Friday, December 19, 2003
Los Angeles A fierce-looking outlaw aims his six-shooter at a cluster of law-abiding citizens sitting in the darkness. He pulls the trigger and smoke pours out of the gun barrel. Men shriek. Women faint.
The gun fired but no sound was heard, except for the pounding of an upright piano. The outlaw was actor George Barnes, and the scene came at the end of an 11-minute silent movie, "The Great Train Robbery."
It was a week before Christmas 1903 -- the night the motion picture industry was born.
There was no red carpet; no flashbulbs or blazing marquee. "The Great Train Robbery" premiered without fanfare between stage acts in a rundown Manhattan vaudeville house, the Luban's Museum on 14th Street.
Yet the humble screening is now regarded as the point when films "started to turn from novelty into what they very soon would be," comments Jere Guldin, film preservationist at the UCLA Film and Television Archives. "It was the year that the story film really started to take effect."
"The Great Train Robbery" was an immediate sensation. Audiences were gripped by the fast action, realistic depiction of the Old West and Barnes' threatening gunshot. Viewers even flinched when a raging train seemed to be aimed directly at them.
Movies were struggling out of the penny arcade era at the time. Hundreds of nickelodeons were springing up in converted storefronts and meeting halls across the land, where folks would watch film snippets of prize fights, acrobatics, freak shows and an occasional documentary-style short.
But audiences wanted stories. "Robbery" delivered, becoming the first surefire movie attraction and remaining the most successful film for more than a decade until D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation" was released in 1915.
"Robbery" and other Westerns that followed "created the whole studio system eventually," observed Randy Haberkamp, film programmer for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
"The Great Train Robbery" was a product of Thomas A. Edison's film studio, considered to be the world's first. Edison invented motion pictures and was quick to capitalize on the marvel.
The creative force behind "Robbery" was a 34-year-old Pennsylvanian named Edwin S. Porter, chief of Edison's skylight studio in Manhattan, which used natural light for interior filming because electrical movie lighting was yet to be developed.
Porter made dozens of short movies, pushing the infant art form to new heights with his innovations. In early 1903 he directed "The Life of an American Fireman," which drew notice with its use of close-ups and scenes of actual fires.
At the turn of the century, Americans were fascinated with the Wild West. Pulp magazines poured out tales of train robbers, cattle rustlers, marauding Indians and true-blue lawmen. Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid became folk heroes.
Porter decided to capitalize on the phenomenon, finding his Wild West in New Jersey near the historic West Orange laboratory where Edison invented the motion picture.
The Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad granted use of a train and tracks on the Passaic River for "Robbery's" rail sequences.
A major scene called for the robbers to throw a crew member, actually a dummy, from the train as it crossed over a high bridge. The dummy landed in the path of a speeding trolley car below.
The trolley engineer slammed on the brakes, tossing passengers to the floor. A small riot broke out when the ruse was discovered -- probably the first instance of locals being frustrated by location filming.
The exact locations used to shoot "The Great Train Robbery" have been all but obliterated over the years, says Steven Gorelick, associate director of the New Jersey Motion Picture and Television Commission. But, he adds, "The truth is, we don't know precisely, because there is no record of where it was shot."
Among the many contributions "Robbery" made to the development of the American film was the first Western star, Bronco Billy Anderson.
After failing at a stage career, Anderson drifted into the fledgling movie business and was chosen by Porter to play one of the robbers. With his swaggering manner and dominating physique, he went on to become one of the first recognizable actors in motion pictures, starring in nearly 400 Bronco films in the next seven years.
Ironically, "Robbery's" most famous scene, the Barnes shot, was not part of the film's script. The Edison studio included the clip with prints of the movie as a promotional gimmick for theater owners, suggesting that it appear at the start or end of the film.
Porter continued turning out successful, trailblazing movies and formed his own company in 1910. In 1915 he sold his holdings for $800,000, and headed a new firm that made film equipment.
The stock market crash of 1929 wiped out his fortune, and he spent his last years in obscurity, tinkering on new movie devices. His death at 72 in 1941 drew little notice.