Caps ; Seven Ages ; The Life of an American Policeman


The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend ; The Life of a Cowboy ; Three American Beauties ; Kathleen Mavourneen


Daniel Boone ; Lost in the Alps ; The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere ; Laughing Gas ; Rescued from an Eagle's Nest ; The Teddy Bears


Nero and the Burning of Rome ; The Painter's Revenge ; The Merry Widow Waltz Craze ; The Gentleman Burglar ; Honesty Is the Best Policy ; Love Will Find a Way ; Skinny's Finish ; The Face on the Barroom Floor ; The Boston Tea Party ; Romance of a War Nurse ; A Voice from the Dead ; Saved by Love ; She ; Lord Feathertop ; The Angel Child ; Miss Sherlock Holmes ; An Unexpected Santa Claus


The Adventures of an Old Flirt ; A Midnight Supper ; Love Is Blind ; A Cry from the Wilderness ; Hard to Beat ; On the Western Frontier ; Fuss and Feathers ; Pony Express ; Toys of Fate ; The Iconoclast ; Hansel and Gretel ; The Strike ; Capital versus Labor


All on Account of a Laundry Mark ; Russia—the Land of Oppression ; Too Many Girls ; Almost a Hero ; The Toymaker on the Brink and the Devil


By the Light of the Moon ; On the Brink ; The White Red Man ; Sherlock Holmes Jr. ; Lost Illusions


A Sane Asylum ; Eyes That See Not ; The Final Pardon ; Taming Mrs. Shrew


The Prisoner of Zenda (co-d); His Neighbor's Wife ; The Count of Monte Cristo (co-d); In the Bishop's Carriage (co-d); A Good Little Devil (co-d)


Hearts Adrift ; Tess of the Storm Country ; Such a Little Queen (co-d)


The Eternal City (co-d); Zaza (co-d); Sold (co-d); The Prince and the Pauper (co-d); Bella Donna (co-d)


Lydia Gilmore (co-d)


By PORTER: article—

Statement, in Filmmakers on Filmmaking , edited by Harry Geduld, Bloomington, Indiana, 1967.

On PORTER: books—

Balshofer, Fred, and Arthur Miller, One Reel a Week , Berkeley, 1967.

Pratt, George, Spellbound in Darkness , Greenwich, Connecticut, 1973.

Salt, Barry, Film Style and Technology: History and Analysis , London, 1983.

Burch, Noël, Life to Those Shadows , Berkeley, 1990.

Elsaesser, Thomas, and Adam Barker, editors, Early Cinema: Space-Frame-Narrative , London, 1990.

On PORTER: articles—

Sadoul, Georges, "English Influences on the Work of Edwin S. Porter," in Hollywood Quarterly , Fall 1947.

Spears, Jack, "Edwin S. Porter," in Films in Review (New York), June/July 1970.

Burch, Noël, "Porter, or Ambivalence," in Screen (London), Winter 1978/79.

Schulberg, Budd, letter, in Variety (New York), 9 May 1979.

Gaudreault, André, "Detours in Film Narrative: The Development of Cross-Cutting," in Cinema Journal (Evanston), Fall 1979.

Musser, Charles, "Early Cinema of Edwin Porter," in Cinema Journal (Evanston), Fall 1979.

Ranvaud, Don, "After The Great Train Robbery . . . ," in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), December 1983.

Pearson, R., "The Filmmaker as Scholar and Entertainer: An Interview with Charles Musser," in Cineaste (New York), vol. 8, no. 3, 1984.

Turconi, Davide, " Hie sunt leones : The First Decade of American Film Comedy, 1894–1903," in Griffithiana (Gemona), September 1996.

On PORTER: film—

Musser, Charles, Before the Nickelodeon , United States, 1984.

* * *

In the annals of film history, Edwin S. Porter is often credited as the first American film director. Although this may not be true in the literal sense, it is not unjustified to give Porter this title. Porter was first and foremost an engineer, an inventor, and a cameraman. In the early days of filmmaking, "cameraman" was synonymous with "director," and Porter found himself handling both jobs. As his own editor, he also discovered new ways of creating a narrative. While most early motion pictures were composed of a single shot showing only one continuous action from beginning to end, Porter began to combine and juxtapose his filmed images, creating new meanings as one scene "psychologically" led into another. Porter became one of the first American directors to tell a story in his films.

Porter acknowledged an influence in his filmmaking from Georges Méliès, the French filmmaker whose "trick films" were extremely popular in the United States. A designer of motion picture cameras, Porter was able to study and discover the secrets to many of Méliès's "tricks." Most importantly, Porter was struck by the fact that these films told a story. However, while Méliès's films told a straightforward, linear narrative, Porter expanded this idea with the use of cross-narrative (parallel action) to depict two simultaneous events or points of view.

Porter's first film of major importance was The Life of an American Fireman , made in 1902 or early 1903. This film was largely composed of stock shots from earlier Edison Company films. Racing fire engines were a popular subject for early filmmakers and Porter had much footage at his disposal. To complement these stock shots, Porter filmed additional footage that depicted a mother and child trapped in a burning building. By editing these scenes together Porter created the story of the mother and child's rescue by the firefighters. Porter intercut the scenes of mother and child with stock footage of the racing fire engines, thereby creating a dramatic tension—will the firefighters rescue the two victims from the burning building in time? While this technique of storytelling may seem blasé by today's standards, it was innovative and exciting to 1903 audiences.

Porter continued to develop his film editing techniques in his best known and most popular film, The Great Train Robbery. On its most simplistic level, the film is a story of crime, pursuit, and capture. But it is perhaps the first great American chase film, a form still popular today. Again Porter edited his film using cross-cutting to show events that were supposedly occurring at the same time: the bandits begin their escape while the posse organizes a pursuit. The Great Train Robbery was an enormously popular film at a time when nickelodeons were just opening across the country, and the film did a great deal of repeat business.

Surprisingly, after The Great Train Robbery , Porter did little else to advance the art of filmmaking. In 1912 he formed the Famous Players Film Co. with Adolph Zukor and David Frohman, acting as director-general of the company. However, his films of this period (such as The Count of Monte Cristo and The Prisoner of Zenda ) contain none of the energy of his earlier films. In fact, they took several steps backward technically, for they were photographed in a very stagy, single point-of-view manner. Apparently, Porter was never really interested in directing films. He soon sold his shares in Famous Players and became more involved in designing motion picture cameras and projectors, including the Simplex. Still, Porter's one important contribution to filmmaking—a freer style of editing—was a turning point in the development of film as a narrative art form.

—Linda J. Obalil

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