Robert Osborne, Touch of Evil, and Life of an American Fireman.

OK, so, a bunch of people came to this site last week but no one clicked through to my YouTube page. That’s fine! I’ve got thick skin!

So, I’ve been watching Turner Classic Movies Tribute to the fantastic Robert Osborne. Oh, how I am going to miss him. He had not been on TCM for some time, so I figured something was up. I like Ben Mankiewicz! How could you not? His Grandfather wrote Citizen Kane. He does a great job but I feel bad that he had to live up to Osborne.

We also lost Chuck Berry last night! Damn it! Chuck is another one who has been away for so long, I figured it was coming. Chuck was Mr. Rock and Roll!

On the lighter side, things are starting to come together for The Elgin Dead, my latest short film for Nightmare on Chicago Street. I’ll need to start casting it soon. Hopefully, my friend Dave will get a script for his film.

Speaking of Turner Classic Film, Wednesday night, Touch of Evil by Orson Welles will be on. You have not watched that you, what is wrong with you! OK, so Charlton Heston plays a Mexican, I get it, but if you can get beyond that, it is a great film.

So, what follows in the dialogue for my short video on Life of an American Fireman I just posted on YouTube.

The Life of An American Fireman Part 1

It is common when discussing the history of the motion picture to attempt to find the person who was, “The First”, to say so and so came up with the concept of this or that before anyone else, but in reality, trying to pinpoint a definitive start of a new concept or idea is not so easy. The creation of the modern film was not created in a linear way, many ideas were being worked on and developed at the same time with a lot of overlap and whether this person was a month, day, or even an hour before this one, in my opinion is insignificant. When one hears of a significant discovery or invention, we tend to think of it as a light bulb going off over the head, but that it rarely the case. Most times one takes a lot of work by other people and puts it all together.

For years The 1902 Film by Edwin S. Porter called The Life of An American Fireman, made for the Edison Manufacturing Company, was considered a lost film, a legendary silent film that we could only read about, and never seen. Now a day the film is available for anyone to see in various versions all over the Internet. There are two points of interest of The Life of An American Fireman I would like to discuss, the film’s history and its significance in the development of the motion picture.

The Life of an American Fireman was the creation of Edwin S. Porters, a producer, director, studio manager and cinematographer with the Edison Manufacturing Company, who only began making films of his own a year before. What makes American Fireman important was it use of using multiple shots edited together to create a chronological sequence of events. The film uses nine shots to make seven scenes. It also may or may not be the first to use crosscutting, or parallel editing. You see, the idea that one could cut between two sets of action that are happening at the same time wasn’t immediately apparent to filmmakers in the early days. Most were still thinking in terms of the theater with the camera taking the place of an audience member. In this case, Porter had the action of the fireman outside a burning house, while at the same time, a mother in child inside the house. Until recently, this was thought to be the first example of cross cutting.

Another myth about Porter’s film is commonly thought of as being influenced by a 1901 English short film called Fire, directed by James Williamson. This might be true to some extent but there is a bit more to it than that.

Before the age of film, there was something called The Magic Lantern. These were basically still drawings or photographs that were projected onto a screen or wall. A series of twelve images called Bob the Fireman was very popular in the late 1800s, and it was still around at the time Porter made his film. The story of Bob the Fireman was very similar to that of American Fireman. And, at the turn of the century, stories of the heroes of fire rescue part of the mainstream od popular culture, so making a film about a fireman rescuing people from a burning building would have been something one might expect around that time. In fact, there was quite a few other films already produced besides James Williamson film.

What was unusual about Life of an American Fireman wasn’t its subject matter, but its use of multiple shots to tell a story. While Porter may have been the first in American to do this, he definitely wasn’t the first. Georges Méliès 1902 film, A Trip to the Moon used multiple shots and special effects to tell a story. Porter had seen Méliès’s film and was heavily influenced by it. In fact, Porter may have helped the Edison Company bootleg A Trip to the Moon for their own profit, but that is another story for another day.

But even before Méliès, the idea was already around. Originally films were made by pointing the camera at a subject, cranking the handle on the film ran out, about 46 to 60 seconds, and that was it, the film was done. These little films, in many cases, would be ordinary people doing ordinary things, or to document events, like fire equipment rushing down the street.

It was common for people showing theses early one-minute silent films to group independently made films together to tell a story. Let’s say someone had a film of fireman getting the call about a fire, and someone had made a film of fire equipment going down the street, and there was another film of fireman putting out a fire, distributers would show them one after another as if they all belonged together and a narrator would talk while these films were being shown, telling the audience the story. So, the idea of multiple shots to tell a narrative was already there and it was only a matter of time before people began splicing scenes together clips into a longer form. If fact, in a way, that was what Porter did. He found stock footage of fireman in the Edison archive and used those, along with staged action to create his film.

While Edwin S. Porter was most likely the first to do anything he is sometimes given credit for, he did create a remarkable film for its time. When we watch the film, we can see how far filmmaking had become since its introduction less than seven years earlier and how far it had to go to become the art form we all know and love. In Part 2 of Life of an American Fireman, we will look at the film itself. Thanks for watching and don’t forget to leave a comment and like my page.


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