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9 Articulating an Old-Middle-Class Ideology: 1904-1905
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The Country and the City

The rural America of The "White Caps " contrasts sharply with the impersonal city of The Ex-Convict, The Kleptomaniac , and Life of an American Policeman . These urban dramas focus on the breakdown of community relations and their replacement by an unfeeling and often corrupt class structure. The Miller's Daughter (September-October 1905) contrasts this sinful, decadent city to the simple, honest country in a fascinating reworking of Steele MacKaye's melodrama Hazel Kirke . MacKaye's play was first performed at the Madison Square Theater on February 4, 1880, and ran for 486 performances. It pioneered theatrical realism by dispensing with mustachioed villains[19] and subsequently became a standard number in the melodrama repertoire of traveling theatrical troupes.[20]

Hazel Kirke is set in the British Isles, where Hazel, the daughter of miller Dunstan Kirke, is expected to marry Aaron Rodney, a member of the local gentry, who has rescued Kirke's mill from insolvency. But she falls in love with Arthur Carringford, whom Dunstan Kirke has saved from drowning and Hazel has nurtured back to health. He is young, while Rodney is old. The passion of youth triumphs, and Hazel and Carringford elope. Dunstan Kirke banishes her from his home despite Rodney's intervention on Hazel's behalf. Carringford, we now learn, is also a member of the nobility and is defying his mother's wish that he marry a woman of his own class. Lest he break his ill mother's heart and kill her, Carringford and Hazel keep their marriage a secret and live on a small country estate. In time the couple are separated by the machinations of Arthur's mother, who knows her son faces destitution if he does not marry the woman she has selected. Hazel learns of her husband's predicament, returns home, is again rejected by her father, and tries to commit suicide by jumping into the rushing waters below the mill. The blind father, unable to rescue her, realizes what he has caused and raves incoherently. Then Hazel appears with the now penniless Arthur Carringford, who has, it turns out, jumped into the millrace and rescued her from death. Given another chance, Dunstan Kirke forgives, and a family reconciliation occurs.

Porter's extraordinary adaptation begins by juxtaposing Hazel with each of the two suitors, whose social positions, age, and character have been transformed. The discrepancy of age has disappeared. Instead, Arthur Carringford is a suave, citified, well-to-do artist, while his rival Aaron Rodney is a plain, dependable young farmer. Although Hazel prefers Carringford's surface attractiveness and sophistication, her father, the old miller, intuits his perfidy. When Hazel elopes with Carringford, the artist's villainous intentions are revealed: his real wife appears and stops the wedding by producing proof of their marriage. Hazel's refusal to abide by her father's wishes, her violation of family unity, has caused her disgrace: she is exiled to the distant, anonymous city. Like Eve, Hazel has offended a wrathful father and is banished from the bountiful countryside (later in the film a vision of her father looms on the church wall to make this


The Miller's Daughter. The miller disowns his daughter, 
but finally forgives her when she presents him with a grandchild.

religious connection explicit). Living in city slums, "Hazel now realizes the full meaning of her disgrace" as she suffers the meager existence of the working poor. Exposed to the realities of class society, she is left destitute after her sole source of livelihood, a sewing machine, is repossessed. In despair, she returns to her father, pleading for forgiveness, which is again refused. It is Rodney, her once spurned but honest suitor, who rescues her from attempted suicide in the millrace. Through his act of courage, they are united and create their own family. The old miller's earlier judgment of Rodney has been confirmed and his wishes finally recognized, paving the way to a reconciliation with his daughter. The family, once fragmented, is reunited and linked to the next generation with the birth of a child. God, family, and country triumph over city, class society, and duplicity.

This film adaptation is unusual in many respects. For instance, there is a brief mention in MacKaye's Hazel Kirke that Carringford is going to give Hazel a drawing lesson, providing a cue for the reconceived character. In Porter's film the father-miller becomes the moral center of the film, whereas it is Hazel who best understands her own interests in the play. In Hazel Kirke it is Dunstan who misjudges Carringford and refuses to acknowledge his daughter's love and happiness until it is almost too late. In Porter's adaptation, Hazel is fooled by Carringford. She must learn the role of dutiful daughter, wife, and mother. The father assumes a godlike role. The change in title from the woman's name to her designated relationship to her father corresponds to this essential repositioning. It also suggests the extent to which the film industry at this time continued to be a male-privileging institution in comparison to the theater.

This screen adaptation shares many parallels with Porter's adaptation of The Ex-Convict . The mechanism for family reconciliation—the child—is a Porteresque touch. Porter also reverts to melodramatic, good-versus-evil stereotypes, but increases the realism by making the characters ordinary people, film-


ing on location and avoiding the pastoralism of MacKaye's play. Many offstage occurrences are shown in the Porter film, including Hazel's suicidal jump and her rescue. Class differences are banished from rural life (Rodney is just an average farmer) and located in the city. The portrayed conflict between small-town America and large-scale capitalism articulated the beliefs and fears of many native-born Americans. It reflected not only Porter's early experiences but the major demographic shifts of the 1880s and 1890s that had pushed Americans, including Porter and Griffith, out of small towns and into the metropolitan centers. The poverty of the urban slums, the conspicuous consumption of the wealthy, the antagonisms between classes, and the apparent corruption of local government deeply distressed city dwellers who recalled a romanticized and untroubled small-town childhood. Correspondingly, those still living in rural areas feared for a future shaped by distant, urban forces.

The opposition between rural and urban America provided the framework for a modest chase comedy, Down on the Farm , which Porter shot in October 1905, immediately after the completion of The Miller's Daughter . A group of boarding school girls, daughters of wealthy urbanites, steal apples from a farmer. The farmer chases them across fields and over fences (in a reversal of the women chasing the French nobleman in Biograph's Personal ) until they turn on the exhausted rube, throw him into the lake, and pelt him with apples. The country is clearly at the mercy of the city.

Edison films consistently highlight the city-country opposition. The rube or Uncle Josh character who comes to the city and is puzzled and overwhelmed by urban life is a theme Porter absorbed from the self-confidently urban culture of newspapers and vaudeville. From Another Job for the Undertaker (1901) to Down on the Farm and Stage Struck (July-August 1907), his comedies lampoon the country as unsophisticated and old-fashioned, whereas the dramas, derived from a romantic-realist tradition, usually idealize the countryside and criticize city life. The Ex-Convict and The Kleptomaniac focus on impersonal social and legal injustices of the city, while The "White Caps " shows a much more intimate community, where transgressions are punished quickly, surely, and pointedly. The conflicting views of city and country in Porter's dramas and comedies, which would be given more elaborate expression in the films of Griffith (The Country Doctor , 1909) and Mack Sennett (Tillie's Punctured Romance , 1914), reflect the transformations and conflicts in American life, particularly in a middle class torn between the traditional values and certainties of an increasingly outmoded way of life and the sophistication, convenience, and higher living standards of economically advanced urban centers. It was the middle class whose members contributed most extensively to American cultural life and articulated this conflict in particularly intense form.

The police, as representatives of the state, are a presence in many of Porter's films. The state and the family work hand in hand when constituted society is confronted by outsiders. But when Porter looks at the difficulties of urban life,


Life of an American Policeman: helping a child lost in the large, impersonal city (a scene appearing in
 both versions) and chasing a speeding, wealthy motorist who has almost run over a child (in neither
 version but available for separate purchase).

the police and the state often assume more complex roles. Porter's Life of an American Policeman is a sympathetic portrait of the agents of the law. Photographed with the cooperation of the New York Police Department in the fall of 1905, the subject was first shown at two vaudeville benefits for the Police Relief Fund in early December.[21]

Porter focuses on the daily routine of policemen without reference to their superiors, the higher courts, or the larger system of justice of which they are but a part. The emphasis is on good deeds and the ways in which the police benefit the community in which they live. The opening scene, which presents a policeman at home with his wife and child, identifies the police with the institution of the family. The policeman's role in maintaining community values in the impersonal city is shown when policemen help a lost child and rescue a would-be suicide from the river. Their courage is demonstrated as one policeman controls a runaway horse and others risk their lives capturing a desperate burglar. The latter scene, also sold separately as Desperate Encounter Between Burglar and Police , reenacts a robbery and the killing of a policeman as he tries to make the arrest. The actual incident took place on Manhattan's Upper East Side on the morning of March 20, 1904. News reports reveal significant discrepancies between the film sequence and what probably occurred,[22] suggesting that the film exaggerates the heroic actions of the police and the cowardice of the burglar.

In the film's last scene, a cop takes an unscheduled rest period, then skillfully circumvents the roundsman—emphasizing the policeman's humanity by showing his petty foibles in the context of real courage.[23] The film, a portrait of common people, avoids grandiose heroics that would reduce it to simple propaganda. Of all Porter's films, Life of an American Policeman comes closest to fulfilling the demands of nineteenth-century realism.[24] The focus on common


people, the portrayal of real situations (even to the point of returning to the original location and using actual participants to recreate the event), the refusal to subject the film to a single narrative, and the inclusion of the home life all make this a remarkable film.

From an editorial standpoint, the tension between the individual shot, the various sequences, and different possible programs is particularly striking in the case of Life of an American Policeman , with its 1,000-foot, full-reel length. Yet Porter in fact had 1,500 feet of usable subject matter, composed of nine discrete sequences. To solve this problem Porter (or the Edison Company) made two different 1,000-foot versions—one with "Desperate Encounter Between Burglar and Police" and the other with "River Tragedy," a sequence in which the police rescue a woman who has jumped into the Hudson. Bicycle Police Chasing Auto was in neither version but only sold separately. In addition several of the sequences appearing in the features were offered for sale as individual shorts. The subject reveals a conflict between one single order (the "preferred" version that included "River Tragedy") and possible alternative orderings, either the producer's alternate version or others that renters or exhibitors could create themselves. Thus Life of an American Policeman is an open or reversible text. Even within sequences like "Desperate Encounter between Burglar and Police," shots were conceived as discrete units linked together by overlapping action and temporality. Although Porter had largely, though not exclusively, assumed the role of editor, he continued to work under the strong influence of exhibitor-dominated cinema. The product lacked standardization. Porter's freedom to work in this way would, however, rapidly be curtailed by the demands of the nickelodeon era that was just beginning. The 1,000-foot restriction on a picture's length was already an industry standard, creating problems that Porter would seek to avoid in the future. On one hand, Life of an American Policeman can be considered Porter's last film of the pre-nickelodeon era; on the other, it already reflected the transition to this new exhibition form.

The Ex-Convict, The Kleptomaniac, Life of an American Policeman, The Miller's Daughter , and The "White Caps " offer an elaborate view of American life that acknowledges important social issues yet yearns for the simple solutions that once seemed so effective in the small-town environment out of which Porter had originally come. The films express the same middle-class concerns that the Progressive movement spoke to on a political level. The middle class was itself in transition: the old middle class that was outside the labor-capital dialectic was rapidly giving way to a new middle class that was part of this dialectic, shading into the working class at one end and the large capital-owning class at the other. Given the heterogeneity of the American middle classes, the political movement that they produced was predictably far from unified in its programs and in its alliances with other social groups. Porter's films best articulate the views of the older, more rural middle class—the petite bourgeoisie


whose members were neither employers nor employees. The political radicalism of specific films, when viewed in a larger context, had an underlying conservative basis. They articulated an angry response to a loss of power as government and the socioeconomic system became less responsive to this group's expectations and needs. Vigilantism of a certain sort became emotionally, if not intellectually, attractive.

Porter's subject matter and treatment differed substantially from the films being made by other American production companies. Biograph leaned toward comparatively sophisticated sexual comedies, such as Personal . Love triangles with clear references to infidelity, often involving a pretty "typewriter," were common in headliners like The Story the Biograph Told . Porter rarely dealt with sexuality in this way, and then only when imitating previous successes. Biograph subjects consistently offered entertainment rather than moralism. Its films celebrated the urban culture on which they were based—lampooning the city man who moves to the suburbs in The Suburbanite (October 1904) or summers in the rural countryside in The Summer Boarders (July 1905). Biograph dramas, moreover, commonly saw the country as a source of poverty and violence (A Kentucky Feud , 1905).

J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith, the two English-born producers of the Vitagraph trio, were also anxious to portray the excitement and dynamism of the city, to valorize the speed and mobility of the automobile. In Vitagraph's The 100 to One Shot; or, A Run of Luck (1906), a young man goes to the city, where he stumbles onto a hot tip at a race track and wins the money needed to save his family home from foreclosure. In a Porter film, gambling would never provide the means to salvation; but for Blackton and Smith, urban culture, even its more sinful manifestations, was a fount of opportunity and good fortune. Even Vitagraph's A Midwinter Night's Dream (1906), about a waif who dreams he is taken into the home of a wealthy family, owes much more to a sentimentalism derived from Charles Dickens than to contemporary American concerns.

The German-Jewish immigrant Sigmund Lubin was content to entertain moving picture audiences with comedies based on his competitors' successes (A Dog Lost, Strayed or Stolen; I. B. Dam and the Whole Dam Family; Meet Me at the Fountain ), fight reproductions, and films of crime (Highway Robbery, The Counterfeiters ). William C. Paley and William Steiner with Avenging a Crime; or, Burned at the Stake as well as William Selig with Tracked by Bloodhounds also featured violent confrontations. Many Selig films, however, used Colorado as a background for their dramas, increasingly romanticizing the frontier rather than the city. Porter's films aside, the exploration of social issues on the screen was primarily a European phenomenon, with Pathé's The Strike (La Grève , 1904), Scenes of a Convict's Life (Au Bagne , 1905), Le Cuirassé Potemkine (1905), and Mining District (Au Pays Noir , 1905) providing a few surviving


examples. Porter was the only filmmaker directly to confront American social concerns during this period.

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