Teddy Roosevelt: The First Cinematic President

By  · Published on September 16th, 2014

Twentieth Century Fox

As with any Ken Burns documentary, PBS’s The Roosevelts (having finished its second of seven two-hour episodes last night) features a trove of archival material including photographs, documents, newspaper headlines, excerpts of diaries and books reads by actors ranging from Meryl Streep to Billy Bob Thornton, and new footage from the preserved estates of the title characters. Yet what dominated yesterday’s entry (which takes place roughly between 1901 and 1909) was silent film footage of the United States’ 26th President, often brought to life for a sound-sync audience through music or even foley effects.

While Burns’s films are known for their archival display, they don’t always contextualize how certain information is made available at certain points in history. Yet as The Roosevelts promises to cover over a century of ground between 1858 and 1962, the way information spread is a story that will inevitably be told, explicitly or implicitly. Between the early days of the moving image alongside the rise of industrialization in the late 19th century to Hollywood’s important role in rallying Americans during WWII, the story of how media develops in turn shapes how history is known.

It’s quite unremarkable to see early film footage of US Presidents in the first half of the 20th century, but something goes unsaid in The Roosevelts’ use of such footage to tell the story of Teddy’s administration: he came to national prominence, and even international celebrity, during the years that the moving image first proliferated and became popularized. If JFK was the first US President for television, and FDR the first who thoroughly utilized the capacities of radio, then Teddy Roosevelt was the first cinematic president, years before anything like Hollywood came to exist.

Roosevelt enjoyed being many firsts: he was the first US President to win a Nobel Peace Prize (for a diplomatic arbitration between Japan and Russia), the first to invite an African American to dine in the white house (Booker T. Washington), and the first to travel to another country while holding the office (Panama towards the construction of the Panama Canal). He was not, however, the first sitting President to be captured by a moving image camera. William McKinley’s 1897 inauguration was captured on film during the earliest days of photographic moving image experimentation, two years after the Lumière brothers’ first films.

But between Roosevelt’s assumption of the office after McKinley’s death in 1901 to the end of his second term, Georges Méliès would make A Trip to the Moon, Edwin S. Porter would execute The Great Train Robbery, nickelodeons would flourish as a competitive medium for entertainment during an era of rapidly changing leisure activities brought upon by emerging technologies, and the first motion picture corporation would be established with the Edison Trust, which would motivate independent filmmakers to move to Hollywood, California. While newsreel-style media of politicians was rather rare during this era, for many Americans, being able to see a President in any context outside of a newspaper – and moving, no less – would constitute a spectacle that rivals trips to the moon and train robberies.

Teddy Roosevelt was not the first cinematic president because of any breadth of available moving image material in which he is featured – there is a considerably greater volume of Roosevelt footage that was captured after his presidency. Teddy Roosevelt was the first cinematic president because, by the time he arrived in office, his cult of personality and propensity for spectacle fit the grand narratives that mass, post-industrial media most often sought to tell.

A builder of his own mythology through his veneration of war and a meticulous craftsman of his own persona created by all the production value that a life of inherited privilege could buy, Teddy Roosevelt always saw himself the heroic protagonist of his own adventure. His exploration of the American West made him a prototype of John Wayne, while his sympathy with common struggle despite the trappings of his wealth sees its extensions in the Henry Fondas and Jimmy Stewarts that would typify and structure classical-era Hollywood heroism. While his voice was never heard in tandem with the moving images captured of him, his outsized persona had the breadth and bluster befitting an icon made visible through technologies of mass reproduction. He was, in many ways, the 20th century’s first celebrity, as images of him extended far beyond his person and his charisma – calculated or not – was as imitable (“Bully!”) as it was defining.

A film made sometime in the teens featuring Roosevelt reuniting with his Rough Riders drives this point home: these are the makers of spectacle, the instigators of grand stories, now taking their rightful place in a medium that has brought these stories to life with moving images.

Roosevelt’s presidency fit easily within the genre of early travel films – short reels captured to give early 20th century audiences a visual vacation to places that most people had no means to visit. Early footage of his 1903 visit to San Francisco features shockingly little of the President himself – his horseback “motorcade” and its maneuver through the city streets align with the conventions of capturing places through long, wide, uninterrupted shots.

A film of Roosevelt’s 1906 speech in Panama is similarly uninterested in the Presidential close-ups (few films narrowed in from longer framing), but rather the relation of the figure to his milieu. This, however, does not detract from the spectacle of seeing him: unlike McKinley, Roosevelt proves himself immediately recognizable in all the films in which he appears, a figure no doubt familiar to mass audiences through photographs, political cartoons and an extensive cult of personality.

But most interesting is Roosevelt’s persistence in films in which he does not directly appear. Great Train Robbery director Edwin S. Porter made satirizing Roosevelt something of a regular subject for filmmaking. In his 1901 film Terrible Teddy, the Grizzly King, “Teddy Roosevelt” (actor unknown) is followed by a photographer and press agent during a hunt. Roosevelt shoots a cat from a tree, stabs it, and moves on, all while posing for his cohort. A pretty clear dig at the then-vice president’s lifelong propensity for self-aggrandizement toward self-promotion, this early gag film is a remarkably sly take on how public figures use media representation towards their own ends.

However, Porter’s most elaborate Roosevelt satire (and one of his most interesting films) would come six years later with the thirteen-minute The “Teddy” Bears, a combination of the English fairytale “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” and the lore around the popularization of the teddy bear subsequent Roosevelt’s refusal to shoot a bear cub during a hunt in 1902.

Audacious and at times outright bizarre, The “Teddy” Bears represents a convergence between several strands of interest in early cinema: vaudevillian sketch-like comedy, references to well-known narratives (in this case, a fairytale and a presidential reputation that spawned a merchandise craze), spectacle at the expense of narrative pace (in the form of some pretty dazzling stop-motion animation), and entertainment above all. This results in a drastic tonal shift in the final minute, when the bears’ chase of Goldilocks gives way to Roosevelt’s sudden entrance into the frame and violent massacre of the bear family, ending with his saving of the baby bear as a pet after the bear desperately pleads for its life.

While Porter’s collaborations with media monopolist Thomas Edison may have placed him in a business circle that reserved no adoration for Roosevelt, motion picture audiences during this period consisted almost exclusively of working and middle-class spectators, one of Roosevelt’s key demographics. Porter reportedly saw himself as a motion picture engineer – not an artist or social commentator, but a practitioner of the medium who enjoyed exploring new technological possibilities and finding material that appealed to audiences. While Terrible Teddy pointedly lampoons Roosevelt’s hunts for publicity, The “Teddy” Bears is perhaps best understood as a (albeit odd) meeting of early 20th century approaches to filmmaking.

Yet here Roosevelt’s likeness stands, apart from the person himself, a fully formed film character that can just as easily be the subject of a live action political cartoon or a last-minute twist of a familiar fantasy. In motion pictures during the first decade of the twentieth century, Teddy Roosevelt required no introduction.