Historical Markers
Edwin S. Porter Historical Marker
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Edwin S. Porter

Laurel Highlands/Southern Alleghenies


Marker Location:
Pittsburgh St. and Fairview Ave., Connellsville

Dedication Date:
May 2, 1992

Behind the Marker

Profile photograph of Edwin Porter
Pioneer filmmaker Edwin Stanton Porter, circa 1910.
The image is as unforgettable as the action is startling: In moderate close-up, a bandit with a revolver stares coolly at the audience, the muzzle of his pistol aimed straight at its heart. Silently, he pulls the trigger, then disappears, ghostlike, behind a plume of discharged smoke.

The year was 1903, and that moment highlighted the groundbreaking movie video The Great Train Robbery. Through the heart-pumping immediacy of that pistol shot, observers in their seats became participants in the action, as enthralled as they were terrified, for they had never seen anything like it before. Reports of the day describe nascent cinemaphiles as scampering for cover. Like any good ambush, it had surprise on its side. Film pioneer Edwin Stratton Porter knew what scared and thrilled an audience. As one of the movies" first producers, writers, directors, and cameramen, his curiosity and innovative vision helped spawn a new art: the feature film.

The son of a prosperous merchant, Porter was born in Connellsville, in the heart of coke country near Pittsburgh, in 1870, the fourth of eight children. A natural tinkerer, he was fascinated by electricity and had a flair for invention, traits that ultimately served him well. So would his early introduction to theater. At fourteen, he dropped out of public school for a series of odd jobs at Connellsville's Newmeyer Opera House, where traveling troupes came through to entertain the locals with comedies, dramas, and light operas.

Head and shoulders image of a train robber pointing a gun.
Great Train Robbery , 1903.
Still in his teens, Porter taught himself how to run a telegraph and became one of the youngest telegraph operators in the nation. Wanderlust in his early twenties led to a hitch in the Navy as an electrician. When he got out three years later, he found his true port in an industry just being born. In 1896 Thomas Edison patented the Vitascope, which allowed him to make short moving pictures he could project onto a screen for paying audiences. Captivated by moving pictures, Porter entered the business, first as a projectionist, and then as an exhibitor. Brazenly calling himself Thomas Edison, Jr., he introduced Edison's invention - and the one-scene films he was making for it - to the West Indies and South America. After Porter's own attempt to manufacture movie cameras and projectors failed, Edison hired him in 1899.

Prior to 1900, a movie was essentially a single scene lasting only a few moments. Exhibitors would string several together for an evening's entertainment - a quick pratfall, a brief newsreel, a snippet of children playing, a shred from a prizefight, a stolen kiss, a landscape, a cityscape, farm animals, anything, really - then add music, narration, lantern slides, live performers, or whatever else they could think of to lure in customers. But the novelty was wearing off, and the nascent industry needed something to better hold audience attention. And Porter was just the man to provide it.

He was curious; to learn special effects, he carefully studied the early movies of the French magician-turned-filmmaker Georges Méliès. And he was savvy; Porter's experience as an exhibitor had shown him what audiences liked, and hanging around the theater as a lad had instilled within him a sense of story. Movies offered a laboratory for putting that all together. "I felt the public was becoming tired of the short, newsreel-type film that predominated then," he recalled in 1940, a year before his death. "I came to the conclusion that a picture telling a story in continuity might draw the customers back." He was right. Soon he was in charge of production at the Edison Company's skylight rooftop studio in New York, writing, shooting, directing, and editing.

By 1901, he had begun to link several scenes to form longer, cohesive narrative lines, and to help tell his stories, he started experimenting with techniques that still define the grammar of film. He found new drama in different camera angles, including moving the lens tight on an actor's face to create the close-up. While editing, he discovered he could transition more gracefully between shots with dissolves rather than abrupt, bumpy cuts.

In his 1903 breakthrough film, The Life of the American Fireman, Porter told a twelve-minute story - a length then unheard of - by connecting several scenes of continuous staged action and joining them to real scenes of fires, a dream sequence, and a remarkable finale that showed the same daring rescue twice - once from outside a burning building, and again from inside. Then, the week before Christmas, between acts in a Manhattan vaudeville house, he debuted the American motion picture industry's first undisputed masterpiece.

Three men attempt to pull a net from the hands of a young woman, while another man points at her defiantly.
Scene from Tess of the Storm Country (1914), starring Mary Pickford and directed...
An eleven-minute narrative with a plot boasting a beginning, middle, and end, The Great Train Robbery laid the groundwork for the modern feature film. With its Western theme, stirring story, innovative camera angles, the introduction of color to accentuate action, and the realistic depiction of its titular feat, it was an immediate sensation with audiences everywhere. Yet, what audiences most remembered was that stunning pistol shot - and it wasn't part of the story at all, but rather another of Porter's masterful innovations. Porter tacked the scene, the first piece of unabashed screen showmanship, to the beginning of the film. Exhibitors regularly repeated it at the end too, to give the public more of what it wanted - as an alluring tease, not unlike the modern movie trailer. The picture was so successful - certainly the most popular until the release, twelve years later of D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation - that Edison rival markerSiegmund Lubin quickly set out to make his own version of the story. To Moving Picture World, one of the early movie magazines, Porter was "the absolute master of his trade from beginning to end."

Porter continued making movies - hundreds of them, including the famous Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend and a string of crusading social dramas - for Edison until 1909. Then, after a brief fling with his own production company, he joined Adolph Zukor and Daniel Frohman, in 1912, to found the groundbreaking Famous Players Film Company, the forerunner of Paramount Pictures, for which he directed established stage legends such as Sarah Bernhardt and such rising stars as Mary Pickford and markerJohn Barrymore.

But soon it was over. Porter made his last movie in 1915. If he was content in accepting that a new generation of filmmakers, like Griffith, had surpassed him in vision, he never stopped working with what he liked best about the movies: its mechanics. He continued to tinker with cameras and projectors for the rest of his life, laying the groundwork for color cinematography, Cinemascope, 3-D, and other innovations. When he died, he died in obscurity, essentially forgotten by the enormous juggernaut he did so much to shape.
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