Volume I: Narrative History


Chapter 4 (1911): The Railroad Builder

The Railroad Builder, released on May 9, 1911, became one of the company's most memorable films, for the conflagration depicted therein was unprecedented on the screen at the time. In abbreviated text an advertisement in The Moving Picture World Note described what was in store:

An entire section of railroad devastated by fire. One entire mile of trackage and thousands of railroad ties fed to the flames - to make a moving picture - not a "smoke pot" fire, but the real thing. Farmers hate young railroad builder and set a fire to the road he constructs. Blaze discovered and call is sent for fire engines and apparatus from nearest town. Entire town fire department starts out. Fight fire while smoke and flame shoot a mile high.

Despite Bert Adler's enthusiastic promotional copy, at least one viewer, C.H. Claudy who, expressing his opinions in the May 20, 1911 issue of The Moving Picture World, didn't find merit in the production. Indeed, he used The Railroad Builder as an example of what the article title called "Half-Baked Picture Plays," creating in the process one of the most condemning opinions of a Thanhouser film ever printed in that journal:

With the rushing roar of the demand for a stated number of releases weekly, it is a small wonder that the standard of production often suffers - yet there are producers whose ability, brains, staff and accessories are of so high an order that their failures, when made, are from lack of proper material to work up into a play, not from lack of attention to detail or of inability to set a fine scene in a reasonable story. The Railroad Builder, by Thanhouser, is a case in point. The action is hung around one central scene - that of an incendiary fire of piles of ties and material for building a railroad. And that scene is so good, so well planned, executed and finished, that it is a thousand pities the same attention was not devoted to the story and the rest of the details.

The preliminary work necessary to set up this fire scene must have been huge. It includes a real fire - albeit much of it must have been oil - a real fire engine at work, and a most realistic coloring of the finished film in red dye. Rarely, if ever, is a finer presentation been made of the terrible majesty of a great conflagration than this, and all the credit which can be accorded the producer must go to him from those who saw this piece of work.

But the rest of the material is very ordinary, the story weak to the point of foolishness, the action at times so unreal that the audience laughed. To be specific, the story is that of a girl and her father, who are to give up their little home because the railroad is coming across their property. Very true, very sad, but inevitable. That the girl and her friends object is also natural, but that they should be so terrorized at the result of condemnation proceedings, necessary to give a railroad right of way across land, or that the coming of the railroad across the land is such a tragedy as to need a crime to stop it, is not natural, and the audience sees it at once.

However, admitting that it is possible that the farmer friends of the girl and her father would seek to destroy the preliminary work by fire to prevent the railroad from crossing the land, isn't it foolish to show a huge piece of construction work, with a gang of about a dozen men in charge of the foreman, who is also the construction engineer, and insist to the audience that these men - this handful - were all who were at work on the railroad? For they all go off to lunch together, and no one at all sees the incendiaries at work. And what sort of incendiary is it that lights a torch before he gets to his pile of lumber?

Perhaps the weakest part of this scene is in the preliminary in which the handful of track layers are at work, a man in the immediate foreground wielding a pick on the stone roadbed of already laid track so tenderly as not to disturb a single stone! Almost as bad was the influx of farmers, who first attempt to tear up the railroad with pitchforks and spades, and after striking two or three obviously ineffectual blows, decide to fire the lumber piles.

We know that these workmen were not working, because - they were not working. They were obviously playing at working, and very poorly at that. We know this is real track, because we see it, but we know it was hired for the occasion, because everyone is so careful of it, with his tools. We know that this isn't a real gang of workmen or real construction engineer, because they neither look the part nor act it, because there are not enough of them, and because the construction engineers, who accept huge contracts, don't boss a gang of 12 nor eat with them in security half a mile from the work. We know, anyway, it isn't a real railroad or a real piece of work, because we have seen some smears on a piece of paper which the president of the road showed the "construction engineer" as "the plans," and we have learned from the subtitle that this is where the construction engineer is given the work, and we know railroad contracts are not let in that way, or from single sheets of rough plans, in a minute and a half!

Well, to get on with the action - the farmers fire the lumber piles, the railroad builders are warned, the construction engineer is captured and bound to a tree, the girl, having a change of heart, gallops off for a fire engine. The engine arrives, shortly - fire still burning briskly and in spite of the fact that is, on the screen, so great a fire as to defy all attempts, one engine puts it out in a short while! And finally, we have a scene labeled "next morning," showing a small fire still burning in a lumber pile - must have been careless firemen. And when girl and construction engineer agree to get married, of course, neither papa nor girl give a rap that the road crosses their land anymore!

Weak story and lack of attention to details so that anyone can see the unreality of the action, all lead up to a magnificent and truly remarkable fire picture, which, set in a more probable story and one with the same care given details as was given the fire itself, and the maker would have made a release which would have been the talk of the town.

And one more rap right here. I have lived with different kinds of American and foreign workmen. I have trailed it in Alaska, been on surveying parties and traveled considerably. I have never seen a bunch of American workmen who would abuse, be rude to, and flagrantly insult a woman in distress, as this construction gang does when the daughter impotently orders them from her land. As a nation we are decent to women - while we would, as track layers, pay little heed to a feminine protest, we would not, in real life, jeer, sneer, laugh and conduct ourselves as hoodlums because a girl - and a pretty girl at that - told us this was her land and we couldn't use it. Even the foreman-construction engineer, who, later, supposedly wedded her, laughed. Does it do any good to foul up truth to the extent of maligning even plain working men?

Very curiously, the very same issue of The Moving Picture World, in its film review department, discussed what, for the conclusions drawn, might as well have been an entirely different picture from that seen by C.H. Claudy. To read the regular review, one would think that The Railroad Builder was a really great film from every viewpoint! To wit:

This may be considered as two kinds of a film - a spectacle and a story. As a spectacle of a great conflagration it is more remarkable than a story which might have been written to utilize the film showing the great fire. The object of the story is to show the kindness of rural neighbors, who start a fire in an immense pile of railroad ties to hinder the road in crossing the farm of the old man and his daughter. But yet it is a love story too, for she falls in love with the young contracting engineer. The girl comes to his rescue and gets the aid to put out the fire. It is well acted and the exciting moments are admirably handled. The mechanical work is clear. The audience approved vigorously, particularly of the girl's ride for help. The conflagration scenes raise it to a very high place among this week's releases, which it never would have had without them.

Undoubtedly, Edwin H. Thanhouser, upon reading C.H. Claudy's stinging commentary, assuaged his feelings by keeping in mind some of the earlier notices in other periodicals, including that in The Billboard, which called the film "a very clever story" and "the best of this kind," and that in The Morning Telegraph, which believed that "this film easily ranks with the topnotchers of the past few weeks, taking all manufacturers' productions into consideration" and which suggested that here was a film "that every picture fan should see." Not even The New York Dramatic Mirror could find fault with it. Au contraire, it advised readers that "the scenes and the atmosphere are fine" and "the theme of the story is excellent."

On the other hand, Edwin Thanhouser may have realized that C.H. Claudy's criticisms of the technical flaws of The Railroad Builder were well taken and could be used as a basis for improving future productions.

Edwin Thanhouser could also keep in mind an editorial which appeared in The Moving Picture World on April 15th, and which addressed the fallibility of film reviewing:

The commentator on the films for The Moving Picture World desires to go on record as saying that not only is it impossible for many minds to agree on the merits or demerits of a picture, but that he often finds it impossible to agree with himself after seeing the picture again under different conditions. His instructions from the editor are to see all the pictures of the week at the first run houses if possible and to comment upon them from the viewpoint of the audience. In other words, while he is supposed to keep his eyes upon the picture he is also supposed to keep his ears open for comments made by the spectators. In some places these comments are frequent and audible and sometimes they have entirely altered the opinion formed upon seeing the picture elsewhere. A picture that is received in stony silence in one theatre is often very loudly applauded in another. There are many reasons for this. The temperament and mental caliber of audiences vary with different localities. Where vaudeville is interspersed with the pictures, the act preceding a picture has an effect upon its reception. If it was a good act and applauded, the picture following may suffer by comparison. Note Just as frequently the contrary is the case. Then again the musical accompaniment differs greatly, and the possibilities for appropriate and well rendered music and sound effects to make or mar a picture are indeed very evident to one who sees the same picture in different houses. Sometimes our commentator finds it necessary to point out glaring defects in a picture. Some manufacturers resent this and say that it does no good as once the picture has been made and has been passed to other hands it cannot be altered. The few who take this narrow view of criticism are those whose work is no better today than it was at the beginning. Obviously they are the very ones who lift up their hands and horns and say that it is anarchistic to even suggest the possibility of an open market Note in this country.

Our commentator has been taken to task by ourselves and by others for sometimes overlooking blunders, and even making favorable comment on what really might be termed a poor picture. He squares himself by replying that he is following his instructions to form his opinions as far as possible by the impression made upon the audience....

A less controversial film was The Regimental Ball, released by Thanhouser on May 12, 1911. With a military setting at an army fort, the picture told of two young officers who contended for the same girl's affections. Reviews were favorable.


Copyright © 1995 Q. David Bowers. All Rights Reserved.