Edwin S. Porter

The social commentary in such films as The Kleptomaniac and The Ex-Convict (1904), in which the stigma of his conviction haunts a recently released prisoner as he tries to make his way in a law-abiding but intolerant society (Figure B4.8), reflects the response of Edwin S[tanton] Porter (1869-1941) to conditions in the Pennsylvania coal-mining town where he grew up: his general distrust of the authority of capitalists and the police derived from first-hand experiences of class antagonism and labor strife. A former telegraph operator, tailor, and exhibition ice skater by the time he was 23, Porter left small-town Pennsylvania to join the Navy, where he developed his aptitude for mechanical and electrical engineering.

Between 1896, when he was discharged from the Navy, and November 1900, when he was hired by the Edison Manufacturing Company, he worked at a number of cinema-related occupations, especially those involving the repair and design of equipment. He became a combination producer/director/cameraman as a function of his job as head of Edison’s New York City studio, and in the years between 1901 and 1907, he made a wide variety of films for the company, many of which display a flair for the special effects of the time.[1] For The “Teddy” Bears (1907), for example, Porter took a week to shoot a sequence in which Goldilocks peers through a knothole to see the three bears perform some acrobatic feats of puppet animation (Figure B4.9).[2]

Experiments in Story, Space, and Time

An Experiment in Cinematic Magic: Dream of a Rarebit Fiend  

Of all Porter’s “experimental” films, the most famous is Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906), in which a drunk teeters through the streets before reaching home and climbing into bed, only to be assaulted by a gang of devilkins before the bed itself comes to life, spirits him over the rooftops, and leaves him hanging him by his nightshirt from a church steeple (Figure B4.10).[3] A barrage of trick effects—including stop-motion photography, double exposures, and whip pans—is unloosed to lend an ironic sort of photographic realism to images not only of the hero’s fantastic journey but of his mental condition as well. Among other things, Rarebit Fiend is virtually a one-film compendium of all the cinematic tricks to which the French filmmaker Georges Méliès had already introduced—and even habituated—filmgoers over the previous decade (see Chapter 3.2).

See the moving picture


              Edwin S. Porter, Dream of a

      Rarebit Fiend, Edison Mfg. Co., 1905

It was also an immensely successful film: made at a cost of $350, it earned $30,000, its sales of 192 prints outperforming any other Edison title for the year.[4] It’s also evidence of Porter’s reliance on the material of popular culture as a practical source of cinematic subject matter: Rarebit Fiend was based on a popular New York Herald comic strip in which cartoonist Winsor McCay (see Biographical Sketch 4.1) subjected various sleepers to amusing nightmares. The trick and fantasy films of Méliès, which had first become popular in 1899-1900 as an alternative to American-made actualities and topical subjects, had, by 1903, also become influential in their method of organizing separate shots in order to suggest the dimensions of time and space in fictionalized worlds. In 1902, for example, Porter’s Jack and the Beanstalk, a 10-scene rendition of the well-known fairy tale, was modeled explicitly on Méliès’ 11-minute Barbe-bleu (Bluebeard, 1901). The temporal repetition of Shots 2 and 3 in Porter’s How They Do Things in the Bowery (also 1902—see Figure 4.21) was probably inspired by the temporal repetition of the moon landing in Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la lune (see Chapter 3.2).

In Porter’s case, these experiments in relatively ambitious fantasy films provided an opportunity to explore both possibilities in fictional storytelling and solutions to the problems of organizing space and time in a moving picture. Given Porter’s position at Edison, it’s not surprising that these interests were shared by the filmmakers with whom he worked and reflected in the products that they turned out, regardless of genre. For one thing, Porter’s films—an amalgam of comedies and serious subjects—grew longer: of the 20 films that he made between December 1905 and September 1907, most ran between 750 and 975 feet (12 to 14 minutes), with several running to 1,000 feet (approximately 15 minutes).[5] Rarebit Fiend runs only five minutes, but as John Fell points out in a study of global output in 1907, the themes of dreams and magic, which reflect subjects that had first become popular at least a half decade earlier, tend to be of “medium length,” especially if it was unnecessary to present complicated spatial or temporal schemes. But when the filmmaker’s ambition extends to integrating dreams and magic into other generic frameworks—as in Rarebit Fiend, whose framework is that of a situational farce—duration tends to be greater.[6]

A Generic Approach to Convention

See the moving picture


   Edwin S. Porter, The Whole Dam Family

   and the Dam Dog, Edison Mfg. Co., 1906

Equally important is the fact that narrative experimentation was possible because audiences were so often familiar with the details of stories anchored in popular culture.[7] Edison films, for example, though less bound than those of Biograph to newspaper stories and contemporary crime re-enactments, were often inspired by well-known items in the archives of the popular culture. The tale of Jack and the Beanstalk, of course, was known to virtually every child, but other projects were far more contemporary in their references. The gist of Porter’s Waiting at the Church (1906) depends entirely on an acquaintance with a popular song, and Kathleen Mavourneen and Daniel Boone (both also made in 1906) adapt plays in the repertory of nearly every touring company in the country. Even earlier, Rube and Mandy at Coney Island (1903) had capitalized on a virtually national fascination with the famous amusement park (Figure B4.11). The Whole Dam Family and the Dam Dog (1905) was inspired by a widely circulated picture postcard.

See the moving picture


       Edwin S. Porter, Uncle Tom’s Cabin,

                    Edison Mfg. Co., 1903

A Cinema of Highlights: Uncle Tom’s Cabin  

Generic conventions also served to familiarize audiences with the goings-on of moving-picture stories. Kathleen Mavourneen and Daniel Boone, for instance, were also examples of filmed theater (see Figure B4.12 [8]), as was Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which (in 1903) Porter adapted in 14 scenes from a story known to virtually every American, adult and child, born outside the South. In particular, theatrical melodramas such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin supplied a collection of plot contrivances and other conventions that the moving pictures borrowed intact from the stage. Paradoxically, however, filmed theater tended to work against narrative experimentation: because audiences knew either the story or the conventions to which it adhered, it was possible to “adapt” a play simply by linking together a succession of popular highlights (see Figure B4.13).[9] Thus audience foreknowledge largely eliminated any need to solve the problems entailed by moving around in time and space.

Porter’s Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest (1908) is, ironically, a good case in point.[10] When an eagle snatches a baby from its crib, the distraught parents summon the local stalwart mountaineer, who climbs to the predator’s aerie, fights it off, and brings the child home (Figure B4.14). Besides a few exteriors shot in the wilds of New Jersey, almost all of the action takes place against painted studio backdrops, and very little effort is taken to fashion convincing juxtapositions. Although the baby is real enough, the stuffed eagle is operated by wires, and the climactic fight scene is staged so far to screen left that it comes across as a misplaced commotion of flailing arms and flapping feathers.

See the moving picture


  Edwin S. Porter, The Great Train Robbery,

                   Edison Mfg. Co., 1903

The predictable inanity of its story is probably the main reason for the lackluster direction of Eagle’s Nest, but it’s also important to remember that Porter’s strength as a director had never been a matter of innate cinematic sense. The Great Train Robbery (1903) demonstrates a certain flair for dramatic construction, but even when he had conceived a moment of particularly cinematic value—the famous closeup of the pistol-wielding bandit—Porter doesn’t seem to have been sure what to do with it (see Chapter 5.2). More importantly, Eagle’s Nest, like almost all of Porter’s films from early 1908, indicates that he never seems to have moved beyond the principles of cinematic representation which, with all their virtues and shortcomings, are amply evident in Train Robbery. In Eagle’s Nest, for example, there is one sequence in which the mountaineer is lowered over a cliffside and proceeds to make his arduous way downward; a cut to a different angle finds him descending the same area that he’s already negotiated. In other words, such methods as overlapping action and temporal repetition are still part of Porter’s cinematic vocabulary.

Antiquated Techniques and Uncongenial Working Conditions  

At a time when filmmakers at Vitagraph, Biograph, and the French producer Pathé-Frères were already using such techniques as linear narrative and parallel editing with some regularity, the techniques of Porter’s films were fast becoming antiquated. Moreover, his position at Edison, which took steps to increase its output after moving to a new Bronx studio in July 1907, committed Porter to working conditions that he didn’t find congenial. From July 1905 until early 1907, he had been partnered with Wallace McCutcheon (1858?-1910?), a Biograph veteran who directed actors and assumed other responsibilities while Porter was free to concentrate on camerawork and editing. When McCutcheon left, Porter was teamed with J. Searle Dawley (1877-1949), a former playwright and stage manager, but when Edison again raised production quotas in June 1908, Dawley was put in charge of a second unit.[11] Now assigned not only to continue as producer/cameraman for his own first unit but to oversee Dawley’s second unit as well, Porter found himself in a hierarchical structure in which his own work habits proved inefficient. He was removed as studio head in February 1909 and fired in November.

Post-Edison Career

In 1910, Porter cofounded a short-lived film company called Defender, which ceased releasing films before the year was out. The following February, Porter and his partners reformed as Rex Pictures, which was a little more successful, releasing two subjects per week by January 1912. In May of that year, Rex joined with Carl Laemmle’s Independent Motion Picture Company of America in the formation of the Universal Film Manufacturing Company, which eventually fell under Laemmle’s control as Universal Pictures. Meanwhile, Porter joined with the exhibitor Adolph Zukor and a theatrical producer named Daniel Frohman to found Famous Players Film Company, whose avowed purpose was to produce quality adaptations of classic novels and plays (see Figure B4.15). Porter was once again a director but failed completely to adapt to the techniques of cinematic storytelling that were developed in the years 1912 to 1915.[12]

See the moving picture


                          Mary Pickford in

          Tess of the Storm Country (1914)

“He Had to Be All Over the Place”  

In 1914, he directed one of Mary Pickford’s most successful films, Tess of the Storm Country (Figure B4.16 [13]), but Pickford, who’d begun working in films with D.W. Griffith in 1909, would recall years later that Porter “knew nothing about directing. Nothing. . . . [He] had none of the ideas, like closeups, that Griffith had developed.”[14] Porter’s dependence on outmoded working methods—he insisted on overseeing every aspect of production and upon serving as his own cameraman—also brought him into conflict with Zukor, who was trying to build a standardized production system run by large hierarchically organized units. Porter, recalled cinematographer Arthur Miller, who began his career at Famous Players,

didn’t realize that motion pictures had developed into specialties. Directors were developing who did nothing but direct; cameramen did nothing but photograph; some laboratory men had come into the business who did nothing but develop film. Everybody was beginning to specialize. But he couldn’t take it—he had to be all over the place.[15]

Porter was by disposition an engineer and mechanic—albeit “an inventive mechanic,” as William K. Everson hastens to point out[16]—and ended his association with Famous Players experimenting with early sound, color, and widescreen-projection processes. In 1915, he sold his share in Famous Players and founded the Precision Machine Company, whose Simplex projector served as an industry standard for several years. His firm prospered, but Porter lost most of his fortune in the stock market crash of 1929. He lived the rest of his life in anonymity in New York.

[1] For a detailed biography of Porter, see Charles Musser, Before the Nickelodeon: Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company (Berkeley, Los Angeles, Oxford: Univ. of California Press, 1991), Ch. 2, at, pp. 157-62, at, and Ch. 13, at (accessed June 15, 2016). See also Musser, “Porter, Edwin S(tanton),” in World Film Directors. Volume I. 1890-1945, ed. John Wakeman (New York: H.W. Wilson, 1987), pp. 870-72, 877-79; Musser, “The Early Cinema of Edwin S. Porter,” Cinema Journal 19:1 (Fall 1979), 1-38; rpt. in The Wiley-Blackwell History of American Film, ed. Cynthia Lucia, Roy Grundermann, and Art Simon (Hoboken, NJ: Blackwell Publishing, 2012), esp. pp. 9-12, at (accessed June 15, 2016); Luke McKernan, “Edwin Stanton Porter,” Who’s Who in Victorian Cinema (British Film Institute, 2016), at (accessed June 15, 2016).

On Porter and the development of “the ‘cameraman’ system of production” at Edison, see David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1985), pp. 116-17. On Porter’s socially conscious inclinations, see Kay Sloan, The Loud Silents: Origins of the Social Problem Film (Urbana and Chicago: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1988), pp. 18, 40-41; and Musser, Before the Nickelodeon, Ch. 9, at

[2] On The “Teddy” Bears, see Miriam Hansen, Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1991), pp. 48-54; Musser, Before the Nickelodeon, pp. 349-51, at; National Film Preservation Foundation, The “Teddy” Bears (n.d.), at (accessed June 15, 2016).

[3] On Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend, see Matthew T. Jones, “Fiend on Film: Edwin S. Porter’s Adaptation of Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend,” International Journal of Comic Art 8:8 (January 2006), pp. 388-411; Musser, Before the Nickelodeon, pp. 341-42, at; Lauren Rabinowitz, “1906: Movies and Spectacle,” in American Cinema, 1890-1909, ed. Gaudreault, pp. 169-70. For Figure B4.10, see Ian Christie, The Last Machine: Early Cinema and the Birth of the Modern World (London: British Film Institute, 1994), p. 33.

[4] See Kenneth Macgowan, Behind the Screen: The History and Techniques of the Motion Picture (New York: Delta, 1965), p. 132; David Levy, “Edison Sales Policy and the Continuous Action Film, 1904-1906,” in Film before Griffith, ed. John Fell (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1983), p. 222.

[5] See Charles Musser, The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1990), p. 460.

[6] “Motive, Mischief and Melodrama: The State of Film Melodrama in 1907,” in Film before Griffith, ed. Fell, p. 279.

[7] See John Fell, “Before the Nickelodeon: The Early Cinema of Edwin Porter,” Film Quarterly (Summer 1983), p. 22; Musser, The Emergence of Cinema, pp. 347-51. See also Musser, Before the Nickelodeon, pp. 340-53, at

[8] For Figure B4.12, see Musser, Before the Nickelodeon, pp. 336-40, at and pp. 364-66, at

[9] On Uncle Tom’s Cabin, see Stephen Railton, director, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and American Culture (2009), at, including “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” on Film, at (accessed June 15, 2016); Stephen Johnson, “Time and Uncle Tom: Slowing Down Edwin S. Porter’s Film of Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” in Performing Adaptations: Essays and Conversations on the Theory and Practice of Adaptation, ed. Michelle MacArthur, Lydia Wilkinson, and Karen Zaionts (Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009), pp. 87-112; John W. Frick, Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the American Stage and Screen (Basingstoke, Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), Ch. 6; Railton, “Readapting Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction on Screen, ed. R. Barton Palmer (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007), esp. pp.62-68; Barbara Tepa Lupak, Literary Adaptations in Black American Cinema: From Micheaux to Toni Morrison (Rochester, NY: Univ. of Rochester Press, 2002), pp. 1-8, at (accessed June 15, 2016); Musser, Before the Nickelodeon, pp. 242-45, at; Stephen M. Best, The Fugitive’s Properties: Law and the Poetics of Possession (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2004), esp. pp. 138-41.

[10] See Musser, Before the Nickelodeon, pp. 410-11, at; and David Mayer, “Rescued from an eBay Site,” Film History 21:4 (2009), pp. 336-45.

[11] See Luke McKernan, “Wallace (‘Old Man’) McCutcheon” (May 2013), Who’s Who in Victorian Cinema (British Film Institute, 2016), at (accessed June 15, 2016); Jon C. Hopwood, “J. Searle Dawley: Biography,” (1990-2014), at (accessed June 15, 2016).

[12] See esp. Musser, Before the Nickelodeon, Ch. 13, at On Famous Players Film Company, see Neal Gabler, An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood (New York: Doubleday, 1988), pp. 28-33; and Eileen Bowser, The Transformation of Cinema 1907-1915 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994), pp. 225-27.

[13] For Figure B4.16, see, among others, Greta de Groat, “Zaza (1915),” The Pauline Frederick Website (December 25, 2014), at (accessed June 15, 2016).

[14] Quoted by Kevin Brownlow, The Parade’s Gone By . . . (New York: Ballantine, 1969), p. 146.

[15] Quoted by Leonard Maltin, The Art of the Cinematographer: A Survey and Interviews with Five Masters (New York: Dover, 1978), p. 2.

[16] American Silent Film (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1978), p. 41.

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