Today is the birthday of Edwin S. Porter (1870-1941), a major innovator in the evolution of the American narrative film. A former telegraph operator, he enlisted in the U.S. navy for three years (1893-1896) as an electrician, finishing his hitch just in time to step into the brand new movie industry. From 1896 through 1899 he worked as a projectionist and exhibitor of the motion pictures of Edison and others.
Starting in 1899 he became the production chief, director and producer of Edison’s films, and here through 1909 is where he made his chief contributions. His best known films today are The Great Train Robbery (1903, American cinema’s founding western and a picture that utilizes up to 20 separate shots, rare for the time), Life of an American Fireman (1903), Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (a collaboration with Winsor McKay, 1906), and Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest (1907, D.W. Griffith’s first film, though it was as an actor). But he made scores of films during this decade. Porter was credited with pioneering many narrative techniques that would later become basic building blocks of cinematic grammar, although he did them as experiments, seldom repeating his discoveries or incorporating them into later films.
In 1909 he left Edison and tried various ventures as a producer. In 1912 he became chief director for Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players, directing Mary Pickford and others, leaving in 1916 when Zukor merged with Jesse Lasky. From 1917 through 1925 he was President of a company that manufactured projectors. He continued to work as an inventor during his remaining years.
And now, because I’m willing to bet you haven’t seen this one, here is Porter’s “The Teddy Bears”, a bizarre satire of Teddy Roosevelt’s economic policies, based on Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
For more on early film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
To find out about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.