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Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Board That 1903 Train

The Movie Ride That's Lasted Longest

Made wayyy back in 1903, and it's still good. Like A Trip To The Moon, The Great Train Robbery is an antique you can get out and actually entertain an audience with. It moves fast, has lots of action, and is "quaint" in that way civilians like their silent movie experience to be. Bonus is fact the thing is in color, as in hand-tinted effects from beginning to end. The Great Train Robbery is perfect appetizer for old-timey picture shows, a bite-size ten minutes with every element westerns would use from then on. Teachers ought to play it first day of any film history or appreciation class. Blackhawk had 8/16mm prints and our public library kept one from purchase of a BH lot in 1969. That's when I saw GTR whole for a first time. Prior to that, there were frame captures published in Griffith and Mayer's seminal book, The Movies. Everybody knew this was "The First Movie Ever Made" (twasn't), but I'm willing enough to keep calling it that, as I likes my history simple. So did exhibs from '03 onward when they revived The Great Train Robbery. The shoot-'em-up reel was back and back again whenever time came to dredge dawn of century pic shelves. Edison's antique stayed good for a laff and to show how far we'd progressed.

Just Another Program Western --- But Ennobled By The Title
It Bore --- Note Too The Disclaimer

Sometimes The Great Train Robbery got a mighty push like one accorded in 1939 by New Orleans' Globe Theatre, a 600 seater opened in 1917. Note fact that GTR is featured attraction on the bill, brand-new The Roaring Twenties playing in support. "The First Feature Picture With A Plot" says the Globe's ad, "Presented Exactly As It Was Produced in 1903." Was the '39 audience surprised when The Great Train Robbery began and ended within ten minutes? To further rouse memory, there would come a feature-length Great Train Robbery in 1941, well, 65 minutes anyway, starring Bob Steele, and for Republic Pictures release. A remake? Not according to synopsis at the IMDB, but title choice was clever, and I'll bet a lot of old-timers dropped in for the trip back. As to more of that, 1946 saw '03's train robbed again when the Wake Theatre in Raleigh, N.C. saluted "Good Old Days" for a Sunday-Monday goody bag from Granddad's day. Would '46 patrons come to cheer or jeer? This was well before early silents were accepted as anything other than novelty, so I'd suspect the latter. Toward modern-day access to The Great Train Robbery, there is a 100th Anniversary DVD, along with inclusion in an Edison box from Kino. It's also all over You Tube.


Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

I was lucky enough to get "the tour" of the Library of Congress's Packard Center for Audio-Visual Preservation, along with several other film scholars and historians. Brought into a nitrate vault ("Pretty durn cold, ain't it?" Tex Avery might've said), when the guide held up a roll of film and pronounced it the original camera negative for THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, we all looked on in awe. That's one film you CAN'T get jaded about.

10:07 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Seems like I read how the camera negaive existed for that, but to actually see it ... wow.

12:29 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

I have a feeling audiences cheered. The film is straight forward action with no ham.

1:56 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer reflects on change between The Great Train Robbery's arrival in 1903 and its 1939 encore ...

What's mind boggling is how far removed "The Great Train Robbery" must have seemed to an audience in 1939, just 36 years after it was made. It might have as well come from another time or another world. For us, would a film made in the 1980s seem quite so dated? Things have changed, certainly, but not to that degree. You might as well compare a man in his thirties with the baby he was, as this film with the fare of the 1930s.

3:11 PM  
Blogger Chris H. said...

Interesting article, Mr. McElwee!

My first experience of viewing "The Great Train Robbery" (1903) was with my family at the Thomas Edison National Historic Site in West Orange, New Jersey (during the summer of 1998). It was shown in an adjacent theater at the site, along with several other Edison films (including a documentary on the inventor).

I re-discovered it on the Library of Congress's "American Memory" website several years after. Unfortunately, my film appreciation class in college did a poor job of covering early cinema, but my High School television production class had a brief overview on the subject.

My instructor showed us a copy of "The Great Train Robbery" (in 2005, from a cheap indie DVD that was sourced off the Library of Congress's downloadable copy)- but with a synthesized music score.

Most recently, archivist Rick Prelinger and the Internet Archive has put the Blackhawk Films version online (which can be found in the "Prelinger Archives" section at

Edwin S. Porter's cinematic masterpiece should be seen by all generations.

4:51 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson considers various things that got a start with "The Great Train Robbery":

There was the 1978 movie with that title, a slick British period piece starring Sean Connery. The title still registered as iconic, but by then I suspect comparatively few people connected it with the original.

The opening credits of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" are set against a slightly too-polished pastiche of the Edison film (modern angles and editing, careful continuity). This was salvaged from a deleted scene, where Butch and Sundance go to a picture show in Bolivia and see a crude dramatization based on themselves -- ending, like Edison's film, with their screen selves killed.

Also, Edison's film has that moment where a tenderfoot is encouraged to tap dance by cowboys shooting at his feet. I know that remained a stock gag in western-themed cartoons and comedies for decades; was it already a joke here? Was there ever a "real" western that pulled that one? I mean the actual dancing; not just the grubby henchmen rattling a waiter or piano player.

4:53 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

That "Good Old Days" package was actually assembled in 1943 by a New York states-rights distributor, Equity Film Exchanges. Theaters that booked it played up the "nostalgia" angle with appropriate decorations. GOOD OLD DAYS went "wide" in late 1944 when a major circuit picked it up and went all out with the ballyhoo, using circus methods to promote it (horses and buggies, hundreds of fake mustaches, kids running around town as Keystone Cops, etc.).

I suspect this prompted two Boston entrepreneurs, Joseph E. Levine (yes, that Joseph E. Levine) and Loew's executive Max Finn, to compile a similar "old-time movie" package, GASLIGHT FOLLIES, which made its bow in 1945.

6:04 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I can back up Michael; I was lucky enough to tour the Library of Congress's nitrate vaults when they were still at Wright-Paterson Air Force Base, and they brought out that "Great Train Robbery" camera negative. I was a first-year student in the NYU Moving Image Archiving & Preservation program, and it was genuinely thrilling to see it. Now, when I give workshops on preservation, and people talk about film as being fragile, that's the example i cit.

7:56 AM  
Blogger tbonemankini said...

The 79 film is THE FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY and it evokes the British mail train robbery of the 60s....not really anything to do with the Porter film.

5:13 PM  

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