Reel Nature
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Reel Nature

America's Romance with Wildlife on Film

Gregg Mitman

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eBook - ePub

Reel Nature

America's Romance with Wildlife on Film

Gregg Mitman

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About This Book

Winner of the History of Science Society's Watson Davis and Helen Miles Davis Prize in the History of Science.

From the early exploits of Teddy Roosevelt in Africa to blockbuster films such as March of the Penguins, Gregg Mitman's Reel Nature reveals how changing values, scientific developments, and new technologies have come to shape American encounters with wildlife on and off the big screen. Whether crafted to elicit thrills or to educate audiences about the real-life drama of threatened wildlife, nature films then and now have had an enormous impact on how Americans see, think about, consume, and struggle to protect animals across the globe.

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Chapter One


From the town of Gondokoro in the Congo region of British East Africa, a cable dispatch sent to the New York Times on the last day of February in 1910 announced the end of an expedition that had been making front-page copy in American newspapers. Theodore Roosevelt, former president, amateur naturalist, conservationist, and great white hunter, had set sail aboard a steamer headed north on the White Nile for Khartoum. His departure from the Congo marked the end of a year-long expedition undertaken on behalf of the Smithsonian Institution and sponsored by the wealthy industrialist Andrew Carnegie to collect African fauna and flora, particularly big game, for the National Museum in Washington, D.C. A barge in tow contained the final shipment of more than eleven thousand vertebrate specimens; expedition members had killed an unprecedented average of forty animals a day for an entire year. Even without colonial holdings in the “Dark Continent,” the United States, through Roosevelt's expedition, brought a vast quantity of African nature to the American metropolis. Transformed through the taxidermist's craft, the Roosevelt collection of lion, zebra, white rhinoceros, Coke hartebeest, and oryx on display in the National Museum represented the technological forefront of animal exhibition—the museum diorama, a realistic portrayal of wild animals in their natural surroundings meant to spellbind the public and serve as material for scientific study.1
As a small army of artisans, craftsmen, and naturalists worked to transform the limp, putrefying animal skins from Roosevelt's expedition into vibrant representations of wildlife, audiences in New York City viewed herds of hartebeests and giraffes roaming across the veldt and hippopotami at play in the Tana River in East Africa, shot on Roosevelt's African expedition by the camera, not the gun. Developed in the 1880s to investigate the physiology of animal motion, the motion picture camera had by the early 1900s become associated with entertainment as much as science. Both the film and museum diorama were mechanical reproductions of nature that through their respective technologies sought to capture and preserve the wild animals, which turn-of-the-century naturalists feared were “being rapidly civilized from the face of the earth.” Of the two, time would prove the camera to be the vanguard technology. Poised at the intersection of art, science, and entertainment, natural history film would transform American perceptions of and interactions with wildlife over the course of the twentieth century.2
When the Motion Pictures Patent Company released Roosevelt in Africa to theaters on April 18, 1910, the prospects of natural history film securing a place in American culture seemed anything but assured. The motion pictures of Roosevelt in Africa had been shot by Cherry Kearton, a famous naturalist-photographer from London on safari in British East Africa, with the assistance of James L. Clark, a sculptor and taxidermist on a collecting expedition for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Kearton and Clark met the Roosevelt party at their camp in Nyeri in August of 1909. The footage shown to American audiences contained thirty-six scenes in all, and included Roosevelt planting a tree in front of the Bomba Trading Company's Office in Nairobi, a native ceremonial war dance performed in Roosevelt's honor at the request of Governor Jackson, and herds of giraffe at a distance of 150 yards. Some of the most striking scenes were of the courtship dance performed by the Jackson dancing bird, clear shots of hippopotami at play, and a close study of a young serval cat. None of the shots, however, showed Roosevelt bringing down game, nor was Kearton successful in his attempt to secure the first motion picture footage of lions in the wild. In place of lion footage, Kearton spliced in a flash-picture still of a lion that one reviewer described as “flatter than a pancake. It looks like a dead lion, or a poor wash drawing.”3
Lacking drama, Roosevelt in Africa proved a great disappointment to motion picture audiences. One movie-house exhibitor complained that there wasn't a “picture in the 2,000 feet that is fit to be called a picture…. Anybody could take a .22 rifle and go out in the sagebrush in Idaho and get more excitement hunting jack rabbits.” Although the majority of audiences shared in this exhibitor's appraisal, a journalist from The Moving Picture World noted that the audience response to Roosevelt in Africa varied along class lines. At theaters located in working-class neighborhoods like Elizabeth, New Jersey, Roosevelt in Africa had little appeal. “The class of people who came there,” wrote H. F. Hoffman, “were expecting to see Teddy slaughtering lions and tigers and wallowing in their gore.” On Broadway, however, Hoffman found an audience made up of a more “intelligent class of people,” who remained in their seats during the entire picture and seemed to enjoy the show. “It would seem,” Hoffman reasoned, “that the Roosevelt pictures are going to take better at houses that cater to the middle class than at those who cater to the shopgirl trade.”4
Roosevelt in Africa appeared at a time when the middle and upper class of American society were struggling to assert control over the motion picture industry. Only two years earlier, Mayor George B. McClellan had shut down every motion picture theater in New York City during the week of Christmas by revoking the licenses of the 550 nickelodeons and movie houses found predominately in the tenement districts and immigrant neighborhoods of the city. While vaudeville or stage theaters paid five hundred dollars in annual license fees to operate in the city, a storefront movie theater paid only twenty-five dollars. For the price of a nickel, three hundred to four hundred thousand working-class men and women a day in New York City found a readily accessible, brief, and cheap form of amusement. It was a welcome diversion from the long hours spent in the workshop and factory. But the dark lighting and dank air of the theater, the crowds of foreigners, unaccompanied young women and children, and, above all, the proclivity toward lewd, violent, and carnivalesque subjects on screen did not readily conform to what established Anglo-Saxon Protestant Americans deemed acceptable public amusement.
The closing of New York City nickelodeons in 1908 was not meant to eliminate the new form of working-class entertainment but rather to clean it up. Although exhibitors were successful in getting a court injunction against the mayor's action, McClellan's move warned producers and exhibitors that some form of regulation, either voluntary or enforced, was in order. In 1909, the People's Institute, a famed settlement house founded by Columbia professor Charles Sprague Smith, took the lead in helping establish the movies as a progressive form of mass entertainment. The Institute brought together prominent New York civic organizations, such as the Federal Council of Churches, the YMCA, and the Society for the Prevention of Crime, and wealthy New York Protestants, such as Andrew Carnegie, to serve on a National Board of Review of Motion Pictures that would screen motion pictures and sanction acceptable films with a seal of approval, indicated by an open scissors overlaid upon a four-pointed star. By working in cooperation with the National Board of Review, producers gained some respectability among the city's charitable, educational, and religious leaders, and thereby opened up wider markets for the showing and promotion of their films. Civic leaders had feared the degenerative influence of motion pictures on the tastes and morals of the American public. But by 1913, respected members of society were more likely to agree with Harry Downer, chairman of Davenport, Iowa's motion picture review committee, that the motion pictures represented a “new social force which reaches more people annually” than any other instrument for “social betterment.”5
Downer suggested that “science [had] built a delightful means of recreation, a graphic influence in education, [and] a splendid force for moral and wholesome life.”6 His remarks drew attention to the instrumental role biological science played in the technological development of cinema. In 1882, the French physiologist Etienne-Jules Marey invented the chronophotographic gun to record the motion of birds in flight: on a single plate he could take twelve photographs in one second to reveal living processes and movements unobservable to the human eye. Similarly, in 1877, the American photographer Eadweard Muybridge, with an apparatus of twelve cameras operated by trip wires and electronic shutters, exposed the true nature of a horse's gallop wherein all four feet lift off the ground. If Marey, Muybridge, and others contributed to a technology that could control time and motion in the interests of science, by the early 1900s inventors and showmen had made cinema as much a technology of entertainment as of education. Emphasizing the scientific and educational dimensions of this new form of mass entertainment helped counter its image as morally and socially corrupting. When Roosevelt publicly endorsed Cherry Kearton's motion pictures of Buffalo Jones lassoing wild animals in Africa at a preview before the New York Press Club in September of 1910, The Moving Picture World took the occasion to salute Roosevelt for adding “enormous prestige” to the important role of motion picture photography in the science of natural history. “When vested interests, when the press, when the pulpit, when the law and learning come out, as they frequently do, to malign and defame the picture, we have the greatest man of his time present at a moving picture, and saying kind things about the scientific value of kinematography.”7
Educational and religious leaders regarded natural history film as an important venue in the reform of motion pictures. Not only did animal subjects appeal to a wide audience, but they were “entertaining in the best sense of the word and at the same time rich in educational value.” Nature films made ideal billings for a Sunday program catering to the family or to more “refined” motion picture audiences. Pictures of animal life furnished a means for reinforcing moral values. When a film on the life of the stickleback fish appeared in 1913, one reviewer praised the “singular lessons of special importance [revealed] to the classes in natural history,” particularly the “unselfishness and devotion to offspring…shared by the male stickleback,” which resembled the “dove in his home-building and family-raising characteristics.”8
Natural history films might help uplift the masses, but only if such films could draw crowds to the box-office. As the Roosevelt film proved, audiences craved drama over authenticity. Chicago film entrepreneur Colonel Selig, unable to convince Roosevelt to film his adventures for the Selig Polyscope Company, staged his own production of Roosevelt's hunting exploits in his Chicago studio. Selig capitalized on his experiences as a minstrel showman and those of a vaudeville actor talented in Roosevelt impersonations to recreate Roosevelt's tropical expedition in the sub-freezing temperatures of the windy city. Much more popular than Kearton's authorized film, Selig's Hunting Big Game in Africa faked a scene of a lion being shot and carried away by native porters. Kearton had tried for months to photograph a similar scene in the wild without success. Selig's melodramatic reenactment of a lion stalked in the jungle by the great white hunter attracted great attention. The Moving Picture World found the scenes convincing enough to remark that “there is no doubt about this lion; he stalks majestically about the picture, thus enabling an audience to realize how a lion would look, not on the war path, but peaceably ambling about among natural surroundings. Your captive lion in a zoological park does not do much prowling about except in a small cage.”9
The financial success of Hunting Big Game in Africa convinced Selig of the market for thrilling jungle wildlife adventures, and he established a game farm in Los Angeles where over the next five years he embarked on the production of a series of immensely popular animal films, including Alone in the Jungle, In Tune with the Wild, and The Leopard's Foundling. Selig's novelty lay in using actresses Bessie Eyton and Kathleen Williams as heroines of his stories. A Selig film was a “blood curdling romance of the dangerous animal infested jungleland of Africa,” where in every thicket there may lurk a ravenous or a savage foe. Although Selig's films drew large crowds, his use of sensationalism to appeal to more “base” human emotions and his sacrifice of authenticity for melodrama were elements closely tied to what reformers feared contributed to the degeneration of morals and tastes among the lower class. Some reformers like Downer remained skeptical of the ability of the wholesome, educational picture to commercially compete with pictures of the “base-sort” without philanthropic support.10
The difficulty in distinguishing between wholesome education and bawdy entertainment was a problem faced by educators, scientists, and philanthropists who wished to cultivate natural history film for a more serious-minded audience. One could not just dispense with the dramatic, since this would largely eliminate the attendance of the popular theater-going public. Emotional drama was necessary, but the question of whether such drama had been authentically captured in the wild or had been created through artifice in order to elicit thrills and generate mass appeal increasingly became a subject of inquiry and concern.
Two years prior to the release of Selig's faked film, Roosevelt had been engaged in a highly publicized dispute that involved similar issues about the authentic representation of nature. This dispute concerned not the motion picture screen, but the written word. During the opening decade of the twentieth century, a large market appeared for the realistic wild animal story made famous by writers such as Jack London, Ernest Thompson Seton, Charles D. Roberts, and William J. Long. The popularity of animal stories such as Seton's Wild Animals I Have Known, which went through sixteen printings in four years, and London's best-selling novel, The Call of the Wild, was intimately connected to a back-to-nature movement in full force during Roosevelt's presidential years (1901–1909). The emergence of environmental preservation organizations such as the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club, the federal government's preoccupation with conserving the nation's natural resources, the push for nature study in the public schools, and the growth of landscape architecture initiated by Frederick Law Olmsted's work in the late nineteenth century all reflected an interest among the nation's urban middle class for greater contact with nature. This public fascination with nature was not based on nostalgia for a rural, agrarian past. To the city dweller with a weekend country retreat, the farmer whose livelihood depended on the land had little appreciation for the aesthetic qualities of untouched woodland or meadow. Instead, nature offered a place of regeneration and renewal for a growing managerial middle class with increased leisure and money to pursue the luxuries of country life previously confined to the rich. Literary naturalists such as Seton found in the animal story a genre that corresponded to the artistic, educational, and recreational values prized by the urban middle class in their reverence of nature.11
In March of 1903, the acclaimed Catskill nature writer, John Burroughs, used the pages of the Atlantic Monthly to lambaste the growing literary genre that he dubbed “mock natural history.” In Burroughs's evaluation, literary naturalists such as London, Long, and Seton had simply seized on the public's fascination with nature and turned it “into pecuniary profit.” Burroughs disdained the sentimentalism and anthropomorphism found in books such as Seton's Wild Animals I Have Known and Long's School of the Woods that claimed to be faithful and accurate representations of nature. Stories of a fox that enticed chasing hounds into the path of a train or a porcupine rolling down the hill for fun had, in Burroughs's words, crossed “the line between fact and fiction.” Any nature writer faces the danger, Burroughs wrote, “of making too much of what we see and describe, of putting in too much sentiment, too much literature, in short, of valuing these things more for the literary effects we can get out of them than for themselves.” The boundary between fact and fiction and between scientist and artist was crossed when the nature writer imparted more drama to nature than was found. In the opinion of Burroughs, these “sham” naturalists had overstepped these bounds in pursuit of monetary gain.12
Over the next four years, the battle unfolded between popular nature writers and naturalists over whether science could adequately understand and capture the life of the individual animal. Roosevelt, so impressed by Burroughs' critique that he invited the writer on a two-month trip to Yellowstone in the spring of 1903, watched from the sidelines. Finally, in the spring of 1907, in an interview published in the June issue of Everybody's Magazine, the president questioned the veracity of stories like those of Long that portrayed the life of Wayeeses the wolf, said to have killed a caribou by a single bite into the heart. He feared that Long's books, which were particularly popular in the public schools, would ultimately hinder public appreciation, study, and preservation of nature. “If the child mind is fed with stories that are false to nature,” Roosevelt argued, “the children will go to the haunts of the animal only to meet with disappointment,…disbelief, and the death of interest.” Firmly believing that ruthless competition, survival of the fittest, and instinct were the authentic features that defined life within the animal kingdom, not individuality and sentimentalism, Roosevelt championed the knowledge of the hunter over those whom he regarded as armchair naturalists. Roosevelt found “real” nature through the touch of a steel trigger and the sight down a gun barrel, rather than through the poet's pen.13
Three months later, Roosevelt, along with prominent naturalists such as William Hornaday, J. A. Allen, and C. Hart Merriam, appealed to the authenticity of science to squelch the debate. Roosevelt suggested that Long's stories bore the “same relation to real natural history that Barnum's famous artificial mermaid bore to real fish and real mammals.” By invoking Barnum, Roosevelt associated nature fiction with fakery and deprecated the manipulation of nature by some in the interests of crass commercialism. Embedded within his criticism was the implication that only those who confronted the struggle for existence in nature could claim to truly understand it. Yet, Roosevelt's social Darwinist vision of savage nature was no less fanciful than the largely benevolent vision offered by Long. It too was crafted to meet the needs and expectations of a specific audience—in this case, wealthy sportsmen and naturalists found in the upper echelons of American society.14
The quest for authentic nature evident in the response of Roosevelt and other naturalists to the nature-faking controversy was as critical to natural history film as it was to the realistic wild animal story. Just as Burroughs cautioned writers against taking undue license with the fact...

Table of contents

Citation styles for Reel Nature
APA 6 Citation
Mitman, G. (2012). Reel Nature ([edition unavailable]). University of Washington Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2012)
Chicago Citation
Mitman, Gregg. (2012) 2012. Reel Nature. [Edition unavailable]. University of Washington Press.
Harvard Citation
Mitman, G. (2012) Reel Nature. [edition unavailable]. University of Washington Press. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Mitman, Gregg. Reel Nature. [edition unavailable]. University of Washington Press, 2012. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.