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Blockbuster films of today trace roots to Connellsville

By Laura Szepesi
Thursday, March 7, 2013, 5:24 p.m.

Editor's Note: This is the fifth of a six-part series on old theaters in Fayette County. Connellsville film director Edwin S. Porter's historic 12-minute “The Great Train Robbery” of 1903 featured 40 actors and had at least 10 different scene locations — unheard of at the time. The scripted film depicted the train robbery, the gathering of a posse, pursuit of the outlaws and the elimination of them. The film ends with a close-up of an outlaw firing his pistol at the camera.

The history of today's multimillion dollar blockbuster films can be traced back to a flickering 12-minute silent movie made by a humble Connellsville native.

“The Great Train Robbery” (1903), the first narrative film with continuity of action, was created by Edwin S. Porter, who was born in 1870 to Thomas and Mary (Clark) Porter of Connellsville.

A historical plaque on East Fairview Avenue marks the spot where Edwin grew up with his sister and three brothers. Their father was a local merchant who saw to it that his children were educated in Connellsville's public schools.

Edwin Porter grew up interested in electricity, which was new when he was young. In 1891, he co-invented a device that regulated an electric light. He took that tinkering farther while serving as an electrician in the Navy from 1893 to 1896. After the military, Edwin worked briefly as a film projectionist before joining a vaudeville troupe. With that group, he toured the Caribbean as a motion picture exhibitor, showing one-shot films made by the motion picture industry's earliest innovators.

Worked with Edison

Porter worked as a projectionist at the Eden Musee Theatre in New York City before joining Thomas Edison's film company in 1900. At first, he worked on improving Edison's motion picture equipment but soon became intrigued with the film making process — especially after seeing the special effects in French filmmaker Georges Melies's “Le Voyage Dans le Lune” (“A Trip to the Moon”), which was made in 1902. Ironically, Porter was able to study Melies's innovations closely while duplicating the film for Edison, who illegally distributed it throughout the U.S.

During his years at Edison, Porter invented many new film techniques. Emulating Melies, he used trick photography, such as in “Jack and the Beanstalk” (1902). In 1901's “Pan-American Exposition at Night,” he used time lapse photography.

The historical 12-minute “The Great Train Robbery” of 1903 featured 40 actors and had at least 10 different scene locations — unheard of at the time. The scripted film depicted the train robbery, the gathering of a posse, pursuit of the outlaws and the elimination of them. The film ends with a closeup of an outlaw firing his pistol at the camera.

First ‘blockbuster'

“The Great Train Robbery” was wildly popular. It was the movie industry's first major box office success and it fostered the establishment of the “nickelodeons,” the country's first permanent film theaters.

Porter's innovations didn't end with “The Great Train Robbery.”

In 1905's “The Kleptomaniac,” he told two parallel stories at the same time. Also in 1905, he used side lighting and close-ups in “The Seven Ages.”

During his career, Porter directed several people who went on to major fame. In 1907, future director D.W. Griffith starred in Porter's “Rescued from an Eagle's Nest.”

Porter left Edison to form his own film company but eventually joined Adolph Zukor's Famous Players Film Company. There, he directed up-and-coming actors Mary Pickford (who was nicknamed America's Sweetheart), Pauline Frederick and John Barrymore (grandfather of actress Drew Barrymore).

Porter's last film, “Jim the Penman,” was released in 1915. He then left Zukor's Famous Players.

Before retirement, Porter headed Precision Machine Company, which manufactured Simplex film projectors. After the 1929 Wall Street stock market crash, he was employed by an appliance company.

Tinkerer ‘til the end

The Connellsville native continued to tinker with film machines for the rest of his life.

Despite his influence as an early film innovator, Porter never developed a consistent directorial style. He faded into oblivion.

In later years, other filmmakers took credit for his achievements, yet Porter never complained.

Adolph Zukor described the shy filmmaker as an artistic mechanic rather than a dramatic artist — a man who more enjoyed working with machines than people.

Porter died in 1941 in New York City, his film career unsung. It came alive again in the book “Before the Nickelodeon,” written in 1991 by Charles Musser.

Porter's wife, Caroline Ridinger Porter (they wed in 1893 and had no children), brought her husband home to southwestern Pennsylvania for burial. He is interred in Somerset County, not far from where his life began — in Connellsville, Fayette County.

Laura Szepesi is a freelance writer.

Saturday: Connellsville's Edwin S. Porter Theater is named for a Connellsville native who was an early motion picture film innovator. Among Porter's cinematic accomplishments was 1903's “The Great Train Robbery” — the first dramatic film to tell a scripted story using several different locations and many actors.



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