“Kit Carson” was 21 minutes of Western movie history

Time Before Now, September 1903“Trust Buster” Teddy Roosevelt was president following the assassination of William McKinley by anarchist, Leon Czolgosz, in 1901. He won reelecton in 1904, defeating Appeals Court judge, Alton B. Parker, in a landslide. The Wright brothers had a  patent pending for the latest version of their“flying machine” and the chalk-making company of Binney & Smith introduced wax crayons marketed under the brand name,“Crayola.”

September 21, 1903

On this day, a 21-minute movie entitled “Kit Carson” found its way into the history books.  It wasn’t “High Noon” but  technically it was the world’s first Western. 

One early reviewer called it “absolutely a novelty in moving pictures.”  Carson and a fellow trapper awake from “their beds of pine boughs in the wilderness” and are attacked by “treacherous Indians.”  Taken captive, Kit escapes, evades his captors in a “canoe chase,” is re-captured, suffers many indignities in the Native American village and is subsequently freed by a sympathetic “Indian maiden” who severs his bonds.  Kit returns home to a “gleeful reunion” with his wife and children.  The End.

Directed by pioneering cinema-tographer, Wallace McCutcheon, Sr., (above) it beat Edwin Porter’s 12-minute film, “The Great Train Robbery” to the box office by three months.   The two shared several important similarities, however,  including the leading man, Gilbert “Bronco Billy” Anderson. (Right) In addition, both were shot on location, mostly out of doors, a new wrinkle in film making.  

 A stage director by trade, McCutcheon’s motion picture career actually predated “Kit Carson” by six years.  He began making films as early as 1897.  Like Edwin Porter, (below) he was an alumnus of Thomas A. Edison’s fledgeling movie studio a collaborator of  Porter’s on a number of film projects for Edison.

So-called “moving pictures” existed as early as the 1880s but were, in fact, a series of still photographs shown in rapid succession, simulating motion. English immigrant, Eadweard Muybridge, is credited with one of the first in 1878 entitled, “Movements of a Horse.”

Eadweard Muybridge’s 1878 study, “Movements of a Horse”

But real “movies” had to wait until George Eastman, (below) founder of the venerable Kodak Corp., made roll film commercially available.  Then it took Thomas Edison and his assistant, William Dickson, to develop the kinetograph.  A bevy of 19th century Frenchmen all vied to develop roll film but America’s Eastman won the race.

Edison produced an assortment of short-subjects in a make-shift tar- paper studio in his back yard dubbed the “Black Maria.”  The inventor’s 1890 film, “Strongman Sandawl,” is often credited as the actual first genuine “movie” made there.  Just 47-seconds long, it shows vaudeville strong man, Edwin Sandawl, assume several body-building poses in a revealing costume guaranteed to make Victorian maidens blush.

Despite duel appearances in “Kit Carson” and “The Great Train Robbery “ Bronco Billy didn’t win the mantle as celluloid’s first Western star.  Even earlier, Edison (right)  used real-life westerner, William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, and sharpshooter, Annie Oakley, as subjects in several seconds of moving pictures that made film history.   A copy is on permanent display at Cody’s Scout’s Rest Ranch in North Platte, Nebraska.

Unfortunately McCutcheon’s  “Kit Carson” never quite got its due.  “The Great Train Robbery,” released in December of the same year, won the hearts of the critics and Edison always listed it as his favorite movie.  The star of both,  leading man “Bronco Billy” Anderson, did make his mark on the industry as co-founder of Essanay Studio.   Best known for its series of Charlie Chaplin comedies, Essanay was eventually absorbed by Warner Brothers, but Anderson was honored postumously as a film pioneer with a special Academy Award in 1988. 

Essanay stars, Francis X Bushman, Chaplin and Anderson

Porter, Eastman and Edison, all lived to see technicolor and talkies.  McCutcheon died in 1918 at just 56. His two oldest children, Wallace, Jr. and Ross, followed him into the movie business as actors but neither were  long-term successes.  Eastman, suffering from a degenerative spine disorder, committed suicide in 1932. 

Although an early innovator, Porter didn’t remain active in movies.  His final film was in 1915.  Considered more a technician than a director, he headed Precision Machine Company and held patents on a number of cameras and projectors. He died in 1941. Edison, the wizard of Menlo Park, died in 1931 at his home in New Jersey from complications of diabetes at the age of 84.

While the pandemic has had a huge impact on the movie business, film and video production on average add more than $30 billion annually to the U.S. economy.

Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park, (Scout’s Rest Ranch),  2921 Scouts Rest Ranch Road, North Platte, Nebraska,  is the place for movie purists to see Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley captured on film by Thomas Edison.  For non-movie buffs, the park is still worth a visit.  The Second Empire style house, built in 1886 for $3,900, is one of four original buildings in the 25-acre park. Buildings and grounds are open to visitors during the summer and include a musuem of Cody’s life, his Wild West show and  a short film.   

Admission to tour buildings us $2 for adults, $1 for children 3 to 13, under 3 free. Open 9 to 5 daily from Memorial Day and Labor Day and the park grous are open from 8 to sunset year round.   For more information go to visitnorthplatte.com or outdoornebraska.gov/buffalobillranch, e-mail info@visitnorthplatte.com, call toll free (308) 535-8035 or write 921 Scout’s Rest Ranch Road, North Platte, NE, 69147-0070101.

Due to Covid-19, some of the areas in the park may be temporarily closed to the public.  Go to the website above to find the latest information.

 © Text Only – 2020 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.