Friday, 4 June 2010

1904 - How a French Nobleman Got a Wife Through the New York Herald Personal Columns - Edwin S. Porter

The wonderfully titled How a French Nobleman Got a Wife Through the New York Herald Personal Columns is a film deserving of greater critical attention (as I suspect many of the film’s from ‘the Forgotten Decade’ shall be).

The opening scene of How a French Nobleman Got a Wife Through the New York Herald Personal Columns (which shall now be referred to as A French Nobleman) is particularly impressive and ranks with anything covered on this list so far. It is the first time that we are presented with a degree of psychological depth in regards to a character. It is mostly of a comic nature, as the Frenchman checks his newspaper with some glee and attaches his boutonniere (a word I only discovered by watching this film – does anyone still wear boutonnieres?) to his jacket. But what stands out, particularly after multiple viewings, is the use of the mirror in this scene.

When the character starts reading the paper, the placing of the mirror allows us to capture both sides of his face. This simple piece of visual trickery automatically gives the Frenchman more depth as we are given a deeper impression of his figure and character, which appears to be pleasant, eccentric and aristocratic. The Frenchman then turns towards the mirror and ties his boutonniere and appears to have a brief conversation with himself. Here we have film’s first (and probably shortest) soliloquy; it is a highly effective narrative device. Whereas previously we had the Lumiere brothers’ workers in Lyon unable to avoid staring straight into the camera, Méliès the magician communicating directly with the audience, and The Great Train Robbery presenting us with scenes you may expect to find on at a local theatre, it is the unique intimacy of observing a private moment such as this that makes the audience collective voyeurs. This unique of aspect of film will be developed and furthered over its history.

The second scene opens with a simple but beautifully composed shot: the Frenchman awaits his future bride outside Grant’s Tomb in New York. Greeting each woman with a bow deeper than Obama’s own efforts during his first trip to Japan, the scene’s humour expands with each woman’s appearance and peaks as the women surround him and he finally decides to run away.

The majority of the remainder of the film involves these women chasing him through a variety of landscapes (for example, see above), giving birth to our first extended chase scene and undoubtedly influencing Buster Keaton’s later film Seven Chances (see below). Unlike Keaton’s film, the joy and comedy of the chase disperses as it is far too long. As with Porter’s earlier effort The Great Train Robbery, A French Nobleman would have benefited from some heavy editing work. It is frustrating because the excellent build up of the film’s opening two scenes disperses around half way through the chase scene.

A French Nobleman was an Edison Studio remake of the Biograph film entitled Personal – both films were made in 1904. A French Nobleman provides a useful insight into the developing rivalry between these two studios as well signalling a significant shift in the contemporary audience’s taste.

The success of Le Voyage dans la Lune and The Great Train Robbery (which, was pirated by the Edison Studio) signalled a shift from non-fiction films, such as the Lumiere’s actualities, to short-length fiction films. (A similar tectonic shift, this time from short-length to feature films, would occur only a decade later).

In response to these successes, Biograph released a number of popular short-length feature films, which could only be viewed on their exhibition circuits. Just as Edison had pirated Méliès’ Le Voyage Dans Le Lune to great success, he had told his director Edwin S. Porter to re-make films such as Personal (a year later, he would go a step further and steal Personal’s director Wallace McCutcheon from Biograph). Biograph decided to sue Edison Studios for copyright infringement, but they lost their case.

Unfortunately, I do not have access to the original, so I am unable to provide any details on how this film compares to Personal.

The final scene of the film provides the viewer with some symmetry, as the Frenchman once again looks into a mirror, only on this occasion it is a brief glimpse of his reflection in a river. A French Nobleman is a clever film, it closes out the film nicely and enhances my belief that the film deserves more attention.


  1. I think there is something haunting about that final shot, of him in the river... Overlong definitely, but there is something to this film. I think Porter is a fascinating director, actually. If I'm not mistaken, he did the first version of Faust?

    With the right music set to it, the Porter films can be transporting - the slowness can become a weird virtue. That definitely goes for A Great Train Robbery, too. Also, check out this twisted masterpiece from 1903 - 'Dream of a Rarebit Fiend':

  2. @ Rob - You raise an interesting point in regards to the pacing of both Porter films that have been discussed so far. It would be helpful to learn what the contemporary audience's expectations were in regards to the pace of such films.

    Which brings to your point about the music - a problem we face is that we are viewing these films on our computers - one can only speculate what the effect viewing these films in a nickelodeon would have had on the contemporary audience. Film's ability to captivate is almost always more effective in a cinematic setting.

    Thank you for the link to Dream of a Rarebit friend - it is superb - I may have to add a few paragraphs to The Great Train Robbery post to discuss it.

    And finally, I will try and track down his version of Faust...