Lions and Tigers and Colonel Selig
In the early days of silent cinema, Chicago was responsible for 20% of the total output of the US film industry. One of the biggest contributors to this staggering statistic was Chicago’s own Selig Polyscope Company. What was the reason for the company’s success? Lions and tigers and bears! Oh my!
Founded by Colonel William N. Selig, The Selig Polyscope Company was an early innovative studio that pioneered their own niche of filmmaking. In addition to making westerns, dramas, comedies and film adaptations of popular stories, the studio also made wildly popular “animal pictures.” Sometimes called “jungle pictures” or “zoo pictures,” the films featured Selig’s stars alongside lions, elephants, chimps and even crocodiles. The thrilling films drew the praise of audiences and critics alike, and led to the establishment of Selig’s own zoo.
Selig’s first dabble with animal pictures was born as the result of a denied request to join Theodore Roosevelt as he hunted big game in Africa. When Selig’s cameraman was denied permission to accompany Roosevelt on his expedition, Selig did the next best thing. He staged and filmed a hunt using retired circus animals. Released in May 1909, “Hunting Big Game in Africa” represented a turning point for Selig and the first of many animal pictures.
This first animal picture was followed by films like “Rescued by Her Lions” (aka “Captain Kate”) and “Lost in the Jungle” which starred Kathlyn Williams alongside the likes of Toodles, the elephant. Although the animals used were often past their prime, to ensure the safety of the cast and crew, the animals’ close-ups were usually filmed by shooting through cage bars. Foliage was also used to disguise the bars, and sometimes dogs were dressed up in animal skins and shot from a distance in an effort to complete the illusion.
Saying “tootles” to Toodles.
Selig’s interest in animals even led him to erect the Selig Zoo in California. Formally opened in July 1915, it was touted the largest collection of animals in the world. With 700 animals housed in its complex, the zoo served as a resource for film producers looking for some wild co-stars, a public zoo where visitors could observe the animals and learn about natural history, and a facility aiding in preservation efforts.
Although the Selig Polyscope Company closed in the mid 1910s, Selig’s love for film and for animal pictures continued. In 1919, he told Photoplay magazine that he was looking to revive the animal pictures, and in 1924, introduced a set of short jungle films. “The Jungle Heroine,” “The Jungle Tragedy,” “The Last Man,” “The Were-Tiger,” and “The Lion’s Mate” starred tigers, leopards, lions, crocodiles and even an elephant and a chimpanzee. Although his animal pictures had served him well previously, his declining success and the changing tastes of filmgoers helped usher out Selig’s trademark pictures.
Janelle Vreeland for Classic Movie Hub
Thank you to Janelle for this wonderful Silent Film Series. 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 .