Although the first "westerns" were actually made by the American Mutoscope & Biograph Company in September, 1903 (a couple of months before " The Great Train Robbery"), they did not receive wide distribution until 1904, after "The Great Train Robbery" had already become a hit.
"The Great Train Robbery" became the first important western and the one that established the western as a unique film genre. Its dramatic, narrative structure of "crime – pursuit – retribution" set the pattern for almost all future western films, and its success confirmed for the fledgling movie industry that the rising popularity of the story film was commercially viable despite its increased production costs.
"The Great Train Robbery" had its debut at Huber's Museum, a low–class vaudeville house on 14th Street in New York City. When the film was announced the theater's patrons were indifferent. But, according to G.M. Anderson, when the movie began the audience came alive. "They got up and shouted and yelled, and then when it was all over they yelled, 'Run it again! Run it again!', until [the management] finally put on the lights to chase them out." Within a week it was booked into eleven theaters in and around New York City, including the prestigious Hammerstein's Theatre at 42nd and Broadway, where it received a "rousing, rousing reception".
"The Great Train Robbery" was the American film industry's first great box–office hit. By Christmas week of 1903, all of the major exhibition services in New York City owned copies of the film and were showing
them to enthusiastic audiences throughout the metropolitan area. Soon exhibitors around the country acquired the film, and by January crowds in such cities as Rochester, NY, were packing theaters from gallery to orchestra where "The Great Train Robbery" reportedly "scored the biggest moving picture hit ever made in Rochester." Members of the audience often ducked for cover when the outlaw, played by Barnes, shot point–blank at the audience (a scene that could be shown, according to Edison's catalog, either at the beginning or end of the film). The journal, "Moving Picture World", estimated that "The Great Train Robbery" had earned $2 million by 1908.
[ NOTE: Since movie theaters, as we know them, did not exist at this time, motion pictures were shown in vaudeville houses and opera houses as an added attraction.]
In late October, 1903, Gilbert M. Anderson (real name: Gilbert Maxwell Aronson) found work at the Edison studio appearing in a few pictures and helping to think up gags. He was cast in "The Great Train Robbery" when he lied about being able to ride a horse. He eventually went to Chicago where he became a partner in the Essany Film Manufacturing Company, and then to California where he established that company's West Coast studio. In 1910, while still in Chicago, this director/producer/ editor/writer/actor cast himself in the title role of the film "Broncho Billy and the Redemption ". He went on to become the first cowboy "movie star", playing the lead role in over 140 Broncho Billy pictures and many other westerns.
Frank Hanaway is considered the cinema's first stuntman. He was an ex–cavalryman who learned to fall off a horse without injuring himself.
When Siegmund Lubin's company released a frame–by–frame remake of "The Great Train Robbery" under the same title just seven months after the original movie was released, it became the first "remake" in motion picture history.
The original camera negative of "The Great Train Robbery" is being preserved in the film vaults of The Library of Congress National Audiovisual Conservation Center (NAVCC) located near Culpeper, VA. The 35mm nitrate negative is still in excellent condition. You can read our article about the NAVCC by clicking on the following link:
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