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The Railway Subgenre: Spectator as Passenger

To be fully appreciated, The Great Train Robbery must be situated within the travel program's railway subgenre. The railroad and the screen have had a special relationship, symbolized by the Lumières' famous Train Entering a Station (1895) and half a dozen other films. Both affected our perception of space and time in somewhat analogous ways. Describing the shift from animal-powered transportation to the railroad, Wolfgang Schivelbusch has remarked: "As the natural irregularities of the terrain that were perceptible on the old roads are replaced by the sharp linearity of the railroad, the traveler feels that he has lost contact with the landscape, experiencing this most directly when going through a tunnel. Early descriptions of journeys on the railroad note that the railroad and the landscape through which it runs are in two separate worlds."[79] The traveler's world is mediated by the railroad, not only by the


compartment window with its frame but by telegraph wires, which intercede between the passenger and the landscape. The sensation of separation that the traveler feels on viewing the rapidly passing landscape has much in common with the theatrical experience of the spectator. It is not surprising, therefore, that an important subgenre of the travelogue centered on the train. This equation of train window with the screen's rectangle found its ultimate expression with Hale's Tours.

In the 1890s illustrated lectures, often known as "lantern journeys," featured railroads as the best way to reach and view American scenery. These frequently created a spatially coherent world with views of the train passing through the countryside, of the traveler/lecturer in the train, of scenery that could be seen out the window or from the front of the train, and finally of small incidents on sidings or at railway stations. The railroad, which carried its passengers through the countryside, was ideally suited for moving the narrative forward through time and space. John Stoddard and other lecturers presented these journeys as alternatives to travel for those who lacked the time, money, or fortitude for such undertakings.[80] Offering personal accounts of their adventures, these professional voyagers were figures with whom audiences could identify and from whom they could derive vicarious experience and pleasure. Audience identification with showman Burton Holmes took place on three levels—with the traveler shown by the camera to be within the narrative—a subject of the camera; with the showman as the cameraman—the producer of images of a certain quality; and, finally, as a speaker at the podium—with a certain voice and narrational perspective. The point-of-view shot out the window or from the front of a train was privileged in such a system because it conflated camera, character, and narration.

The introduction of moving pictures reinforced the parallels between train travel and projected image. "According to Newton," observes Schivelbusch, "'size, shape, quantity and motion' are the only qualities that can be objectively perceived in the physical world. Indeed, those become the only qualities that the railroad traveler is now able to observe in the landscape he travels through. Smells, sounds, not to mention the synesthetic perceptions that were part of travel in Goethe's time, simply disappear."[81] This new mode of perception, which is initially disorienting, then pleasurable, is recreated as the moving pictures, taken by a camera from a moving train, are projected onto the screen.

The epiphany of going through a tunnel likewise found a prominence in this subgenre that matched its significance in train travel. An early review of such a film begins by contrasting the resulting effect to an earlier moving picture novelty derived from pre-cinema lantern shows—the onrushing express:

The spectator was not an outsider watching from safety the rush of the cars. He was a passenger on a phantom train ride that whirled him through space at nearly a mile a minute. There was no smoke, no glimpse of shuddering frame or crushing wheels.


What Happened in the Tunnel. Outwitted and humiliated,
 the "masher" tries to hide behind a newspaper.

There was nothing to indicate motion save that shining vista of tracks that was eaten up irresistibly, rapidly, and the disappearing panorama of banks and fences.

The train was invisible and yet the landscape swept by remorselessly, and far away the bright day became a spot of darkness. That was the mouth of the tunnel, and toward it the spectator was hurled as if a fate was behind him. The spot of blackness became a canopy of gloom. The darkness closed around and the spectator was being flung through that cavern with the demoniac energy behind him. The shadows, the rush of the invisible force and the uncertainty of the issues made one instinctively hold his breath as when on the edge of a crisis that might become a catastrophe.[82]

As this novelty wore off, phantom rides became incorporated into the travel narrative, enabling the showman to literalize the traveler's movement through time and space.

The railway subgenre soon incorporated short scenes for comic relief. G. A. Smith made a one-shot film of a couple kissing in a railway carriage—a gag that had comic strip antecedents. He suggested that showmen insert Kiss in the Tunnel into the middle of a phantom ride, after the train had entered the tunnel. Unlike the structuring strategies suggested by Selig,[83] comedy and scenery were contained within the same fictional world. Ferdinand Zecca's Flirt en chernin de fer (1901) was intended for the same use, but rather than require the entrance


A Romance of the Rail. Not only does Phoebe Snow wear a white gown on the Lackawanna 
Railroad, but tramps ride the rails in their evening dress and decline a dusting off from the
 astounded conductor.

of the train into a dark tunnel, Zecca matted in a window view of passing countryside. A Lubin film, Love in a Railroad Train (1902), depicts a male traveler's unsuccessful attempts to sneak a kiss from a woman passenger. When they emerge from the tunnel, it turns out that he is kissing her baby's bottom.[84] Porter combined a variation on Lubin's gag with Zecca's use of a matte to make What Happened in the Tunnel . A forward young lover (G. M. Anderson) tries to kiss the woman sitting in front of him when the train goes into the tunnel but ends up kissing her black-faced maid instead. The two women, who anticipate his attempt and switch places, have a laugh at his expense. The substitution of a black maid for a baby's bottom suggests the casual use of demeaning racial stereotypes in this period. What Happened in the Tunnel was the last film Porter made before The Great Train Robbery : its matte shot served as an experiment for similar efforts (scenes 1 and 3 of the headliner).

A Romance of the Rail , filmed in August but not copyrighted until October 3, 1903, elaborated on the comic interlude. To counter its image as a coal carrier, the Lackawanna Railroad, known as "The Road of Anthracite," developed an advertising campaign in which passenger Phoebe Snow, dressed in white, rode the rails and praised the line's cleanliness in such slogans as:

Says Phoebe Snow, about to go
Upon a trip to Buffalo:
"My gown stays white from morn till night
Upon the Road of Anthracite."[85]

A Romance of the Rail lightheartedly spoofs not only the slogans but the advertisements' photographic illustrations. Like Rube and Mandy at Coney Island , the film combines scenery and comic relief. The narrative is clearly paramount


as Phoebe Snow meets her male counterpart (also dressed in white) for the first time at a railway station. They fall in love and marry in the course of a brief ride, spoofing romantic associations with train travel. Scenery is pushed into the background, except in the fourth shot, where the camera framing gives equal emphasis to the scenery and the couple, who are, like the spectator, watching the scenery. Although Romance of the Rail has a beginning, middle, and end, it lacks strict closure since exhibitors often inserted the film into a program of railway panoramas. The ratio and relative importance of scenery to story were left to their discretion.

Audiences for these films continued to assume the vicarious role of passenger. One moment they would be looking at the scenery from the train; at another they would be looking at the antics of fellow passengers. Hale's Tours made this convention explicit by using a simulated railway carriage as a movie theater, with the audience sitting in the passenger seats and the screen replacing the view from the front or rear window. This theater/carriage came complete with train clatter and the appropriate swaying. The superrealism of the exhibition strategy was adumbrated by bits of action along the sidings and in the train, which contradicted the suggestion of a fixed point of view. Coherence was sacrificed in favor of variety and a good show. Whether What Happened in the Tunnel or A Romance of the Rail were used in the first Hale's Tour Car at Electric Park in Kansas City during the summer of 1905 is not known, but such use would seem logical.[86] When Hale's Tours became a popular craze in 1906, however, these films were advertised again in the trades as "Humorous Railway Scenes" with this purpose specifically in mind.[87]

The Great Train Robbery brought the railway subgenre to new heights. During the first eight scenes, the train is kept in almost constant view: seen through the window, as a fight unfolds on the tender, from the inside of the mail car, by the water tower, or along the tracks as the cab is disconnected and the passengers are relieved of their money. Although the film was initially shown as a headliner in vaudeville theaters with its integrity intact, it was also introduced by railway panoramas in Hale's Tours—type situations. The spectators start out as railway passengers watching the passing countryside, but they are abruptly assaulted by a close-up of the outlaw Barnes firing his six-shooter directly into their midst. (This shot was shown either at the beginning or end of the film. In a Hale's Tours situation it would seem more effective at the beginning, in a vaudeville situation at the end as an apotheosis.) The viewers, having assumed the role of passengers, are held up. The close-up of the outlaw Barnes reiterates the spectators' point of view, brings them into the subsequent narrative, and intensifies their identification with the bandits' victims. Since this shot is abstracted from the narrative and the "realistic" exteriors of earlier scenes, the title that the Edison catalog assigned to this shot—"Realism"—might at first appear singularly inappropriate.[88] Yet the heightening of realism in twentieth-century


cinema has been associated not only with a move toward greater naturalism but with a process of identification and emotional involvement with the drama. It is this second aspect of realism that the close-up intensifies.

The process of viewer identification with the passengers in a Hale's Tour presentation of The Great Train Robbery was overdetermined: introductory railway panoramas, reinforced by the simulated railway carriage and the close-up of Barnes, turned viewers into passengers. These strategies of viewer identification coincided with the viewer's social predisposition to side with responsible members of society being victimized by lawless elements. The second portion of the film, however, breaks with the railway subgenre and this overdetermination and becomes a chase. The presence of the passengers is forgotten. Music or simulated gunshots, rather than railway clatter, became the appropriate sound effects.[89] The breakdown of the viewer-as-passenger strategy, always just below the surface of the railway genre, was complete by the end of the film. This breakdown subsequently occurred on an entirely different level as well. Adolph Zukor, who would work with Porter ten years later, managed a Hale's Tours car in Herald Square during the early stages of his motion picture career. After the venture's initial success, he began to lose money until the customary phantom rides were followed by The Great Train Robbery . Although this combination revived his customers' interest and his own profits, Zukor eventually replaced the simulated carriage with a more conventional storefront theater.[90]

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