Examining Chicago’s First Indie Film: Cousin Jim (1916)

Depending on how you look at things, Cousin Jim might be the first “indie” movie ever filmed in Chicago. There were plenty of Chicago filmmakers doing experiments in the early days, but by 1916, films were big business, and nearly all were made by studios. Cousin Jim stands out in film history because it was not by pros buy by bunch of members of the Casino Club – a very early example of friends getting together and making a movie. Because these friends were high society types, their venture made a lot of news, and the premiere at The Strand Theatre, at 7th and Wabash, was a big event. The film even played out of town for a while – it was a Chaplinesque comedy, but ads for the movie in other cities show that exhibitors thought it would mainly be interesting to the audience because it showed how Chicago society people lived.

Though the two-reel movie itself is almost certainly lost, The Newberry Library has two copies of the script – one typed, and one handwritten by Kenneth Sawyer Goodman, namesake of the Goodman theatre. Goodman was attracting fame for himself as a playwright at the time, a leading light of the “Chicago Renaissance,” but Cousin Jim was not one of his major works. From the script, we can see that if it survived, the film would be a fascinating document of Chicago history and the history of cinema – but “fascinating” and “good” aren’t necessarily the same thing.

The first page of Goodman’s handwritten script

 The son of a lumber baron, Goodman’s diary mostly shows him as a society type, dutifully recording which club he went to, who he dined with, and what yacht he was on on a given day. From what I read of it, you’d never guess he was considered a major, even edgy, writer at the time – in a way, it’s like reading Bruce Wayne’s diary and seeing nothing about fighting crime other than a meeting or two with Commissioner Gordon. Notably, it doesn’t say much about going to movies, and it’s likely that Goodman wasn’t really up to date on how the medium was evolving.  The script (apparently from a scenario by John McCutcheon, an Essanay studios vet) doesn’t show a lot of creativity in terms of how the story will be presented; as a playwright, Goodman seems particularly at a loss in how to work with far less dialogue. Hence, this is the way the film opens: simply showing close-ups of the characters and their names:

Cousin Jim, reel 1

The “Count” is a waiter who knows that one of the society-men was caught cheating at cards in 1910, and blackmails him to be introduced around the clubs as a foreign big-shot, all part of his plans to marry one of the heiresses. But he’s thrown for a loop when Cousin Jim, alias Unlucky Jim, shows up in town.

William Fuller, left as Cousin Jim

Cousin Jim is a shameless Chaplin clone, alternately a victim of endless bad luck and daring adventurer (the script can’t seem to decide whether he’s a great hero or a comical loser). The Count proceeds to try to keep Jim away from society functions, eventually robbing a matron and planting Jim’s stolen fraternity pin at the scene, framing him for the crime.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the movie is that it was proudly a Chicago film. I’ve seen most of the Chicago silent films that survive, and can’t think of any that make a real show of being in Chicago – most movies at the time tried to seem as they could be taking place in any old city. Cousin Jim wears the fact that it’s depicting Chicago and its socialites on its sleeve – indeed, though they generally lacked originality, the crew could have been among the first to say things like “the city itself is character in the film.”

It’s curious to note, then, that right from the start, Chicago movies seemed to have a strange sense of geography. In the 1980s, The Blues Brothers could get to Calumet City in 15 minutes, and Ferris Bueller’s dad somehow made his commute home to Highland Park by 5:30, a feat so impressive that I’d often joked about writing a movie called Ferris Bueller’s Dad’s Commute. Whatever wormhole they were using in the 80s obviously existed in 1916, a well – Cousin Jim leaves the Blackstone Hotel at 4:30, messes around outside the Art Institute (offering the lion statue a cigar), then has an adventure around the zoo and lagoon in Lincoln Park before making it back to the Casino Club, which was near the Magnificent Mile, at 5.
This adventure contained the films most famous scene: a sequence in which Jim throws two police officers off of the high bridge in Lincoln Park that was known as “suicide bridge.” News articles at the time noted that the stunt man brought in for the scene said the leap couldn’t be done, so the two actors simply did it themselves, somehow surviving a jump that most people didn’t (they called it “suicide bridge” for a reason).  It’s curious to note that Goodman’s script called for special effects here, not  a stunt:

Cousin Jim attempts to evade officers Bolivar and Tolivar before throwing them off the bridge, a shot captured by a Tribune photographer

A Tribune article notes that the movie was submitted to Major MLC Funkhouser, the city’s film censor – in those days, every movie had to be submitted to him, and the papers would detail which scenes he removed from any given movie (he was eventually caught charging admission to private showings of the cut bits). Though no cuts were noted from Cousin Jim, at least one scene in the script probably never would have made it past him:  while Jim is in the shower, the Count steals his clothes. Jim (presumably in a towel, though the script doesn’t say) has to run to the next house and knock on the door. A maid holding a banana answers, and eats the banana as she tells him that no trousers are available. She eventually gets him a dress to wear, leading him to spend the night disguised at the society ball as “Mrs. Pick” while the Count ransacks a wealthy woman’s house, even putting the goldfish in a top hat (a title card jokes that he can’t resist anything gold).  Scenes of robbery tended to be cut, and scenes of cross-dressing certainly did. If this scene got past Funkhouser, either he was feeling generous because the film was supposed to be for charity, or they bribed him.

It’s also in this scene that we get perhaps the biggest surprise: though it might not have been AS apparent to 1916 viewers, modern viewers would surely assume that someone was going to slip on the banana peel. Even 1916 viewers would have had to guess that “unlucky Jim” was about to take a fall on it – but it was the maid who took a spill.

a scene from the Onwentsia club

From here the film descends into the inevitable chase scene, after which the Count is brought to justice and Jim is revealed to have been a member of the secret service all along (a twist that makes no particular sense), and everyone pairs off to get married (Goodman’s script calls for “rice and old shows”).
Though Goodman’s diary doesn’t mention the film too much – he wasn’t involved in the filming and missed the premiere – we can see from it that it was written very quickly; after several days yachting around Florida, he first heard of the project in March. Filming began only weeks later, and the movie premiered on June 2. He mentions going over the scenes with McCutcheon once, but that’s about it.  He does note, though, that after he finally saw it, a few days after the premiere, he asked for a couple of revisions and alterations to be made before the show went on the road.

The final film may differs quite a bit from the script – during the filming the Saddle and Cycle Club (at which Goodman was also a regular) objected to the Casino Club’s hunger for publicity and refused to let them film scenes there. The newspapers also describe a scene in which Jim goes fishing in the Fountain of the Great Lakes at the Art Institute, which may have just been improvised while they were filming the “giving the lion a cigar” scene (and making it even less likely that he could go up to Lincoln Park, have an adventure, and be back to the club at 5). And, again, it’s hard to imagine how they would have gotten the “eating a banana while she tells a near-nude Jim that there are no pants available” and cross-dressing scenes past Major Funkhouser.

The Newberry Library’s summary of the Goodman papers makes particular note of the Cousin Jim script, which I’m guessing would have shocked Goodman himself. A serious playwright, the papers feature manuscripts to a number of plays, including several collaborations with Ben Hecht. Though he collected a handful of clippings about the movie, the folder of clippings don’t include any of the large features about it that appeared in the Tribune during the filming, and it’s likely that he didn’t consider it to be a work of any major importance, particularly when his plays were being produced all over the country. Perhaps he still thought that movies would be a passing fad. In any case, he lived only two more years after Cousin Jim before succumbing to the Spanish Flu in November, 1918.

Behind the Book Video 1: HH Holmes

In August, Simon and Schuster will be publishing my new novel, Just Kill Me, which is all about a ghost tour guide who makes places more haunted by killing people at them. I’ve put together a series of short videos on the research that went into learning about the different tour stops that appear in the book, all of which are stops that I used on ghost tours myself over the years.

First up is one on the “Body Dump,” the site where H.H. Holmes had some connection to a glass bending factory, featuring some of the research I’ve done on Holmes. This video focuses mainly on excavating that site, but also on the techniques I use to research him in newspaper archives – the trick with Holmes is getting the right newspapers, the ones that really had a reporter on the ground, conducting interviews, investigating locations, publishing letters, and more. No paper is a perfect source for this; you’ll never find good data on the “castle” site in the Philadelphia papers, but those papers did cover his trial, interview him in prison, attend the execution, etc. Chicago papers did in-depth research in Chicago, but sometimes their Holmes quotes were really just things his lawyer said that they re-arranged to look like a first-hand quote. Meanwhile, Texas papers found better data on the Williams sisters, only St. Louis papers spoke to people he’d swindled there, etc.  Some of these papers you can get online, but many are still only on microfilm, particularly in Chicago. Sorting out good sources from bad is a real puzzle to solve, but it’s certainly not impossible to do.

Last month I even spent some time at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., scanning through reels of a few Philadelphia and New York papers I hadn’t catalogued, as well as getting the New York Journal and San Francisco Examiner to trace just how much influence William Randolph Hearst had on the story. The answer is fairly little; for most of the story, he only owned the Examiner, whose coverage of Holmes was basically indistinguishable from that of any other paper that was far from the scene of any action; they covered him quite a bit, but it was an also-ran story compared to their coverage of Durrant, a more local murderer (who, coincidentally, also had a victim named Minnie Williams). Hearst bought the Journal in Fall of 1895, and seems to have probably been running things by the time the trial got under way, though it’s hard to ascertain due to some gaps in the reels. They were one of two papers that jointly paid Holmes for his “confession” in 1896, and his hanging was front page news the next month, but by then they’d pretty much moved on. Their headline and artwork from the execution can be seen in the video. Enjoy!

Mary Holland: “Chicago’s Woman Sherlock Holmes”

St__Louis_Post_Dispatch_Sun__Mar_28__1909__jpg

Mary E. Holland.

Mary E. Holland is a largely forgotten figure today, but she was well known around town in her time, and deserves to re-take her place as a famous part of Chicago history. One of the first female detectives in America, she presented forensic analysis at the  first modern trial in which a man was convicted on fingerprint evidence,  and was assistant editor of Detective magazine. Her real adventures inspired the fictional Madelyn Mack, star of a series of Hugo Weird novels which became a series of silent films.

She even played a role in one of Chicago’s enduring mysteries: The Bate Murder:

The facts of the murder are these: on a cold November morning, 1904, young William Bate was found slumped over the steering wheel of a car out beyond the edge of the suburbs. A bullet hole in his head made the cause of death obvious. His hand was still clutching the gear levers. No one had ever been murdered in an automobile before, which made the story bigger news. Making it bigger news was the fact that there was no clear motive, and the car and driver had been rented by a mysterious figure known only as “Mr. Dove.”

Who was Mr. Dove? Why did he kill Bate? And where was he?

The story was all the papers talked about for a week or two, and in the middle of it the police called upon Mary to investigate. She analyzed the car, the bloodstains, the coat fibers in the seat, and the fingerprints, and determined that Mr. Dove may not have been the killer. There was a third person in the car – her theory was the Dove was the victim, and before dragging Dove’s body away, the killer also murdered Bate to keep him silent. “There exists in the blood stains on the automobile the unmistakable evidence that some person or heavy object has been dragged from the rear seat over the right side of the machine,” she wrote. “This was done when the blood was wet. I cannot be mistaken in this.”  The American was a full-on tabloid in those days, even publishing photos recreating the murder (it was one of those papers that took full advantage of the new ability to use photographs), but, like even the worst of the tabloids, sometimes their intrepid reporters did get some fantastic info, and sometimes they did things like inviting a female detective to weigh in.

 

Mistress of Mysteries: Three Stories.

At the time of the Bate murder, Mary was helping to educate U.S. authorities in the science of fingerprint analysis, which she’d studied in London.  While not an official member of the Chicago police, she often consulted for them. Testimony she gave about fingerprinting led to the first person hanged for murder based on fingerprint evidence in 1912.

Whether she was right about the third person in the Bate murder is still not known – the mystery was never solved. I’m now working on putting together more of the mystery of her own life; I knew she died around 1915, but I’m not sure what the cause of  death was. And her probate file brings up some NEW mysteries: she’d been divorced from her husband in 1909 (he sued for divorce on the grounds that she’d deserted him for two years), then remarried and divorced again very quickly, and was on good enough terms with her first husband in 1913 that he was a witness when she signed her will.

I had never heard of Holland until I ran across an article she wrote for the Chicago American about her findings from examining the Bate Murder car, but she turned out to be fascinating. In 1913, she even wrote a series of short stories about her adventures under the name “Mistress of Mysteries;” one of them was about the Bate murder. I located some of them and republished a compilation on Amazon for the lowest price they’d let me – they’re delightful cozy city mysteries.  I also included an introduction about her life and a copy of her analysis of the Bate murder car (and priced it as low as Amazon would let me). I feel as though her career as a writer was probably just getting started when she died in 1915.

You can also read some Madelyn Mack stories at archive.org  

 

 

Chicago-made 1916 Sherlock Holmes Film Recovered!

As some of you know, this spring I’ll have new book out on silent film production in Chicago. Co-written with Michael Glover Smith, Flickering Empire will be published by Wallflower, the film studies imprint of Columbia University Press.

In the draft, we talk a bit about the Sherlock Holmes film that Chicago’s Essanay studios made in 1916, towards the end of their period of relevance.  It was one of the film hits of the year; William Gillette had worked with Arthur Conan Doyle on a theatrical script about Holmes in 1899, and had spent the previous decade and a half traveling the world starring in it. He’d had several offers to adapt it to a silent film, but turned all of them down until George Spoor of Essanay made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Offhand, I’m not sure what the offer was, but a few contemporary articles say that Gillette made an unprecedented sum on the film, and that the seven-part picture was so expensive to make that only a couple of movies had ever cost more to make. One 1916 article notes that actual 1890s London cabs were brought in for the production. A Richmond paper noted that part of what made Gillette pick Spoor was that he was able to find parts of Chicago that looked just like the worst parts of London needed for the filming; Spoor had recently declared that Chicago was the perfect town for movie-making and determined to shoot every foot of his films there (though he had experimented with California before – 1916 was just about the end of Chicago’s time as a major film hub)

The movie was a hit; reviewers loved it and called it “a sensation.” They were especially taken with Gillette himself.

We spend some time in the book lamenting that the film is now lost, like 99% of Essanay’s other output (and like the vast majority of silent films in general). However, as I always say when talking about lost films, they’re always finding long-lost films in barns and yard sales, so you never know.

And sure enough, at the 11th hour before we finalized the book, Sherlock Holmes has been found. There was a print in a vault in France, and the film has now been remastered.  Unfortunately, I doubt we’ll be able to see it in time to write much more about it in the book. No Chicago screening has yet been scheduled; it will make its US premiere in San Fransisco next year. It first played in Chicago 98 years ago at the VLSE theatre on the 600 block of South Michigan Avenue, and was in a few other theatres throughout that summer before vanishing from the city.  I hope it makes it here soon; I’ll be fascinated to see if any of the Chicago locations are still recognizable today (which is a real treasure hunt with any Chicago-made films that we can find today).

You can read the whole story of the film’s rediscovery at the Cinematheque Francais in this article in Variety. 

You can also hear Mike and I exploring the remains of Essanay Studios on our 2011 podcast, “Inside Charlie Chaplin’s Vault” . Click the link or simply listen in below:

The Missing EASTLAND movie?

In 1915, when the Eastland capsized in the Chicago river, one enterprising camera man ran to a fire escape on the Reid Murdoch building, just across the river from the disaster, and began to film. Eventually he got footage not just of the boat on its side, with firemen racing across it, stretchers (with the bodies covered) being carried around, and divers plying their trade. There were also, according to contemporary accounts of the film, shots of workers rushing about in the Reid Murdoch itself (which became a hospital/morgue) and in the Second Regiment Armory. A few girls who survived voluntarily posed for the camera.

The film was about a thousand feet long, and was being exhibited around the country only days after the disaster. Around forty prints were known to exist at the time. The city censors (we had film censors then) refused to let it be shown in the city limits; a note about the rejection indicates that it was made (or distributed)
by the Selig Polyscope company; various papers credit the filming to the Chicago Tribune company of the Universal Current Events company. It could be that Selig simply made a hasty film of his own re-enacting things.   The ad at the right is from The Flint Daily Journal on July 31, a week after the disaster. What an odd double feature – The Clark Theatre couldn’t have come up with a stranger pairing.

So far as I can tell, there are no surviving prints, and information about it is hard to come across. Does anyone know more about    this? Practically all films from that era are now lost.

Selig Polyscope Week: Selig’s Brave New World (Los Angeles)


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We occasionally catch some flack around here for saying that Chicago invented Hollywood. It’s true that it’ll take us a whole book to back up that contention, but it’s true. In fact, the first guy to film commercially in Los Angeles was none other than Colonel Selig, who filmed most of his one-reel adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo in Chicago, but filmed a beach scene in L.A, where he would soon open the first permanent studio in Edendale (which is near where Echo Park is now).

The film survives, but has only been screened once in the last century or so, at Cinecon a few years back. Most describe it as totally ridiculous – the actor jumping into the water is clearly not the same guy who was in the prison.  I did manage to find this still, with what may have been the most obviously phony beard ever photograph. A kid with a bottle of Mr. Bubble can make a beard just about as convincing as this one.

 Still, it’s charming as all get out. Selig’s movies tended to be swashbuckling adventures, animal pictures, and travel films. Far more so than any other producer of the day, he believed that movies were the wave of the future.

In 1911, he took out space in magazines to publish an article entitled “WHAT MOVING PICTURES ARE GIVING THE WORLD:  A Moral and Educational Tonic for Young and Old Alike.” In the article, he sounds like Professor Harold Hill talking up the value of a boys’ band:

“(we) believe that five cent moving picture shows are possibilities for a great deal of good in the community. They do more than fill an idle hour. But did they even do only this they would have to be given the credentials as purveyors of legitimate amusement. Hours unemployed are the devil’s opportunity… they who have had dealings with the young need not be reminded of the far-reaching applications of this observation.  Even now the discovery has been made and amply verified that the five and ten cent theatre with its cinematographic plays is a most powerful rival of the saloon…saloonkeepers have reported that their transient trade has fallen off in districts well supplied with these shows. … Efforts should be made to lift their exhibits to highest planes of instruction…in measure as they will reach out for better effects than mere spectacular and sensational reproductions of casual occurrences they will develop into agencies of great value in the domain of education and culture.”

It goes on like this for quite a while. You can read the whole thing here, on Google Books.

Selig was a man with a vision – far more so than other producers of the era, who got so tied up in being part of Edison’s “trust” that they seemed to stop carrying about quality altogether. Unfortunately, he failed to follow it through, and was soon left behind. Tomorrow, we’ll look at what went wrong.

In the mean time, here’s a wonderful shot of Selig’s train at Northwestern station in Chicago, ready head for California. Present at the station was Major. Funkhouser, the official city film censor (we had of those those in those days, and, in the grand tradition of Chicago officials, he was spectacularly corrupt – but that’s another story!).

Selig Polyscope Week: Col. Selig’s Movie Acting Tips from 1910


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In the process of researching Selig, we found a wonderful article Col. Selig wrote of “tips for motion picture acting.” It was so entertaining that both Chicago Unbelievable and White City Cinema are posting it today.  


Anyone appearing in a Chicago-shot Selig Polyscope production circa 1910 would have been given this handy, exceedingly amusing manual on “picture acting” that I am reproducing in its entirety below. If you don’t have time to read the whole thing, at least scroll down the page to read the hilarious entry on “Sleeves”. Amazing but true:


ACTION – When the director gives you the word for action at the start of a scene, don’t wait and look at the camera to see if it is going. That will be taken care of and started when the action settles down to where the directors think the scene should start.


LOOKING AT THE CAMERA – Never look toward the director when he speaks to you during the action of a scene and while the camera is running. He may be reminding you that you are out of the picture, or of some piece of business that you have forgotten. Glancing toward the camera near the finish of a scene to see if it has stopped is also a bad habit. The director will inform you when the scene is over.


EYES – Use your eyes as much as possible in your work. Remember that they express your thoughts more clearly when properly used than gestures or unnatural facial contortions. Do not squint. You will never obtain the results you are striving for if you get into that very bad habit.


MAKING EXITS – In making an exit through a door, or out of the picture, never slack up just on the edge; use a little more exertion and continue well out of range of the camera. Many scenes have been weakened by such carelessness.


LETTER WRITING – In writing before the camera, do so naturally. Do not make rapid dashes over the paper. You are completely destroying the realism you are expected to convey by so doing. When reading a letter mentally count five slowly before showing by your expression the effect of the letter upon your mind.


READING A LETTER – When a lady receives a letter from her sweetheart or husband she must not show her joy by kissing it. That is overdone and has become so common by usage in pictures and on the stage as to be tiresome.


KISSING – When kissing your sweetheart, husband or wife, do so naturally – not a peck on the lips and a quick break-a-way. Also use judgment in the length of your kiss. Vary it by the degree of friendship, or love, that you are expected to convey.


GESTURES – Do not use unnecessary gestures. Repose in your acting is of more value. A gesture well directed can convey a great deal, while too many may detract from the realism of your work.


STRUGGLING – Avoid unnecessary struggling and body contortions. Many scenes appear ridiculous by such action. For example, if in a scrimmage you are overpowered by superior numbers, don’t kick, fight and squirm, unless you are portraying a maniac or a man maddened beyond control. Use common sense in this.


SHUTTING THE DOORS – Be careful in opening and shutting of doors in a set, so as not to jar the scenery. Carelessness in this respect causes make-overs, with a considerable loss of time and film, both of which are valuable.


IN PICTURE – Be sure that you stay in the picture while working. Mentally mark with your eyes the limitations of the camera’s focus, and keep within bounds. You can do this with a little practice without appearing purposely to do so.


SMOKING – Don’t smoke near the camera or where the smoke can blow across the lens. Take just as good care about kicking up a dust. If you are on a horse it is not necessary to ride circles around the camera. Throwing dust into a camera will cause scratches, and bring down upon your head the righteous wrath of the operator.


GOSSIP – Avoid discussing the secrets of the business you are engaged in. Remember that much harm is done by spreading the news of all the happenings of the day in your work. Revealing to outsiders the plots and names of pictures you are working on or have just finished is frequently taken advantage of and causes great loss to your firm, by some rival concern rushing a picture out ahead that they have on hand, of the same nature. All gossip of an injurious nature is deplorable, and will not be indulged in by any people who appreciate their position and wish to remain in the good graces of their employer.


PROMPTNESS – Come to work on time. An allowance of ten minutes will be granted for a difference in watches, but be sure it is ten minutes BEFORE and not ten AFTER. There are no hardships inflicted upon you, and you owe it to your employer to be as prompt in this matter as you expect him to be in the payment of your salary.


MAKE-UP – Regarding make-up and dress, do some thinking for yourself. Remember that the director has many troubles, and his people should lighten his burden in this matter as much as possible. For example, if you are told to play as a “49″ miner, figure out in your own mind how you should appear, and don’t ask the director if high-laced boots will do when you should know that they have only been in use for a few years. Don’t ask him if pants with side pockets will do, when you know they were never worn at that period. A poor country girl should never wear high French heels, silk stockings and long form corsets; nor should her hair be done in the latest fashion. She would look very much out of the picture in such make-up carrying a milk pail. Do not redden lips too much as a dark red takes nearly black. Likewise in rouging the face, do not touch up the cheeks only and leave the nose and forehead white. The effect of such make-up is hideous in photography.
Get in the habit of thinking out for yourself all the little details that go to complete a perfect picture of the character you are to portray. Then, if there is anything you do not understand do not be afraid to ask the director.



BEARDS – In the making of beards one cannot be too careful. This is an art that every actor can become proficient in, if he will only take the pains to do so. Remember that the camera magnifies every defect in your make-up. Just use your mental faculties to give some thought to your character studies and you will win out.


SLEEVES – Avoid playing too many parts with your sleeves rolled up. Cowboys and miners use the sleeves of their shirts for what they were intended. If you are playing tennis, or courting a girl at the seaside, you may display your manly beauty to your heart’s content. Do not let common stage usages govern you in this matter.


PROFANITY – Let the gentleman exercise care when in the presence of ladies and children to use no profanity. It is just as easy to express yourself without it if you will only try it.


USE NO PROFANITY IN THE PICTURES – There are thousands of deaf mutes who attend the theatres and who understand every movement of your lips.


PARTS – Do not become peeved if you are not given the part you think you ought to have. The director knows what type person he wishes to use in a particular part, and if it is not given to you it is because some other person is better fitted for it.
We should all work for the general good. By giving our employe
r the best we have in us, we are greatly benefiting him, and by so doing are enhancing our own value.

From Chicago Unbelievable – are there many known examples of actors swearing in silent films that were obvious to lip readers? That’d be a fun database to compile!

Selig Polyscope Week: Hunting Lions at Irving and Western


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Selig Polyscope Week continues both at Chicago Unbelievable and White City Cinema!

In 1908, Teddy Roosevelt decided not to run for a third term as President. Instead, after his second term, he left to go on safari in Africa.  Colonel Selig asked for permission to send a camera crew with him to document the journey, and Roosevelt agreed -Selig planned to train Teddy’s son, Kermit, to operate a polyscope camera. But the ex-president changed his mind when he realized what a hassle it would be. Not much research has been done to document the relationship between Colonel Selig and Colonel Roosevelt, though it’s easy to imagine that Teddy would be annoyed to find out he was the only one of the two who was actually a Colonel.

And yet, in 1909, Selig’s film of Roosevelt hunting a lion became a hit motion picture.

Roosevelt in Africa (also known as Hunting Big Game in Africa and several other titles) was shot entirely in the complex at Irving Park and Western Ave on the north side of Chicago, using a Roosevelt lookalike, “native drummers” found on South State Street, bamboo fishpoles and artificial leaves.  Anecdotal evidence, however, indicates that many viewers THOUGHT it was genuine footage of the adventurous former president, and many theatres probably exhibited it under exactly those pretenses.

But Selig made no secret of it being fake;  the filming of the movie was extensively documented, and a handful of feature articles about it were published, including one in the Tribune that went into great detail for the benefit of a public that was still sort of in the dark as to how movies were made.  Selig often had lions in his stable (according to legend, one of them went on to be the MGM lion), but a special one was brought just to be killed in the movie.

The jungle was constructed in a 60×20 cage on the outdoor lot, to the exacting specifications of the producer. “You’ve got to have the real color in a moving picture,” he said. “We come as near to doing the real thing here as it can be done. Get ready for the hunt!”

The lion, according to most accounts, was terrified of the set (never having actually been in a jungle – he was bred in captivity). He spent much of his time hiding in the artificial bushes, but his tracks gave him away.  As the paper put it, the man playing Roosevelt “got down to examine the tracks, made sure it was a lion, then…waved his arms in frantic delight. His (false) teeth gleamed some more, and the native-tracker and ex-president shook hands and Teddy said right out loud “Dee-lighted!”


Mike’s and my 2015 book on silent film in Chicago is now available from University of Columbia Press

By all accounts, “Roosevelt” spends much of the film shaking hands, smiling, and saying “dee-lighted.” And everyone did a lot of frantic waving around.

Between shots, the actor would take out the false teeth and remark that they were a pain to wear. “It must be fierce to have ’em growing on you,” he said.

And the poor lion, for his part, spent most of his time hiding while the crew did their best to scare him into looking fierce for the three polyscope cameras.  The fist shot fired hit him in the jaw, and the lion let loose a might roar and proceeded to scare the living hell out of the crew by jumping for the platform where the cameramen were stationed. The platform was twelve feet above the ground, and it looked enough like he would make the jump that the camera men jumped down and ran like hell. But King Leo (the lion) hit the bars at about the eight foot mark and fell to the ground. The cameramen re-took their positions and filmed “Roosevelt” firing the shot that brought the lion down.

Obviously, no title card would be claiming that no animals were hurt in the making of this motion picture.

The film ended with everyone doing a war dance around the poor lion’s remains, while Roosevelt grinned, shook hands, and said “dee-lighted.”

The lion had cost $300. The film made the company around $15,000.  It’s tempting to call it the first mockumentary, but it wasn’t by a long shot – both Selig and Spoor had filmed Spanish American war footage in the outer suburbs a decade before.

Meanwhile, filmmaker Cherry Kearton did film actual footage of the Roosevelt safari, but it wasn’t nearly as popular as Selig’s film. His footage of the party crossing a river just wasn’t as exciting as a lion hunt, real or otherwise.

Here’s a newspaper shot of a scene being filmed inside of the studio “greenhouse” (see the podcast page for pictures of how the building looked then – and how it looks now!) In the background you can see the top of another buidling, indicating this is about on the third story of 3900 N. Claremont.

The actors with the unfortunate lion. The guy playing Roosevelt doesn’t look too accurate to me, but people in those days wouldn’t have been accustomed to seeing actual film footage of him:

And here’s some actual Selig footage of Roosevelt from the World’s Fair in 1903. Selig had made his name making such “actualities.”