Edwin S. Porter

Last updated
Edwin S. Porter
Edwin S Porter.jpg
Edwin Stanton Porter, 1901 photo
Edwin Stanton Porter

(1870-04-21)April 21, 1870
DiedApril 30, 1941(1941-04-30) (aged 71)
Parent(s)Thomas Richard Porter
Mary Clark

Edwin Stanton Porter (April 21, 1870 – April 30, 1941) was an American film pioneer, most famous as a producer, director, studio manager and cinematographer with the Edison Manufacturing Company and the Famous Players Film Company. [1] [2] Of over 250 films created by Porter, his most important include Jack and the Beanstalk (1902), Life of an American Fireman (1903), The Great Train Robbery (1903), The Kleptomaniac (1905), Life of a Cowboy (1906), Rescued from an Eagle's Nest (1908), and The Prisoner of Zenda (1913) .


Birth and education

Porter was born and raised in Connellsville, Pennsylvania, to Thomas Richard Porter, a merchant, and Mary (Clark) Porter; he was the fourth of seven children with four brothers (Charles W., Frank, John and Everett Melbourne) and two sisters (Mary and Ada). Named Edward at birth, he later changed his name to Edwin Stanton, after Edwin Stanton, the Democratic politician from Ohio who had served as Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of War. [3] After attending public schools in Connellsville, Porter worked, among other odd jobs, as an exhibition skater, a sign painter, and a telegraph operator. He developed an interest in electricity at a young age, and shared a patent at age 21 for a lamp regulator. [4] Eventually becoming a merchant tailor, Porter was battered by the Panic of 1893. He filed for bankruptcy on June 15 and enlisted in the United States Navy four days later on June 19. [5] He served three years as a gunner's mate, serving on the USS New York (ACR-2) and at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.


Early career

He was employed initially in the electrical department of William Cramp & Sons, a Philadelphia ship and engine building company. During his three years' service he showed aptitude as an inventor of electrical devices to improve communications. [6]

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. He later made a second tour through Canada and the United States.

Returning to New York City in early 1898, Porter found work at the Eden Musée, a Manhattan wax museum and amusement hall [7] which had become a center for motion picture exhibition and production and licensee of the Edison Manufacturing Company. While at Eden Musée, Porter worked assembling programs of Edison films, most particularly exhibitions of films of the Spanish–American War, Edison productions which helped stir an outbreak of patriotic fever in New York City. As an exhibitor, Porter had tremendous creative control over these programs, presenting a slate of films accompanied by a selection of music and live narration. [8]


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. He collaborated with several other filmmakers, including George S. Fleming. During the next decade Porter 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.

The Great Train Robbery and after

Porter's next film, The Great Train Robbery (1903) 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.

Nervy Nat Kisses the Bride , silent film by Edwin S. Porter, 1904

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 Dream 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. Porter directed future filmmaker Griffith in Rescued from an Eagle's Nest (1908).

Defender and Rex Film Companies

Silent movie with tinting Lighthouse by the Sea (1911) directed by Edwin S. Porter for Edison Manufacturing Company. Duration: 14:46.

In 1909 after tiring of the industrial system set up to feed the booming nickelodeon business, Porter left Edison and founded a company to manufacture Simplex motion picture projectors. In 1910 he founded Defender Film Company, [9] which folded after one year. In 1911 he joined with others in organizing the Rex Motion Picture Company. [10] In 1912 he sold out 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. He directed stage actor James K. Hackett in their first feature film, The Prisoner of Zenda (1913). He also directed Mary Pickford in her first feature film, A Good Little Devil (1913), also directing Pauline Frederick and John Barrymore.

3D movie pioneer

But his directorial skills had not kept pace with rapid changes in motion picture art, although his technical skills were piqued by 3D. Porter's last film premiered on June 10, 1915, Niagara Falls, [11] the first anaglyph 3D movie. In 1916 he left Famous Players during a reorganization.

Precision Machine Company

From 1917 to 1925 Porter served as president of the Precision Machine Company, manufacturers of the Simplex projectors. [1] 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.

Death and legacy

External video
Nuvola apps kaboodle.svg Edwin Stanton Porter House, Somerset PA, (5:04) by Berkeley Chapman, May 23, 2011

Aged 71, he died in 1941 at the Hotel Taft in New York City [1] and was buried in Husband Cemetery, Somerset, Pennsylvania. 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. [12]

See also

Related Research Articles

William Kennedy Dickson Scottish photographer and inventor of motion picture cameras

William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson was a Scottish inventor who devised an early motion picture camera under the employment of Thomas Edison.

<i>The Great Train Robbery</i> (1903 film) 1903 short film directed by Edwin Stanton Porter

The Great Train Robbery is a 1903 American silent short western film written, produced, and directed by Edwin S. Porter, a former Edison Studios cameraman. Actors in the movie included Alfred C. Abadie, Broncho Billy Anderson and Justus D. Barnes, although there were no credits. Though a Western, it was filmed in Milltown, New Jersey. The film was inspired by Scott Marble's 1896 stage play, and may also have been inspired by a 1900 train robbery perpetrated by Butch Cassidy.

The year 1903 in film involved many significant events in cinema.

Edison Studios

Edison Studios was an American film production organization, owned by companies controlled by inventor and entrepreneur, Thomas Edison. The studio made close to 1,200 films, as part of the Edison Manufacturing Company (1894–1911) and then Thomas A. Edison, Inc. (1911–1918), until the studio's closing in 1918. Of that number, 54 were feature length, and the remainder were shorts.

<i>Life of an American Fireman</i> 1903 film

Life of an American Fireman is a short, silent film Edwin S. Porter made for the Edison Manufacturing Company. It was shot late in 1902 and distributed early in 1903. One of the earliest American narrative films, it depicts the rescue of a woman and child from a burning building. It bears notable similarities to the 1901 British short film Fire!, directed by James Williamson.

Herman Casler American inventor

Herman Casler an American inventor, was co-founder of the partnership called the K.M.C.D. Syndicate, along with W.K-L. Dickson, Elias Koopman, and Henry Marvin, which eventually was incorporated into the American Mutoscope Company in December 1895.

<i>Another Job for the Undertaker</i> 1901 film by Edwin Stanton Porter

Another Job for the Undertaker is a 1901 silent comic trick film made at Edison's recently opened studio at 41 East 21st Street in Manhattan. It was photographed by Edwin S. Porter and co-directed by Porter and George S. Fleming. The two-shot film was copyrighted on May 15, 1901 and is approximately two minutes in length. It lacks a head title, which would have been supplied by projecting a separate lantern slide before screening the film.

Edison Manufacturing Company Company organized in 1889 by Thomas Edison

The Edison Manufacturing Company was a company organized in 1889 by the inventor and entrepreneur Thomas Edison that manufactured batteries, machinery and equipment, and also produced kinetoscope films. Its assets and operations were transferred to Thomas A. Edison, Inc. in 1911.

Frederick S. Armitage was an early American motion picture cinematographer and director, working primarily for the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. Often identified as "F.S. Armitage" in AM&B paperwork, Armitage had a hand in creating more than 400 often very short subjects for AM&B in the days where its films were made as much for the hand-crank operated Mutoscope device as for projection. Several of Armitage's subjects stand out from the company's regular routine of actualities and comic skits in their innovative use of camerawork, superimpositions, time-lapse photography and other effects then new to the art of film-making.

Justus D. Barnes American actor (1862-1946)

Justus D. Barnes was an American stage and film actor. He is best known for his role in the 1903 silent short The Great Train Robbery, which the American Film Institute and many film historians and critics recognize as the first Western, as the production that established that genre or "narrative standard" in motion picture history.

Charles John Musser is a film historian and documentary film maker. Since 1992 he has taught at Yale University, where he is currently a professor of Film and Media Studies as well as American Studies and Theater Studies. His research has focused on such topics as Edwin S. Porter and early cinema, Oscar Micheaux and race cinema of the silent era, Paul Robeson and film performance as well as a variety of issues and individuals in documentary. His films include An American Potter (1976), Before the Nickelodeon: The Early Cinema of Edwin S. Porter (1982) and Errol Morris: A Lightning Sketch (2014).

Wallace McCutcheon Sr. was a pioneer cinematographer and director in the early American motion picture industry, working with the American Mutoscope & Biograph, Edison and American Star Film companies. McCutcheon's wealth of credits are often mixed up with the small handful of films directed by his son, Wallace McCutcheon Jr. (1884–1928).

By the Light of the Moon is a 1911 American single-reel silent film directed and filmed by Edwin S. Porter. It was produced for the Rex Motion Picture Company. It is one of the earliest examples of silhouette animation.

<i>Faust and Marguerite</i> (1900 film) 1900 film by Edwin Stanton Porter

Faust and Marguerite is a 1900 American silent film produced and distributed by Edison Manufacturing Company. It was directed by Edwin S. Porter and based on the Michel Carré play Faust et Marguerite and the 1859 opera Faust adapted from the play by Charles Gounod.

Parsifal is a 1904 American silent film produced by the Edison Manufacturing Company and directed by Edwin S. Porter. It is based on the 1882 opera Parsifal by Richard Wagner, and stars Adelaide Fitz-Allen as Kundry and Robert Whittier as Parsifal.

The Bold Bank Robbery is a 1904 short crime film produced and distributed by the Lubin Manufacturing Company. The silent film depicts a group of burglars who plan and execute a successful bank heist. Company employee Jack Frawley was the film's director, also coming up with the story and serving as cinematographer; the cast's identities are unknown. The silent film was the first Lubin Manufacturing Company release to feature an original narrative.

<i>Kansas Saloon Smashers</i> 1901 film by Edwin Stanton Porter

Kansas Saloon Smashers is a 1901 comedy short film produced and distributed by Edison Studios. Directed by Edwin S. Porter, it is a satire of American activist Carrie Nation. The film portrays Nation and her followers entering and destroying a saloon. After the bartender retaliates by spraying Nation with water, policemen order them out; the identities of the actors are not known. Inspiration for the film was provided by an editorial cartoon which appeared in the New York Evening Journal.

Eden Musée defunct museum in Manhattan, New York

The Eden Musée was an amusement center in New York City that featured a large waxworks collection, musical concerts and a changing selection of specialty entertainment, such as magic lantern shows and marionettes. It was opened on March 28, 1884. It featured a collection of paintings and became an early exhibitor of motion pictures. Located on 55 West 23rd Street in Manhattan in an imposing stone building. The building featured several halls with different themes. It was particularly known for its Chamber of Horrors, which was kept in the museum basement

The Boston Tea Party is a 1908 silent film directed by Edwin S. Porter, and produced and distributed by Edison Studios. The film is a fictionalized depiction of the events of the Boston Tea Party. It was the film debut of actor Charles Stanton Ogle.

<i>Rube and Mandy at Coney Island</i> 1903 film directed by Edwin Stanton Porter

Rube and Mandy at Coney Island was produced, directed, shot and edited by Edwin S. Porter Copyrighted on August 13, 1903, the 725 ft., 35mm film lasted roughly 10 minutes if projected at 20 frames per second.


  1. 1 2 3 "Edwin S. Porter. Pioneer in Films. Collaborator With Edison on Invention of Motion-Picture Camera Dies in Hotel. Once Partner of Zukor. Ex-Head of Simplex Projector Company Was Producer of 'Great Train Robbery'". The New York Times . May 1, 1941. Retrieved 2007-07-21.
  2. Goodman, Ezra (June 2, 1940). "Reminiscences of Edwin S. Porter, or the History of the Motion Picture". The New York Times . Retrieved 2008-04-26.
  3. Musser, Charles (1991). Before the Nickelodeon: The Early Cinema of Edwin S. Porter . University of California Press. pp.  16. ISBN   978-0520069862.
  4. Eagan, Daniel (2010). America's Film Legacy. Continuum International Publishing Group. p. 11.
  5. Musser, Charles (1991). Before the Nickelodeon: The Early Cinema of Edwin S. Porter . University of California Press. pp.  27. ISBN   978-0520069862.
  6. "Edwin Stanton Porter. Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 3: 1941–1945. American Council of Learned Societies, 1973.
  7. "A Visit To The Eden Musée". New York Public Library. Retrieved 11 March 2013.
  8. Musser, Charles (Autumn 1979). "The Early Cinema of Edwin Porter". Cinema Journal. 1. 19: 4. doi:10.2307/1225418.
  9. Internet Movie Database
  10. Internet Movie Database
  11. Guinness World Records
  12. Sklar, Robert (1994). Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies. New York: Vintage. p. 24. ISBN   978-0679755494.