Our Teddy or The Fighting Roosevelts

Released to cinematic audiences two weeks after Theodore Roosevelt died on January 6, 1919, Our Teddy was the first commercial feature-length motion picture about the former president.

The film’s inception came in 1918 when Frederick L. Collins, managing director of McClure’s Publishing Company and McClure’s Magazine, approached Roosevelt to produce a movie about his contribution to American intervention during World War I. Originally called The Fighting Roosevelts and renamed Our Teddy after Roosevelt’s death to reflect the nation’s sorrow, the film would depict Roosevelt’s political activism as well as his family’s service with Allied troops. Collins, convinced of the revolutionary power of film, believed it would transform the future of McClure’s business. He invested heavily in a subsidiary, unsurprisingly named McClure Productions, to accomplish the transition and the studio produced several films from 1912 to 1919. However, none of them captivated audiences in the same way the magazine did. Collins hoped that Roosevelt’s popularity would reverse the studio’s fortunes, and he convinced the Rough Rider to sign an exclusivity contract that bound him to promote the film and lend biographical details to screenwriters. Charles Hanson Towne and Porter Emerson Browne, two men who held deep admiration for Roosevelt’s stance during the war, wrote the script. Towne edited McClure’s Magazine, then a pro-Allied publication, and Browne wrote the trade book Peace at Any Price, an attack on isolationists and pacifists. Despite their political affection, Roosevelt commanded the right to amend the final cuts before McClure’s distributed it nationwide. Also aware of the power of film, TR understood the movie was an opportunity to further craft his public image.

Our Teddy

The sixty-minute biopic begins with a sickly young asthmatic “Teedie” who reconditions himself through sheer will into a tough cowboy, serving in the cavalry, charging up San Juan Heights, and rising through the political ranks as gritty reformer. The final 20 minutes concentrate on Roosevelt’s post-presidential years, his unsuccessful attempt to enlist in the Great War, and his sons’ service at the front. Director William Nigh cast the famous British stage actor E. J. Ratcliffe as TR and the performer’s flair for drama produced the image of a political preacher. Had audiences heard Ratcliffe’s Cockney accent, Roosevelt’s Americanism would surely be lost, but the silent film era obscured the actor’s nationality. 

The movie posters donned the faces of each “fighting Roosevelt” – TR, Ted, Kermit, Archie, and Quentin – set against blue stars marking their military service, with the exception of Quentin, distinguished with a gold star for having died in battle. Billed as a “stirring romance,” Our Teddy delivered a commemorative verve at a victorious moment in American history. Reviewers called it, “Thoroughly characteristic of the patriotic and noble-hearted Roosevelt,” a film that exemplified his Americanism, cowboy spirit, and political dexterity.[1] The producers pretended “no attempt at analysis or delineation of character,” but unquestionably portrayed Roosevelt in ways identical to popular eulogies that flooded the public consciousness.[2] Producers not only emphasized certain causes Roosevelt championed like Americanism and progressivism, they avoided illustrating elements of Roosevelt’s life that would complicate these depictions. Our Teddy excludes references to his birth into a wealthy Knickerbocker family and overlooks the persistence of asthma throughout his adulthood. To become the hero of Our Teddy, Roosevelt required an absolute degree of self-sufficiency and was necessarily divested of the inherited privilege of his patrician class. It was scripted idolatry for cinematic audiences in the same way tributes, hagiographies, and proposed monuments in the 1920s aimed to enshrine Roosevelt in public memory.[3] Moreover, as TR officially endorsed this version, Our Teddy is the last effort by Roosevelt to shape his public image. Before passing away, he delighted in the portrayal.

The film did not resurrect the fate of McClure’s Productions, however. The studio made two further movies before ceasing operations. McClure’s Magazine also underwent a transition to a women’s periodical, before it too succumbed to financial implosion.

This essay was submitted by Dr. Michael Patrick Cullinane. Cullinane is Head of History at Northumbria University.

 



[1] “Enduring Memorial to Roosevelt in Picture of his Life’s Activities,” Pittsburg Press, January 19, 1919.  For those Americans unable to make it to the cinema, Charles Hanson Towne published a series of nationally syndicated articles that mirrored the content of the film.  See Charles Hanson Towne and Daniel Henderson, “The Fighting Roosevelts,” McClure’s Magazine, 51 (November 1919).

[2] “The Screen: The Fighting Roosevelts,” New York Times, January 20, 1919.

[3] Michael Patrick Cullinane, “The Legacy of Theodore Roosevelt through Motion Pictures, 1919-2009,” A Companion to Theodore Roosevelt (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011).