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The Great Train Robbery (1903)



Review by Doug Boilesen

This movie is in my top ten for its impact on the motion picture industry (movie westerns in particular) and for my own memory of it when I was 9.

This movie was a first in many areas. It used innovative film techniques, it portrayed the good guys versus bad guys in an action filled western, and it had a dramatic conclusion. The moving picture industry was growing up and Edisonís experimental clips of The Sneeze and The Kiss from only a few years earlier showed how much had already changed. The venue for watching was also changing as the Kinetoscope that had provided single viewers in arcades the opportunity to watch those early shorts was being replaced with stories that were to be watched in theatres with audiences and often accompanied by music.

Kinetoscope, 1894


Although only 12 minutes long The Great Train Robbery made a lasting impression on me when I first saw it as a nine-year old at Chicagoís Museum of Science and Industry.At the end of the museumís re-created Main Street was The Nickelodeon where we sat on wooden benches and watched The Great Train Robbery to the sounds of the accompanying pianist.I was growing up in the early years of television but nonetheless I loved watching this movie and was transported back to 1903 when I watched this early example of a feature film.

I know Main Streets in museums, and certainly attractions like Main Street Disneyland, have their limitations and are often simply stereotypes of middle class white America and selected pieces of early twentieth century life.But seeing this movie in the context of that museum's Main Street was special for me and at the time it felt authentic.

Postcard from 1959 when we visited Main Street inside Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry

I'm also sure that the experience of those early movie-goers watching The Great Train Robbery must have been nothing short of amazement. I watched hundreds of hours of TV westerns and ďBĒ western movies growing up in the 1950's and 60's and I remember characters and details from many of those shows. But I'm still surprised how the experience of walking through this museumís Main Street and then watching the 12 minute The Great Train Robbery left such a deep impression.

I believe that by seeing the Museum of Science and Industry's Main Street when I was young and watching "The Great Train Robbery" important pieces in developing my interest in 20th century popular culture took root. This probably also contributed to my life-long interest in collecting phonographs and related memorabilia of the time.

My wife often comments that I should have been born at the beginning of the twentieth century. And it is true that it's a period of history that fascinates me and is a world I spend too much time in. But I would respond by repeating the words of the indie rock band The Long Winters and simply say "I like the old days, but not all the days, only the good old days."






Click here to view Yesterday's Main Street at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry