The “Teddy” Bears (1907)

This bizarre silent reel, helmed by Edwin S. Porter (photographer of the technically impressive Great Train Robbery) and produced by the Edison Mfg. Co., was a contemporary re-imagining of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Though only thirteen minutes in length, Porter manages to pack in a fairy tale narrative, an oddball political satire, and even an impressive bit of stop-animation. The bulk of the reel is a straight-forward re-telling of the Goldilocks tale, interrupted by a short animated section with acrobatic, Exorcist-esque teddy bears, and finishing up with a Teddy Roosevelt-impersonating hunter ‘saving’ the day by massacring Ma and Pa Bear. Fortunately, the cub is spared, alluding to Teddy Roosevelt’s real-life compassion toward a bear cub that led to the ‘teddy’ bear craze of the early 1900s.

The reel is obviously crude, with its few highlights including nice costuming and set pieces, the painstaking animation process (apparently shot frame by frame during a grueling week-long filming session), and a set of exterior shots in the snow. The real point of interest, I think, is the compelling amalgam of genres and narratives at play within such a short film. Such bold dismissal of coherence rarely exists today, nor did it exist much further into the subsequent decades, as films became longer and more complex. Part of this is due to technological limitations; the short reel format didn’t have a lot of room for storytelling, and therefore relied heavily upon an audience’s understanding of the narrative. Thus, we have the odd mixture of fairy tale, marketing, and politics.

This is also important to keep in mind when we consider the emergence of film as its own unique art form. As with any new media, there are initial struggles to be taken seriously as ‘art’ and also to distinguish itself with unique contributions independent of other media. We see similar experiences throughout the 20th century: photography’s effort to find a footing within the art world, then eventually supplanting painting in the realist genre, instigating painting’s move toward abstraction; the gradual acceptance of Internet art into the museum system; and even the current debates questioning whether video games can be art (Ebert says no, in case you haven’t heard).

Each genre reaches a certain critical tipping point or threshold, often represented by a landmark media event (e.g. Birth of a Nation, Citizen Kane, etc.). In 1907, film hadn’t quite reached that point. However, many critical indices were falling into place, and some of the most important of these were the ability for mainstream capitalism, politics, and popular culture to appropriate the new art form for its own uses. All are present in The ‘Teddy’ Bears: Teddy bears were a popular fad and a clever marketing device (no surprise, coming from Edison’s studio) and New York department stores featured the reel after its initial theatrical run. And, though its satirical potency is difficult to gauge now, we do have some form of commentary on President Roosevelt as well. This, and other shorts like it, showed that the emerging media of film was available for use as advertising, popular culture, and propoganda, and therefore taken seriously by an increasingly mainstream audience. These are all important milestones in the transition from novelty to art.

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