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.”

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