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Audiences Liked The Great Train Robbery

This picture, directed and scripted by Edwin S. Porter, introduced the first cinematic cowboy star, Bronco Billy Anderson. Anderson plays several roles in this action-packed depiction of outlaws ambushing a steam train. A breakthrough achievement in motion picture history, this film stood out at the time for its length, its choice of genre (the "western"), as well as technical advancements, including its use of close-ups and Porter's decision to move the camera from side-to-side (what we now refer to as "panning"). Mandatory viewing for the cinephile.

“The Great Train Robbery” has the honorable distinction of being the first Western movie.  When it was shown a week before Christmas in December, 1903, there wasn’t a lot of promotion about the film or any real anticipation from audiences for its showing. 

“The Great Train Robbery” was quietly added to the end of a vaudeville act at the Huber’s Museum in New York.  There was no red carpet; no flashbulbs or blazing marquee. The Great Train Robbery premiered without fanfare between stage acts in a rundown Manhattan vaudeville house.

Initially, the patrons at the theatre were indifferent to the movie, but as it played, they became more interested in watching it.  By the time “The Great Train Robbery” finished, the audience shouted “Play it again!”   and the theatre did.  They played “The Great Train Robbery” three more times and finally had to turn the lights on to get the audience to leave.  Movie history was made!  The western film was born!

The Great Train Robbery was an immediate sensation. Audiences were gripped by the fast action, realistic depiction of the Old West and Barnes' threatening gunshot. Viewers even flinched when a raging train seemed to be aimed directly at them.

Movies were struggling out of the penny arcade era at the time. Hundreds of nickelodeons were springing up in converted storefronts and meeting halls across the land, where folks would watch film snippets of prize fights, acrobatics, freak shows and an occasional documentary-style short. But audiences wanted stories. Robbery delivered, becoming the first surefire movie attraction and remaining the most successful film for more than a decade until D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation" was released in 1915.

The Great Train Robbery, 1903

Unlike previous films made during that time, “The Great Train Robbery” told a story.  It was partly based on the true story about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s robbery of a train in the West.  Similar to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s gang, the outlaws in “The Great Train Robbery” robs the train and its passengers. They then escape by detaching the train engine and riding away. In real life, Butch and his gang got away with their crime.  But in “The Great Train Robbery,” the gang is chased down by a town posse.  The gang members are killed and the money is recovered.  Justice, western-style, is done.

The driving force behind the making of “The Great Train Robbery” was none other than famous American inventor, Thomas Edison.  Thomas Edison had been working for years on a machine to show movies.  He even purchased the rights to another inventor’s machine so that he could make the best movie machine on the market. 

Broncho Billy Anderson, 1908.alt="The Great Train Robbery, 1903" title="The Great Train Robbery, 1903"

However, in order to sell more of his machines, Thomas Edison knew that he needed lots of films to show on them, so he created a movie division.  In 1899, he hired Edwin S. Porter to help make these films. Porter saw the creative opportunities that making movies offered, so he became an ardent filmmaker that ultimately helped the entire newly-emerging movie industry leap forward.

The arrangement between Edison and Porter was excellent and they complemented each other very well.  Thomas Edison focused on the machine, whereas Edwin Porter focused on the films.  Each man was gifted in his area of expertise. 

In the early days of movie making, people who were making movies used them to record activity.  For example, someone doing a magic trick is something that an early movie might show. Porter, however, thought that movies could be used to do much more.  He envisioned using movies to tell a visual stories with a complete storyline. So, when Porter made “The Great Train Robbery”, his goal was to tell a story and he thought that one about a train holdup in the west would be an excellent starting point.  How right he was! 

George Barnes

Besides the breakthrough story-telling feature, another reason audiences liked “The Great Train Robbery” was because of the shooting scene at the end of the film.  In this last scene, actor George Barnes plays a bandit who takes his gun, points it directly at the camera and shoots it.  Smoke pours out of the gun barrel, men shriek, women faint. The gun fired, but no sound was heard, except for the pounding of an upright piano. This movie scene has now become famous.

When people in the audience saw Barnes point his gun directly at them, they ducked and screamed.  They had never seen anything like this before and their natural reaction was to duck.  Afterwards, when members of the audience realized that it was just a movie scene, they laughed in amusement and wanted to see it again.

Porter found his Wild West in New Jersey near the historic West Orange laboratory where Edison invented the motion picture. The Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad granted use of a train and tracks on the Passaic River for Robbery's rail sequences. (Viewers even flinched when a raging train seemed to be aimed directly at them.)

A major scene called for the robbers to throw a crew member, actually a dummy, from the train as it crossed over a high bridge. The dummy landed in the path of a speeding trolley car below. The trolley engineer slammed on the brakes, tossing passengers to the floor. A small riot broke out when the ruse was discovered — probably the first instance of locals being frustrated by location filming.

Broncho Billy Anderson in early Western, 1907.

The locations used to shoot The Great Train Robbery have been all but obliterated over the years, says Steven Gorelick, associate director of the New Jersey Motion Picture and Television Commission. But, he adds, "The truth is, we don't know precisely, because there is no record of where it was shot."

As the first Western movie, it is also fitting that the first western movie star, Broncho Billy Anderson, is one of the actors in “The Great Train Robbery.”  Broncho Billy can be seen in three movie scenes in the film. G.M. "Broncho Billy" Anderson is generally credited with developing the cowboy persona in silent film, particularly with creating the "good badman" type of character. The earliest manifestation of this is in his 1908 film Broncho Billy and the Baby.

Broncho Billy, the outlaw, discovers and injured child and returns it to its parents; the parents introduce him to the Bible, and Broncho Billy is reformed. However, since the earliest Western heroes were modelled on James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking, Broncho Billy can't stay to enjoy society in his reformed state, but must return to the wilderness and his solitary existence.

Broncho Billy Anderson, Cowardly Brother.

In numerous one reel dramas from 1910 to 1916, Broncho Billy set the standards for Western cowboys: shy with the ladies, good with a gun, fearless in the face of evil, and daring on a horse. He also began the practice of colorful names for Western heroes, and was followed by cowboys named Tex, Hoot, Sunset, Crash, Whip, and Red.

Anderson was born Max Aronson maybe in Pine Bluff, but according to biographer David Kiehn probably in Little Rock. Mr. Kiehn didn't have an actual birth record, but he found two-month-old Max listed as a Little Rock resident in the 1880 census. Anderson claimed both towns as his birthplace at one time or another. There are similar doubts about the date of birth. Sources variously say March 10th or 21st, 1880 or 1882. At about the age of three Max and the family moved from Pine Bluff to St. Louis.

About 1900 he moved back to Pine Bluff to learn from his brother-in-law the ins and outs of buying and selling cotton. He didn't like it much and he tried his hand at theatre and vaudeville. According to the Maskell correspondence referenced below, Max's creative efforts were not well-recieved by either critics or audiences, but after a little stage experience in Little Rock and St. Louis, he headed for New York.

G.M. Anderson as Broncho Billy

So while growing hungry in New York, he took the suggestion from a theatrical agent that he "pose for moving pictures." He went down to the Edison company and got hired to pose for one reelers. They didn't call it acting in movies then. They called it posing. Acting happened on a stage and involved spoken dialogue. Posing happened in front of a camera and involved goofing around. Movies were not story telling devices in those days. A movie was fifty feet long or so (that's how they sold them, by the foot), and one might just be four minutes of people walking into a store and buying fruit. Or it could be four minutes of a dancer or a juggler or traffic at an intersection.

Then one day Max, who had by then assumed the professional name Gilbert Anderson, had a bright idea. He told his boss that if people could sit still for fifty feet of film, they could be made to sit still for a thousand. How do we do that? says the boss. Gilbert suggests stringing together a thin story and padding it out with "lots of riding and shooting and plenty of excitement," thus creating the immutable paradigm of American commercial cinema. He confessed on behalf of a colleague to stealing the title "The Great Train Robbery" from a popular stage play of the day.

At the turn of the century, Americans were fascinated with the Wild West. Pulp magazines poured out tales of train robbers, cattle rustlers, marauding Indians and true-blue lawmen. Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid became folk heroes. Made over 100 years ago, “The Great Train Robbery” is the beginning of the Western film genre and an important historical movie.  This movie launched the beginning of many more stories, legends and romantic visions of the West on the movie screen.  Today, millions of people around the world still enjoy western movies.



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