The Twentieth Century Tramp; or, Happy Hooligan and His Airship

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(3/10) The first American science fiction film was made in 1902 is shows the comic book character Happy Hooligan flying a balloon-bicycle over New York. A crude and technically inferior imitation of a French film, but noteworthy since it was directed by legendary Edwin S. Porter.

The Twentieth Century Tramp; or, Happy Hooligan and His Airship. 1902, USA. Directed & filmed by Edwin S. Porter. Based on the comic strip character Happy Hooligan by Frederick Opper. Starring: J. Stuart Blackton. IMDb score: 5.2

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Edwin S. Porter.

Science fiction was a bit late to arrive to the screens in the US, and in fact this little short is more a false start than anything else. However, this short film of a little more than a minute in length brings together three of the great innovators of early American cinema: Thomas Edison, Edwin S. Porter and J. Stuart Blackton. In addition, this is probably the first American aviation film, possibly the first US film using the split-screen technique and it features the first US comic book character to be turned into a movie character. And it is, as stated, the first American science fiction film.

The Twentieth Century Tramp; or, Happy Hooligan and His Airship was directed by Edwin S. Porter, who was on his way to becoming America’s most important early filmmaker. Two years prior he had been put in charge of the motion picture production of Edison’s New York studio, and probably saw every film made in or imported into the US. He had recently seen French movie pioneer Ferdinand Zecca’s film The Flying Machine (1901, review), in which Zecca rides a flying steampunk-bicycle over the rooftops of Paris, an image created using a stunningly seamless split-screen technique. He was at the time making a series of shorts with J. Stuart Blackton featuring Happy Hooligan, Frederick Opper’s popular comic strip character, and decided to take his own stab at Zecca’s idea. The result was a film where Happy Hooligan rides a pedaled balloon with a propeller attached to the rear over New York.

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A still from Happy Hooligan and His Airship.

As you can read from my review of The Flying Machine, Zecca’s split-screen effect was so good that it nearly fooled me – I had considerable trouble figuring out how he accomplished the film, since he seemed to be doing something with the split-screen technique that simply isn’t possible. In contrast Porter’s film is a poor imitation, and one can clearly see a sharp line between the two images, whereas Zecca’s film was beautifully blended in a fade. The balloon-bicycle is rather unimaginative compared to Zecca’s stylish, streamlined flying bike, and at one point the propeller mechanism seems to fail.

What’s striking when watching American films from the early period of cinema is how far ahead of everyone else French filmmakers of the era were, and how far behind, even to the British, the American cinema seems to have been in so many respects. Almost all innovations came out of France. That can partly be chalked up to the genius of Georges Méliès, but France also had Alice Guy Blaché at Gaumont and Ferdinand Zecca at Pathé who were doing things that were later copied by American film creators. And instead of learning from the French and improving upon it, the end results achieved by the Americans almost always fell short of the original – all the way up until the rise of Hollywood with Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith in 1915.

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J. Stuart Blackton.

One of the pioneers of trick filming with jump cuts and double exposure in the US was British-born J. Stuart Blackton, an illustrator and journalist who went into the movie industry after doing an interview with movie mogul Thomas Edison, who was impressed with his drawings and wanted to film Blackton doing a “lightning sketch” of Edison. However, he is best known for his contribution to animated films, as he made the first American animated movies as early as 1897, and pioneered the stop-motion animation. Even though elements of stop-motion animation had been used before by several filmmakers, including Méliès and Porter, Blackton was the first to make a full animation film on standard film stock.

Exactly how the collaboration between Porter and Blackton came about is a bit of a mystery to me, since Blackton set up his own film company Vitagraph in 1897, and became a rival to Edison. However, by 1902 Porter was already head of Edison’s New York studio and the Happy Hooligan films seem to have been produced for Edison.

Edwin S. Porter started out as a technically talented jack-of-all-trades, but soon found himself working for an electrical company, but in 1896 he became a travelling projectionist, touring both South and North America, as well as the West Indies with his projector. Back in New York in 1898 he started working as a projectionist for a movie theatre showing Edison films. Back in those days most films were simple one-reelers, or about a minute in length. It was the projectionist’s job to take all the one-reelers and edit them together into a show – often about half an hour – which the audience would find pleasing. During the time the Spanish-American War was raging, so much of the footage were more or less news reels regarding the war, some actual footage from the war, some were studio-made re-enactments, and some portrayed the reactions on the home front. This meant that Porter had a lot of material touching on the same subject, which he could put together in a more or less coherent dramatic arc, basically functioning as an editor, rather than a simple projectionist. This experience would serve him well later.

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In 1901 Porter recreated for a news reel the execution of the murderer Leon Czolgosz at Auburn prison – he had followed the unfolding story of the trial with several films.

The war helped increase the draw of moving pictures, as many came to the theatres to see the latest developments, almost like the news in movies. But after the war these news reels decreased in popularity, as there simply was a lack of interesting topics that could be covered without spoken or written commentary, and gathering new footage for each showing became increasingly difficult. This was the time, at the turn if the century, that Porter took over the motion picture production at Edison. But simple one-reel trick films and slapstick weren’t enough to draw crowds either. Films were at this time simply amusement curiosities, “like the bearded lady of the x-ray machine”, as one Méliès biographer put it. And the bearded lady may be fun once, perhaps twice and even thrice, but soon the thrill wears off. Internationally, the movie industry hit a slump by the year 1900. But once again the Europeans came to the rescue.

In Britain filmmakers like Robert W. Paul, William R. Booth, and in particular James Williamson and his Brighton School were experimenting with films in multiple shots and scenes, particularly the so-called chase film, as well as with what would later be called continuity editing, where an event is shown twice from different angles. But what especially inspired Porter was the work done by Georges Méliès. In 1899 Méliès got his international breakthrough with the six minute long retelling of the fairy-tale Cinderella, a film shown in multiple scenes with a coherent story. He followed this up with Joan of Arc (1900) and Bluebeard (1901). Porter was taken in by Méliès’ movies, finding in them a completely new way of making films, and seeing the popularity they held, he decided to do his own take on them. The result was Jack and the Beanstalk (1902), which was the first take on the English fairy-tale. While not as elaborately filmed as Méliès’ output, the film held its own against its French counterparts, and became a hit with audiences. However, Porter was again steamrolled later in 1902 when Méliès released his masterpiece, A Trip to the Moon (review). At 14 minutes it was an unprecedented undertaking in motion picture history, by far the most expensive film ever made, with hugely elaborate sets, dozens upon dozens of visual effects, explosions, aliens, moon rockets, underwater scenes, and much more.

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A scene from the 1902 film Jack and the Beanstalk.

There was one scene in particular that inspired Porter, and it was the scene of the rocket hitting the moon. Not so much for its iconic imagery, but for its editing, a small moment that is lost on modern audiences. Méliès first shows the rocket hitting the moon from the perspective of Earth. But then he cuts to the surface of the moon – and shows the rocket landing – again! This was not the way films were cut in those days, as it was chronologically illogical to show an event that had already happened a second time. But Méliès trusted his audience to understand that by changing to a different shot he was showing the same event from a different angle, and not a different rocket, nor did he mean that the same rocket hit the moon twice. And by showing the event twice, he was able to anchor the second scene in a specific moment of time and narrative, in respect to the previous shot. And, figured Porter, by this token it gave a filmmaker the possibility to show two different narratives occurring at the same time, simply by anchoring them in shots that the audience would recognise and remember.

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The famous end shot from The Great Train Robbery.

He took this thinking a step further, and set out to make what essentially became his masterpiece, The Great Train Robbery in 1903. Drawing on Méliès and the Brighton School, he created a film where he broke off a linear narrative to go back to a certain event to see what happened to other characters after the storyline had broken away from them, only to then come back to the characters we had left earlier. He also used other innovations, which weren’t exactly new, but which hadn’t up to that point been used extensively in a big American movie, such as panning shots and superimposed matte shots. In particular, he used mattes for doors and windows on a train, which meant that he blocked out the images where the openings openings were with black squares, in order to superimpose images of the view outside the train. Another innovation was a haunting last shot, where one of the bandits where shown in a close shot at the end of the film, firing a revolver directly at the crowd – a scene that had nothing to do with the story, but was added as an effect to break the fourth wall.

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A strip from the source of the movie, Happy Hooligan.

Porter hadn’t really invented any of these techniques, but few filmmakers have ever invented anything on their own – even Méliès the Great stole and borrowed just as much as anyone. Just as Méliès, Porter was able to refine and develop many techniques, purposely using some of them as central building blocks, where others might have just touched upon them. One of the reasons he is hailed as the father of the narrative film in the US is that The Great Train Robbery was so immensely popular, and basically set the template for what the western film would look like. While the film didn’t yet save the American movie industry, which would continue to struggle with the dominance of French films, partly due to a rigid movie industry more interested in selling film than producing them, he did usher in a new era of filmmaking, which would eventually come into full bloom with D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille. Ironically these directors, who owed so much to his pioneering work, would again bring about a new style of filmmaking, which Porter couldn’t wrap his head around – and either could not or would not adapt to. Like Méliès, like William Booth, Ferdinand Zecca and Alice Guy Blaché, he would get overrun by the feature-length blockbuster film, by a rising Hollywood in the west, faster cuts and more careless camera handling, a language of film he did not speak.

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Edwin S. Porter directs the film A Country Girl’s Seminary Life and Experience’s in 1908.

Porter didn’t have much to do with science fiction after the Happy Hooligan film, as was largely the case with America as a whole, even if there were dabblers here and there. J. Stuart Blackton dabbled a bit, in particular with a film called Liquid Electricity; or, The Inventor’s Galvanic Fluid (1907), which sort of, kind of, was sci-fi, and a futuristic film, The Airship; or, 100 Years Hence (1908), describing aviation in the future. But as a whole, science fiction really was a European affair pretty much up to the thirties, with the birth of the monster movie as well as the film serial.

Janne Wass

The Twentieth Century Tramp; or, Happy Hooligan and His Airship. 1902, USA. Directed & filmed by Edwin S. Porter. Based on the comic strip character Happy Hooligan by Frederick Opper. Starring: J. Stuart Blackton.

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