Edwin S. Porter, the Artistic Mechanic
Today is Edwin S. Porter’s birthday. So while thinking about sending a b-day shout out to Mr. Porter, I started thinking about where Porter fits in the grand scheme of cinema. While it’s in no way accurate to say he’s “forgotten,” he seems a bit lost in the wash of other silent era luminaries. In some ways, Edwin S. Porter is one of the most significant creative forces in early cinema. But in other ways, Porter is a kind of footnote. What’s that about?
Edwin Porter’s Pre-Cinema Life
Born in Pennsylvania on April 21, 1870. Porter has one of the delightfully odd capsules bios so often found in turn of the century America. According to wiki, he “worked, among other odd jobs, as an exhibition skater, a sign painter, and a telegraph operator.” What’s an exhibition skater? In figure skating terms, that would be a person who twirls around in the Icecapades, but doesn’t skate competitively. Surely to God, Porter wasn’t in the turn of the century version of Icecapades. Surely.
But I digress… the salient point in Porter’s bio is the telegraph operator part. While he was telegraphing he also picked up a fair bit of knowledge about electricity. At the tender of age of 21, he shared an electrical patent for a lamp regulator. He was employed for a time in the electrical department of William Cramp & Sons, a Philadelphia ship and engine building company, and in 1893 enlisted in theUS Navy as an electrician. That mechanical knowledge is what eventually served as Porter’s entree into the film biz, a fact which ultimately influences how we remember him.
Edwin Porter’s Early Cinema Career
Porter’s 3 year Navy stint was up in 1896, coincidentally the first year motion pictures where projected in the US. As a matter of fact, it was a fresh faced new hire of the Kinetoscope Company (soon to be the Vitascope Company) named Edwin S. Porter who manned the projector at the first ever screening of projected movies in the US at Koster and Bial’s Music Hall in New York on April 23, 1896. Then Porter took a job with a competing firm and hit the road with Kuhn and Webster’s Projectorscope (gotta love these names). He traveled the globe, including the West Indies, South America, Canada, and ever back water in the US, showing films at fairgrounds and in open fields. Porter even tried to found his own manufacturing company to produce camera and projectors, but that fizzled.
Edwin Porter meets Edison
Porter hired on with the Edison Manufacturing company in 1899. With a background in telegraph operation, electrical engineering, and motion picture projecting, it makes total sense that Porter was given charge of motion picture production at Edison studio. There’s nothing like an electrical patent to qualify a man to direct actors and edit a final print. Right?
No matter, how he got the job, Edwin S. Porter went on to create the work that would launch a thousand (nay, a million!) narratives.With groundbreaking films like Terrible Teddy, the Grizzly King (1901), Jack and the Beanstalk (1902), and Life of an American Fireman (1903), Porter kind of systematically and single-handedly developed the film syntax required to deliver a coherent visual narrative. Dissolves, simultaneously action, continuity editing, and all the technical ways to film fast action – these belong to Porter. So does the notion that the basic unit of meaning in a film is the shot, not the scene. Hell, his final film, Jim the Penman (1915), was the first ever 3D anaglyph film.
The Great Train Robbery
Porter’s list of achievements, impressive as they were, paled when compared to 1905’s The Great Train Robbery. This is the single most influential 12 minutes of cinema in the silent era. Porter managed to take a well-trod dime novel genre, the western, and reinvent it visually. The Great Train Robbery was the freshest, most action packed movies audiences had ever seen. It cemented the movies as a commercial entertainment industry and signaled the dawn of narrative cinema. To this day, the opening/final shot (it was designed to be either) of a malicious gunman shooting the audience remains one of the most iconic images of American cinema.
Edwin S. Porter’s Legacy
So if Porter’s influence is manifest, why does he feel less important than, oh say, D.W. Griffith? After all, isn’t Porter’s list of firsts the things that we most respect about Griffith’s movies and cite as Griffith’s innovations?
Adolf Zukor said of Porter, “Porter was, I have always felt, more of an artistic mechanic than a dramatic artist. He like to deal with machines better than people. In a way it was his mechanical imagination which had caused him to improvise the story technique in The Great Train Robbery.”
The “Porter Problem,” in a nutshell, is his complete lack of style. Porter’s genius is chiefly a mechanical one. Like many mechanically talented people, Porter seemed to have delighted in the solving of a problem and reveling in innovation for innovation’s sake. Simultaneous action, check. Next. While Porter broke down the component parts of what we now think of as the very foundation of film making, he never stitched all of those component parts into one glorious whole. That was D.W. Griffith’s bailiwick.
Porter was working at time when substance stood in for style. No one gave a wet slap about who the director was. Hell, no one cared who the star was. While the novelty of the moving picture eventually wore away, it took awhile. But upping the ante with his innovative narrative techniques, Porter basically started building the coffin his film making career would be buried in.
Porter eventually transitioned out of movie making and into moving equipment making. From 1917 to 1925 he served as president of the Precision Machine Company, manufacturers of the Simplex projectors. He retired in 1925 and continued to tinker on his own as an inventor and designer, securing several patents for still cameras and projector devices.
Edwin S. Porter might not be sexiest figure in cinematic history, but cinema owes him an enormous debt. So give Porter a little salute and a birthday tribute (if you include booze, it’s more fun).