Eyewitness Reports First Major Movie The Great Train Robbery Part 1

An eyewitness account of the the first major movie The Great Train Robbery.

The First Major Movie--

The Great Train Robbery

When: December, 1903

How: "Moving pictures" were first unveiled in the U.S. on Apr. 23, 1896, at Koster and Bial's Music Hall in New York City. The film was grainy, the images jumped and skipped, and the subject matter was pedestrian--a man walking his dog, a train arriving at a station, a balloon floating in the air. For a while, no one cared; a novelty is frequently forgiven its less novel traits. "Moving pictures" were a success.

None of the men responsible for the movies ever thought they would see much success. Even Edison, primarily responsible for the technical discoveries that made them possible in the first place, thought moving pictures an entertaining curiosity, but little more. He considered them far less important than the electric light or any one of a dozen other inventions he was working on. Such unconcern cost him millions when movies expanded into an industry. He had neglected, for example, even to apply for foreign patents on his kinetoscope, the first crude projector, because he thought the $150 fee would be wasted.

Edison soon realized his mistake. At the turn of the century, he unleashed a legal onslaught against a long list of "copyright infringers." The most immediate effect of Edison's tactic was the young movie industry's first depression, as budding moviemakers were forced to spend more time and money in court than behind the camera. Coincidentally, audiences had begun to tire of seeing the same film fare; the guy and his dog were wearing thin.

Georges Melies, a French stage magician, saved the infant industry with his "fantastic" films, which used a number of crude special effect--stop motion, fades, and dissolves--to keep the audience interested. But the camera wizardry was all there was; Melies was still using the simple, time-honored stage techniques to tell his story and merely transforming them to the new medium. The result was less a movie as we know it than a series of vignettes on the same piece of film. The immobile camera was merely a recorder of the staged action; there were no leaps in time, no changes of scene, no editing. Movies desperately needed a creative filmmaker to help them take the next giant step forward.

Edwin S. Porter filled the bill. Porter had been a kinetoscope installer before he came to work for Edison in 1899. He began as a cameraman but within two years was director of production for Edison's revitalized film company. Although an avid admirer of Melies, he realized the shortcomings of Melies's approach and set out to create a new idiom.

The Great Train Robbery, which radically changed the face of American movie making, was not the first movie to tell a story or incorporate new, strictly cinematic techniques. That distinction belongs to Porter's other 1903 classic, The Life of an American Fireman. But Train Robbery became the stuff of legend, more from circumstance and coincidence than anything else.

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