Life of an American Fireman (1903)

Article 4178 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 3-14-2013
Directed by Edwin S. Porter
Featuring Vivian Vaughan, Arthur White, James H. White
Country: USA
What it is: Early action short

Firemen rush to put out a burning house and to save the residents inside it.

I found a copy of this movie on YouTube that ran eleven minutes, which I thought was curious because the movie itself is only about six minutes. I’m glad that I did, though; the eleven minutes consist of two different edits of the film. The cuts are identical until the final three minutes. The first one then shows a scene of the rescue of a woman and a child from within burning house itself, followed by the same scene reenacted from outside the burning house. The second version shows these two sequences edited together so it makes one continuous piece of action. Left to my own devices, I would have interpreted the two prints thusly; the first one was the unedited “raw” footage, while the second was what was actually shown to audiences. I remember seeing something similar with a short D.W. Griffith film at one time, only with the distinction that the unedited version of the film was nearly incomprehensible until you saw the edited version.

Well, I would have turned out to be wrong. If the notes and user comments on IMDB are to be trusted, than the first version was how it was first shown to audiences at the time; the second version was a reedit from three decades later to make it conform more with editing expectations at that time. Actually, I’m rather pleased by this discovery; I found the first version much more interesting because of the curious technique of showing the same scene from two different viewpoints.

As for the fantastic content, I find this somewhat ambiguous. The first scene shows a fireman dreaming of a woman and a child; they turn out to be the ones in the fire. This scene could have two possible interpretations; either the woman and the child are known to the fireman (possibly his wife and child), or the fireman has a premonition, the latter interpretation being the one that would yield fantastic content. Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn’t do anything to clarify either of these interpretations, thus leaving us in something of a grey area.

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