September 22, 2009  |  An Auteurist History of Film
An Auteurist History of Film: “A Portrait of Edwin S. Porter”

Charles Silver, a curator in MoMA’s Department of Film, presents a series of writings to supplement the film exhibition An Auteurist History of Film. The following post accompanies the "A Portrait of Edwin S. Porter" program, which screens September 23, 24, and 25 in MoMA’s Celeste Bartos Theater (Theater 3).

<i>The Great Train Robbery</i>. 1903. USA. 35mm print, black-and-white with color tinting, silent, approx. 11 min. Acquired from Don Malkames. Preserved with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts

The Great Train Robbery. 1903. USA. 35mm print, black-and-white with color tinting, silent, approx. 11 min. Acquired from Don Malkames. Preserved with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts

Charles Musser, director of Before the Nickelodeon and now a distinguished professor of film, has ties with The Museum of Modern Art going back to his undergraduate days. His The Emergence of Cinema and Eileen Bowser’s The Transformation of Cinema (both in the Scribner series A History of the American Cinema) have become standard works on this period. Eileen, for many years a curator in MoMA’s Department of Film, is now retired. Blanche Sweet, a good personal and professional friend who died in 1986, stars in several of the D. W. Griffith films coming up in succeeding weeks.

As Musser’s film explains, Edwin S. Porter was a kind of jack-of-all-trades who accidentally stumbled into being the first director of note in American film. Although it is questionable that he ever saw himself as an artist, his presence in the early days of the medium, when truly interesting things were happening, makes it unfair to totally dismiss him. His later career lasted until 1916 and included some twenty features, mostly codirected with others (further diluting any possible auteurist claims). Among these were the now infamous The Count of Monte Cristo, starring James O’Neill (the film version of the stage role that figures so prominently in his son Eugene’s great Long Day’s Journey into Night), and the Mary Pickford vehicle Tess of the Storm Country.

Much of Porter’s output for Edison was derivative of the immensely popular trick films of Georges Méliès and others being imported from France. What remain of genuine consequence are Porter’s “actualities” (with subjects ranging from McKinley’s assassination to priceless documentation of turn-of-the-century Coney Island) and two films duly noted by Musser: The Life of an American Fireman and The Great Train Robbery—which was acquired by Iris Barry for the Museum’s fledgling “film library” in the mid-1930s. The former film was ahead of its time in its editing techniques, and the latter anticipated spectacular Westerns to come, even though Porter and his crew got no farther west than the other side of the Hudson River. The Great Train Robbery‘s logical, well-paced narrative flow was atypical for its time and set the stage for D. W. Griffith to improve upon its example five years later. Griffith himself appears in Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest, though he was soon to be rescued from such thankless roles by moving behind the camera at Biograph. History does not record whether Porter and Griffith had any further relationship, as one descended into obscurity while the other climbed to the top, but the index to the D. W. Griffith Papers (the director’s correspondence and business records) contains no entry for Edwin Stanton Porter.

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