Life of American Fireman

January 8, 2010 | By

Life of an American Fireman, directed by Edwin Porter was released in January 1903.   This film was another in Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope Company collaborations with Porter.  The film is about the rescue of a woman and her child from a burning building.

WomanCarriedDownLadderThe film was shot on Rhode Island Avenue in East Orange, New Jersey just a short distance from Edison’s manufacturing facilities in West Orange.  Although shot in November 1902, the film was not released until some weeks later.  A controversy arose over James White, an Edison manager, playing the lead role of the fireman who rescues the woman and child in the film.  W. E. Gilmore, general manager for Edison, felt that a company executive playing a role in a film conflicted with corporate policy. Retakes and other filming was ordered, however, it cannot be confirmed if any new footage was included in the final released film.

White’s acting career was fully curtailed when he was sent to Berlin to watch over Edison’s interest in Europe.

This film does not break any significant technical ground, but rather demonstrates that parallel action editing had not yet been incorporated in post-production standard.  The arrival-rescue scene at the end of the film is shown twice; once from inside the burning house and, with time rewound, again from the outside the burning building.

There is frequent reference in film history blogs that Porter later re-edited the film to incorporate parallel editing. We’re skeptical.  If someone finds such a verified version, please contact us.  In the meantime, we have taken the liberty and re-edited the arrival-rescue scene as an added segment.

As with Jack and the Beanstalk (1902) and earlier Edison films, Porter chose a subject that was in the mainstream of popular culture. Bob the Fireman, a twelve-slide lantern show, made in England before the advent of cinema, was still being sold in the United States as late as 1902-3.

The commercial potential for a fire rescue film had also been established as earlier as November 1896 when White produced A Morning Alarm, Going to the Fire and Fighting the Fire.

MotherinBuringRoomRegardless of topic or film editing techniques, the marketing material for the film is timeless.  Promotional materials to exhibitors noted that the film…“Is the Greatest Motion Picture Attraction ever offered to the Exhibitor! It is thrilling and dramatic, replete with exciting situations, and so crowded with action, interest and spectacular effects, that an audience witnessing it is simply SPELLBOUND.”

The promotional material concluded, “Great Smoke and Flames Effects. 425 feet. Class A. $63.75”

How could any exhibitor say, “no”?

Filed in: Honored Tradition

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