- McKinley at Home: How Early American Cinema Made News
No scene, however animated and extensive, but will eventually be within reproductive power. . . . Not only our own resources but those of the entire world will be at our command . . . our archives will be enriched by the vitalized pictures of great national scenes, instinct with all the glowing personalities which characterized them.—W.K.L. Dickson and Antonio Dickson, The Life and Inventions of Thomas Alva Edison (1894) 1
William McKinley was the first U.S. presidential candidate to be filmed, appearing on screen less than six months after the earliest projected moving images were commercially exhibited in the United States. Depicting McKinley campaigning near the end of the decisive 1896 election, this film inaugurates a longstanding intimacy between politics and cinema in twentieth-century America that would culminate in the presidency of the actor Ronald Reagan. 2 William McKinley is also the first U.S. president whose funeral appears on film, having been assassinated in spectacular public fashion at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition by a lone gunman with shadowy left-wing ties. Eagerly viewed by audiences across the nation, the 1896 cinematic debut of the presidential candidate, as well as the tremendously popular 1901 films of his state burial, offer an important means to gauge the effects of a new kind of visual technology on the shaping of public opinion. Both in terms of how McKinley is rendered in these films, and how these films [End Page 797] were received, I seek to show how early cinema significantly altered Americans’ understanding of the relation between public and private—a question, if not a confusion, that clearly continues to plague the office of the president today thanks largely to the intervention of mass media: television, video, the Internet, and snap opinion polls.
Working backwards from Clinton, Reagan, and JFK to Franklin D. Roosevelt and his fireside chats, scholars of mass communications often end up conferring the title of “first media president” on Theodore Roosevelt by virtue of TR’s self-conscious public management of his charming personality. Early in the century Roosevelt dynamically courted the press, encouraged cartoonish caricatures, and mugged for the cameras, both moving and still. 3 Yet the prior claim for McKinley on film offers perhaps a more intriguing case in that the powerful mass media effects he occasioned have less to do with charismatic presence than the cinematic and cultural forces of production which served to represent him. While there are certainly other ways to examine the relation between cinema and the public sphere at the turn of the last century, these moving images of McKinley offer a useful focus, especially since the historical period they frame, 1896–1901, corresponds closely to crucial changes in the emerging medium of film as well as to key transformations in American politics.
It is important to realize that early cinema was a profoundly intermedial mode that emerged as a new sort of visual representation by drawing heavily and conservatively on a wide range of established nineteenth-century cultural forms such as still photography, vaudeville routines, staged amusements and spectacles, popular magazine illustrations, and comic strips. We therefore must resist the teleological temptation to regard the introduction of cinema strictly as a technological innovation carrying its own self-evident and self-contained meanings for audiences then as well as now. Films theorists during the 1970s frequently proposed psychoanalytically-inflected accounts of “the cinematic apparatus” that tended to assume a single, unitary kind of movie spectatorship. 4 Yet despite cinema’s apparent appeal to the self-sufficient eye, turn-of-the-century viewers had to learn how to read the moving images projected before them in relation to what they already knew and understood. [End Page 798]
Early Cinema and the News
In the case of the McKinley films, that prior cultural knowledge centered on newspapers and the news as media of mass communication. Film historian Charles Musser has emphasized how early cinema often functioned as a “visual newspaper,” offering glimpses of the kind of stories, events, and people that readers found in their daily newspapers. 5 According to Musser, before the advent of fictional story films in 1903...