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Execution of Czolgosz with Panorama of Auburn Prison (1901)

This early docudrama shows Auburn Prison and recreates the electrocution of Leon Czolgosz, the assassin of President McKinley of the United States. Some versions offer additional footage at... See full summary »

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This early docudrama shows Auburn Prison and recreates the electrocution of Leon Czolgosz, the assassin of President McKinley of the United States. Some versions offer additional footage at the beginning which shows McKinley on the day of his assassination followed by scenes from his funeral. Written by Thomas McWilliams <tgm@netcom.com>

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Short | Drama | History

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16 November 1901 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

Electrocution of Czolgosz  »

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The panorama that opens this film was shot on the day that Czolgosz was actually executed. See more »

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Featured in S&man (2006) See more »

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Rearranging Space and Time
1 February 2010 | by See all my reviews

This is a rather elaborately constructed film for 1901, and it was the most ambitious film that Edwin S. Porter, with the collaboration of George S. Fleming and James H. White, had yet produced. After it, Porter would establish himself in the history books as one of early cinema's most important pioneers, with such story films as "Jack and the Beanstalk" (1902), "Life of an American Fireman" and "The Great Train Robbery" (both 1903). "Execution of Czolgosz with Panorama of Auburn Prison" requires of the viewer a bit of historical background. Czolgosz had assassinated US President William McKinley on 31 August 1901, for which he was executed by the electric chair on 29 October of the same year. These were big headline stories to Americans in 1901, so the filmmakers here were able to assume audiences' foreknowledge and forgo assembling an entirely self-contained narrative (which was good, because there were very few self-contained narrative films by then).

The docudrama contains four distinguishable shots: two panorama actuality shots of the outside of the real Auburn Prison where Czolgosz was executed—including a nice view of a train passing by in the first shot—which are followed by two reenactment scenes pretending to be inside that prison, but actually filmed in Edison's New York City studio, which Porter managed. It's through editing that the filmmakers imply a continuous relationship of space (between inside and outside shots) and time (as though they happened within the confined time of the real events) between the documentary footage and the staged scenes; it's the foundation of cinematic spatial-temporal representation, and Porter and others were still inventing it with films such as this one. There's a dissolve between the latter panorama shot and the first inside scene and another dissolve between the two studio shots, which was the common editorial practice for fictional subjects in early cinema since Georges Méliès did it in "Cinderella" (Cendrillon) (1899); whereas, there are direct "cuts", perhaps made in-camera, between the panorama shots, which was the general, straightforward tendency of actuality filming.

Another editorial oddity of early cinema is what Charles Musser and other historians have referred to as the "operational aesthetic", where there's an emphasis on showing every detail and beginning scenes at the beginning rather than the modern practice of cutting to shots with action in progress. Thus, in the first staged scene of this picture, a couple of the guards are seen standing still in the corner briefly before they all proceed forward. Additionally, at the beginning of the last shot, we get something of a temporal replay, as it takes a few seconds before the escorting guards and Czolgosz enter the frame. Their entrance also somewhat breaks the modern rule of the axis of action—of the direction of action across the screen, since we see them exit shot three to the right of frame and, then, see them enter shot four from the right of frame. Then, there's the exploitation of a dramatization of Czolgosz's death by electric chair; overall, a relatively convincing reenactment for 1901.

Exhibitors had the option of purchasing the complete film, or the panorama shots and staged scenes separately, as many exhibitors retained editorial control of films back then—a situation that films such as this one and the introduction of the story film were beginning to undermine, leading to the producers having the control nowadays.


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