History Makes Movies Better

There are 365 days in a normal non-freaky-leap year. Each of those days marks the anniversary of all sorts of crazy shit. Some of that crazy shit has been made into movies.

September 6

18 years ago today, hunters wandering some twenty miles outside of Healy, Alaska found the 67 lbs emaciated corpse of Christopher Johnson McCandless, a twenty-four-year-old suburbanite who decided to play mountain man and died of starvation after accidentally becoming trapped in the wilderness. Despite there being a very good movie (with very good music) about McCandless, I don’t feel like celebrating Labor Day with some disaffected middle-class hippie who couldn’t read his own map. F that noise.

I want to talk about a badass American. One who actually survived several journeys into the wilderness.

109 years ago today the Pan-American Exposition World’s Fair was in full swing in Buffalo, NY. Both Buffalo and Niagara Falls had been hotly bidding to host the World’s Fair. Buffalo was the more important city (then the 8th largest in the United States), but Niagara had an electrical power plant. Fortunately for Buffalo, the mad wizard of science, Nikola Tesla, had recently created a three-phase system of alternating current power transmission which made it possible to effectively transfer electricity over long distances, such as the distance between Niagara and Buffalo. So Buffalo won the bid.

Aside from a presentation of the recently developed X-ray machine, it had not been a particularly noteworthy World’s Fair. Until September 6 when an anarchist named Leon Frank Czolgosz shot William McKinley, Jr., the 25th President of the United States. Despite the ironic proximity of that X-ray machine, one of the two bullets that pierced McKinley’s body could not be found and the President eventually died. This made his Vice-President, the 42-year-old Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, the youngest President in American history (a record he still holds).

Teddy Roosevelt, hands down our most badass modern President, was so riddled with illness as a child that he often had to sleep upright like the fucking elephant man. By adulthood Roosevelt had somehow willed himself into a rugged and athletic outdoorsman, despite doctor proclamations that he had a weak heart and should live a wussier lifestyle. His senior year of college he wrote a revolutionary book about the naval battles of the War of 1812 that is still being read by military scholars today. While New York City Police Commissioner he personally modernized the police force, demanding that all officers most go through firearm training; something all police forces nation wide soon adopted. As President he proudly wrote all his own speeches; he was the first President to invite an African-American to dinner at the White House (Booker T. Washington); he was the first American to win the Nobel Peace Prize (for negotiating the end to the Russo-Japanese War); he was a ruthless breaker of trusts, monopolies and big business interests; he passed the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act; he created the first nationally protected forest; and set aside more land for national parks than all the previous presidents combined. But whatever, who cares about nerdy shit like that?

He also resigned his position as Assistant Secretary of the Navy because he wanted to go fight in the Spanish-American War like some kind of blood thirsty psycho, grabbing a bunch of his friends and starting his own cavalry regiment (the “rough riders”). After shooting a bunch of elephants in Africa he returned to America, disgusted with how poorly Howard Taft was doing as President, and started a third political party, then during a campaign speech he was shot in the chest, but decided to finish his speech anyway. Pop culturally: the Teddy bear was named after him, and he coined the phrases: “square deal” “throw my hate in the ring” and the most subtly menacing foreign policy metaphor ever, “speak softly and carry a big stick.”

Oh yeah, and he once killed a mountain lion with a knife. A mountain lion. With a knife. And then he wrote one of his son’s a letter explaining that that’s how man was “meant” to kill a mountain lion.

He’s also popped up in a few films here and there over the past hundred years.

The Sidney Blackmare Films
Blackmare is best remembered today as the coven-leader in Rosemary’s Baby, but in the 1930’s and 40’s he had a veritable cottage industry going as Roosevelt, portraying our most bully President in seven films: This Is My Affair (1937), The Monroe Doctrine (1939), Teddy the Rough Rider (1940), March On, America! (1942), the John Wayne western, In Old Oklahoma (1943), Buffalo Bill (1944), and My Girl Tisa (1948). Blackmare was to reprise his signature character one last time for television on an episode of the classic anthology series, Hallmark Hall of Fame, titled “Never Kick a Man Upstairs.”

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
John Alexander gives us our most unconventional (and the funniest) portrayal of Roosevelt, in Frank Capra’s adaptation of Joseph Kesselring’s popular stage play. In this prototypical dark comedy, Cary Grant stars as a put-upon young man who discovers that his kindly old aunts are secretly murdering the guests of their boarding house. Alexander plays his daffy brother Teddy, who suffers from a delusion that he actually is the Teddy. The elderly aunts have seen fit to exploit good Teddy’s delusion and dispose of their victims in their root cellar where Teddy thinks he’s digging holes for the Panama Canal. Alexander playing a character who thinks he’s Teddy was so popular that Bob Hope snagged him to play the real Teddy in 1950’s Fancy Pants, about a lousy stage actor who gets hired to pretend he’s the butler of a family who want to make a stellar impression on their upcoming house guest, President Roosevelt.

Brighty of the Grand Canyon (1967)
This heart-warming Joseph Cotton film tells a fictionalized tale about a real-life mule named Brighty, who lives, loves, and learns in the Grand Canyon, and meets lotsa nice folks along the way, Forest Gump style. President Roosevelt shows up to go mountain lion hunting and Brighty gets to hear Teddy wax about the beauty and grandeur of the Canyon and how it should be preserved for the American people.  Teddy is played by Karl Swenson, who is best known to many as Lars Hanson on Little House on the Prairie, but is best known to me as the voice of Merlin in Walt Disney’s The Sword in the Stone.

The Wind and the Lion (1975)
If ever there were a perfect filmmaker to channel Teddy’s spirit it is that warrior poet of cinema, John Milius. Loosely based on real events, the film centers on the kidnapping of an American woman (Candice Bergen) living in Morocco, at the hands of Berber insurrectionists lead by Sean Connery. President Roosevelt (awesomely played by The Parent Traps‘ Brian Keith) decides that this is a perfect moment to demonstrate America’s military might and sends in an armed rescue. Alternatingly imperfect and excellent, if nothing else the film demonstrates that Milius needs to make a movie all about Teddy.

Newsies (1992)
Teddy has popped up in cameos in all sorts of films, from Citizen Kane to Ragtime, but what is Citizen Kane when compared with that benchmark of 90’s cinema… Newsies? In this respectful retelling of New York’s Newsboys Strike of 1899 we get to see Teddy (David James Alexander) when he was briefly Governor of New York. If only they had given him a song and tap duet with Christian Bale. Sigh. 

Rough Riders (1997)
Oh hey look, Milius made a movie all about Teddy! This TNT TV movie tells the story of that time I mentioned earlier when Roosevelt resigned from a cushy appointment in the Navy to go fight in the Spanish-American War with a bunch of his crazy-ass friends. While this isn’t exactly what I wanted out of a Milius all-Roosevelt film, it has a fantastically badass cast, spearheaded by Tom Berenger as the bull moose himself. We’ve also got Sam Elliot, Gary Busey, Nick Chinlund, R. Lee Ermey, George Hamilton (as William Randolph Hearst) and Supergator’s Brad Johnson! Strangely enough, Brian Keith now shows up as the doomed President McKinley. Downgrade for Keith.

Night At the Museum 1 & 2 (2006/2009)
Sadly this likely be the Teddy that a huge segment of our population will always see in their minds when thinking of our 26th President. I always think it is weird when anyone casts Robin Williams in a comedy these days (unless it’s a really really dark comedy), but casting him as Roosevelt seems extra odd to me. His Teddy impression is mostly just yelling. But what do I know?

I’m still waiting for my great Teddy biopic, Milius. Get on that.

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August 31