previous sub-section
8 Story Films Become the Dominant Product: 1903-1904
next chapter


In early October, after making Maniac Chase , Porter ventured to Brooklyn for the filming of Parsifal . "Specifically posed and rehearsed," it had the


"identical talent, scenery, and costumes used in the Original Dramatic Production."[150] Although the play was condensed and Porter resorted to stop-action photography in a few instances, restaging appears minimal. Each scene was a single shot taken by a distant camera that took in the entire set and made the actors small in the frame. Frontal compositions preserved the feeling of a proscenium arch. Looked at silently without a detailed knowledge of the story, the film is and was unintelligible: it was sold with a lecture and treated as a "sacred" film similar to The Passion Play of Oberammergau . A Kleine catalog, listing Parsifal with its other religious films, observed that "some critics have objected to its pagan elements but these serve to bring out the purity and splendor of the Christian Faith."[151] Certainly its static style and dearth of entertaining features made it appropriate for the holy day. Robert Whittier, who played the role of Parsifal, subsequently used the films as part of an illustrated lecture entitled Wagner from Within and Without .[152]

The opening of Richard Wagner's opera Parsifal at the Metropolitan Opera House on Christmas Eve 1903 was preceded by much controversy, as Wagner's widow went to court in a vain attempt to stop the performance. Its debut was reported on the front pages of New York newspapers. According to the New York World , "It was elevating and inspiring beyond words to express, but it was not entertaining."[153] A dramatic version followed in which "Mr. Payton in Brooklyn merely put the Corder translation of Wagner's libretto on the stage, with scenery as near like Mr. Conreid's [producer of the Metropolitan Opera House version] as he could afford to make."[154] This would appear to be "the original dramatic version" for another, by Marion Doran, appeared at the West End Theater in May 1904.

On March 1, 1904, Harley Merry acquired the motion picture rights for the dramatic version from Chase and Kennington:

In consideration of Harley Merry having loaned us the sum of Eighteen Hundred dollars ($1800) receipt of which is hereby acknowledged, we hereby give said Harley Merry the sole rights to negotiate with whomsoever he may desire to produce in moving pictures etc. our play "Parsifal," said Harley Merry to have and to hold all the profits arising from the same.

We also agree to give said Harley Merry our aid and that of our company at all times, and in every possible manner, to produce said moving pictures.[155]

With Porter actively involved, a contract was signed between the Edison Manufacturing Company and the Merry Scenic Construction Company on June 9th: it gave Merry a royalty of 2¢ per foot on every print sold. The film was shot four months later and totaled the extraordinary length of 1,975 feet (approximately thirty minutes). To accommodate the royalty without reducing Edison's profit margin, the film was sold for 17¢ per foot: one complete print cost $335,


of which $39.50 went to Merry. Parsifal was elaborately advertised with several full-page ads in the New York Clipper , but sales were modest. The Kinetograph Department informed Merry that it had sold five prints of the film as of November 30th and another print in December—yielding a royalty of $237.[156] Other records indicate that sixteen prints were sold by February 1905, suggesting that Merry may not have received a full accounting.[157] Whatever the figure, Parsifal was a financial disappointment given Edison's expensive promotional campaign.

Porter made four additional films in October 1904: all sold comparatively few prints. In midmonth, he visited the state fair in Danbury, Connecticut, where he shot A Rube Couple at a County Fair (seven copies sold in 1904-5) and Miss Lillian Schaffer and Her Dancing Horse (five copies sold). Returning to New York, he produced a topical comedy to herald the opening of the city's subway system: City Hall to Harlem in 15 Seconds via the Subway Route (twenty-five copies sold), which showed "Casey's first trip through the Subway. Rapid Transit no longer a dream."[158] Casey's trip was hastened by an explosion that sent him hurtling through the tunnel at a much faster speed than the average traveler's: the new subway system only boasted that it could get one from City Hall to Harlem in 15 minutes . Shortly thereafter, Porter and his new assistant William Gilroy photographed Opening Ceremonies, New York Subway, October 27, 1904 ; it was quickly developed and sent to Percival Waters by special messenger so that it could play at Huber's Museum. A news film of local interest, it sold only six prints.

During the first ten months of 1904, the Edison Company had relied heavily on dupes even as it produced four imitations of Biograph subjects and a fifth inspired by a Lubin "feature." One picture was ersatz theater and another cribbed from a comic strip. Three films recycled footage. While Edison-produced headliners increased in quantity after mid August, they did not do so in originality.[159] The resulting erosion of Edison's commercial standing was reflected in a letter that William Gilmore sent to Frank Dyer. After complaining about the progress being made in several patent suits against Biograph and Lubin, the general manager remarked:

The competition that we have to meet in this line of business, not only on the part of these people but particularly on the part of a lot of small operators, is becoming so great that I feel that some action must be taken in these cases at once. Selig is becoming very active in the West, and from such information as I have been able to gather he is evidently backed up by a lot of small dealers, and the character of the work that he turns out is bad in the extreme. On the other hand, the Mutoscope Company does not seem to hesitate to do everything they can to hurt the trade in general, and the only way I can see to get it on some sort of satisfactory basis is by pushing the suits and endeavoring to obtain a decision either one way or the other.[160]


Gilmore, however, was not foolish enough to rely solely on a possible legal solution. He finally recognized that Edison had to produce its own "original" productions if the Kinetograph Department was to attract customers in large numbers. As a result, Porter was given new resources, additional staff, and considerable discretion in his choice of subject matter and production methods.


previous sub-section
8 Story Films Become the Dominant Product: 1903-1904
next chapter