Theodore Roosevelt on Film


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Theodore Roosevelt on Film

by Veronica Gillespie

But a truce to politics! We want to present Colonel Roosevelt to the reader . . . as a picture man: that is, one in sympathy with the best aspects of the picture.1

It has been said that during the silent newsreel period no president was more photogenic than Theodore Roosevelt. He was unusually cooperative with motion picture photographers, often pausing in the midst of official ceremonies to face the camera, bow, wave, smile, gesture, or otherwise accommodate the cameraman.2

Because of T. R.'s love affair with the camera, and other fortunate circumstances, the Theodore Roosevelt Association Film Collection in the Library of Congress now constitutes a major visual record of the first decades of the twentieth century. The collection contains rare early motion picture footage, some of which is believed to be unique.

The actual compilation of the collection was undertaken by the Theodore Roosevelt Association (TRA), originally established as the Roosevelt Memorial Association (RMA) in January 1919. The RMA, in conjunction with the Women's Roosevelt Memorial Association, founded the Bureau of Roosevelt Research and Information and, by resolution, appointed Hermann Hagedorn as director on November 8, 1920. The bureau was delegated, among other tasks, to collect all available papers, books, pamphlets, articles, photographs, and motion pictures pertaining to the life and times of the president. As a direct result, in 1924 the Roosevelt Motion Picture Library, where the films were first assembled and preserved, was established at Roosevelt House, the president's birthplace in New York City. Caroline Gentry, experienced in the motion picture industry and art, was appointed director of films at the library. For approximately thirty years the RMA successfully gathered a large quantity of motion picture negative and positive stock from old film vaults, newsreel files, movie companies, individuals, and various other sources throughout the United States, Europe, South America, and Africa.

Films were acquired through various transactions. Many were outright cash purchases; some were donations by individuals, such as Lyman Howe, Charles Urban, William Fox, and John Demarest, as well as by pioneer film companies, such as Biograph, Paramount, Kinograms, and Bray Studios. Still others were obtained by loans, gifts, copy negatives, and trade-ins. Collaboration with the various leading motion picture producers was essential to procuring the Roosevelt films. A Film Research Committee was appointed consisting of Will H. Hays, chairman of the Republican National Committee and president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America; Elmer Pearson of Pathé Frères; J. Stuart Blackton of Vitagraph; E. W. Hammons of Educational Films; George M. Baynes of Kinograms; and Edwin C. Hill of Fox News. A few of the larger producers made notable contributions; Mr. Blackton, for example, gave the first important impetus by donating all of the Roosevelt negatives located in the Vitagraph vaults. Brokers and dealers in old, junked, and obsolete films, along with independent cameramen, or footage men as they were called in the newsreel world, were also invited to contribute all available film stock on Roosevelt subjects. Eventually, the collection totaled well over 140,000 feet of negative, duplicate negative, and positive stock of the scenes, events, and individuals attendant to the illustrious career of Theodore Roosevelt.

In addition to directing the compilation of materials in the collection, Miss Gentry organized the production of the Roosevelt films, which were available on 16 mm noninflammable stock for use by various institutions in exhibitions or for household projection.3

With a keen sense of historical purpose, Miss Gentry assembled these documentaries by combining old newsreels and other types of films with interior titles and still shots of cartoons, photographs, and sites dealing with the principal phases of Roosevelt's life. Since the RMA productions, originally assembled in the 1920s and 1930s, were periodically reedited and retitled, they are not easily identified. For this reason, an accurate count of them is very difficult to determine; it has, however, been estimated that there were at least fifteen completed ones.

In 1962 Roosevelt House became the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site, administered by the National Park Service. The Roosevelt Motion Picture Library was then transferred to the Library of Congress, which the TRA believed was the best institution for the storage, preservation, and scholarly utilization of such valuable visual documents. 4

The Theodore Roosevelt Collection is but a small component of the National Film Collection in the Library of Congress. It had its origins in 1894 with the copyright registration of the early motion pictures of Thomas A. Edison and is now considered one of the most significant collections in existence. The Roosevelt Collection consists of 381 titles of nitrate-base films, which have now been preserved on safety-base stock since nitrate stock is highly flammable and given to autocatalytic disintegration under certain atmospheric conditions. The majority of the films in the collection are black and white (though some are tinted), silent (there is one sound film), 16 or 35 mm in size, and one reel in length (some have two reels). Each title usually has at least one copy of the reference print, the duplicate negative, the archival positive or master positive, and the nitrate original.

In 1975 the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded the Library of Congress a grant to prepare full cataloging and computer-generated access to the entire Theodore Roosevelt Collection. The staff of the Library of Congress National Endowment for the Humanities Cataloging Project prepared individual cataloging records with detailed filmographic and subject analyses for each film. In attempting to provide complete and accurate identification of the motion pictures, the project staff encountered numerous difficulties. With the exception of the RMA productions, the films were, for the most part, untitled newsreel segments and newsfilms. Filmographic data are both incomplete and speculative. There are no reliable written records for most of the films other than the accounts published in the RMA annual reports.

The two most significant descriptors in film identification are the proper title of the film and the name of the company responsible for its production and/or release. Since almost every important event was photographed simultaneously by newsreel cameramen from several different production companies, identification was severely limited if, as frequently happened with undecided footage, a company's name or logo did not appear on the film along with the main title. If the date of an event in a newsreel segment could be verified, then the film could be identified completely or at least tentatively through a laborious research procedure. However, when complete film productions were involved, they had to be validated through an even more exhaustive search using a variety of film research tools. 5

After the film had been identified, the project staff utilized cataloging policies adapted from the Anglo-American Cataloging Rules for filmographic description and the Library of Congress Subject Headings for subject access. Each cataloging entry contains, when possible, the following data: title, production and/or releasing company, date of production, archival physical description, series title, general cataloger's notes, summary of contents, subject headings, added entries, language code, geographic area code, and shelf listing information. These cataloging records were then coded and translated into the MARC (Machine-Readable Cataloging) format for films to generate computer end products in the form of catalogs, indexes, publications, and cards for use in manual systems. These retrieval tools will facilitate more efficient use of the collection while eliminating unnecessary handling and viewing of films. All data compiled by the project staff are available to researchers in the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division of the Library.


The Films

Roosevelt became a major picture personality during the early twentieth century because he was newsworthy as well as photogenic and because newsfilms were novelties and very popular during their formative years. He was the first U. S. president whose life was extensively recorded and preserved in the motion picture format. The collection reveals that although Roosevelt obtained fame before the motion picture form was perfected, he was one of the most frequently photographed subjects among public men. The majority of films in the collection are views of Roosevelt and other national figures participating in political ceremonies, delivering campaign speeches, and attending social activities. These items made excellent newsfilm topics primarily because of the high interest factor involved and the relative ease with which the filming could be preplanned and executed. 6

The film collection reflects the myriad interests and accomplishments of Roosevelt as a statesman, scholar, naturalist, explorer, traveler, advocate of the strenuous life, conservationist, historian, hunter, Rough Rider, orator, family man, vice-president, president, and Progressive party leader.

Although Roosevelt was photographed many times during his administrations, there are relatively few films that actually portray him as the twenty-sixth president. T. R. in San Francisco, 1903 is one of the more unusual items from a sociological point of view. He is parading through San Francisco along Van Ness Avenue on May 12, 1903, during a western presidential tour. There are long shots of military escorts, Roosevelt's horse-drawn carriage, and preceding the carriage, the Ninth U. S. Cavalry Regiment, which according to newspaper accounts, was one of the first black companies to have had so prominent a position in a public procession. 7

T. R.'s Inaugural Ceremony, 1905 and T. R.'s Inauguration, 1905 [1 and 2] are political newsfilms of eminent historical status. 8

There are shots from various camera positions of Roosevelt on the front steps of the Capitol on March 4, 1905, being sworn in by Chief Justice Melville W. Fuller, delivering his inaugural address, and leaving with the rest of presidential party. T. R.'s Arrival in Panama, November 1906 [1 and 4], also of major historical importance, records the first time an American president visited a foreign country while in office. 9

Roosevelt considered the Panama Canal construction one of his most valuable contributions to foreign affairs. He is shown on November 15, 1906, visiting Panama City, where is officially received by Manuel Amador Guerrero, first president of the republic of Panama. There is a long shot of President Amador Guerrero delivering the welcome address as other prominent officials look on.

Coverage of Roosevelt's activities during the last decade of his life is rather extensive. His expedition to Africa (1909-10) gave rise to the most notable films depicting him as an "apostle of the strenuous life." 10

T. R. in Africa [1909, 1 and 4] contains scenes of Roosevelt and his party on a safari in East Africa (most likely in the vicinity of Mt. Kenya, in what was then British East Africa and is now Kenya), views of what is probably part of the Kikuyu and Masai cultural dances being performed for Roosevelt in the village of Nyeri in August 1909, and a medium-close shot of Roosevelt planting a tree in Mombasa. African Animals shows hippopotamuses sunning on rocks and swimming in what is probably the Tana River in British East Africa, and, in a different location, rhinoceroses grazing in a grove of trees. There are medium-close shots of lions roaring and moving through the underbrush, as well as long shots of various animals including elephants, warthogs, zebras, giraffes, monkeys, African buffalo, and lions. Roosevelt's love of hunting and exploring is evident in these films on his African hunting trip, or as he preferred to call it, his "scientific expedition," sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution.

King Edward's Funeral, 1910 [1 and 2] and T. R.'s Return from Africa, 1910 [1 and 2] are remarkable examples of an official political ceremony in which Roosevelt participated with other prominent foreign dignitaries. He is shown representing the United States during the ceremonial funeral procession of King Edward VII of Great Britain in London on May 20, 1910. Also in the procession were Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, King Ferdinand of Bulgaria, King George I of Greece, King Manuel II of Portugal, King George V of Great Britain, King Haakon VII of Norway, King Alfonso XIII of Spain, and King Frederick VIII of Denmark.

Colonel Roosevelt Is Invited to Fly in Arch Hoxsey's Plane at St. Louis, Mo, 1910 contains footage of the first airplane flight by a president. While participating in the Missouri State Republican campaign on October 11, 1910, he was invited to fly in a Wright biplane with Arch Hoxsey as pilot. Included in the film are views of Roosevelt arriving at the Kinloch aviation field accompanied by Herbert S. Hadley, governor of Missouri (1909-13), a medium-close shot of T. R. entering the passenger seat, and long shots of the plane flying and of Roosevelt descending and joining his waiting party. He later commented to a New York Times reporter, "You know I didn't intend to do it, but when I saw the thing there, I could not resist it." 11

Hoxsey died in a plane crash a year later.

One of the most distinguished groups of films concerns Roosevelt's campaign for the presidency under the banner of the Progressive party, formed when Roosevelt bolted the Republican party. Among the notable titles is T. R. at Fargo, N.D., during Progressive Campaign, 1912 [1 and 2]. 12

As part of a western campaign tour, the former president appears speaking to crowds and rallying support for the third party in Fargo on September 6, 1912. There are several views from varying distances of him speaking to crowds from the rear of a train, as well as a fairly close silhouette of T. R., conversing with three men, one of whom appears to be George E. Roosevelt, his cousin and campaign secretary in the 1912 election.

Hopi Indians Dance for T. R. at [Walpi, Ariz.] 1913 is illustrative of Roosevelt's intense interest in people and culture. 13

There are sequences of T. R. traveling through the Southwest with his sons Archie and Quentin and a cousin, Nicholas Roosevelt, on August 20, 1913, as well as a medium-close shot of Roosevelt observing a snake dance on the Hopoi Indian Reservation.

Roosevelt the conservationist and protector of wildlife is depicted in T. R. [Louisiana], 1915 [1-4]. 14

Herbert K. Job of the National Audubon Society photographed the former president and others along the beaches of the bird sanctuary on June 8-12, 1915. Roosevelt joined an Audubon expedition devoted to filming the society's protective work with water birds and appears on an unidentified island off the Louisiana coast with J. H. Coquille, a new Orleans photographer, William Sprinkle, game warden, and M. L. Alexander, head of the Louisiana Conservation Commission.

One of the events receiving massive coverage by the newsreel cameramen was, of course, the memorial services for Roosevelt. Universal Film Manufacturing Company released T. R.'s Funeral at Oyster Bay, 1919 as a segment of its January Universal Current Events series. There are views of Christ Episcopal Church, the funeral procession on January 8, 1919, and Youngs Memorial Cemetery in Oyster Bay, New York. Other notable segments of the film include: a medium-close shot of specially delegated New York City mounted police guards passing along the road in front of the church and followed by the hearse; a long shot at the church entrance of the flag-draped casket being placed in the hearse, with a line of funeral procession autos parked behind; a close shot from a different angle of the casket being borne through the church entrance to the hearse, with a flag bearer following behind; a close-up of Rev. George E. Talmadge, rector of Christ Episcopal Church and officiant at the ceremony; and a long shot in the cemetery of the casket being shouldered and carried up a steep pathway to the grave site, followed by Archie Roosevelt and other family members. In attendance at the funeral were Gen. Peyton C. March, Army Chief of Staff; Vice-President Thomas R. Marshall, who was the official representative of the U.S. government at the funeral; Rear Adm. Cameron M. Winslow; and William Howard Taft.

The Roosevelt Collection reflects the ambitious newsreel coverage that this particular period enjoyed. Large volumes of footage were devoted to Roosevelt's intimate friends, political associates, intellectual peers, and family members, including Henry Fairfield Osborn, paleontologist, first curator of the Department of Vertebrate Palenotology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and recipient of the Roosevelt Medal for Distinguished Service in 1923 for contributions to natural history; Will H. Hays, chairman of the Republican National Committee (1918-21) and postmaster general in Harding's cabinet (1921-22); Gifford Pinchot, governor of Pennsylvania (1923-27, 1931-35), participating in the first gubernatorial bill-signing filmed in the Pennsylvania State Capitol on May 10, 1923; William Boyce Thompson, first president of the RMA, appearing with his wife, Gertrude Hickman Thompson; Oscar S. Straus, secretary of commerce and labor in T. R.'s cabinet (1906-9); Owen D. Young, coauthor with Charles Dawes of the Dawes Plan for German Reparations; Owen Wister, author of The Virginian and close literary fried of Roosevelt's, appearing outdoors on a country estate; and Herbert Putnam, eighth Librarian of Congress (1899-1939), Librarian Emeritus (1939-55), and recipient of the Roosevelt Medal for Distinguished Service in 1929 for the administration of public office, appearing both inside and outside the Library of Congress.

Several films are composed of very short, one-shot images of various senators in or around the Capitol, White House, or other federal government buildings in Washington, D.C. There are views of Gilbert M. Hitchcock, Democratic senator from Nebraska (1911-23); Porter J. McCumber, Republican senator from North Dakota (1899-1923); Boies Penrose, Republican senator from Pennsylvania (1897-1921); Hiram Warren Johnson, Republican senator from California (1917-45); Atlee Pomerene, Democratic senator from Ohio (1911-23); Thomas Edward Watson, Democratic senator from Georgia (1921-22); and Reed Smoot, Republican senator from Utah (1903-33).

The Roosevelt Collection provides a wealth of primary source material for those scholars investigating the historical, political, and social roles of women during the first decades of the twentieth century. Some significant sequences include a close shot of Margaret Hill McCarter of Kansas, author, vice-president of the Republican National Women's Committee and in 1920 the first woman to address the National Republican Convention; a medium-close shot of French actress Sarah Bernhardt speaking in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, New York, on July 4, 1917, on behalf of French-American cooperation in the war effort; scenes of women suffragists visiting Roosevelt at Sagamore Hill, Oyster Bay, New York, on September 8, 1917, and participating in the opening of the second New York state suffrage campaign, with views of Vira B. Whitehouse, state chairwoman of the New York State Woman's Suffrage party, Helen Rogers Reid, and Harriet B. Laidlaw. Some other well-known women presented in the films are Elizabeth Wood, Cornelia B. Pinchot, Florence K. Harding, Edith Wilson, Edith Roosevelt, Corinne R. Robinson, Grace G. Coolidge, Elizabeth A. Bryce, Mary S. Alger, Sallie W. Bolling, and Helen H. Taft.

Foreign personages also figure prominently in the films. There are various shots from many different camera positions of Viscount James Bryce, ambassador to the United States, with his wife, Elizabeth A. Bryce; King George V and Queen Mary of Great Britain; King Edward VIII of Great Britain; Ferdinand Foci, French marshal; Armand duca della Victoria Diaz, Italian marshal; and Robert G. Nivelle, former commander in chief of the French army. There are also views of King Albert I and Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians; Raymond Poincaré; King Leopold III of the Belgians; and Charles, count of Flanders, all attending the dedication ceremony laying to rest the body of the French unknown soldier in Laeken, Belgium, on July 17, 1927.

This collection may also serve as a useful pictorial history of architectural developments in American buildings and cities during the early twentieth century. There are numerous exterior views and panning shots of the various structural features of architecturally influential historic buildings such as the White House, the Capitol, the Library of Congress, and the Old State House in Boston. The American cities photographed provide an extensive geographical index to the time period; included are scenes of San Francisco, New York, Boston, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Ann Arbor, Albuquerque, Detroit, Saint Paul, and San Diego, as well as lesser-known cities such as Thomson, Georgia; Springfield, Illinois; Roswell, Georgia; Rockford, Illinois; Oyster Bay, New York; Northampton, Massachusetts; Mineola, New York; Medora, North Dakota; Fargo, North Dakota; Deadwood, South Dakota; Battle Creek, Michigan; and Billings, Montana.

The collection is of indispensable value as primary source material to the historian, film scholar, educator, sociologist, political scientist, and indeed to anyone concerned with interpreting the human experience. These newsfilms reconstruct the past, ascertain the facts about people, places, and events, and authenticate customs, dress, manners, and artifacts of everyday living by supplying irrefutable historical evidence. Of far more than a transitory interest, the films emphatically reiterate that Theodore Roosevelt is "something more than a picture personality: he is A PICTURE MAN."15

[Versions of this article appeared previously in the January 1977 issue of the Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress and in The Theodore Roosevelt Association Film Collection: A Catalog.]



  1. "Theodore Roosevelt: The Picture Man," Moving Picture World 7 (October 22, 1910): 920.  [Back to text]
  2. Raymond Fielding, The American Newsreel, 1911-1967 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1972), pp. 50, 90.  [Back to text]
  3. Eight of the original films are still distributed by the TRA in 16mm and video cassette tape. They may be viewed upon request to Sagamore Hill, Oyster Bay, New York.  [Back to text]
  4. "The Theodore Roosevelt Association and the T.R.A. Motion Picture Collection," Theodore Roosevelt Association Journal 2 (Winter-Spring 1976): 14-15. [Back to text]
  5. For example, Moving Picture World; Raymond Fielding, The American Newsreel; Kemp R. Niver, Motion Pictures from the Library of Congress Paper Print Collection, 1894-1912 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967); Terry Ramsay, A Million and One Nights: A History of the Motion Picture (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1926); Howard L. Walls, Motion Pictures, 1894-1912, Identified from the Records of the U.S. Copyright Office (Washington: Library of Congress, 1953); and Catalog of Copyright Entries (Washington: Library of Congress, 1951-1). The single most knowledgeable source on the history of the Roosevelt films is John A. Gable, historian, Roosevelt scholar, and executive director of the TRA, who has been invaluable in identifying people, places, events, and dates contained in the footage.  [Back to text]
  6. Fielding, The American Newsreel, p. 54.  [Back to text]
  7. San Francisco Chronicle, May 12-13, 1903.  [Back to text]
  8. Niver, Motion Pictures from the Library of Congress, p. 259.  [Back to text]
  9. Washington Post, November 16, 1906.   [Back to text]
  10. For additional information on this period of Roosevelt's life, see Cherry Kearton, Adventures with Animals and Men (London: Longmans, Green, 1935), pp. 65-74; Cherry Kearton, Wild Life across the World (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1914), pp. 100-101; and Frederick W. Under, Roosevelt's African Trip (Philadelphia: J. C. Winston Co., 1909).  [Back to text]
  11. New York Times, October 12, 1910.  [Back to text]
  12. Fargo Forum and Daily Republican (Fargo, N.D.), September 6, 1912.  [Back to text]
  13. Theodore Roosevelt, A Book-Lover's Holidays in the Open (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1926), pp. 225-45.  [Back to text]
  14. Times-Picayune (New Orleans), June 7, 8, 10, and 12, 1915.  [Back to text]
  15. "Theodore Roosevelt: The Picture Man," Moving Picture World, p. 920.  [Back to text]