When I started this project, I set a few important milestones. Reaching recognizable narrative film was one; getting to the 1900s was another. But I was most excited for Un voyage dans la lune (1902), arguably the first truly ‘classic’ film. After this came The Great Train Robbery, another silver-screen triumph, and then, well … Scenes from Westinghouse Works.
Compared to our previous selections, Scenes from Westinghouse Works seems like a digression. Its a documentary in the vein of Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory from 1895, albeit with a more sophisticated structure. The movie follows various scenes from the Westinghouse Works factory in Pittsburgh, and follows men and women as they toil away at manufacturing tasks. We see a never-ending workforce check-in for the day, men pounding down a block of molten steel, and women at work in a proto-assembly line. As with the documentaries of the 1800s, the thrill is seeing everyday tasks lit up on the big screen, no matter how mundane the activity projected.
The film is significant as one of the early projects of cinematographer G.W. Bitzer, a film pioneer credited with inventing the iris shot, fade out, and other silent cinema mainstays. Bitzer was employed by the Biograph company (founded by W.K Dickson) as a documentary photographer, and Westinghouse was one of his final non-narrative ventures. Afterwards, Bitzer would shift focus to fictional shorts, eventually partnering with the virtuoso D.W. Griffith to create some of the most groundbreaking pictures of the silent era.