previous chapter
7 A Close Look at Life of an American Fireman: 1902-1903
next chapter

A Close Look at Life of an American Fireman: 1902-1903

Life of an American Fireman is a landmark film as much because of its role in film historiography as because of its remarkable manifestation of early cinema's representational practices. Many past claims for its importance, however, are unfounded. The picture represents a consolidation of Edwin Porter's development as a filmmaker, not the qualitative leap Terry Ramsaye, Lewis Jacobs, A. Nicholas Vardac, and Porter himself have suggested by calling it "the first story film."

Although copyrighted on January 21, 1903, Life of an American Fireman was produced many weeks earlier. On November 15th, the Newark Evening News announced:



There will be a fire on Rhode Island Avenue, East Orange, this afternoon, or at least the East Orange firemen will be called out and go through the motions of extinguishing a fire and rescuing a woman from the upper story of a house for the benefit of the Edison Kinetoscope Company, which will have one of its chainlightning cameras there to reproduce the scene.[1]

The picture might also be called Life of an American Filmmaker , for this scene, and probably others, featured James White as the daring fireman (see document no. 9). Ultimately, the Edison Manufacturing Company enlisted the assistance of fire departments from four different localities.


Despite the elaborate nature of this production, shooting was almost certainly completed before the end of 1902. Ramsaye offers one explanation for a possible two-month delay between production and release: "White cast himself for the lead in this picture. When W. E. Gilmore, general manager for Edison, screened the picture he ordered retakes to eliminate White on the grounds that it was subversive of corporate policy for an executive to be an actor."[2] The retakes, if there were any, may have been filmed while White was away, or even delayed until his return, for he married Pauline Dede on November 30, 1902, and went on a month-long honeymoon."[3] Yet it seems more likely that Edison executives were hoping for a favorable resolution to their copyright case. When this failed to materialize, they went ahead with their sales. The film was finally offered for sale at the end of January (see documents nos. 10 and 11).



Lightning Cameras Took Pictures While East Orange Firemen Perform a Realistic Scene.


Hemmed in by dense clouds of suffocating smoke, that belched forth in volume, a woman, with a babe in her arms, stood in the window of a tenement house on Rhode Island avenue, near Crawford Street, East Orange yesterday afternoon. No help was near, and the woman and child seemed doomed to an awful death, when Hook and Ladder No. 1 of the East Orange Fire Department dashed up. Manager James H. White of the Edison Kinetoscope Company, of West Orange, was the "Old Sleuth" of the occasion, and, swinging himself off the vehicle before it came to a stop, scrambled up the ladder, which was quickly raised by Firemen Judd and Stasse, and carried woman and child down to safety just as the men of Hose Co. No. 5 ran a line of hose into the building. It was a stirring scene, and it will be witnessed by many thousands, for the kinetoscope company had one of its machines there, and a series of moving pictures was taken.

The fire, though not exactly incendiary, had been planned many hours before it occurred. Mr. White, whose business it is to arrange details, such as the "Battle of San Juan Hill," the sinking of an ocean steam ship, a collapsing warehouse, and similar scenes not witnessed in every-day life, had secured the partially dismantled tenement. It is owned by a man by the name of Lanzillo, and was partially destroyed by the fire a year ago, so that it was in first-class shape for the demonstration. Cans filled with

(Text box continued on next page)


salt hay, tar and other substances calculated to produce a dense smoke were placed in every room, and at the proper moment, when a woman used to such things and regularly employed by the company for the purpose, had taken her place in the window, the contents of the cans was fired.

Were Stationed Around Corner .

Hose Co. No. 5 and the-hook and-ladder company were stationed in Halsted street and at the tap of the bell the two companies raced for the fire. Driver Flynn, Fireman Judd, Fireman Stasse and Mr. White were abroad the truck and Firemen Ohiman, Dobbins, Markfield and Dech were with the hose wagon, and while the laddermen were attending to the rescue, the latter crew coupled on to a hydrant and ran their line of hose up to the building in record time. Chief Engineer Blair, of the East Orange Fire Department and Chief Hodgkinson of Orange were interested onlookers.

Mr. White, who dressed himself in the togs of a fireman for the occasion, has figured in several striking scenes before. When the battle of Spion Kop was fought in West Orange a year or so ago, Mr. White, who is six feet tall and of massive frame, got in the way of cannon about the time it went off. After awhile he "woke up" and the surgeons at Orange Memorial Hospital picked wadding out of his chest. It was some time before he was able to be about. He is lieutenant of Company H, N.G.N.J. of Orange, and will shortly go to Berlin, Germany, to look after Mr. Edison's interests in the kinetoscope business. He is well known throughout the Oranges and has been head of the Kinetoscope department for several years.

SOURCE : Newark Evening News , November 16, 1902, p. 4.



Is the Greatest Motion Picture Attraction ever offered to the Exhibitor! It is thrilling and dramatic, replete with exciting situations, and so crowded with action, interest and spectacular effects, that an audience witnessing it is simply SPELLBOUND. It shows:

First—The Fireman's Vision of an Imperiled Woman and Child. Second—The Turning in of the Alarm.

Third—The Firemen Leaping from their Beds, Dressing and Sliding Down the Poles.

Fourth—Interior of the Engine House, Horses Dashing from their Stalls, and Being Hitched to the Apparatus.

(Text box continued on next page)


Fifth—Men Descending on Poles, and Rushing to their Places on the Fire Apparatus.

Sixth—The Apparatus Leaving the Engine House.

Seventh—Off to the Fire (a Great Fire Run)

Eighth—The Arrival at the Fire, Showing an Actual Burning Building, the Firemen Coupling the Hose, Raising the Ladders, the Rescue Scene from the Interior and Exterior. Great Smoke and Flames Effects. 425 feet. Class A. $63.75

This film is sold in one length only. Send in your complete order quick, Get the film and Get the money. This is the only complete fire scene ever attempted where the men are shown leaving their beds, and A Genuine hitch taken inside the engine house. A Money Getter is what this film has been pronounced. You need it in your business because it will be the strongest card on your bill. Catalogue #168 Describes this and Over One hundred other New Subjects.

SOURCE : Edison advertisement, New York Clipper , January 31, 1903, p. 1100.


Life of an American Fireman

In giving this description to the public, we unhesitatingly claim for it the strongest motion picture attraction ever attempted in this length of film. It will be difficult for the exhibitor to conceive the amount of work involved and the number of rehearsals necessary to turn out a film of this kind. We were compelled to enlist the services of the fire departments of four different cities, New York, Newark, Orange, and East Orange, N.J., and about 300 firemen appear in the various scenes of this film.

From the first conception of this wonderful series of pictures it has been our aim to portray "Life of an American Fireman" without exaggeration, at the same time embodying the dramatic situations and spectacular effects which so greatly enhance a motion picture performance.

The record work of the modern American fire department is known throughout the universe, and the fame of the American fireman is echoed around the entire world. He is known to be the most expert, as well as the bravest, of all fire fighters. This film faithfully and accurately depicts his thrilling and dangerous life, emphasizing the perils he subjects himself to when human life is at stake. We show the world in this film the every movement of the brave firemen and their perfectly trained horses from the moment the men leap from their beds in response to an alarm until the fire is extinguished and a woman and child are rescued after many fierce

(Text box continued on next page)


battles with flame and smoke. Below we give a description of each of the seven scenes which make up this most wonderful of all fire scenes, "Life of an American Fireman."

Scene 1.—The Fireman's Vision of an Imperilled Woman and Child. The fire chief is seated at his office desk. He has just finished reading his evening paper and has fallen asleep. The rays of an incandescent light rest upon his features with a subdued light, yet leaving his figure strongly silhouetted against the wall of his office. The fire chief is dreaming, and the vision of his dream appears in a circular portrait upon the wall. It is a mother putting her baby to bed, and the inference is that he dreams of his own wife and child. He suddenly awakes and paces the floor in a nervous state of mind, doubtless thinking of the various people who may be in danger from fire at the moment. Here we dissolve the picture to the second scene.

Scene 2.—A Close View of a New York Fire Alarm Box. Shows lettering and every detail in the door and apparatus for turning in an alarm. A figure then steps in front of the box, hastily opens the door and pulls the hook, thus sending the electric current which alarms hundreds of firemen and brings to the scene of the fire the wonderful apparatus of a great city's fire department. Again dissolving the picture, we show the third scene.

Scene 3.—The Interior of the Sleeping Quarters in the Fire House. A long row of beds, each containing a fireman peacefully sleeping, is shown. Instantly upon the ringing of the alarm the firemen leap from their beds and, putting on their clothes in the record time of five seconds, a grand rush is made for a large circular opening in the floor, through the center of which runs a brass pole. The first fireman to reach the pole seizes it and, like a flash, disappears through the opening. He is instantly followed by the remainder of the force. This in itself makes a most stirring scene. We again dissolve the scene, to the interior of the apparatus house.

Scene 4.—Interior of the Engine House. Shows horses dashing from their stalls and being hitched to the apparatus. This is perhaps the most thrilling and in all the most wonderful of the seven scenes of the series, it being absolutely the first motion picture ever made of a genuine interior hitch. As the men come down the pole described in the above scene, and land upon the floor in lightning-like rapidity, six doors in the rear of the engine house, each heading a horse-stall, burst open simultaneously and a huge fire horse, with head erect and eager for the dash to the scene of the conflagration, rushes from each opening. Going immediately to their respective harness, they are hitched in the almost unbelievable time of five seconds and are ready for their dash to the fire. The men hastily scamper upon the trucks and horse carts and one by one the fire machines leave

(Text box continued on next page)


the house, drawn by eager, prancing steeds. Here we dissolve again to the fifth scene.

Scene 5.—The Apparatus Leaving the Engine House. We show a fine exterior view of engine house, the great doors swinging open, and the apparatus coming out. This is a most imposing scene. The great horses leap to their work, the men adjust their fire hats and coats, and smoke begins pouring from the engines as they pass our camera. Here we dissolve and show the sixth scene.

Scene 6.—Off to the Fire. In this scene we present the best fire run ever shown. Almost the entire fire department of the large city of Newark N.J., was placed at our disposal and we show countless pieces of apparatus, engines, hook-and-ladders, horse towers, horse carriages, etc., rushing down a broad street at top speed, the horses straining every nerve and evidently eager to make a record run. Great clouds of smoke pour from the stacks of the engines as they pass our camera, thus giving an impression of genuineness to the entire series. Dissolving again we show the seventh scene.

Scene 7.—The Arrival at the Fire. In this wonderful scene we show the entire fire department, as described above, arriving at the scene of action. An actual burning building is in the center foreground. On the right background the fire department is seen coming at great speed. Upon the arrival of the different apparatus, the engines are ordered to their places, hose is quickly run out from the carriages, ladders adjusted to the windows and streams of water poured into the burning structure. At this crucial moment comes the great climax of the series. We dissolve to the interior of the building and show a bed chamber with a woman and child enveloped in flame and suffocating smoke. The woman rushes back and forth in the room endeavoring to escape, and in her desperation throws open the window and appeals to the crowd below. She is finally overcome by the smoke and falls upon the bed. At this moment the door is smashed in by an axe in the hands of a powerful fire hero. Rushing into the room he tears the burning draperies from the window and smashing out the entire window frame, orders his comrades to run up a ladder. Immediately the ladder appears, he seizes the prostrate form of the woman and throws it over his shoulder as if it were an infant, and quickly descends to the ground. We now dissolve to the exterior of the burning building. The frantic mother having returned to consciousness, and clad only in her night clothes, is kneeling on the ground imploring the firemen to return for her child. Volunteers are called for and the same fireman who rescued the mother quickly steps out and offers to return for the babe. He is given permission to once more enter the doomed building and without hesitation rushes up the ladder, enters the window and after a breathless wait,

(Text box continued on next page)


in which it appears he must have been overcome by smoke, he appears with the child on his arm and returns safely to the ground. The child, being released and upon seeing its mother, rushes to her and is clasped in her arms, thus making a most realistic and touching ending of the series.

Length 425 feet. Class A. $63.75.

SOURCE : Edison Films , February 1903, pp. 2-3.

While documentation of early showings is sparse, Life of an American Fireman was treated as a headliner in New York theaters. Probably first shown at Huber's Museum by the Kinetograph Company, it was soon appearing on Vitagraph programs with The Fireman's Children; or, Chips off the Old Block (apparently an uncopyrighted Edison film made in late 1902 or early 1903).[4] When the Chicago Novelty Company, a small traveling troupe that featured motion pictures and vaudeville, showed the film in Reading, Pennsylvania, they promoted it with the claim that it featured Pennsylvania fire departments in action.[5]

As with Jack and the Beanstalk and earlier Edison films, Porter and his colleagues chose a subject that was in the mainstream of popular culture and screen practice. Bob the Fireman , a twelve-slide lantern show, made in England before the advent of cinema, was still being sold in the United States in 1902-3. It was sufficiently popular to have survived in considerable numbers, with lectures in at least two different languages.[6] Maxwell and Simpson, illustrated song singers, made hits with such titles as "'Fire, Fire and Smoke."[7] The narratives and highly conventionalized imagery of these innumerable shows were transferred to the cinema largely intact. As already discussed, the commercial potential of fire rescue films was established by November 1896 when White produced A Morning Alarm, Going to the Fire , and Fighting the Fire . Edison's September 1902 catalog listed ten fire films under one heading, while others were scattered through its 120 pages.[8]

By early 1902 several multishot films of firefighting had been produced. William Selig had made the 450-foot Life of a Fireman by the end of 1900 and considered this to be his most important negative.[9] Sigmund Lubin's multishot, 250-foot Going to the Fire and Rescue was probably made sometime in 1901:

This is a new film and it is safe to assume that it is an only one of its kind ever made. When the alarm is given the horses are seen to run from their stalls and place themselves in their accustomed places at the wagons. The harness is adjusted, the firemen jump on, and they dash out of the fire house and down the street. The picture changes and the entire apparatus is seen coming at full gallop toward the audience down a long lane. The picture again changes and the fire laddies are again seen rescuing women and children from a burning building, after which, in another change of the picture they are seen to arrive at the fire house, unharness the horses and back the apparatus into the house. This film is animated throughout and the photography is perfect. This is an extraordinary picture of an interesting subject.[10]


Four slides from the lantern show Bob the Fireman. Numbers read backwards to guide projectionist.

As Georges Sadoul has argued, James Williamsoh's four-shot, 280-foot account 'of a fire rescue, Fire! , may have provided Porter with a particularly direct source of inspiration.[11] Yet Sadoul's accusation of imitation' seems overstated. While the last two scenes of both films share many similarities, Porter's "debt" tended toward the pro-filmic elements of set construction and gesture, which were themselves highly conventionalized and hardly originated with Williamson. With Life of an American Fireman , Porter was working within a genre that was among the most advanced in cinema. The popularity of the subject, the very


frequency with which it was filmed and the constant search for novelty were important factors influencing this film's production. By 1901-2, several production companies were already selling multishot fire films. In Life of an American Fireman , Porter exploited this tentative shift toward centralized control and produced a more elaborate and effective story.

One of the most spectacular, if rigid, genres in turn-of-the-century popular culture, the fire rescue cut across many different cultural practices. In 1855 Currier and Ives published a series of prints under the rubric "Life of a Fireman." The same year John E. Millais painted "The Rescue," a narrative painting later appropriated for the lantern show Bob the Fireman as the ninth of twelve slides.[12] "Fighting the Flames," a popular outdoor spectacle first produced for the Paris Exposition of 1900, appeared at Coney Island in 1904, when it was filmed by the Biograph Company.[13] The basic story of Life of an American Fireman found subsequent articulation in A Fireman's Christmas Eve , a theatrical spectacle copyrighted a month after Porter's film and staged at Proctor's 23rd Street Theater that October (see document no. 12). Like everyone else, Porter was working within a well-established genre. It was not narrative as such, but the execution of narrative to achieve novelty, spectacle, and suspense that was of import. At his best, Porter's strength lay in his ability to rework previous formulas in innovative and novel ways. Certainly this was the case with Life of an American Fireman .


Novel Act at Proctor's

"A Fireman's Christmas Eve" Shows Thrilling Scene of the Fire Fighters' Experience.

The 'life of a New York fireman' is shown in a capital novelty introduced at Proctor's Twenty-Third Street Theatre yesterday. It may be described, for want of a better name, as a pictorial drama, with the title "A Fireman's Christmas Eye," suggesting the incidents of the principal scenes.

When the curtain rises a street is shown and the passers-by reflect the varying elements that enter into Metropolitan life. Newsboys, shopmen, and shopgirls go to and fro. Then a little colored newsboy seats himself on the doorstep and falls asleep. The snow falls and night comes on. The policeman on the beat sees the sleeping boy, and taking one of the papers from his bundle, covers him with it to keep off the cold.

Then the scene changes, showing the interior of the fireman's home. The fireman is singing while his wife plays his accompaniment on the organ. The fireman's child plays about the room. The clock strikes the time of departure and the fireman kisses his wife and child good-bye and goes to his duties. The mother undresses the little one, who now toddles

(Text box continued on next page)


off to bed, after having hung up a stocking for the goodies Santa Claus is to bring.

Now the scene again changes, showing the interior of the fire house. Both the main floor and the sleeping room of the men are shown. The fireman comes in, bearing in his arms the little black boy whom he has saved from freezing to death. The boy is revived and at once takes out his dice and begins to shoot craps. Then he 'obliges' with a song and dance, and the firemen, engaged in polishing up their machine, join in the chorus. After bidding the Captain good-night the men ascend to their sleeping room and once again the scene changes.

The fireman's wife is now lighting candles on the Christmas tree. There is a sudden blaze, a shriek, then the cry of fire.

Now the interior of the firehouse is again shown. Down the pole slide the easily awakened fire fighters, the horses come rushing pell mell into their places underneath the suspended harness, and in a twinkling everything is ready for the rush to the fire.

In the next scene the horses and engine are seen apparently on the way to the place of need. The effect is thrilling, a treadmill being used, and the bustle, hurry, and excitement of a run to the fire being admirably suggested. Finally, the burning house is revealed, a fireman rescues the child from an upper room, the net is spread, and the mother leaps to safety, and the blaze is extinguished.

The audience yesterday was stirred to such enthusiasm as might have resulted if they had been witnessing a real fire and real rescues.

The big engine is finally drawn from the stage by the horses, a difficult turn being made completely around the stage. It is a most interesting act and should prove decidedly popular.

SOURCE : New York Times , October 25, 1903, p. 22C. George Pratt, who brought this text to my attention, believes A Fireman's Christmas Eve was written after its author, Claude Hagan, saw Life of an American Fireman . The play was copyrighted February 21, 1903.

The intertextual framework in which this film was made and seen has been briefly sketched. Yet it is at least as important to understand the film within a more general social framework, notably in relation to local fire departments. In his insightful study of Pittsburgh, Francis G. Couvares has discussed the central role that volunteer fire companies played in nineteenth-century "plebeian culture."[14] These organizations drew their membership from the working and middle classes (usually skilled workers, clerks, independent artisans, and shopkeepers). Firefighting was only one aspect of their activities. More generally, they were a part of the informal network of institutions that catered to male sociability—the saloon, tobacco shops, and sporting clubs. Fire companies, moreover, routinely provided entertainment and spectacle for their neighbor-


hoods and cities. Band concerts, dances, picnics, parades, and Fourth of July celebrations were some of the occasions when the local fire department assumed prominent positions in neighborhood and even citywide activities. Representing their town or neighborhood, they often functioned as a symbol of civic pride. Fire engine races and other competitive events between departments both locally and regionally were routine. These departments thus sustained a homosocial, egalitarian environment that was the heart of plebeian culture. Given their crucial position at the intersection of social and cultural activity, and of public and private spheres, fire departments predictably played prominent roles during cinema's early years.

The move from volunteer companies to a professional fire department in the later decades of the nineteenth century tended to undermine the plebeian nature of this institution. Inter-class sociability broke down and institutional ties to the community were inevitably weakened. In the face of increasingly large-scale commercial amusement, the fire department's cultural role lost ground. Nonetheless, a figure like Kansas City fire chief George Hale, the creator of "Fighting the Flames" and then Hale's Tours, reminds us that this tradition was not simply marginalized but simultaneously transformed from within, a process in which cinema actively participated. Hence all those fire films. Motion pictures inevitably involved a loss of control over the image by those being represented. This loss, while slight in the case of local views meant principally for hometown consumption, grew with the ambition of the project. With Life of an American Fireman , local firemen still performed for the camera, demonstrating their skill and manly courage. Yet this spectacle belonged to someone else. The ideology of the picture itself had not shifted (for its filmmakers shared similar values and structures of feeling), but the image was now an alternative to (and ultimately challenged) the mode of production on which plebeian culture relied. A local fire department could not compete with this spectacle, but had to accept more modest aspirations. As a result, its efforts at spectacle become an echo, a pale imitation, of that which it had originally helped to create. Cinema incorporated and then supplanted those efforts. And yet this process was hardly obvious to people appearing in or watching these films. Perhaps it became clearer in the 1910s and 1920s when volunteer fire departments became the focus of denigrating comedies such as The New Fire Chief (Independent Moving Picture Company, 1912) or were subsumed by a larger narrative as in Foolish Wives (1921).

By 1902 the volunteer fire department was excluded from major cities where professional forces operated. Yet even in these metropolitan areas, the fire department remained a symbol of societal cohesion. The urban firefighter was a working-class hero par excellence, an individual who risked his life to save others. He could be admired by fellow members of the working class while presenting a reassuring image to the bourgeoisie as the savior not only of lives but of property. Bridging class divisions at a time when the social framework


was under great stress, Life of an American Fireman and other films of this genre were popular in part because they successfully transcended class and urban/rural divisions, echoing a plebeian sensibility. In heroicizing the American fireman as "the most expert, as well as the bravest, of all fire fighters,"[15] the filmmakers also appealed to American patriotism. Thus the use of four fire departments becomes important, not simply because two were volunteer (Orange, East Orange) and two professional (New York, Newark), but because localism was superseded.

Life of an American Fireman , moreover, allowed for a wide variety of interpretations through the exhibitor's lecture. The Clipper description suggests a simple story in which a fireman thinks of an imperiled woman and child, whom he and his fellow firemen subsequently rescue. The catalog, however, offers a more elaborate account, in which a fire chief dreams of his wife and child, who are in danger. Nor was this perceived simply as coincidence, for the fire chief was a favorite target of deranged "firebugs" (see document no. 13). A fire chief had every reason to envision his family in danger, and every respectable family man could identify with his situation. Depending on the emphasis of his spiel, the showman could privilege either the working-class hero or the chief, a hero of America's new middle class. In either case, Life of an American Fireman , like many of Porter's later films, foregrounded the family and the need for a cohesive society.



Make Three Attempts to Burn His House in Jersey City.

Two attempts were made last night to burn a three-story frame house at 54 Ferry Street, Jersey City, owned by John Conway, Chief of the Fire Department.

The house is occupied by three families. One of the tenants at 6 o'clock found some oil-soaked waste burning in the cellar. Kerosene had been poured on all the stairs from the cellar to the top of the house. The fire was extinguished but an hour later more paper was found burning in another part of the cellar. This also was extinguished.

An attempt was made to fire the same house in March last.

SOURCE : New York Times , September 6, 1901, p. 12.

Representational Practices in Life of an American Fireman

A full appreciation of Life of an American Fireman requires a shot-by-shot analysis. In shot 1, a dream balloon shows the fire chief thinking of a mother


Frames from Life of an American Fireman—two per shot—except for shot 5
 (one frame), shot 6 (3 frames), and shot 7, which is not represented.

and child (a composition with religious overtones), possibly his family. The dream balloon fades away and the fire chief exits. This shot is spatially and temporally independent from the rest of the film. Shot 2 is a close view of a hand pulling down the arm of the fire alarm. There is a temporal overlap at the end of shot 2/beginning of shot 3 as the firemen, at first asleep, jump out of bed in response to the alarm. The firemen, on the second floor of the firehouse, put on their clothes and jump down the fire pole until only one is left. Shot 4, the interior of the engine house with its vaunted interior hitch, was actually filmed in an elaborate outdoor set: the floor is mostly grass. The scene begins as the horses are quickly harnessed to the engines. After a few moments, the firemen come down the fire pole. Here, a more substantial temporal overlap with a redundancy of action is employed between shots 3 and 4. The end of shot 4/ beginning of shot 5 employs yet another overlap. Shot 4 ends with the fire engine racing off forward right. Shot 5 begins with the firehouse doors opening and a fire engine exiting off right. In shots 3, 4, and 5, Porter shows everything


of dramatic interest occurring within the frame. This results in a redundancy of dynamic action—the slide down the pole, the start to the fire—effectively heightening the impact of the narrative. At the same time, the repeated actions clearly establish spatial, temporal, and narrative relationships between shots. It is, as Porter realized, a kind of continuity, but one radically different from the continuity associated with classical cinema.

Shot 6, "Off to the Fire," is a conventional rendering of the fire run and relies on the quantity of fire engines to impress its audience. Narrative consistency is sacrificed to spectacle. In shot 7 a fire engine races by a park. As the fire engine approaches, a pan follows the action, focusing on James White, who jumps off the vehicle in front of a burning building. Again, the moving camera suggests the immediacy of a news film. Convention and narrative continuity rather than continuity of action establish the relationship between shots 7 and 8. Shot 8 shows a bedroom interior as the woman gets out of bed, staggers to the window, and is overcome by smoke. The fireman breaks in the door, enters, and then breaks out the window, where a ladder appears. After carrying out the woman, he immediately returns for the child hidden in the bed covers. The fireman leaves with the child, but quickly returns again with a hose and douses the flame.

Shot 9, using virtually the same camera position as the concluding section of shot 7, shows the same rescue from the outside. The woman leans out the window (in shot 8 she does not lean out the window; however, the gesture is identical) then disappears back inside; the fireman brings her down the ladder; she tells him of her threatened child; he races back up the ladder and returns with the child. As the mother and child embrace in a tableau-type ending, the fireman again ascends with the hose. Shots 8 and 9 show the same rescue from two different perspectives. The blocking is carefully laid out, and continuity of action is more than acceptable. The activities in shot 8 have their counterparts in shot 9 as people move back and forth from inside to outside: the succession of complementary actions tie the two shots together—something Porter did only twice in How They Do Things on the Bowery . While on one level these two shots create a temporal repetition, on another level they each have their own distinct and complementary temporalities, which together form a whole. When the interior is shown, everything happening inside unfolds in "real" time while everything occurring outside is extremely condensed. The reverse is true when showing the rescue from the exterior. In keeping with theatrical conventions, whenever actions take place off-screen, time is elided.

This complementary relationship between shots is a kind of proto-parallel editing involving manipulation of the mise-en-scène instead of manipulation of the film material through decoupage, and manipulation of time over space. While Life of an American Fireman uses familiar spatial constructions, its temporal construction differs radically from matching action and parallel cutting,


which audiences would see only six years later in such Griffith films as The Lonely Villa (1909). The Lonely Villa utilizes a representational system dominated by the linear flow of time, an accomplishment made possible by fragmentation of the mise-en-scène and a rapid shift in shots as the narrative moves back and forth between locations. Life of an American Fireman remained indebted to the magic lantern show, with its well-developed spatial constructions and an underdeveloped temporality. By showing everything within the frame, Porter was, in effect, making moving magic lantern slides with theatrical pro-filmic elements. Shots are self-contained units tied to each other by overlapping action. Ironically, Life of an American Fireman has frequently been praised for its fluidity and the way it condenses time through editorial strategies. The reverse is often true: the action is retarded, repeated.

Life of an American Fireman contains a series of fascinating contradictions. The frontal organization of pro-filmic elements occurring in most scenes is briefly broken in shot 7 by the sweeping camera, which momentarily reveals a "continuous" off-screen spatial world that exists outside the static rectangle of the camera frame. The pervasive presentationalism, indebted to traditional stage practices, is again contradicted by the "omniscient" camera, which views the same actions from two (and if two, why not three, four, or five?) different perspectives. Shots are constructed as discrete, independent units even as they are made subservient to an overall narrative. Having developed strategies that superseded the exhibitor's role as editor, Porter continued to draw upon his own background as an exhibitor by combining scenes of four different fire departments (just as an exhibitor might show a Passion Play using films from four different producers). This syncretic film is caught somewhere between the presentation of simulated reality and a fictional story. This story, which exists to the extent that the fire chief and his vision of wife and child resonate throughout subsequent scenes, is periodically sacrificed to spectacle. The tentative story, therefore, could either be ignored or developed by the showman as he was inclined. As if to compensate exhibitors for their lack of editorial opportunities, the film offered them great latitude in presenting the film. Contradictions such as these inspired Noel Burch's description of Porter as a two-faced Janus who looks backward and forward in time.

The narrative and temporal organization that Porter made explicit in How They Do Things on the Bowery and Life of an American Fireman can be found in many of his later films, including Uncle Tom's Cabin (1903), The Great Train Robbery (1903), The Ex-Convict (1904), The Watermelon Patch (1905), The "Teddy" Bears (1907), and Rescued from An Eagle's Nest (1908). Other filmmakers, notably those working at Biograph, followed Méiès' and Porter's lead in films like Next! (photographed November 4, 1903), A Discordant Note (June 26, 1903), The Burglar ( August 21, 1903), Wanted: A Dog (March 1905) and The Firebug (July 1905). English films like G. A. Smith's Mary Jane's Mishaps


(1903) and Cecil Hepworth's Rescued by Rover (1905) have similar temporal constructions, while Méliès continued to use overlapping action in Le Voyage à travers l'impossible (1904) and Le Mariage de Victorine (1907). Porter and his contemporaries were working within a cultural framework that made this mode of narrative organization intelligible, even "natural," to their audiences.

The narrative procedures in Life of an American Fireman involve structures occurring in different cultural forms at different times. Sergei Eisenstein used brief overlaps in October (1927), but these broke the "seamless" linear continuity of shots that had become part of classical narrative cinema. The procedure may be similar to Porter's, but its function was completely different, for Porter's strategy was to create a greater degree of continuity than had theretofore existed.

The parallels between Life of an American Fireman and medieval French poetrychanson de gesteare extremely provocative. Erich Auerbach, in examining Chanson de Roland and Chanson d'Alexis , notes that "in both we have the same repeated returning to fresh starts, the same spasmodic progression and retrogression, the same individual occurrences and their constituent parts."[16] The description of Roland's death (laisses 174-176) is one example of this narrative technique:

2355  Roland feels that death is overcoming him,
        It descends from his head to his heart.
        He ran beneath a pine tree.
        He lay down prone on the green grass.
        He places his sword and his oliphant beneath him.
2360  He turned his head toward the pagan army:
        He did this because he earnestly desires
        That Charles and all his men say
        That the noble count died as a conqueror.
        He beats his breast in rapid succession over and over again.
2365  He proffered his gauntlet to God for his sins.

        Roland feels that his time is up,
        He is on a steep hill, his face turned toward Spain.
        "Mea culpa, Almighty God,
2370  For my sins, great and small,
        Which I committed from the time I was born
        To this day when I am overtaken here!"
        He offered his right gauntlet to God,
        Angels from heaven descend toward him.

2375  Count Roland lay beneath a pine tree,


        He has turned his face toward Spain.
        He began to remember many things:
        The many lands he conquered as a brave knight,
        Fair France, the men from whom he is descended,
2380  Charlemagne, his lord, who raised him.
        He cannot help weeping and sighing.
        But he does not wish to forget prayers for his own soul,
        He says his confession in a loud voice and prays for God's mercy:
        "True Father, who never lied,
2385  Who resurrected Saint Lazarus from the dead
        And saved Daniel from the lions,
        Protect my soul from all perils
        Due to the sins I committed during my life!"
        He proffered his right gauntlet to God,
2390  Saint Gabriel took it from his hand.
        He laid his head down over his arm,
        He met his end, his hands joined together.
        God sent His angel Cherubin
        And Saint Michael of the Peril,
2395  Saint Gabriel came with them.
        They bear the Count's soul to Paradise.[17]

The laisse is the primary unit of production for chansons de geste ; its equivalent is the shot in turn-of-the-century cinema. Just as Porter showed the same rescue from two different perspectives, so the author of Chanson de Roland used laisses similares to describe the manner in which Roland dies. Certain actions are reiterated: Roland feeling that his time is up (lines 2355 and 2366), beating his breast (2364 and 2369) and offering his gauntlet to God (2365 and 2373). Other actions or speech in laisse 174 are omitted in 175 and new ones added. Both Porter and the chanson's author made use of this technique at climactic moments in their narratives.

Overlapping action, which Porter used throughout Life Of an American Fireman , is frequently encountered in chanson de geste as well, for instance at the end of laisse 164 and beginning of 165:

He [Count Roland] suffered such pain that he could no longer Stand,
Willy-nilly, he falls to the ground
The Archbishop said: "You are to be pitied, worthy knight"

When the Archbishop saw Roland faint,
He suffered greater anguish than ever before.[18]

These congruencies are not simply representational coincidence, but are intimately related to parallel modes of production. Jean Rychner has explored the complex relationship that existed between the performers who sang the epic


poems and the surviving chansons . He concludes that "all the good singers are also improvisers; they created their songs themselves, and, when they did not create them properly speaking, they knew how to combine the songs of others, how to condense several poems into one, how to modify, complete and amplify.[19] The chanson de geste , like the early film program, was an open work, subject to the jongleur's manipulation—with the manipulation of laisses the primary level on which this was accomplished. New laisses could be added or whole sections could be omitted. Elaboration of narrative was not achieved within a simple linear time line but through repetition. Furthermore, with such a system of production, overlapping narrative was an effective way to relate a new or different laisse to the existing narrative.

There are other parallels. Audiences for Chanson de Roland and Life of an American Fireman already knew the story they were seeing and/or hearing. Much of their enjoyment came from relating the individual presentations to the known narrative: appreciation was based on the audiences' ability to judge skill of execution and effectiveness of representation in comparison to previous presentations. Correspondingly, the film producer or jongleur relied on iconographic images, gestures, and phraseology in the creation of scenes and laisses .[20] Images and forms of expression were both highly conventionalized from the perspective of the producer as well as of the audience.

Chanson de Roland and Life of an American Fireman occupy similar places in the respective developments of European literature and the American screen to the extent that both forms were moving toward a new mode of production in which a work had closure and there was a single "author." This was achieved in literature, of course, by a movement toward the written text. Both works are exceptions within their respective forms because of "the unity of subject and internal cohesion,"[21] which placed them at the forefront of these developments. This exploration of convergences, however, is not an attempt to elevate Life of an American Fireman to the status of Chanson de Roland as a work of cultural significance. Chanson de geste developed over a period of centuries and was a major form of cultural expression. The cinema in 1903 was still only one of many forms of popular culture, and the circumstances that conditioned this kind of narrative structuring were short-lived. The Edison Manufacturing Company bore little resemblance to a medieval court: cinema, driven by fierce competition, continued its rapid transformation, quickly developing strategies more consistent with narrative techniques found in other contemporary media, particularly the use of a linear time line. The mode of representation used by Griffith only ten or fifteen years later would be compared to that of Charles Dickens.[22] Yet Life of an American Fireman is emblematic of a crucial moment in film history. It signaled a further shift in the editorial function from exhibitor to production company and a tendency toward producing larger units (i.e., longer and therefore more complex films). Although this can be attributed in some


degree to industrial efficiency, maximizing profit, and the structure of American industry, such pressures were increased exponentially by a new level of narrative organization, often called "the story film." Because story films could be more effectively produced by an organization having greater creative control, the role of the filmmaker was fundamentally constituted as we conceive of it today.

Life of an American Fireman in Film History

Film history is an emerging discipline. It began early, in manuals like Cecil Hepworth's Animated Photographs (1897) and in courtrooms where legal proceedings valorized priority and the myth of the first time. By the 1910s, with the films of the pre-nickelodeon era unavailable and unknown to most people working in the industry, the film pioneers laid claim to various "firsts." Perhaps one of the most enduring has been the assertion that Life of an American Fireman was "the first story film." Porter had this claim presented in the May 1913 issue of Theatre Magazine :

Mr. Porter was the first man to tell a complete story with moving pictures. That was in 1900 when he made the film of Life of an American Fireman for the Edison people. This original story-telling moving-picture reel began with the fireman's home, where he was seen kissing his wife and baby good-bye. Then successively the pictures showed his arrival at the firehouse, sitting at the chief's desk later at night, dozing off and having a vision of his wife and child, the child saying her prayers at the bedside; the fireman awakens and there is a shift to the bedroom, showing the mother putting the child to bed; shift, lamp upset; shift fire alarm box pulled at the street corner; shift inside the firehouse, showing the firemen sliding down the poles and hitching the horses; shift to the bedroom mother unconscious from the smoke; shift fire engines tearing through the street; shift arrival at the chief's own home; putting ladder up with rescue of wife and then the child. This was the first complete story ever told in moving pictures just thirteen years ago.[23]

This article was not simply a case of hazy memory but a calculated attempt to elevate Porter's stature to a level consistent with his position at Adolph Zukor's Famous Players Film Company, where he was head of production. It rewrote history to make Porter's role intelligible—and primary. The revision had two vectors. First, it pushed the film's production date back to 1900, to the time of his arrival at Edison and the first American screenings of Méliès' Cinderella . Second, it described a group of cinematic techniques that could be found only in the most advanced films of 1908-9. While arguing for his place as "a father of the story film," Porter equated it with the highly developed technique of parallel editing and linear continuity that he had never employed at Edison. This fantastic description reveals an embarrassing case of Griffith envy, obscuring the true significance of the film and renouncing the mode of representation on which Porter's Edison films were based.


Terry Ramsaye, consistent with his sympathetic portrayal of Thomas Edison, valorized Porter's claim in A Million and One Nights (1926):

There have been tiny, trivial efforts to use the screen to tell a-story, exemplified by Cecil Hepworth's Rescued by Rover , the adventures of a little girl and a dog, photographed in London, and The Burglar on the Roof made by Blackton and Smith of Vitagraph. They were mere episodes.

Now in the Edison studios, where the art of the film was born, and also where it was best bulwarked against the distractions of the fight for existence, came the emergence of the narrative idea.

James H. White was in charge of Edison's "Kinetograph Department" and Edwin S. Porter, becoming a cameraman, was the chief fabricator of picture material. Between them evolved a five hundred foot subject entitled The Life of an American Fireman .[24]

That Rescued by Rover (1905) is said to precede Life of an American Fireman s only one of many failings in this brief account.

Lewis Jacobs' work on this subject is impressive when placed against Ramsaye's claims. Jacobs unearthed primary source material for The Rise of the American Film (1939), reprinting the catalog description and photographs taken for copyright purposes. The stills, however, were rearranged to conform to modern notions of linear continuity—and to Porter's assertions in this area. Jacobs never tried to resolve the discrepancy between the catalog description and the more elaborate intercutting suggested by his rearrangement of stills. Instead, he praised Porter's contributions in a manner that finally extended Ramsaye's assertions:

If Georges Méliès was the first to "push cinema towards a theatrical way," as he claimed, then Edwin Porter was the first to push cinema towards the cinematic way. Generally acknowledged today as the father of the story film, he made more than fictional contributions to movie tradition. It was Porter who discovered that the art of motion pictures depends on the continuity of shots, not on the shots alone. Not content with Méliès' artificially arranged scenes, Porter distinguished the movies from other theatrical forms and gave them the invention of editing. Almost all motion picture developments since Porter's discovery spring from the principle of editing, which is the basis of motion picture artistry.

By 1902 Porter had a long list of films to his credit. But neither he nor other American producers had yet learned to tell a story. They were still busy with elementary one-shot news events . . ., with humorous bits . . ., with vaudeville skits . . ., scenic views . . . and local topics . . . . None of these productions stood out from the general. Literal and unimaginative, they are significant today mainly as social documents.

. . . Porter therefore concocted a scheme that was as startling as it was different: a mother and child were to be caught in a burning building and rescued at the last moment by the fire department.

Tame though such a plot sounds to us today, it was then revolutionary.[25]


Georges Sadoul, in his Histoire générale du cinema (1948), agrees with Jacobs' "logical" rearrangement of copyright photographs but points out that this gave a total of "eleven shots in the film rather than eight."[26] By breaking the last scene down into five shots, Sadoul presents a clear case of intercutting back and forth between two scenes.

Although Sadoul disagrees with Jacobs over who was "the inventor of editing," both had the same conception of early cinema, one similar to that offered in Theatre Magazine . The Jacobs/Sadoul description of the film was modified in detail rather than principle by the first copy of the film to be recovered, the one at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). The intercutting was even more elaborate than Jacobs or Sadoul had imagined. As Jean Mitry notes in his Histoire du cinéma (1967), "seven scenes decompose into fifteen." From this he concludes:

One may say with more objectivity that if the English have discovered continuity and montage, Porter was the first to understand that the act of cinema depended on this continuity. In effect, the action is followed across several successive shots. This is a contribution which can't be overestimated. With Porter the continuity becomes genetically linked to the drama, at least to the dramatic emotion.[27]

Much film history was written using the Jacobs/Sadoul analysis buttressed by the MoMA print.

A whole generation of historians had become publicly committed to this print when the paper print project at the Library of Congress uncovered a different version of the film. Both versions are essentially identical except for the last scene—scene 7. Scene 7 in the MoMA print makes use of parallel editing and matching action, while the Library of Congress (DLC) version uses a temporal repetition similar to the one in How They Do Things on the Bowery . It is obvious that someone, at some point, intercut the last two shots of the DLC version, following the action as it moves back and forth between interior and exterior, and matching action each time the fireman goes through the window.[28]

Kenneth Macgowan in Behind the Screen (1965) and Gerald Mast in A Short History of the Movies (1976) laid out both versions of the film, favoring the MoMA print but refusing to make any definitive judgments:

It is obvious from the copyright print that the director took just exactly the scenes he needed for intercutting. If he hadn't intended to intercut elaborately, why would he have shot the firemen returning through the window and rescuing the child as well as other firemen entering to put out the fire with the hose? And yet a doubt remains. In the rest of his short films, Porter never used such intricate intercutting again.[29]

There are two conflicting versions of this rescue scene: one of them using the one-shot, cutless method of Méliès, the other using a more complicated editing plan. The rescue scene tells its story from two set-ups: from inside the house (point of view of the wife and child awaiting rescue) and from outside it (point of view of the firemen


making the rescue). In one of the extant versions of the film, the audience sees the whole rescue first from inside the house and then repeated again from outside the house. This method, in the stock tradition of sticking with the focal character throughout, makes little narrative sense. The fireman could not possibly go through the entire rescue operation twice; such games with time would await Alain Resnais's Last Year at Marienbad .[30]

Jacques Deslandes and Jacques Richard dismiss the MoMA version in Histoire comparée du Cinéma (1968), but they do not offer the kind of exhaustive reasoning that might convince others.[31] Some historians, such as William Everson in his American Silent Film (1978), simply avoid the sticky issue by not referring to the film. It is only in the last few years that careful examination and methodology have established the authenticity of the paper print version at the Library of Congress. In 1978 the Museum of Modern Art itself showed the paper print version at the FIAF conference on early cinema in Brighton, England.

The adulteration of Life of an American Fireman was not an isolated case. The copy of Méliès' A Trip to the Moon at the British Film Institute, for example, lacks the overlapping action in which the rocket lands on the moon, conforming instead to more modern notions of linear continuity. In the process, a self-validating system was created. The "modernized" versions of these films supported historians who projected classical cinematic strategies backwards to the origins of a "natural cinematic language" and vice versa. Today it is clear that the DLC paper print version is internally consistent, is consistent with Porter's own development as a filmmaker, and with the development of international cinema during the 1901-7 period. If any doubt remained, the discovery of a print of Life of an American Fireman in northern Maine by the American Film Institute confirmed the authenticity of the paper print version.[32]

Life of an American Fireman was based on a familiar story; its narrative elements occurred and reoccurred across many forms of popular culture. Porter was hardly the father of the story film. The film deserves our attention for its rich accumulation of cinematic techniques. Working within a genre, Porter presents the familiar material in a new and interesting way. The film, however, does not present the world with "the principles of modern film editing"—quite the reverse. It has a special place in film history: it is a coherent, elaborate film that uses cinematic strategies outside the repertoire of later classical cinema. The film shows us that cinema did not develop in a simple, linear direction. It presents a mode of representation that was unstable, transitory, a direction in narrative cinema that was briefly explored, gradually discarded, and then quickly forgotten.

Porter's and White's development as filmmakers through Life of an American Fireman reveals with particular clarity a series of changes taking place within screen practice. The introduction of moving pictures made possible and even encouraged shifts and transformations within the interrelated modes of exhibi-


tion and image production as editorial control and narrative responsibility were increasingly centralized in the production company. These changes in film production and exhibition both helped to produce and were generated by a changing mode of representation with specific strategies for depicting spatial and temporal relations between shots. Obviously these shifts and the subsequent transformation that made them permanent did not happen on a national or international level overnight. As the next chapters make clear, even within the Edison Company itself, A. C. Abadie and then R. K. Bonine continued to shoot short travel scenes that could be bought by lecturers and incorporated into their shows.[33]

The centralization of editorial procedures was gradual and centered on acted story films where the production company needed maximum control over filmic and pro-filmic elements. There was, of course, a real economic incentive for the rationalization of production and exhibition. Not only was it more efficient to manufacture longer, standardized prints than to handle brief scenes that had to be selectively purchased, but most exhibitors were more interested in profits than in retaining or developing their skill as storytellers. Many showmen preferred the production companies to make editorial decisions for them. Yet in certain forms like the travelogue, which did not require continuity of space, time, and action, editorial control remained in the hands of exhibitors for many years to come. Traveling lecturers like Burton Holmes and Dwight Elmendorf continued to create their own shows and remained popular into the 1910s, dominating what would now be called the documentary market. Their travelogues/documentaries lacked precisely those characteristics that made Jack and the Beanstalk and Life of an American Fireman important moments in Porter's development as a filmmaker and in the history of the American screen.


previous chapter
7 A Close Look at Life of an American Fireman: 1902-1903
next chapter