William McKinley reenacted his acceptance of the presidential nomination in this short film designed for exhibition by the new American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. Depending on who you are asking, the earliest footage of an American president.
Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.
Down by the Ohio…
Movies were in the air in the 1890s. Pioneers in the United Kingdom, France, Germany and the United States had been racing to make pictures move for years (The Roundhay Garden Scene, generally considered to be the first movie, was shot in 1888) and the initial success of the peepshow Kinetoscope showed that there was money in films. William Dickson, who had been intensely involved in the development of the Edison brand of motion pictures, left the company and joined the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. Mutoscopes were the proprietary peepshow attractions of the studio and used a flipbook format to create motion.
Nowadays, Biograph is almost exclusively associated with the early work of D.W. Griffith but it’s worth noting that the company had been in existence for well over a decade before he joined fold. In addition to cashing in on the lucrative peepshow craze and the subsequent stampede for projected cinema, Biograph was used as a media arm for the Republican party. Recently-defeated president Benjamin Harrison and Abner McKinley, brother of William, were both early investors in the company.
Portrayals of real public figures, from Annie Oakley to Queen Victoria, were wildly popular with audiences. At the same time, William McKinley wanted to run a controlled political campaign with a curated public image. Filming the nominee made sense from every financial and political angle and so 68mm (not a typo) Biograph cameras were dispatched to Canton and the stage was set for McKinley to reenact his receiving the nomination for president of the United States.
The scene is a simple one, as was usual for films of this period. McKinley is seen walking with his secretary and is handed the letter with the nomination. He puts on his hat, reads the letter, takes his hat off again and then continues his rather stiff stroll, staring at the camera the entire time.
It’s not exactly riveting. In fact, I would go as far as saying that William McKinley’s performance as William McKinley is pretty awful. Even during this period, we could see more natural screen performances from, say, the Lumiere baby or the dancer Annabelle. However, that wasn’t really the point. McKinley was shown as a living breathing person using the latest fad in entertainment technology. He looked modern by extension and the film was enthusiastically received as the Biograph Company made the jump from peepshows to the big screen. McKinley, meanwhile, won his election handily and defeated Democrat William Jennings Bryan 51% to 46.7%.
In Showing and Telling: Film Heritage Institutes and Their Performance of Public Accountability, Nico de Klerk points out that the McKinley film enjoyed a curious afterlife with Biograph retitling and repurposing the footage any time it could be tied into current events. After the inauguration, it was said to portray the newly-sworn-in president home again after the ceremony, then it was purported to show McKinley discussing the terms of the Treaty of Paris with his secretary. Finally, the footage was used in memory of the late president after his 1901 assassination.
The question of firsts is always a fraught one when it comes to early film. So many films, so much documentation, all lost. Firsts are a shot in the dark at best. That being said, we are going to dig a bit into the question of who was the first American president to appear in a motion picture.
First, we need to understand that the answer depends on your definition of “president,” “first,” and “motion picture.” Many official sources hand the distinction to Grover Cleveland, who appeared in the 1896 motion picture A Capital Courtship. And its true that Cleveland appeared in a motion picture but that motion picture was not a movie.
A Capital Courtship was the work of Dr. Alexander Black and it was a series of stereopticon slides, which could fade into one another to create an illusion of movement. Black’s presentations were particularly sophisticated with a large number of images. Black was keenly aware of the limitations of the medium and took care to avoid, say, duels, which would expose the artificiality of the fade.
Black was a pioneer in the pre-history of the movies. His presentations ran over forty minutes and featured lively narration, sound effects and visual effects. (Smoking characters were accompanied by smoke, for example.) And, of course, the cameo of Cleveland in the White House. But in the end, this was a series of pictures in motion but not motion pictures in the modern sense.
A good deal of confusion about this seems to be rooted in the show’s 1920 reissue by Paramount. An advertisement read “When Grover Cleveland Acted for the Screen.” Paramount also promised that the presentation was “crude, funny and vastly interesting” without specifying that it was a slideshow.
It’s obvious why Paramount would have omitted this fact from their ads—slides were no longer cutting edge entertainment—but this seems to have muddied that waters for researchers. Never mind that Photoplay also specifically described the presentations of Dr. Black as stereopticon shows in a piece entitled The Grandpa of the Movies.
However, even if Grover Cleveland’s turn in A Capital Courtship was not really a movie, he can still be considered the earliest sitting president to be filmed while in office as his ride with McKinley to the latter’s inauguration was captured by Edison cameras in 1897. If you want to define president as “once and future,” then McKinley is probably your man. That is, unless Benjamin Harrison slipped in an appearance for the old Mutoscope.
That being said, the president who was the earliest to fully embrace motion pictures was, without a doubt, Theodore Roosevelt. McKinley’s brash young vice-president inherited the job after the latter’s assassination and he was extensively filmed for the burgeoning newsreel/actuality market, spoofed by cinematic lookalikes and was the earliest president to have held confirmed White House movie screenings.
Despite all the claims about Woodrow Wilson’s infamous screening of The Birth of a Nation in the White House being first, presidential screenings were an old hat by 1915. Roosevelt held multiple picture shows in the East Room of the White House as early as 1908, viewing everything from westerns to nature documentaries, and even demanding encore showings.
Looking at the context of the period, though, I think it’s highly probable that Roosevelt was not the first presidential moviegoer either. When Queen Victoria was filmed at Balmoral in 1896, she enthusiastically called for a screening of the film that same year. I find it very hard to believe that American presidents, a job that calls for a certain amount of self-absorption by its very nature, would be shy about asking for similar screenings of their own images. So, I will just keep digging and if I find evidence of that elusive 1890s White House picture show, I will let you know.
McKinley at Home, Canton, Ohio is a valuable historical artifact. Motion pictures and television would define the American presidency for the entire 20th century and we can see the dawn of that era play out before our eyes. This is surely one of the most significant snippets of film in U.S. history.
Where can I see it?
If you want physical media, the film was released as part of The Movies Begin box set from Kino. Otherwise, search engines are your friend.
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