It would be difficult for the exhibitor to conceive the amount of work involved and the number of rehearsals necessary to produce a film of this description. We were compelled to enlist the services of the fire departments of four different cities, New York, Newark, Orange, and East Orange, N. J., and about 300 firemen appear in the various scenes. From the first conception of this wonderful series of pictures it was our aim to portray the "Life of an American Fireman" without exaggeration, and at the same time to embody the dramatic situations and spectacular effects which so greatly enhance a motion picture performance. The work of American fire departments is known throughout the world, and the fame of the American fireman is echoed around the entire world. He is known to be the most expert, as well as the bravest, of all fire fighters. This film faithfully and accurately depicts his thrilling and dangerous calling and emphasizes the perils he encounters when human life is at stake, every movement of the brave firemen and their perfectly trained horses from the moment the men leap from their beds in response to an alarm until the fire is extinguished and a woman and child are rescued after many fierce battles with flame and smoke.
Porter's sequential continuity editing links several shots to form a narrative of firemen responding to a house fire. They leave the station with their horse drawn pumper, arrive on the scene, and effect the safe rescue of a woman from the burning house. But wait, she tells them of her child yet asleep in the burning bedroom . . .
Kenneth MacGowan in his book "Behind The Screen" discusses this film at length. He was familiar both with the controversial print and the paper print in the Library of Congress.He didn't think that the evidence of the paper print was conclusive.At the time, a movie could be copyrighted only as a collection of still photos, which is why the paper prints were made.For that purpose, it didn't matter whether they were in the final edited form,or even if there was more footage than in the released version.MacGowan thought that a hastily assembled negative was used to make the paper print,with all of the footage shot from one angle together.Porter therefore had more time for final editing without delaying the copyright process.
The question is, if the existing copy was reedited, who did it and why? Certainly not during the silent era? by the time such editing became more common, this picture was an obsolete relict of a primitive era.And if reedited then, where are the title cards? They weren't in use in 1903 when the picture was made,but came into general use a few years later. So why "modernize" the movie in one way, but not another? It seems strange that they were not added.
MacGowan admits that there is certainly a question about the complex editing, but points out that Porter took exactly the shots he needed for it.And as to why he never used it again, there are two factors. It may have been too advanced and confusing for the audiences of 1903,just as later audiences found the more complex editing of Griffith's "Intolerance" even more confusing.And there is evidence that Edison disapproved of Porter's editing.Edison involved himself in every aspect of his companies' operation, insisting on personally approving each piece of music that went on his records,for example.Which didn't help sales, as he didn't have very good taste.Edison's word was law, and Porter would have bowed to it without complaint. In addition, the Edison Catalogue of that time specifically stated that after the woman was carried out of the room by the fireman, there was a dissolve to the outside of the building,the woman pleads for the fireman to rescue the child, and he returns up the ladder.The copyright version shows the fireman carrying out the mother and returning immediately to rescue the child in one continuous shot with no dissolve to the outside.Since the catalogue is so specific on this point it would certainly seem that there was inter cutting not shown in the copyright print. At Edison's Company, he experimented with longer films, and was responsible for directing the first American documentary or realistic narrative film, The Life of an American Fireman (1903). Though it's among the earliest story films (but by no means the first as often alleged), The six-minute narrative film combined re-enacted scenes and documentary footage, and was dramatically edited with inter-cutting between the exterior and interior of a burning house. Edison was actually uncomfortable with Porter's editing techniques, including his use of close-ups to tell an entertaining story. For action, excitement, & suspense, Life of an American Fireman rates awfully high, improving on all that went before, borrowing from what came before wherever it was already thrilling. 646f9e108c
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