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Edwin S. Porter

director of the first motion picture to tell a story

Edwin S. Porter

Edwin S. Porter was born in Connellsville, Pennsylvania, on April 21, 1870. Little else is currently known about his early life.

Porter joined Thomas Edison's Vitascope Marketing Company as a mechanic in 1895, and spent much of his time there working to perfect the movie projector. In this capacity he played a vital role in organizing the first publicly projected movie show, in New York City, on April 23, 1896.

In 1898, Porter left Vitascope to become a freelance projectionist at the Eden Musee Theatre in New York City. One of his duties was to make illegal duplicates of Georges Méliès films, which he did by taking one-act reels apart and combining several of them into fifteen-minute programs.

In 1900, Porter returned to Edison as producer and director at Edison's East 21st Street Skylight Studio, where he initially tried to duplicate the trick photography used by Méliès. He then broke away from "traditional" movie-making, and, in 1901, became one of the first directors to shoot at night, when he filmed Pan-American Exposition at Night. That same year he broke from the then typical "documentary-style" film by combining documentary footage with his own footage to create The Execution of Czoyosz, which included actual footage of the condemned being executed. For Life of An American Fireman (1903), he combined stock footage of actual fires, firemen and fire engines with dramatized scenes.

Porter's greatest contribution to early film-making came in 1903, when he directed The Great Train Robbery (a famous scene of which is shown at left). Prior to this film, most motion pictures were little more than recordings of everday occurences, news events, or scenes from stage shows filmed as if the stationary camera were a seated patron. Porter broke completely out of that mode with The Great Train Robbery. In one action-packed eight-minute reel divided into 13 distinct scenes, The Great Train Robbery tells of a band of daring bandits who take over a telegraph office and rob a train, only to be hunted down and captured by a hard-riding posse. Much of the movie was shot outdoors and seemed quite real to 1903 audiences, even though it was filmed in New Jersey. By cutting directly from one scene to the next, Porter was able to build suspense and rivet audience attention. The Great Train Robbery was not only the first movie to actually tell a story, it was also likely the first in which actors actually followed a script. The film became the standard attraction for the new movie theaters then opening across Canada and the United States.

a scene from The Great Train Robbery
a scene from The Great Train Robbery

The Great Train Robbery's success was also partially a result of Edison's promotional machine. Each reel shipped by the Edison Manufacturing Company included a melodramatic closeup of a mustachioed bandit firing his pistol "point-blank at the audience" (right). The Edison catalog promised that the "resulting excitement is great" and suggested that "this scene can be used to begin or end the picture." Enthusiastic film-goers sat through repeated showings just to experience the thrill of being safely shot at over and over again.

promotional 'shot' seen on every reel of The Great Train Robbery shipped to theaters
promotional 'shot' seen on every reel of The Great Train Robbery shipped to theaters

Porter remained at Edison for several more years and lent his talents to several dozen more films. He left Edison in 1909 and held senior production posts with several independent companies until returning to his work on the projector in 1915. He was involved with film projection in one capacity or another for the rest of his working life, and died in New York City on April 30, 1941.

Great Events of the 20th Century; How They Changed Our Lives Pleasantville, NY: Reader's Digest Association, 1977

Early Cinema
Internet Movie Database

Thomas Edison

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This page was last updated on 10/25/2017.