|Edwin Stanton Porter|
|Born||April 21, 1870
|Died||April 30, 1941 (aged 71)
New York City
|Parents||Thomas Richard Porter
Mary Jane Clark
Edwin Porter was born in Connellsville, Pennsylvania to Thomas Richard Porter, a merchant, and Mary Jane (Clark) Porter; he had three brothers and one sister. After attending public schools in Connellsville and Pittsburgh, Porter worked, among other odd jobs, as an exhibition skater, a sign painter, and a telegraph operator.
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 the United States Navy as an electrician. During his three years' service he showed aptitude as an inventor of electrical devices to improve communications.
Porter entered motion picture work in 1896, the first year movies were commercially projected on large screens in the United States. He was briefly employed in New York City by Raff & Gammon, agents for the films and viewing equipment made by Thomas Edison, and then left to become a touring projectionist with a competing machine, Kuhn & Webster's Projectorscope. He traveled through the West Indies and South America, showing films at fairgrounds and in open fields, and later made a second tour through Canada and the United States. Returning to New York, he worked as a projectionist and attempted, unsuccessfully, to set up a manufacturing concern for motion picture cameras and projectors.
In 1899 Porter joined the Edison Manufacturing Company. Soon afterward he took charge of motion picture production at Edison's New York studios, operating the camera, directing the actors, and assembling the final print. During the next decade he became the most influential filmmaker in the United States. From his experience as a touring projectionist Porter knew what pleased crowds, and he began by making trick films and comedies for Edison. One of his early films was Terrible Teddy, the Grizzly King, a satire made in February 1901 about the then Vice President-elect, Theodore Roosevelt. Like all early filmmakers, he took ideas from others, but rather than simply copying films he tried to improve on what he borrowed. In his Jack and the Beanstalk (1902) and Life of an American Fireman (1903) he followed earlier films by France's Georges Méliès and members of England's "Brighton School", such as James Williamson. Instead of using abrupt splices or cuts between shots, however, Porter created dissolves, gradual transitions from one image to another. In Life of an American Fireman particularly, the technique helped audiences follow complex outdoor movement.
In his next and most important film, The Great Train Robbery (1903), Porter took the archetypal American Western story, already familiar to audiences from dime novels and stage melodrama, and made it an entirely new visual experience. The one-reel film, with a running time of twelve minutes, was assembled in twenty separate shots, along with a startling close-up of a bandit firing at the camera. It used as many as ten different indoor and outdoor locations and was groundbreaking in its use of "cross-cutting" in editing to show simultaneous action in different places. No earlier film had created such swift movement or variety of scene. The Great Train Robbery was enormously popular. For several years it toured throughout the United States, and in 1905 it was the premier attraction at the first nickelodeon. Its success firmly established motion pictures as commercial entertainment in the United States.
After The Great Train Robbery Porter continued to try out new techniques. He presented two parallel stories in The Kleptomaniac (1905), a film of social commentary like his technically more conventional film of 1904, The Ex-Convict. In The Seven Ages (1905) he used side lighting, close-ups, and changed shots within a scene, one of the earliest examples of a filmmaker departing from the theatrical analogy of a single shot for each scene. He also directed trick films such as Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend (1906), based on the comic strip by Winsor McCay. Between 1903 and 1905 he successfully demonstrated most of the techniques that were to become the basic modes of visual communication through film. For instance he helped to develop the modern concept of continuity editing, and is often credited with discovering that the basic unit of structure in film was the shot rather than the scene (the basic unit on the stage), paving the way for D.W. Griffith's advances in editing and screen storytelling. Yet he seemed to regard them only as separate experiments and never brought them together in a unified filmmaking style.
In 1909 Porter, in an attempt to resist the new industrial system born out of the popularity of nickelodeons, left Edison and joined with others in organizing Rex, an independent motion picture company. He also took part in launching a company to manufacture Simplex motion picture projectors. After three years he sold Rex and accepted an offer from Adolph Zukor to become chief director of the new Famous Players Film Company, the first American company that regularly produced feature-length films. Porter directed the stage actor James K. Hackett in the first five-reel American film, The Prisoner of Zenda (1913), and also directed Mary Pickford, Pauline Frederick, and John Barrymore in feature films. But his directorial skills had not kept pace with rapid changes in motion picture art. His last film was released in 1915 and he left Famous Players during a reorganization the following year.
From 1917 to 1925 Porter served as president of the Precision Machine Company, manufacturers of the Simplex projectors. After his retirement in 1925 he continued to work on his own as an inventor and designer, securing several patents for still cameras and projector devices. During the 1930s he was employed by an appliance corporation.
Aged 71, he died in 1941 at the Hotel Taft in New York City and was buried in Kensico Cemetery, Valhalla, New York. He was survived by his wife, Caroline Ridinger, whom he had married on June 5, 1893; they had no children.
Porter remains an enigmatic figure in motion picture history. Though his significance as director of The Great Train Robbery and other innovative early films is undeniable, he rarely repeated an innovation after he had used it successfully, never developed a consistent directorial style, and in later years never protested when others rediscovered his techniques and claimed them as their own. He was a modest, quiet, cautious man who felt uncomfortable working with the famous stars he directed starting in 1912. Zukor said of Porter that he was more an artistic mechanic than a dramatic artist, a man who liked to deal with machines better than with people.