A band of lawmen and outlaws played themselves in this early Oklahoma film production. The line between fiction and reality is enjoyably fuzzy but the main reason to see this picture is its unique place in the history of White House screenings.
Home Media Availability: Stream for free courtesy of the Library of Congress.
In December of 1908, lame duck President Theodore Roosevelt opened the White House to host an extraordinary delegation from the newly-minted state of Oklahoma: lawmen, ex-bandits, a wolf hunter… and a collection of motion pictures that so impressed the president, he demanded an encore screening for his friends. The event was covered extensively in the press but quickly faded from the public memory as new presidents and a World War claimed attention.
The Bank Robbery is one of the surviving films released by the Oklahoma Natural Mutoscene Company. Wolf Hunt also survives (though I will not be reviewing it for reasons that will become clear) and the missing film Round-Up in Oklahoma, which apparently showcased the roping and cowboy elements of the new state’s culture, rounds out the trio of releases.
So, how is the film? Well, the amateur status of most of its crew is abundantly obvious but I would not necessarily consider this to be a dealbreaker. The narrative is extremely simple: robbers plan a bank job, robbers accomplish bank job, posse pursues, shootout, surviving bank robbers frog marched back to pay the piper.
Credited cameraman James B. “Bennie” Kent was an accomplished still photographer who had become entranced with the movies. While some compositions are striking and I very much appreciate the number of times the cast poses under large signs marking their locations— the city of Cache and the Wichita Mountains— the pans are quite jerky and distract rather than enhance the scenes. (For an example of smoother pans during the same era, the 1906 Max Linder comedy Attempted Suicide is worth checking out.) In Kent’s defense, he was apparently using borrowed equipment until he was able to purchase his own movie camera in 1909.
Still, I would say that the home movie quality of this film actually works to its advantage in some ways. It’s not feature-length and was likely designed to be presented with colorful narration from the likes of Al Jennings or a soundalike western coot. (The company advertised accompanying lectures with its films, which was extremely common during this period.)
And the picture is valuable as an example of a film with both lawmen and ex-bandits in the production team—movies tend to pick one side or the other—and its flat, just-the-facts-ma’am presentation does give it a sparkle of realism. I wouldn’t recommend it as anyone’s first silent film and it really does need to be viewed in the context of the mainstream productions of the time from the likes of Vitagraph, Edison, Essanay and Kalem to get a handle on where it stands in terms of quality, realism and polish.
Parallels to The Great Train Robbery are inevitable but movies in general had advanced a lot between 1903 and 1908. The Bank Robbery feels very much like a throwback with its rudimentary editing, awkward camera movement and fairly leisurely pace.
Still, I found myself thoroughly enjoying this film as I watched it. I am a fan of lo-fi filmmaking and the sincere enthusiasm of the filmmakers comes through even a century later. Further, the lack of sentimentality and the determined lack of glamour offer a unique appeal that is rare to see in American motion pictures of any era. It’s well worth your time.
However, the main reason to see this film has little to do with its content and everything to do with a trip from Oklahoma to Washington D.C.
If you ask the average student of film which motion picture was the first screened in the White House, most will immediately answer with D.W. Griffith’s racist epic, The Birth of a Nation, shown to Woodrow Wilson. This fake factoid is often trotted out to illustrate the intense prejudice of confirmed white supremacist Wilson but it has had the inadvertent effect of adding even more unearned laurels to a hateful film.
And it’s just bad history.
I didn’t set out to become a White House screening nerd. I just really, really hate it when people accept something uncritically that makes absolutely no sense once interrogated.
My spider sense started tingling years ago as I read about the dawn of projected film in the 1890s and how it was received by monarchs, presidents, and other heads of state. Queen Victoria enthusiastically hosted an 1896 screening of footage taken at Balmoral, along with other selections. Later, the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha kidlets were photographed playing with a portable Mutoscope machine. Tsar Nicholas II had French cameramen at his coronation the same year. Also in 1896, William McKinley reenacted his acceptance of the presidential nomination at his home in Ohio and later was the first president to have a filmed inauguration. The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company had former president Benjamin Harrison and future President McKinely’s brother, Abner, among its early investors and, based on its releases, would sometimes act as the film arm of the Republican party.
With all that, I found it extremely difficult to believe that the U.S. presidents of the 1890s and 1900s eschewed motion picture shows. McKinley was clearly not camera-shy and Teddy Roosevelt in particular played shamelessly to the motion picture cameras and there are dozens upon dozens of films showing him parading, campaigning, speaking… And that’s without the absolute flood of parodies! Motion picture projection was easy and portable by design—the camera crews were sent out to take international scenes of interest and were to support themselves by putting on traveling shows. Nobody ever brought such a machine to the White House?
Further, Grover Cleveland was no slouch in the “president looks at things” art/photography genre. He appeared in an 1894 animated slide proto-motion picture, A Capital Courtship, and earlier, as president-elect, he was shown receiving an Edison Phonogram (early voicemail on wax cylinder, basically) in a periodical dedicated to recording technology. If Edison sent a Phonogram (it was allegedly sent anonymously but Edison was never one to neglect a publicity stunt) then why would he balk at sending a Projecting Kinetoscope?
I remain convinced that a White House screening occurred in the 1890s or the early 1900s but the earliest printed evidence of a presidential movie show comes from the tail end the Roosevelt administration.
While president, Roosevelt hosted the Yorkshire-based nature photographers, the Kearton brothers, and viewed their motion pictures of birds and other natural wonders. Richard Kearton’s screening and lecture happened sometime in late March of 1908. Kearton entertained the president with his bird films, then hailed as the best ever made, as well as a lecture on ornithology.
Unless and until more evidence surfaces, it seems that Roosevelt was responsible for the East Room being used as the White House motion picture theater, as it was used by the Keartons, the Oklahoma delegation and, later, for Wilson’s viewing of Birth of a Nation.
Now we come to the sad news that will be all too familiar to students of early film: Unfortunately, none of the Kearton footage from this era is known to survive. (Let me know if any surfaces!) This is particularly tragic considering the wonderful deadpan images of the Keartons’ bird-photographing disguises, including a hollow imitation ox.
However, the Oklahoma Natural Mutoscene Company is quite a different matter. Their films survive and include, if that matters to you, narrative movies as well as nature actualities. As stated above, this colorful delegation of would-be filmmakers included U.S. Marshal Jack Abernathy and ex-bandit Al Jennings. Famed lawman Bill Tilghman was also involved in the company, though he was not listed as one of the White House guests in the coverage I have read. The fledgling Oklahoma company brought along their entire motion picture output to the capital, some 6,000 feet of western scenes taken in what was then called the Wichita National Forest and Game Preserve.
Content Warning: This review will be covering the Oklahoma company’s production Wolf Hunt, its headline release. I will be discussing hunting, animal cruelty and other events that some people may find upsetting.
Abernathy’s Wolf Hunt was the main attraction of the evening, with a captive wolf being chased on horseback through the East Room before being captured, muzzled with wire and caged. The president was then shown the motion pictures, along with guest lectures.
Wolf Hunt was the film that received the most publicity. It still exists and, frankly, it’s horrible. Wolves are graphically caught and killed on-camera. Wolves are now extinct in Oklahoma and, while some may claim that Abernathy was engaged in pest control, the wolves killed on-camera were actually imported to the game preserve for the purpose of the filmed hunt, where they were chased down and many were brutally killed. (Abernathy’s fame lay in catching the wolves alive, seemingly for the purpose of torturing them at a later time.)
I had some mice try to move into my house last year. My cat, Ronaldo, is a passionate mouser and he caught them with great relish. After he had caught the last mouse, I did not find more mice to release into my house for Ronaldo because that would have been deranged. You get me? Further, since when was torturing animals a part of pest control?
Capturing and releasing wolves into unfamiliar territory and then chasing them down with horses and dogs is not bravery. Even less brave is dragging one of the poor creatures across the country and chasing it through an enclosed space on horseback. What an absolutely disgusting spectacle. And I am not getting any of this information from condemnations of Abernathy. These practices were described in fawning advertisements for the man and his film.
I have rarely wished ill on anyone as much as I wish it on Abernathy but, alas, the barbarian seems to have died comfortably in bed. Well, I hope it had fleas.
If you have only heard the cutesy and/or flattering anecdotes about Teddy Roosevelt, from saving the “Teddy bear” to pushing national parks, you can be forgiven for your shock but he was very much a man of his time. During this period, conservation and trophy hunting were not mutually exclusive. Note, please, that the Wichita state park was a “game preserve” at the time—preserved to be shot later by the right sort of people. It has since been renamed a wildlife refuge. This was also the period during which a heroic character could simply have the profession of “big game hunter” and this fact would be met with polite murmurs of approval.
One is reminded of Oscar Wilde’s immortal line from A Woman of No Importance: “Silliest word in our language, and one knows so well the popular idea of health. The English country gentleman galloping after a fox—the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable.”
However, all hope was not lost for the people of 1908 and the good news comes from Oklahoma. A Washington D.C. correspondent for the Chickasha Daily Express was less than impressed by Abernathy’s antics:
“John Abernathy, United States marshal of the Western district, is here, with a moving picture outfit, the pictures for which he had made in the Wichita mountains last summer catching live wolves with his bare hands, make stage coach hold-ups, etc. Al Jennings, of recent outlaw fame, is also along. In the big east room of the White House this moving picture show has been put on once and will be put on again Tuesday night, for the benefit of a few select friends of the President.
Oklahomans who are here, and western men generally, are sore over the sanction of the President is giving this class of advertising Oklahoma. It creates the impression that Oklahoma is a place where a pack of wolves or outlaws are likely to pounce upon a man at any time he crosses the state. They are also asking whether or not Abernathy has no work to do in Oklahoma, and whether he draws his salary for being United States marshal, or for entertaining the President and his friends with a show of inestimable damage to Oklahoma.
It was suggested last night that as soon as Cash Cade and Dennis Flynn* arrive a cock fight and badger stunt should be pulled off under the same auspices.”
*Oklahoma Republican politicians.
Translation: Bless his heart.
Before I saw the films, I thought the piece was possible pearl-clutching but now I see that the correspondent was 100% correct in this assessment and I agree wholeheartedly. Bravo, Chickasha Daily Express! If I ever build my time machine, I would like to buy them a drink. You’re being paid to uphold the law, not prance about being cruel to animals, Abernathy!
Now, we come to a question that is near and dear to my heart: the dominance of short films in early cinema and how the obsessive focus on feature-length movies has helped diminish and erase cinematic pioneers.
“But it wasn’t the first feature film shown at the White House!” Well, yeah. The earliest confirmed American feature-length film that was released all-at-once (rather than a reel-a-week serialization) was Oliver Twist in 1912 at five reels. The 1912 comes after 1908, if I am not mistaken. The state of Oklahoma was supposed to inaugurate White House narrative screenings AND invent the American feature film? Picky picky.
Feature-length films began in 1897 with the complete photographing of the Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight but longer narrative films did not catch on until the 1900s with Australia’s The Story of the Kelly Gang in 1906 being the earliest confirmed fiction feature. In the U.S. there was a hot debate between studios, who wanted to stick to short films as they entailed less financial risk, and both theater owners and filmmakers, who felt the public was ready for longer stories. 1912 was the deciding year in the U.S. with both Twist and From the Manger to the Cross earning praise for their length, narrative smoothness and quality.
In short: the near-universal decision to prioritize feature-length films over shorts has meant that at least the first decade and often the second decade of film as well has been essentially erased from history. I don’t know about you but I am not satisfied to watch a Méliès picture or two, maybe some Edwin S. Porter Edison films and think I have thoroughly covered the history of cinema from about 1895 to 1912. Early cinema pioneers deserve respect.
Anyway, in the case of the Oklahoma company, with 6,000 feet of film (at least an hour even with furious projector cranking), plus slides, narration and demonstrations, this was easily a feature-length evening of movies. I can see such a show easily breaking two or even three hours. I guess it’s all a question of why feature-length would be at all important in this context. In my mind, a rootin’ tootin’ pistol shootin’ White House movie screening in 1908 is pretty significant regardless of the number of reels involved.
And, as a side note, this also wasn’t a case of Roosevelt being a movie buff and then a White House screening gap occurring until Wilson took office. William Howard Taft also hosted screenings at the presidential residence. There are records of his viewing a newsreel of Arizona’s statehood ceremony, hosting the film crew for the at-home movie show. He also viewed movies outside of his home, watching his own speech in Virginia in 1909 and attending a 1910 screening of flight footage in Washington D.C. He also accepted the invitation of a delegation of Spanish-American War veterans to view film made at a military mass.
Taft continued the pattern set by his predecessors and appeared in both campaign and newsreel footage, though he reportedly liked watching himself onscreen mainly to laugh at his own expense. He even took the title role in the late 1913 three-reel film The President’s Pardon soon after leaving office. In the picture, as promised, Taft pardoned Crane Wilbur, who was framed and sentenced to death for espionage by nefarious villains.
The Oklahoma Natural Mutoscene Company played up the White House screening for all it was worth, featuring it prominently in its ads for Wolf Hunt. I cannot find much mention of The Bank Robbery, it was possibly too rough and raw despite its colorful cast. There may have been censorship woes as scenes of robbery were considered as offensive as sexual content to film reformers. Animal cruelty seemed to create far fewer objections. In any case, the presence at Jennings at the White House screening and hints in newspaper coverage give me confidence that it was indeed a part of the program.
(Not in the least because the total commercial output of the company was considerably less than the 6,000 feet of film they reportedly took to Washington. Sounds like they packed up everything they shot, lock, stock and barrel, and why not?)
The Oklahoma company never got a chance to enter production in earnest. Like many of its contemporaries, it was hit with an injunction for allegedly violating Edison’s motion picture patents. Its relatively remote, far away from New York filming locations were no protection. (The company was based in Oklahoma City, with its charter granted on December 23, 1908, just weeks after the successful White House screening and advertised Washington D.C. offices in early 1909.)
That was the end of the Oklahoma Natural Mutoscene Co. but it was not the end of its principal members in the movies. Bill Tilghman, whom the Library of Congress credits with the direction of The Bank Robbery, gave the movies another shot seven years later.
The surviving footage of The Passing of the Oklahoma Outlaws (1915) shows how much things had changed. The 1915 picture incorporates interiors, sets, and edits to closer shots, all lacking in The Bank Robbery. It also lacks the herky-jerky pans of its predecessor. The Bank Robbery used rather long shots throughout and only incorporated rudimentary editing. Any closer shots of its cast were the result of them physically approaching the camera. In short, it looks like the production of first-time filmmakers in 1908, while The Passing of the Oklahoma Outlaws looks like a more experienced and polished production of nearly a decade later.
By the way, online statements that the six-reel cut of The Passing of the Oklahoma Outlaws ran 96 minutes are laughable as actual runtimes depended very much on who was doing the cranking. As confessed by the Wikipedia footnote, this is rooted in the erroneous belief that “silent speed” was 16 fps vs sound at 24 fps. In my experience, 16 fps is mind-numbingly slow and made little financial sense as theaters wanted to fit in more screenings. Ben Model has a debunking of the “silent speed” myth, which seems to be at least partially rooted in 16mm home movie projectors of the 1940s. In my opinion, 20-22 fps would be a much happier speed for a peppy western like this, and possibly even more as some silent films were cranked faster than sound speed.
Jennings continued in the movies, of course, and I hope Abernathy suffered from carbuncles for the rest of his long, ridiculous life. Oklahoma still had some filmmaking gasoline left in the tank during the silent era and one of its crown jewels is the 1920 film The Daughter of Dawn, which boasted of an all-Comanche and Kiowa cast.
So, to recap our assessment of The Bank Robbery’s place in White House movie night history:
- U.S. Presidents had appeared in cinema and pre-cinema since at least the 1890s, as candidates, presidents-elect, sitting presidents and ex-presidents.
- There is an unbroken line of confirmed White House movie screenings, many in the East Room, since the late Roosevelt administration but there is every reason to believe that movies were shown before that.
- Hosting the filmmakers during a screening was a courtesy shown by both Roosevelt and Taft.
- White House screenings were news and were considered a strong selling point for the films shown.
The legacy of the Oklahoma Natural Mutoscene Company can be described as complicated—an understatement, to be sure—but its brief flurry of wildcat filmmaking is both historically significant and fascinating to discuss, if more than a little sickening in its casual cruelty. Just stick to The Bank Robbery, I suggest giving Wolf Hunt a pass unless you have a very strong stomach.
Where can I see it?
Stream The Bank Robbery courtesy of the Library of Congress. The film only survives as a paper print (each frame printed on photo paper for copyright purposes), so the quality is not the best but it is certainly better than nothing!
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