Before the Nickelodeon: The Early Cinema of Edwin S. Porter

Before the Nickelodeon: The Early Cinema of Edwin S. Porter


Before the Nickelodeon, an award-winning and intricately detailed documentary on the genesis of early cinema, focuses on one of the craft's most ingenious pioneers: Edwin S. Porter. The film is based on the research of the leading scholar of early American film, Charles Musser, who also co-wrote and directed it.

Edwin S. Porter (1870-1941), director, cinematographer and cameraman was America's pre-eminent filmmaker before dramatic artistry in film construction became a necessity. He was a product of a system that was emerging out of the years of invention and would feed the thousands of nickelodeons, or cheap cinemas, which mushroomed across American from 1907. For Porter and his kind it was a technician's approach, putting together the pieces of what would succeed as narrative cinema, in the same way as the inventors of cinema's technology had learned how to put motion pictures before an audience. Having played his part, he was naturally succeeded by D. W. Griffith and his contemporaries, who built upon this template, replacing efficiency with poetry.

As narrator Blanche Sweet (one of D. W. Griffith's Biograph starlets) acknowledges, to study Porter's fortunes is to witness the emergence of the American cinema industry and Before the Nickelodeon charts Porter's illustrious career from telephone operator to projectionist and finally prestigious film director.

Porter made over 200 films between 1901 and 1908. His work is often held up as a precursor to Griffith's The Birth of a Nation in establishing the structure and codes of cinematic language and classic filmmaking (Griffith even makes a star appearance in Porter's Rescued from an Eagle's Nest (1908) featured here).

Before the Nickelodeon includes excerpts from the hugely popular and imaginative Life of an American Fireman (1903), Jack and the Beanstalk (1902) and Porter's finest, The Great Train Robbery (1903).

First shown at the New York Film Festival in October 1982, it was complemented in 1991 by Musser's exhaustive book Before the Nickelodeon: Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company (University of California Press).