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9 Articulating an Old-Middle-Class Ideology: 1904-1905
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American Themes and Values: Family and Society

Historians since Terry Ramsaye have remarked on Porter's articulation of social problems in The Ex-Convict and The Kleptomaniac (January 1905).[2] These two features were part of a larger group of films, made between November 1904 and December 1905, that directly and indirectly confronted significant social issues in American life. Despite a shift away from actualities, Porter continued to conceive of cinema as a form that could inform and instruct as well as entertain. His films were still linked, albeit less directly, to the concept of a visual newspaper, for he focused on problems raised in the antitrust editorials and political cartoons of the New York Journal-American and the New York World . These pictures, which represented one of several ideological positions evident in American popular and mass culture, were the most ambitious cinematic expressions from this period.

Although several Porter/Edison films, if viewed separately, are ideologically consistent with then emerging trends of Progressive thought, as a body of work they express the often contradictory worldview of the old middle class and small-town America confronted with an era of large-scale manufacturing and monopoly capital.[3] In short, these films remained consistent with Porter's own experience of America while growing up in Connellsville, Pennsylvania, and with a viewpoint expressed twenty years earlier in his hometown newspaper, The Keystone Courier .

The Ex-Convict , advertised as "a beautiful pathetic story in Eight scenes,"[4] quickly and simply depicts a former criminal who is forced to return to a life of crime because he cannot escape the stigma of his past. A member of the working class, he is sympathetically portrayed as a good family man driven to despair by the plight of his sick child. Dismissed from his job because of his past, the ex-convict cannot find work and is soon forced to return to a life of crime. He tries to rob a wealthy home but is caught and seems certain to return to prison—a development that will completely destroy his family. Instead, it turns out that his captor is the father of a girl whom he has recently saved in an earlier scene. When the daughter appears and is reunited with her saviour, the father relents and sends the police away. In the final scene, the rich man befriends the ex-convict, bringing food and presents to his garret apartment.


A young girl is embraced by her wealthy family after the ex-convict has rescued her from an
 onrushing automobile. Later, the fathers shake hands when they visit the poor man's home.

This film was based on a vaudeville one-act, Number 973 , by Robert Hilliard and Edwin Holland. It previewed at Keith's Union Square Theater on March 27, 1903, and was enthusiastically received (see document no. 16). When the play-let, which Hilliard and Holland also co-directed, headed a bill at the same theater on August 31st, the Dramatic Mirror felt that

the piece is strong, concise and well-written and the situations are dramatic without being overdrawn. Mr. Hilliard did excellent work as the rough malefactor with the right sort of heart, and his scene with the little girl was played with much delicacy and feeling. Mr. Holland as the District-Attorney was dignified and forcible, and little Jane Pelton as the child was very sweet indeed. The setting and light effects were admirable in every way.[5]

Hilliard, once a leading actor in the legitimate theater, was an established vaudeville star of the first magnitude. The one-act thus generated unusual attention. A short review in the New York World remarked that the "pathetic little playlet . . . stirred a deeper feeling than vaudeville sketches usually allow."[6] A critic with a sharp memory, however, noted that the Hilliard-Holland script was itself heavily indebted to the play Editha's Burglar .[7] Like Hilliard, Porter was reworking a well-known story.

Starting from the Hilliard-Holland playlet, Porter visualized the information into seven additional scenes. Unlike Uncle Tom's Cabin or Parsifal, The Ex-Convict was not filmed theater, but an adaptation that took advantage of the filmmaker's ability to place a scene in an appropriate location (outside a store, home, or factory and on the street) and to move quickly from one setting to the next. The naturalistic locales and the accelerated pace heightened the emotional intensity of the viewer's reaction to the pathetic story, achieving a level of re-


alism impossible on the stage. Titles at the beginning of each shot in some cases provided lines of dialogue spoken by the character within the scene. In the process of adaptation, Porter also added an important new element: the ex-convict's family. This reflected Porter's own preoccupations and made the film more complex.

The Ex-Convict thus represents a major breakthrough in stage-to-screen adaptation. First, it opened up the play, situating the action in many more locations. Second, it reworked and altered the story itself, making it the filmmaker's own. These creative moves soon became standard practice in American cinema. Examples in silent film include Porter's The Miller's Daughter (1905) and The Prisoner of Zenda (1913), Cecil B. DeMille's Male and Female (1919), and Griffith's Way Down East (1920) and Orphans of the Storm (1921), but they continue to this day.



The admirers of Robert Hilliard had a chance on Friday afternoon to see him in two widely different characters. At half-past two he appeared as the debonair van Bibber in The Littlest Girl and at four o'clock he showed that he could be just as effective in shabbier make-up as the principal person in a new one-act play called Number 973, written by himself and Edwin Holland. The scene of the sketch is laid in the home of Thomas Campbell, District Attorney of New York. Thither comes a burglar who is caught in the act by the District-Attorney who recognized in him the man he had sent up some ten years before for alleged manslaughter. The lawyer promptly telephones for the police, and while he is waiting listens to the burglar's interesting story. Later during the temporary absence of the lawyer the little daughter of the house appears. She had a narrow escape from death the day before under the hoofs of a runaway horse and, it transpires that the man who had saved her was none other than the burglar, who had been driven to his rash act by starvation. The father overhears the conversation between his child and the unfortunate fellow and when the police come in he dismisses them. The inference is that he will not prosecute the preserver of his baby, and the curtain falls on a very pretty picture. The piece made a decided hit at this trial performance and Mr. Hilliard made a neat little speech, expressing his thanks at its very cordial reception. The play is decidedly more effective for the average audience than The Littlest Girl and is a welcome addition to Mr. Hilliard's repertoire.

SOURCE : New York Dramatic Mirror , April 4, 1903, p. 18.


The Ex-Convict focuses on two central institutions whose structures and values concerned Porter throughout his career—family and society. In his many family-centered dramas, parents are constantly threatened with the loss of a child through sickness, fire, or some bizarre act of nature. Again and again they are driven to despair and either through some bold act (the fireman's daring rescue in Life of an American Fireman or the father's battle with a bird in Rescued from an Eagle's Nest ) or simply good fortune, the child is saved and the family reunited. As mentioned in chapter 2, child-centered dramas were not rare in turn-of-the-century America, but Porter's own films reveal an emotional urgency and personal preoccupation that reflected his own loss of progeny. Although the family was often romanticized in American culture of this period, Porter's systematic idealizations reveal a longing for a way of life he found increasingly unattainable. The loss of the child is his own loss.

The Ex-Convict places family and society in conflict, but family values are given primacy. The love and intimacy within the ex-convict's and wealthy attorney's families are contrasted to the impersonality, selfishness, and class antagonism of the social system. The ex-convict is forced to break the law in an attempt to save his daughter's life because society, controlled by the rich, fails to protect its more vulnerable members. The ex-convict's desperate decision to steal is viewed sympathetically, if not actually condoned. When the ex-convict is finally caught, it appears that his family will be destroyed and his child allowed to die once he goes to jail. Family ties become a mechanism for reconciling class differences. If the rich man can forgive the would-be burglar because the ex-convict's daring rescue saved his daughter's life, he can empathize with the poor man's plight because the attempted burglary was motivated by his own child's sickness. In Uncle Tom's Cabin , the death of Eva precipitates the destruction of the family, and the selling of Uncle Tom foreshadows America's internal strife, culminating in the Civil War. The Ex-Convict presents a parallel situation, in which class rather than racial antagonisms are on the verge of spinning out of control. Here, both children (childhood representing innocence and hope for the future) are saved by the good works of the opposing classes and a last-minute reconciliation becomes possible.

In the United States, where Social Darwinism was widespread, Progressives argued that the working class was being forced into a state of destitution and "the great middle class" into one of dependency and genteel poverty. In expressing a longing for a world with greater social justice, for the reduction of class conflict and for a heightened consciousness of the well-to-do vis-à-vis the real grievances of the working class, The Ex-Convict articulated a central concern of the Progressive movement.[8] During the year Porter made this film, Robert Hunter, a journalist of Progressive persuasion, examined the plight of family men in situations similar to the ex-convict's. "The mass of working men on the brink of poverty hate charity," he wrote. "Not only their words convey a


knowledge of this fact, but their actions, when in distress, make it absolutely undeniable. When the poor face the necessity of becoming paupers, when they must apply for charity if they are to live at all, many desert their family and enter the ranks of vagrancy; others drink themselves insensible; some go insane; and still others commit suicide."[9] As Porter's film points out, they might also turn to crime.

The state plays a key, if peripheral, role in The Ex-Convict . One of its representatives, a policeman, undermines the ex-convict's honest, modest, and happy way of life by informing his employer of his past. Another patrolman engages the rich child's nurse (whose nurturing role is the female counterpart of the policeman's) in conversation, causing (or failing to prevent) an accident that would have killed the child if the ex-convict had not intervened. In each instance, the policeman is not intentionally bad—he is merely warning the employer or flirting with the nurse. The consequences of their actions are nonetheless catastrophic, and in both cases it is the ex-convict who suffers. Porter suggests that the state must be more thoughtful and aware of its responsibilities. Its actions (or its failure to act) have consequences in modern society, which is faced with new technology (the automobile that almost runs over the child) and impersonal class relations (the warehouse owner who fires his employee, presumably because he has no personal relationship with him and cannot vouch for his character).

The Ex-Convict was not the first film to deal with class conflict and idealize a reconciliation of labor and capital. In Pathé's The Strike , produced in the summer of 1904, a walkout leads to violence and the deaths of a worker and the factory owner. Eventually the owner's son, who had sided with the workers, and the dead worker's wife, who killed the owner in a moment of rage, reconcile their differences. The film ends "in an apotheosis [where] Labor as a Workingman and Capital as a Rich Man, unite their power to give happiness and fortune to every man. Justice appears and ratifies this alliance."[10] It is quite possible that a viewing of this and similar European imports encouraged Porter to raise social concerns in his films. Despite many parallels between the Edison and Pathé films, Porter chose to situate the conflict between labor and capital not within the work place but within the home. He tended to foreground the social rather than the economic dimensions of the conflict.

The Kleptomaniac , which Porter photographed in the second half of January 1905, continued to explore the themes examined in The Ex-Convict . Condemning the class bias of government and justice, it is Porter's most radical film. The details given in the Edison catalog are not always evident when the film is viewed silently—for instance, there is no reason to suppose the kleptomaniac is a banker's wife (see document no. 17). Many of the specifics, however, could have been articulated in a showman's lecture. Reliance on the exhibitor's


mediation is also suggested by Porter's camera framing and composition. As William Everson has observed, "the interior shot of the department store is so 'busy,' with so many identically dressed women bustling around in a protracted long shot, that the audience is given no guidance at all as to where to look or what is going on."[11] The exhibitor could relieve some of this confusion, perhaps basing his lecture on the catalog description. In this particular scene, a commentator might have reminded viewers that their frustrating efforts to detect the kleptomaniac were not unlike the task of the store detective (recalling the viewer identification with passengers in The Great Train Robbery ).



Two Acts—Ten Scenes and Tableau.

The Kleptomaniac (Mrs. Banker)

Miss. Aline Boyd

Store Detective

Mr. Phineas Nairs

Female Detective

Miss. Jane Stewart

Superintendent Department Store

Mr. George Voijere

The Thief

Miss. Ann Egleston

Police Court Judge

Mr. W. S. Rising


Miss. Helen Courtney

Shoppers, Salesladies, Cash Girls, Policemen, Prisoners


Scene I.—Leaving Home.

The opening scene shows a beautiful residence in a fashionable residential section of New York city. A handsome and richly gowned lady is descending the steps, while a stylish victoria, with coachman and footman in full livery, is waiting at the door. She enters the carriage, gives the footman his orders and drives off. All the surroundings indicate wealth and fashion. Mrs. Banker is going on a shopping tour.

Scene II.—Arrival at Department Store.

The next scene shows a well-known department store at Herald Square, New York city. A stylish turnout is coming down Broadway and stops in front of the main entrance. The footman jumps from the box and Mrs. Banker alights and enters the store.

Scene III.—Interior Department Store.

The interior of the department store is shown. Shoppers are busily engaged making purchases at the different counters. Cash girls are running about in all directions and a floor walker is busy giving orders and directing and attending to the wants of customers. Presently Mrs. Banker is seen approaching the hosiery counter. The saleslady waits on her and

(Text box continued on next page)


shows her the different styles, but none appear to suit her. While the saleslady's back is turned for a moment, Mrs. Banker quickly conceals a pair of hose in her muff and then passes on to the glove counter. In the meantime, her actions have excited the suspicion of a female detective, who now shadows her from counter to counter. At the glove counter she purchases some gloves and orders them sent home, and at a favorable moment adroitly slips a pair into her muff. The lynx-eyed female detective, however, has detected her in the act, informs the floor walkers, and then leaves to find the store detective, and both soon return to the scene. Mrs. Banker is now at the silverware counter, closely watched by the detective. To distract the clerk's attention she requests to be shown some article in a rear case, and while the clerk's back is turned she seizes the opportunity to take a silver flask from the counter and secrete it in her muff. As she turns to go the female detective steps up and accuses her of the theft, which she indignantly denies. The store detective now approaches and conducts Mrs. Banker away through a throng of curious shoppers, who have been attracted by the excitement and commotion.

Scene IV.—Superintendent's Office.

The scene shows the interior of the superintendent's office. He is occupied at his desk while the stenographer is transcribing on the typewriter. The female detective enters and explains the situation. Presently Mrs. Banker enters accompanied by the store detective. The female detective boldly accuses her of shoplifting. Mrs. Banker , in a most haughty manner, denies the charge, whereupon the female detective quickly snatches her muff and withdraws the stolen articles. Mrs. Banker then breaks down and confesses and pleads for mercy. The superintendent is deaf to her entreaties, and the store detective leads her away.

Scene V.—Under Arrest.

The scene now returns to the exterior of the store. The carriage is still waiting. Mrs. Banker and the detective enter the carriage and drive away.

Scene VI.—Police Station.

The exterior of the police station house is shown. A carriage drives up to the door, and the occupants alight and enter the building. We recognize Mrs. Banker and the store detective.


Scene I.—The Home of Poverty.

A scantily furnished room. Poverty and hunger are plainly in evidence. A poor woman is seated at a table with her face buried in her hands. Her youngest child is seated on the floor crying with hunger. Presently a young girl enters. She is evidently the older daughter, who has been out begging

(Text box continued on next page)


in the streets but has returned empty-handed. In desperation the mother throws a shawl over her head and rushes from the room.

Scene II.—The Thief.

A street scene. An errand boy is coming out of a grocery store with a basket on his arm. The proprietor rushes out and sends him back to the store for some things he has forgotten. The boy leaves his basket at the door and goes back into the store. At this moment a poor woman comes along, takes a loaf of bread from the basket and hides it under her shawl. The proprietor, who has watched her, rushes out, seizes her and calls for the police. An officer soon appears and drags the woman off to the patrol wagon.

Scene III.—In the Police Patrol.

The scene shows the exterior of a police station house. A patrol wagon is being rapidly driven up the street and stops in front of the station house in the middle of the street. The snow is piled high up on both sides, making it impossible to drive up to the sidewalk. A poor woman is taken from the wagon by an officer and led into the station house.

Scene IV.—Police Court.

A court room seat. The judge enters and takes his seat. He raps for order and opens the court. Among the motley crowd of prisoners the judge discerns Mrs. Banker . He calls a court attendant and instructs him to give Mrs. Banker a chair away from the other prisoners. The clerk then proceeds to call the case.

The first prisoner before the bar is a tough. His blackened eye and battered condition tell their own story. He is quickly sentenced. Vagrancy and larceny cases follow and no time is lost in disposing of them. The next case is one of disorderly conduct. A flashily dressed woman appears and tries to flirt with the judge. She is quickly given an extra sentence "on the island" for her impertinence, and as she is led away by the officer she raises her foot and dress and waves ta-ta to the judge.

The next case is petty larceny. We recognize the poor woman in the two preceding scenes. The officer who arrested her, as well as the groceryman, appear against her. She pleads for mercy. Her little daughter rushes to her side and falls on her knees and pleads to the judge for her mother. But the judge is deaf to all entreaties, and the poor woman is sentenced and led away.

The next case is shoplifting. Mrs. Banker is led to the bar. Her husband, accompanied by a lawyer appears in her defense. The female detective gives her evidence, but the judge ignores her testimony and discharges the prisoner, who falls weeping into her husband's arms.

(Text box continued on next page)


The Kleptomaniac. Mrs. Banker goes on a carefully planned shoplifting spree at Macy's; the desperate 
mother spontaneously steals bread for her children. The courtroom, where, as the final tableau suggests, 
justice favors the wealthy.


A tableau of the figure of Justice. On one side of the scale is a bag of gold, and on the other a loaf of bread. The balance shows in favor of the gold. The bandage on the brow of Justice, however, discloses one eye. Fully described and illustrated in Circular No. 233. 670 ft.

SOURCE : Edison Films , July 1906, pp. 55-56.

In The Kleptomaniac Porter juxtaposes the situations of two women.[12] The impoverished woman is shown at home, in the context of her family. Important details are shown that elicit the viewer's understanding and sympathy: the barren room, the absence of a husband/provider, and the weighty responsibility of children who need care and are still too young to work. Mrs. Banker is never shown inside her home, although the brownstone from which she emerges


An editorial cartoon on the front 
page of the New York World.

clearly indicates her social status. Porter denies her the sympathetic context of family life. She, as the title indicates, has no motivation for shoplifting other than the thrill. Mrs. Banker goes inside a high-class emporium (Macy's) and steals some expensive, nonessential baubles under the noses of sales personnel. Her actions are clearly premeditated. The poor woman is overwhelmed by temptation, stealing food left outside and unattended. Her actions are spontaneous. Although she left home determined to help her family, her specific actions are far from certain. Finally, once arrested, the wealthy kleptomaniac is treated with a courtesy and leniency denied the more deserving mother.

The media during this era frequently criticized and visualized the inequities of a judicial system that favored the rich and lacked understanding for the circumstances of the poor. In June 1896 the New York World ran a front-page political cartoon that anticipated Porter's closing tableau in The Kleptomaniac in all its details.[13] Similar examples of this iconography were undoubtedly produced during the intervening nine years. Porter offered exhibitors the opportunity of extending this criticism still further by identifying the kleptomaniac with the banks. The depiction of Mrs. Banker stealing in Macy's reflected indirectly on her husband, suggesting that he stole as well, but on a grander scale and with the same tacit support and "understanding" of the government. The banking community, which played a key role in the emergence of monopoly capital and the trusts, was frequently attacked by the Progressive movement, which held it responsible for reducing members of the middle and working classes to impoverishment. Thus the poor woman steals to alleviate her family's destitution, which Mr. Banker's accumulation of wealth had helped to create. On this level,


The "White Caps." Rural justice may be harsh, but it is the guilty who are punished.

the simple dualism of rich and poor approaches a more profound, more dialectical relationship between the two central figures.

In The Ex-Convict and The Kleptomaniac , the impoverished parents' crimes are motivated by the needs of their children and are not condemned. Rather, a socioeconomic system in which two essential social values—familial responsibility and honesty—are in conflict is itself in need of reevaluation. The Kleptomaniac , however, does not have the requisite happy ending evident in The Ex-Convict . The personal interaction that makes this possible in the former film is absent in the latter.

Edison's The "White Caps " (August 1905) looks at a troubled nuclear family and the community's eventual intervention in its problems outside the established channels of justice. In 1905 White Cap vigilante groups were active in rural areas of the border states and the Midwest. Members, generally faced with declining income and political power, acted as agents of social control, punishing offenses that the state and local governments failed to address adequately. In this Porter/McCutcheon production, a husband comes home drunk and beats his wife and daughter. To punish him, relatives and neighbors of the beaten woman form a squad of white-hooded vigilantes. After a struggle, the drunkard is tarred, feathered, and drummed out of town on a rail. The film offers a view


of small-town America in which a wayward member is taught a lesson without the formalities of a legal system.[14] The rural community acts as an extension of the family.

A pro-vigilante view of these events was offered in Edison advertisements:

During the rapid march of civilization in America, covering the past fifty years, certain social conditions developed which had to be regulated and controlled by unusual methods. A lawless and criminal element almost invariably accompanied the advance guard of civilization and to keep this element in check the law abiding citizens were compelled to secretly organize themselves for their own protection.

The "Vigilantes" during the gold excitement of '49 in California and the "White Caps" of more recent years in Ohio, Indiana, and other Western States, are well-known organizations which dealt summarily with outlaws and the criminal classes in general.

We have portrayed in Motion Pictures, in a most vivid and realistic manner, the method employed by the "White Caps" to rid the community of undesirable citizens.[15]

The Progressive perception of corrupt justice in The Kleptomaniac could be easily perverted in a different setting, particularly in a rural one.

The "White Caps " had at least two theatrical antecedents. The first was Owen Davis's play The White Caps , which appeared in various cities a few months before the Porter film was made.[16] Despite the similarity in name, however, their narratives had little in common. Rather the tone and narrative of the Porter film owed more to Thomas Dixon, Jr.'s adaptation of The Clansman , which the playwright was rehearsing—amidst considerable publicity—as The "White Caps " went into production.[17] In The Clansman , villainous blacks are sponsored by corrupt carpetbaggers, while the Klan is presented as a force for regeneration. If the Edison film avoids the overt racism of Dixon's novel, it depicts and even accepts a pattern of alternative justice that supports it.

The methods used to influence spectators in The "White Caps " can be compared to Griffith's approach in The Birth of a Nation , which was based on The Clansman . Porter assumed that the viewers' moral outrage at the husband's behavior would lead them to condemn the drunkard and condone his punishment. (In fact, the brutal treatment of the husband usually leads present-day audiences to recoil from his fate.) Griffith, anxious to convert people to his beliefs in white supremacy, did not assume shared attitudes and effectively used parallel editing to force his audience into identifying with the Klan. The Edison film maintains a psychological distance from its subject matter, not because Porter attempted to be objective but because he relied on the audiences' pre-established attitudes to elicit their reactions.

Family was also a subject that Porter addressed in his comedies. The Strenuous Life; or, Anti-Race Suicide (December 1904), lightheartedly spoofs family life and fatherhood. President Roosevelt, who had just won reelection, believed Americans had to lead "the strenuous life" (it was the title of one of his books)


The Seven Ages: William Shakespeare via The May Irwin Kiss.

if the United States was to retain its position of world leadership. He also declared that married women of northern European stock had a responsibility to produce at least four children to prevent "race suicide."[18] Porter combined and burlesqued these two elements: the father returns home as his wife gives birth and soon finds himself caring for quadruplets. The father's expression of pride as he weighs the first baby motivated Porter to cut in to a close shot of his face. (By late 1904, the interpolated close-up of a character's face had been used in well-known films like Biograph's The Lost Child and G. A. Smith's Mary Jane's Mishaps. The Strenuous Life signaled its entry into Porter's repertoire of cinematic strategies.) The father's expression quickly changes to distress as one infant after another is brought in by the nurse. Roosevelt's stock phrases are lampooned in a manner that recalls Terrible Teddy, the Grizzly King (1901).

The centrality of family can also be seen in Porter's treatment of romance and sexuality. In The Seven Ages (February 1905), Porter photographed a series of short vignettes reminiscent of kiss films such as The May Irwin Kiss (1896). These were structured on the premise provided by Shakespeare's "seven ages of man"—a theme often illustrated in nineteenth-century lantern shows. Beginning with toddlers and concluding with old people, the film shows couples kissing. Each of the first seven scenes contains two shots. These scenes open with an establishing shot and conclude with a medium close-up that gives a better view of each kiss. A final tableau for the eighth scene shows an old maid alone, introduced with the title "What Age?" To emphasize her solitude, Porter broke with the structure of earlier scenes and refrained from cutting in. The repetition and diversity of age groups undermines the kiss's exclusively sexual dimension. For Porter, sexuality is expressed within the context of the recurring life-cycle made possible by the family. Without a person to kiss and the family structure Porter associated with it, a woman becomes sexless, ageless, and eccentric while a man (like Jack in Jack the Kisser , which Porter made in September 1907) becomes unstable.


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9 Articulating an Old-Middle-Class Ideology: 1904-1905
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