Film History Essentials: McKinley at Home, Canton, Ohio (1896)

What it’s about:

William McKinley walks outside his home accompanied by his secretary, George Cortelyou. McKinley’s wife watches from a rocking chair on the porch as Cortelyou hands McKinley a telegram and he pauses to read it before resuming his stroll.

Why it’s essential:

In September of 1896, William Dickson set up the Biograph camera in the yard of Major William McKinley, a Civil War veteran, former Congressman, former governor of Ohio, and current candidate for President of the United States. Dickson’s timing was excellent, for as the camera started rolling, McKinley’s secretary arrived to give him a telegram containing news of his nomination as the official candidate of the Republican party. Attendees at the Biograph’s show could experience an exclusive look at this historic and momentous occurrence, and get a glimpse of the candidate’s quiet dignity and gravitas on full display prior to election day.

Of course, Dickson’s presence was not actually an extremely fortuitous coincidence. McKinley had been officially nominated at the Republican convention three months earlier, and the entire exercise before the camera was instead probably the first-ever political stunt to be captured on film. McKinley and his party, it turns out, had some important connections: Both Benjamin Harrison (the Republican president prior to Democratic incumbent Grover Cleveland) and McKinley’s brother Abner were Biograph investors. Though by far the most modern, this was only one of many ways that McKinley and the Republicans sought to leverage the power of the media in the election of 1896.

The key issue of the election was McKinley’s support for the gold standard. His opponent was William Jennings Bryan, a fiery populist who had won the Democratic nomination after he stood up at the convention and delivered his famous “Cross of Gold” speech in support of free silver. Bryan’s radical economic vision for the country terrified many of the wealthy elites of his day, and virtually every major newspaper in the country supported McKinley. This allowed McKinley to conduct a dignified “front porch campaign” that relied on coverage slanted in his favor to gild his remarks to visiting members of the press and others. Bryan, meanwhile, was forced to try to appeal to the public directly, crossing the nation on a “whistle-stop campaign” and giving several hundred speeches.

Meanwhile, the Biograph was taking McKinley on a tour of his own while he remained comfortably at home. After filming McKinley at Home:

Dickson and his team continued on their travels, which included the filming of West Point cadets, Niagara Falls, and the flagship train of Cauncey Depew’s New York Central Railroad, the Empire State Express. These provided the kinds of subject matter that would be used to frame the scene of McKinley at home: symbols of American military might, American culture, American technology, the nation’s natural grandeur, and Republican parades.

Charles Musser, Politicking and Emergent Media: US Presidential Elections of the 1890s, p. 92

Biograph’s McKinley program played for about a month before election day. It was seen by tens of thousands of voters, and read about by many more in the papers:

Enjoying a certain amount of press coverage, these screenings underscored Republican energy and innovation. Clearly McKinley and the Republicans were up to date: they knew how to move boldly and to connect with new technological innovations of the highest quality. These screenings demonstrated a “can-do” attitude that was needed in order to renew the nation’s economic prosperity. […] Rhetorically powerful, the Biograph’s McKinley program contained compelling symbolic value.

Musser, p. 104

McKinley won the election handily, making him the first president ever to appear on film . . . basically. He appears here as a candidate (and the first presidential candidate to appear on film), but technically Grover Cleveland became the first US President to appear on film while in office due to his presence in films of McKinley’s inauguration the following March. This also places McKinley among the first world leaders to appear on film, though not the first. The Lumières had their cinematograph capturing images of royalty all over Europe throughout the summer of 1896, and the first film of Mexican president Porfirio Díaz was likely taken just a month earlier. The following month, Queen Victoria was filmed at Balmoral during a visit from her distant relative, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia.

Devices like the Biograph, the cinematograph, and the Vitagraph were present several times over the next few years to capture images of McKinley engaged in public activities. They were there when he was inaugurated to his second term in March of 1901. Six months later, one of Edison’s cameras was present outside the Temple of Music at the Pan-American Exposition when McKinley was shot by anarchist Leon Czolgosz, and recorded the crowd that gathered upon hearing the news. And, after McKinley died of his wound eight days later, cameras were there to film his funeral procession, just as they had filmed Queen Victoria’s funeral several months earlier. By the turn of the century, it had become common for people to experience many of the significant historical events and figures of their day in a whole new way: At the movies.

Why you should see it:

The company catalog entry for this film reads: “This view was taken upon Mr. McKinley’s lawn at his home in Canton, Ohio. Mr. McKinley appears walking across the lawn in company with his Secretary, who hands him a telegram, which he reads with apparent satisfaction. The characteristic walk and gestures of Mr. McKinley will be noted with interest by his friends.” Notice how it merely implies (without outright saying) that the film shows McKinley receiving the nomination.

It’s a subtle touch that seems decidedly lacking in the next sentence, which feels like a copywriter casting about desperately for something, anything to say about a film in which not a whole lot is really going on. The result feels like damning with faint praise. It’s hard to imagine a more deliberately tactful way than that to describe McKinley’s incredibly stiff performance here. Then again, maybe that isn’t the subtext at all. After all, in 1896 this is apparently what “presidential” looked like.


~ by Jared on February 26, 2023.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: