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What Imports May Not Be Able To Tell Us About the Emergence of the Last-Minute Rescue Narrative in the American Cinema.

David Levy Montreal, May 2007

I want to consider albeit in a tentative way the role distribution, which is to say imported film subjects, might have contributed to a major shift in American film production between 1903-1908. In the first phase, producers abandoned the actualities and comedies, the so-called "cinema of attractions" that dominated the vaudeville period dating from 1896 in favor of fictional story films, a trend that appears to have begun in 1903.[1] Initially, much fiction film production in that five-year period took the form of a lecturer-dependent tableaux narrative modeled on the lantern slide show, a form characterized by strong spatial orientation and weak temporality, e.g. Edwin Porter's LIFE OF AN AMERICAN FIREMAN(1903). In the second phase, dating roughly from1907, we find a trend to the displacement of the tableaux narrative by one possessing a more precise temporal structure, e.g. Vitagraph's THE MILL GIRL(1907). In attempting to explain this type of development there is an inclination, almost without exception, to hunt down a precedent, to identify some prior occurrence, to try in other words to locate the source of the new paradigm not in the circumstance that in fact produced it but in some prior achievement in the cinema or in some other medium.

We achieve a more certain grasp of the sort of shift described above by seeing it as an overdetermined displacement, which is to say the consequence of a process of complex causation. The concept of the overdetermination is one I borrow from Louis Althusser who used it to explain, among other things, the fact of the Russian revolution occurring in the most unlikely of European locales.[2] To say that the emergence of the cross-cut last-minute rescue trope was overdetermined is to say that it was neither deliberate nor accidental, that is, neither consciously willed nor the product of coincidence or inadvertence.

Strong claims have, as we know, been made in support of the notion that in its early years the American cinema was highly dependent on inspiration from across the sea. Among the best known example is the notion that Edwin S.Porter, working at the Edison Studio needed to see the work of Georges Melies or James Williamson in order to complete LIFE OF AN AMERICAN FIREMAN and THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY(1903). But this is not a hypothesis that can be sustained by rigorous examination.

Distribution & Film History

Ivo Blom in his monograph on Jean Desmet called distribution "the missing link", which is to say there may still be less information available on distribution than on production and exhibition.[3] Perhaps for that reason, the role distribution has been assigned in considering questions of film history, especially in our period has been exaggerated by underlying and generally mistaken historical notions.

Richard Abel has shown that if the nickelodeon boom in America, dating from 1906, was inspired by certain film shows those shows were the work of the Pathe studio, the key supplier in 1905 and 1906 of new subjects for the American market.[4] We are nevertheless unable to conclude with any certainty the actual impact of that work on American production, given that, as I will make clear, what happened would likely have happened pretty much independently of the Pathe screenings.

Rescue of the Nickelodeon

If the nickelodeon phenomenon Pathe subjects did much to initiate solved some problems for big city movie entrepreneurs, it created others, and in the solution to those problems we see the true ingenuity of the American cinema.

To begin, we need to look at the relationship between the apparent crisis in film exhibition initiated by the nickelodeon boom dating more or less from 1906 and D.W.Griffith's first last-minute rescue subjects completed at Biograph in 1908, which is to say a mere two years later, subjects that seemed to take a crucial step in managing the formal demands of that crisis. One might be inclined here to recall the dogs-to-sausages trick films of the cinema's early years, which is to say the product that went into the nickelodeon system and may have provided the basis for its great success was not what came out the other end, something the imports do not explain. The simple chases, tour-like sequences, fairy tales, and mini-melodramas that got the boom rolling generally required explanatory help - which they got from the vaudeville house lecturers. With the rapid expansion of the nickel venues, the demand for these explainers began to exceed the supply. Moreover, some nickel managers were inclined to dispense with the cost of the explainers to increase profits. Important story details included in studio catalogue descriptions were now no longer part of the shows. The missing benshi brought on an exhibition crisis. Here is a complaint sent to The Moving Picture World in February 1908 from a woman in Atlanta, Georgia: "People," she wrote, "grow weary of what they do not understand."[5]

Marked by uneven character development, narrative dependence, an absence of strict shot sequencing and an awkward codification of space-time relations, the lantern show structure of a film like Melies' L'AFFAIRE DREYFUS could not long survive the roughhouse nickelodeon embrace. It had become necessary to abandon the vague temporality of the post-1903 chases and tours for a story structure organized in terms of a more precise and coherent set of temporal relations.

It was at this time that Progressivists and other reformers began to assail the new medium for its pessimism and amorality. As Tom Gunning has shown, this was accompanied by demands in the press for a softer, more puritan, more sentimental mode of screen reality embodied in an autonomous, which is to say narrator-less, independently exhibitable motion picture.[6]

The sub-titleless one reelers Griffith began turning out at Biograph in 1908 appeared to provide a solution to the crisis in the form of coherent, respectable little dramas of rescue suspense, as for example THE GREASER'S GAUNTLET (1908), in which a woman arrives at the last minute to save a falsely accused Mexican from a lynching, and THE FATAL HOUR (1908) with its race to rescue a female detective threatened by a large pistol arranged on the face of a clock.

It is not difficult to note the more or less autonomously exhibitable character of these works. Their core obsession, concealed in melodramatic excess, is less evident: the anxiety of industrial time. Those one-reelers were produced in a period of heavy industrial growth ruled by clock-ordered time - production schedules and delivery dates. A turn of the century government survey found that by 1895, immigrants formed a majority of the adult populations of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Those waves of foreigners worried Progressivists who perceived them as boozers and womanizers lacking in Protestant restraint, men bred, to quote one social historian, "in traditions where work went according to the task or season - not the regulation of the assembly line or clock."[7]

D.W.Griffith's one-reel cross-cut melodramas of the clock with their time devices, some obvious some less so, articulated a type of temporal urgency in terms of a formal structure that responded to certain pressures on the film industry in the period. The components out of which that structure was constructed are familiar enough: the temporal overlap employed by Melies in his moon-landing, the cut-in seen in the work of early British and American studios, and the quasi-erotic images of women.Those filmic devices were re-constituted in a genre of factory-worker etiquette in a period of burgeoning industrial growth amounting to an equation of chivalrous action with punctuality.

In Biograph's THE ELOPEMENT1907) an automobile transporting the runaway lovers, pursued in an another automobile by the girl's parents, develops motor trouble. At the now immobile vehicle the girl looks back in the direction from which they have come suggesting not merely a world beyond the frame edge but the pressure of time. Cutbacks follow to orient the story in time as well as space. In the studio's OLD ISAACS,THE PAWNBROKER(1908) based on a Griffith scenario, a gravely ill woman threatened with eviction sends her little girl to a charity agency for help. The film cuts back to the ailing mother, the edit focusing story emotion on the urgency of the daughter's mission.

Some of the initial efforts of American producers to depict the dread of tardiness took a more conventional tableaux format. In two Biograph shorts, MR.HURRY-UP and THE TIRD TAYLOR'S DREAM, both released in 1907, clock-based exhaustion was rendered in tableaux images of violence and nightmarish mental states. Punctuality is the theme of Edwin Porter's THE SUBURBANITE'S INGENIOUS ALARM (1907) in which a Mr.Early is punished for his habitual tardiness by being yanked from his bed and dragged all over town, finally arriving at the office a battered wreck.

Sergei Eisenstein pointed out that before and possibly anticipating Griffith's last minute rescues there were the sensational salvations of stage melodrama.[8] The crucial difference, one Eisenstein ignored, was that in those staged scenes the victim and rescuer appeared in contiguous spaces. The scenes thus provided no need nor opportunity for the protagonist to go to work, which is to say to cross a space within a time limit as Griffith's heroes were required to do. But then Eisenstein, attempting to see the Griffith films as a stage in the elaboration of montage dialectics, was unable and perhaps uninterested in relating the Griffith oeuvre to the predicament of the factory workers of America or anywhere else.

We may note as well that there was no abrupt transition in the displacement of the tableaux rescue by the cross-cut version, no sudden industry-wide formal abandonment of the one-scene rescues featured, say, in Biograph's THE PAYMASTER (1906) and Edison's THE TRAIN WRECKERS (1905). Filmgoers in the period first saw Edison studio cross-cut rescue action in THE TRAINER'S DAUGHTER (1907).

Now the question: Did Pathe provide the formula for the rescue of the American film industry?

Among the earliest examples of cross-cutting was Pathe's I FETCH THE BREAD (1905), in which a fellow leaves his dinner guests but instead of a trip to the baker stops off at a number bars. In LE CHEVAL EMBALLE (1907) there is cutting between the clock device of a diminishing bag of oats and the rounds of a laundry delivery man; CHIENS POLICIER (1907) cuts between some policemen and their dogs and a street mugging. In TRICKING HIS WIFE(1907), a woman attempts to curb the drinking antics of a husband by timing his absences from home.

What the Pathe subjects had in common with their American cousins was little more than the visual representation of clock-like devices, in the case of TRICKING HIS WIFE, an actual clock. There is no Griffithian damsel in distress in need of some fast rescue action, or the threat of deadly consequences if that action is less than timely. The Pathe films represent a type of rural or suburban comedy and seem without a thematic link to industrial conditions. All of which to say that the pattern we have observed in the American industry is not readily explained or explained at all by a handful of French novelty imports on view in American nickel venues. While we don't know for certain whether American filmmakers at the Edison, Biograph and Vitagraph studios in fact ever saw those Pathe films, it is unlikely they needed to.

Curiously, one or two American studio executives and some reviewers wondered whether audiences would be puzzled by the wordless rescue switchbacks and require an explanation. This is only to say that the problem of the flawed coherence of increasingly lecturer-less shows was a problem they were not unaware of. In an otherwise favorable account of Edwin Porter's civil war drama, THE BLUE AND THE GREY (1908), a nameless New York Dramatic Mirror reviewer on 20 June 1908 hastened to warn period filmgoers of a shortcoming:

"...when the young officer has been stood up to be shot and the command of 'fire' is about to be given, the scene is shifted to Washington where the girl pleads with President Lincoln. The spectator is thus asked to imagine the firing squad suspending the fatal discharge while the girl rides from Washington to the Union camp. It would have been better if the Washington scene had been inserted somewhat earlier."[9]

A comparable apprehension accompanied Biograph's release of THE FATAL HOUR later that summer. Fearing the consequences of failed semiosis in an increasingly competitive industry and not fully trusting the plot outline in the studio's Bulletin, or the method's stage provenance, or audience familiarity with its editing procedures, the studio provided an explanation:

"This incident is shown in alternate scenes. There is the helpless girl with the clock ticking its way to her destruction, and out on the road is the carriage, tearing along at breakneck speed to her rescue, arriving just in time to get her safely out of range of the pistol as it goes off."[10]

The writer perhaps believed there was much to be gained by adjusting film form to the nickel clientele without it occurring to him that he may have been doing the reverse.

Needless to say, it is important for us to understand the realities of the film trade in as much detail as we can gather without feeling an obligation to make excessive claims about the impact of that trade on production trends.

I do realize that I leave some questions unanswered. No single work, certainly not an academic paper, can or should attempt to answer them all.


1.^Charles Musser, "Moving Towards Fictional Narratives: Story Films Become the Dominant Product, 1903-1904" inLee Grieveson and Peter Kramer(eds.) The Silent Film Reader, Routledge, 2004, pp.87-102.

2.^Louis Althusser, "Contradiction and Overdermination" in Notes for an Investigation, Penguin Press, 1962, translated by Ben Brewster.

3.^Ivo Blom, Jean Desmet and the Early Dutch Film Trade, Amsterdam University Press, 2003.

4.^Richard Abel, "Pathe Goes to Town: French Films Create a Market for the Nickelodeon," in Lee Grieveson and Peter Kramer(eds.), The Silent Cinema Reader, Routeledge, 2004.

5.^See David Levy, "Edwin S.Porter and the Origins of the American Narrative Film, 1894 -1907", doctoral dissertation, unpublished, Chapter 5, "Melodramas of the Clock", pp.285-359.

6.^Tom Gunning, " From the Opium Den to the Theatre of Morality: Moral Discourse and the Film Process in Early American Cinema" in Grieveson and Kramer, pp.145-154.

7.^Lary May, Screening Out the Past, OUP, 1980.

8.^Sergei Eisenstein, " Dickens, Griffith and the Film Today", in Film Form: Essays in Film Theory (edited and translated by Jay Leyda), Harcourt,Brace & World.Inc., 1949.pp.195-255. The essay was written in 1944.

9.^"The Blue and the Grey", The New York Dramatic Mirror, June 20,1908, in Stanley Kauffman(ed.) American Film Criticism, Liveright, 1972, pp.6-7.

10.^ 10.Biograph Bulletin No.162, August 18, 1908.

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