Silent Chicago: Bengals on the Big Screen – Bringing the Zoo to the Silent Screen

Bengals on the Big Screen – Bringing the Zoo to the Silent Screen

Founded in 1868, the Lincoln Park Zoo is one of the oldest zoos in the United States, and remains a special place for Chicagoans. Its history and urban setting continues to make it a unique draw, but in the early 20th century, its setting also made it a prime location for local silent film studios.

royal and kitty

Royal and Kitty, the Bengal Tigers, enjoy their time in the movie spotlight

Chicago-based Essanay Studios was founded in 1907, and focused mostly on making one-reel comedies, dramas and, as the company moved west, westerns. The studio crew also knew how to create non-scripted films that served a more educational and documentary-esque role. The nearby Lincoln Park Zoo, which was one of the largest zoos in the country during the late 19th and early 20th century, provided plenty of interesting subjects to film.  In spring of 1911, the Essanay team partnered with the zookeepers to film a variety of zoo activities over the span of a couple of weeks. Among the activities filmed  for the final one-reel version of the film were an operation on a 3-month-old Siberian camel, the extraction of a fang from a python, a nail trimming for Prince Roland the lion, Duchess the elephant reluctantly receiving her bath, and shots of the various zoo animals themselves, including moose, elk, bison, elephants, monkeys, reptiles, and a variety of birds. The preparation of the animals’ meals was also documented, as was the python’s meal.


The Zoo’s pride and joy, the bison herd.

The film was released on May 16, 1911 under the title “Wild Animals in Captivity” and won praise from exhibitors and critics not just from its novelty, but also from its educational content. The Moving Picture World declared that children would undoubtedly love it, but so would moviegoers and schools “in all parts of the country removed from zoological centers,” going on to say, “[I]t fills a large place in the study of natural history and will be welcomed.”

Of course, Essanay wasn’t the only film company to take advantage of the zoo and create animal pictures. Colonel Selig of the Selig Polyscope Company created an entire genre based around it, and even highlighted zoo happenings, like Kewpie the elephant eating breakfast, in the Selig-Tribune co-branded newsreels. Even Vitagraph featured the Zoo’s polar bears getting their spring shower in its Hearst-Vitagraph News Pictorial. Although the various local (and not-so-local) studios maintained a special relationship with the Lincoln Park Zoo – so much so that Selig starlet Kathlyn Williams reportedly gave her pet monkey Doc to the Zoo in 1911 – that relationship and focus on educational film soon began to diminish.

selig zoo 2

As the film industry moved west, and the smaller film companies began to be overtaken by the studio system of the ‘20s, the studios turned away from established zoos and began to create studio zoos whose sole function was to house and train animals for films. Colonel Selig himself began the trend with the establishment of the Selig Zoo in Los Angeles in the mid 1910’s, followed soon by the Universal City Zoo. The Selig Zoo even pulled Cy DeVry, the first director of the Lincoln Park Zoo, away from Chicago to train animals for films on the west coast. Although smaller studios remained who focused on industrial and educational film, the larger studios focused on entertainment and spectacle.

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“Zoo Parade” host and Zoo Director Marlin Perkins, with a co-host

With the advent of TV, however, came the chance to shift focus back to the Zoo. In 1949, Lincoln Park Zoo director Marlin Perkins began “Zoo Parade,” a weekly show broadcast across America that highlighted activities and animals at the Zoo. Colonel Selig had died the previous year, and both of Essanay’s founders, George K. Spoor and G.M. Anderson, were largely out of the film industry by this point, but their early work in creating educational entertainment that could reach the masses definitely paved the way for the Lincoln Park Zoo’s own television program, and countless animal-focused TV programs and nature films to come, including “Jack Hanna’s Animal Adventures,” “Wild Kingdom,” and Disneynature’s films. Like “Chimpanzee,” “Bears,” and “Wings of Life.

–Janelle Vreeland for Classic Movie Hub

Janelle Vreeland is a Silent Film Fan and Contributing Writer for Classic Movie Hub.  You can read more of Janelle’s articles about Silent Film and Chicago history-related topics at Chicago Nitrate or Curtains, or you can follow Janelle on Twitter at  @SpookyJanelle .

This entry was posted in Posts by Janelle Vreeland, Silent Chicago, Silent Films and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Silent Chicago: Bengals on the Big Screen – Bringing the Zoo to the Silent Screen

  1. Dorothy Winnett says:

    Wow absolutely amazing, love the Bison photos, wonderful post

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