Before the Nickelodeon

Before the Nickelodeon is a one-hour documentary produced, directed, and edited by film historian Charles Musser. It opens with clips from Edwin S. Porter’s epic of 1903, The Great Train Robbery, beginning with the famous image of a hand-colored Bronco Billy Anderson firing his gun at the camera, and including a mix of outdoor scenes, staged interiors, shots with a static camera, some pans, a static camera on top of a moving train, scenes on a stage of a train car with projected scenery flashing by outside, and scenes of a station with a train seen moving out the window, again a projection trick or perhaps an in-camera superimposition.

The documentary uses Porter’s career as a lens through which to view the development of early American cinema, when he “seemed always to be in the right place at the right time”. This 1982 film doesn’t know as much about Porter’s early life as we now know (Charles Musser published a more detailed book on Porter in 1991), so it introduces him in Brooklyn working as an electrical inventor for the Navy, while his future boss, Thomas Edison, was developing his kinetograph with William Dickson.

At first, Dickson shot a lot of vaudeville acts at their New Jersey studio, an oddly-shaped building nicknamed the Black Maria. We see clips of a famous boxing match there with Gentleman Jim Corbett. Among the salient points here are the blurring between documentary and celebrity, the instinctive early desire for “stars”, the surprising, half-backless trunks on Corbett that would never be worn today and which help turn this athletic event into a cheeky erotic spectacle, and the method of exhibition. Each one-minute round could be watched in its own peep-show machine (a kinetoscope) for a nickel, thus creating a kind of multi-reel serial as the spectator went from one machine to the next. These new machines could be found in phonograph parlors, establishments where patrons already went to listen to Edison’s records.

Soon various methods of projection on a public screen were developed. One such device, the Edison Vitascope, premiered in April 1896 at Koster & Bial’s music hall in New York for what a newspaper reviewer called “the projection of kinetoscopic figures in magic lantern fashion”. The hit of the show was The Kiss, a brief close-up of a scene from a current Broadway hit of that name. Notice that this too employs star power crossed with eros. We watch an endless loop as we hear a reviewer: “The real scene itself never excited more amusement than did its vitascopic presentment and that’s saying much. Their smiles and glances and expressive gestures and the final joyous, overpowering, luscious osculation was repeated again and again while the audience fairly shrieked and howled approval.”

It was Porter who installed the Vitascope at Koster & Bial’s. He had left the navy, still in his 20s, and later became a traveling projectionist. In 1897, he was hired to exhibit motion pictures at New York’s Eden Musee, originally a wax museum. The Musee’s original, exclusive, very popular shows consisted not of loops but combined programs of slides and documentary films, shot by cameraman William Paley and edited together for projection with their own machines (“model cineograph and stereopticon combined” says a drawing).

The next year, Edison hired Paley to go to Cuba and shoot footage of another modern innovation, the Spanish-American war, on boats provided by William Randolph Hearst. (The viewer may mentally flash forward to the appropriate scene in Citizen Kane where Kane says “You provide the pictures, I’ll provide the war.”) Paley took one-minute shots of everything everywhere, and Porter bought the material and edited it into an early kind of documentary feature, thus pioneering editing as a creative contribution made by exhibitors, not filmmakers.

By 1900, Edison had hired Porter to run his new skylight studio in New York and basically put him in charge of making movies. Here he staged a form of docudrama, not only taking his subjects from newspaper headlines but even taking visual ideas from popular editorial cartoons, and several examples are given. We see a shot of temperance women (a la Carrie Nation) smashing up a saloon, with a dash of comic undertone. We see The Capture of the Biddle Brothers, a single shot, staged in depth, of the forces of law approaching across a snowy field, guns blazing (perhaps with exhibitors adding in-house sound effects) as they approach the sleigh in the foreground containing the brothers and Mrs. Soffel (see the 1984 film Mrs. Soffel for another version of this).

At this point, Porter is shooting one-minute, single-shots films for exhibitors to combine as they please, the way he used to do at the Musee. For example, he shoots a lot of documentary street scenes, and it crosses the minds of some exhibitors to create meaning through the contrast of various shots of rich folks and poor. This foreshadows the idea of creating meaning from found footage, a meaning not intended by the filmmaker. But by 1901, after Edison’s patent fights have given him a lock on providing footage to American showmen, Porter is making forays into films with more than one shot to tell a story, often a “punchline” shot like the image of a grave at the finale of the explosive comedy The Finish of Bridget McKeen. Terrible Teddy, the Grizzly King is a political jab at Teddy Roosevelt’s photo-opportunities as a big game hunter. Already the “media” is spoofing its own role in its creations.

That year, after President McKinley’s assassination, there is a bonanza of documentary footage of the funeral as well as the President’s speech the day before his death, and soon there is Porter’s The Execution of Czolgosz, which combines documentary panoramas of the exterior of the actual prison with two shots of staged drama with actors: the prisoner led from his cell, and his death by electric chair–docudrama as snuff film. Exhibitors were offered the choice of buying the film with or without the opening panoramas.

For more complex, multi-shot films like the editorializing The Sampson-Schley Controversy, Porter begins wrestling with the problem of how to convey simultaneous actions in different locations. He can only think to show them sequentially and trust the audience to get it.

Also from this time we see filmed Coney Island amusements, such as elephants shooting the chute and the spectacular live theatre-show Fighting the Flames, which will undoubtedly influence Porter’s action epic The Life of an American Fireman. But hold that thought, for first Edison suffered a patent reversal in 1902 which cleared the way for the rival Biograph studio to continue making product, while Porter moved into more multi-shot story films like the comedy Appointment by Telephone (note the exploitation of new technologies making their way into the middle class). Inspired by the innovative, multi-scene trick films of France’s Georges Méliès, which were a world sensation, Porter came up with the ten-scene Jack and the Beanstalk. These films are presented in the documentary with narration and effects to convey how exhibitors often presented them. Note that dissolves are used as transitional devices between shots, as though the spectators must be subtly alerted that the picture is about to change and we’d better be ready.

Porter never stumbled upon parallel editing, also known as cross-cutting. Instead he developed an interim innovation: overlapping action. He shows a complete event from one angle or in one location, then cuts to a new angle or location where same event happens again. He got this idea while duping pirate copies of Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902), because he noticed that the rocket is shown landing on the moon twice in two separate shots.

This led to his 1903 epic The Life of an American Fireman, which for decades circulated in a 1930s re-edit that employed the modern technique of cross-cutting. By the ’30s, a generation raised on cross-cutting would have found Porter’s overlapping technique strange and hard to follow, having forgotten how to read it. On the other hand, Porter’s own audience might have found cross-cutting confusing, as they hadn’t yet learned to read it. In Porter’s edit, we see a complete sequence of a woman and child being rescued from inside their room, as the fireman climbs in their window and lowers them out. Then Porter cuts to a shot that replays the same action from the street, as we see the fireman climbing the ladder, going in the window, and lowering out woman and child.

Porter was now in his element as the leading American filmmaker. By 1907, a million people a day were going to nickelodeons, five-cent movie houses that show pre-packaged half-hour programs provided by Porter, or else by Biograph and other rivals, as films entered an assembly-line phase of rapid production that included stock companies of actors and armies of (female) editors cutting the prints. Porter was in charge of another new Edison studio, a fabulous part-glass structure in the Bronx, but this moment of apotheosis also began to mark a decline. He resisted the new production methods and his visual style didn’t evolve. He hired an actor named D.W. Griffith to star in Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest (1908), which employs overlapping action; reviewers at the time saw it as an inferior product. Griffith would soon be making films himself at Biograph that exploited cross-cutting not only for storytelling but as a suspense device, and the next chapter of film history would take over.

The documentary wraps up quickly with the familiar trope of “a man forgotten by the film industry he helped to create” as Porter was replaced by Edison with a more efficient manager, worked in other companies until 1915 (actually he was important in the founding of the company that became Paramount and directed several important features), and died obscurely 30 years later.

From The Life of an American Fireman

This is the story told by Before the Nickelodeon, a good, probably too concise overview that could perhaps have served as an extra on some other disc. As we have noted, it skips some details of Porter’s career, including such important films as Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1903), which can be found along with several of these films in Kino’s essential Edison: The Invention of the Movies, while The Great Train Robbery can be also be seen in their box The Movies Begin. Anyway, this film is narrated by the elderly voice of silent star Blanche Sweet, and various items are read aloud by what certain circles would consider a stellar cast, including Russian film historian Jay Leyda and directors D.A. Pennebaker, Louis Malle, Milos Forman, and Robert Altman.

This documentary was released by Kino on VHS years ago; the DVD adds three bonus films by Porter and Wallace McCutcheon that aren’t included on the Edison set. The three-minute gag Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show (1902) is a film-within-film or screen-within-screen bit of self-referentiality whose punchline depends on the concept of projection from behind the screen rather than from the balcony.

The 17-minute epic Life of a Cowboy (1906) is the movie Porter called the first western – -not The Great Train Robbery, which was considered a crime film and which might have been inspired by a similar British film about a daylight robbery. Cowboy was loosely based on the play The Squaw Man, which has been filmed more than once, most famously by Cecil B. DeMille in 1914 as the first movie shot in Hollywood proper (as opposed to Los Angeles). Anyway, this movie is full of every conceivable stereotype, with rambunctious but good-hearted (Anglo) cowboys, a sweetheart, a Mexican villain, hostile Indians, an old drunken Indian and a noble-savage Indian maid.

This film comes with a reprint of the plot description that Edison circulated with the film so the story could be narrated aloud during performance. This was necessary because while the movie strings together elaborately staged scenes from a foursquare point of view, the point of what’s happening is often unclear. Indeed, the audience would never know the villain was “a Mexican greaser” if these notes didn’t explain it. This shows the shortcomings of trying to tell a complicated story with many characters without explanatory titles or close-ups.

From the same year, the six-minute Waiting at the Church is something else again, a delightful and witty romp based on a popular song. One key to success with audiences was choosing stories they already knew, and familiarity with the song helped get the point across, although the story remains clear today without it. Every shot has telling little character details (one uses a superimposition trick, another is a medium close-up mirror scene), and the climax is a lovely chase sequence more effective as human comedy than the lengthier Cowboy chase was effective as excitement.

RATING 6 / 10