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8 Story Films Become the Dominant Product: 1903-1904
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Dupes, Remakes, Copycatting, and Cheap Productions

During the spring and summer of 1904, the Kinetograph Department avoided production of narrative "features," just when such activities were increasing at other studios. Duping foreign subjects not covered by copyright continued to be viewed as a less expensive and surer way to provide customers with dramatic headliners. When, as sometimes happened, an American competitor put out a popular film protected by copyright, Porter was asked to imitate it. Whatever the reasons—objective business analyses of costs and sales, changes in management, disorganization, complacency, or Porter's lack of a collaborator—the Kinetograph Department became inordinately derivative.

Porter and his associates turned out a mixture of short comedies, human interest films, and news topicals. Dog Factory , photographed in the studio on April 15th, was a simple variation on the often used circus gag (filmed by Lumière and others) in which dogs were turned into sausages. Porter gave the gag a new twist: sausages were turned into dogs. The subject sold forty-two prints during the 1904 business year. The following week Porter remade Biograph's A Farmer Who Can't Let Go (shot May 3, 1900):


Several farmers are discussing politics in a country store. A bunco man enters and takes an electric battery from a bag. He induces the Rubes to join hands and take hold of the handles. The current is turned on and they go through some very funny stunts, while the bunco man goes through their pockets, taps the till, and makes a hasty exit. 160 feet.[105]

Here a swindler uses modern, urban technology to outwit naive farmers. In this simple variation on the rube's visit to the large city, the countryside is now


invaded by dynamic and dangerous modernity. The subject, however, sold only a dozen prints during 1904.

One comedy, to which Terry Ramsaye has devoted much printer's ink,[106] was commissioned by Lew Dockstader for his minstrel show. Never intended for the Edison catalog, it was neither copyrighted nor appears in records at the Edison National Historic Site. Our knowledge is based on the fortuitous: something went wrong. Dockstader's short film, shot in Washington on the morning of May 19, 1904, was to be inserted into his show, following a scene in which a black-faced minstrel surveyed the countryside from a balloon and made amusing observations. At a crucial moment Dockstader was to fall out of the balloon, and the film would begin with him, in minstrel shoes and outfit, sprawled on the Capitol steps. One witness to the event explained,

I saw this made-up negro walk off and chalk a place on the asphalt, within range of the camera, I suppose, then fall down. Up drives the other carriage and the fellow dressed as the President steps out, and with his coachman lifts Mr. Negro into the carriage. There is a great deal of bowing and hat tipping, and the exchanging of cigars, and of course the picture machine kept on taking it in. The act was done over, so as to make sure, I suppose.[107]

The event created grave concern and front-page news in New York and Washington. Roosevelt, who was facing reelection, had recently had lunch with Booker T. Washington at the White House, to the distress of southern whites. Many were concerned that Dockstader's film would be used to exploit the incident for political purposes.[108] Washington police looked for laws under which they might arrest the minstrel man. Investigators were sent to New York, where they confronted Porter and demanded the film be turned over. Porter handed them a roll, which the law officers promptly exposed to the light. While the police believed that they destroyed the undeveloped negative, the ruined film was actually a blank: the subject was saved until Edwin Porter's personal archive burned in a fire at the Famous Players' studio ten years later.[109]

A week after the Dockstader escapade and ten days after Coney Island's Luna Park opened for the summer season, Porter photographed Elephants Shooting the Chutes at Luna Park , showing a new amusement considered by many to be "more wonderful than any of the other new features at Coney Island from a spectacular standpoint."[110] The subject may have been extraordinary, but Porter had taken that type of film many times before. On May 28th he shot Inter-Collegiate Athletic Association Championships, 1904 in Philadelphia with A. C. Abadie. Intertitles were used to introduce the various track and field events. This and Inter-Collegiate RegattaPoughkeepsie, New York, 1904 , which he filmed alone between June 25th and 28th, attracted little interest, selling only two copies each.

Abadie, who had been inactive during the winter, resumed work in early May


Table 2.
Edison Film Production, March-July 1904

Subject type

Number in category

Negative feet

Print feet

Print to neg. ratioa


40 (82%)

5,045 (68%)

42,915 (38%)



9 (18%)

2,335 (32%)

69,560 (62%)







a Includes only sales of prints for the 1904 business year (March 1, 1904, to February 29, 1905).

by taking a series of scenes at the 101 Ranch in Bliss, Oklahoma Territory. Acts seen in Wild West shows were filmed in natural surroundings. Bucking Broncos sold almost fifty prints over the next two years. Other films, such as Brush Between Cowboys and Indians , did not sell nearly as well. During July he filmed topicals including Pollywogs, 71st Regiment, N.G.S.N.Y., Initiating Raw Recruits in Peekskill, New York, and Parade, Mystic Shriners, Atlantic City, New Jersey . These were hardly novel additions to the Edison catalog.

In August 1904 Porter filmed Fire and Flames at Luna Park, Coney Island , a simple one-shot film of the spectacle "Fire and Flames." Biograph had earlier photographed a similar spectacle at a rival amusement park, Dreamland. Of the two, Biograph's Fighting the FlamesDreamland is the more elaborate.[111] Porter's film did little more than meet the requirements of Edison executives, who saw the film as an effective means of competition. Despite its limitations, the Edison film sold thirty-six copies over the next two years.

The composition and distribution of Edison productions for the March—July 1904 period can be analyzed using a surviving survey of Edison film sales during the years 1904-6. The data are given in table 2. Two features (The Buster Brown Series and Skirmish Between Russian and Japanese Advance Guards ) sold 45,595 feet struck from 1,275 feet of negative, for a print/negative ratio of 35.8 to one. These two films, listed above in the staged/fiction category, were 4 percent of the listed subjects and 17 percent of the negative footage but accounted for over 40 percent of total film sales. This statistical analysis would be significantly altered if information about dupes was available. Such a revised analysis would reinforce what is already clear from the table: staged/fiction "headliners" were the most popular (and potentially profitable) types of productions.

By the summer of 1904, the Edison Company had abdicated its position as America's foremost motion picture producer to the American Mutoscope & Biograph Company. Biograph had recognized the importance of fiction headliners and had begun regular "feature" production by mid 1904. With Wallace McCutcheon acting as producer, Biograph's staff made Personal in June, The


Moonshiner in July, The Widow and the Only Man in August, The Hero of Liao Yang in September, and The Lost Child and The Suburbanite in October.[112] These headliners were all enthusiastically received by the vaudeville-going public. They were not offered for sale, however, but kept for exclusive use on the company's exhibition circuit. Biograph was perhaps the first company, certainly the first company in America, to make regular "feature" production the keystone of its business policy.

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