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Before the Nickelodeon: Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company.

Until recently, film historians viewed the rise of a Hollywood style as inevitable. They argued for a classical Hollywood form beginning with D. W. Griffith in 1909, unaffected by competing entertainment fields or structural changes in the film business. The rich and varied period before Griffith was dismissed as "primitive." Scholars examined the earliest films only to search for precedents for later stylistic innovations.

Charles Musser sets out to counter this ahistorical approach by focusing on the Edison film company and on its most famous employee, Edwin Porter, the director of The Great Train Robbery. Arguing against the traditional view of film as a medium unto itself, Musser treats art and business as part of the same story and finds precedents for Porter's film innovations in vaudeville and other media. The result is an important step toward revising traditional film history's exclusive focus on aesthetic modernization in favor of a more historically grounded portrait of the medium's early development.

Musser's greatest contribution lies in his well-researched account of Porter's early career as principal cameraman and director at Edison. Musser demonstrates how Porter's background as a vaudeville film and lantern-slide projectionist provided him with the creative material for an innovative production program at Edison. At first, Musser argues, viewers saw film exhibition as continuous with the magic lantern transparencies popular in nineteenth-century theater. As they had with lantern scenes, early film projectionists arranged multiple-film "view" programs with lantern dissolves from one "view" to the next. Musser convincingly finds the origins for Porter's crucial shift at Edison from single-shot views to multiple-shot narratives in the local projectionist's techniques for knitting together a long program out of series of film or lantern views. Musser argues that Porter's innovative combinations of single shots into larger studio productions like The Great Train Robbery had an important impact on the industry; the longer narratives allowed the Edison company to take the control of images away from the projectionist--who had assembled packages of views locally--and to concentrate creative decision making at the central studio.

Musser also suggests that the longer narratives encouraged the development of a market for film outside vaudeville in the new nickelodeon theater. In reaction to the nickelodeon's demand for new film product, top Edison officials worked to build more hierrachical lines of authority into the production process. Musser describes this reorganization as Porter's undoing, arguing that his working style of collaboration and informal management was ill-suited to the Edison company's new management philosophy. Porter left Edison in 1909.

Musser's attribution of Porter's departure to his collaborative style, however, points to an important secondary theme that seems to be in conflict with Musser's larger story: the author's insistence on the determinative role played in Porter's later work by his birth into a preindustrial middle class. He supports this analysis by a brief description of Porter's early life among the mercantile class of Connellsville, Pennyslvania (whom he describes as operating outside the "capital-labor dialectic"). He then reads this schematic biography into the later work, periodically asserting (with scant documentation in an otherwise meticulously research text) that Porter's collaborative style and administrative character were rigidly shaped by his preindustrial middle-class mentality.

This portrait of Porter as a backward-looking member of the rural middle class is undone, however, by the book's denouement, which describes Porter's successful career after Edison. Porter was a cofounder of Rex Film Company, later incorporated as a constituent part of Universal. Selling out of Rex, he moved on to Zukor's Famous Players (the precursor to Paramount), from which he finally retired as head of production in 1915. Although Porter ultimately received $800,000 for his share of Famous Players, Musser makes no attempt to reconcile this later good fortune with the earlier psychologies portrait of Porter as most comfortable outside the "capital-labor dialectic."

Musser carefully dismantles the idea of primitive film as a naturally evolvin form. At the same time, however, he constructs a creative persona for Porter that is rooted in an organic, naturalized conception of class and economic identity. Musser uses the figure of the Janus face, with its two fixed positions facing forward and back, to suggest Porter's backward collaborative orientation amid a modernizing industry. But the Janus face would pinpoint Porter's identity on two preset positions backward and forward (primitive and modern) when in fact, as Musser convincingly proves in his discussion of Porter's narrative innovations, the medium's course of aesthetic development was a not a monolithic natural process that followed a preset path from primitive to modern. Musser's account of class as dictating creative production remains a minor theme, however; it does not seriously undermine his closely argued portrayal of Porter as a hestitant innovator negotiating his way through changing cultural and economic institutions.
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Author:Kerr, Catherine
Publication:Business History Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1992
Words:786
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