The Teddy Bears (1907)
This short movie from Edison mixes three kinds of fantasy together to make a somewhat incoherent family-style film. Probably one of the more expensive productions the studio brought out in the dry year of 1907, it remains fascinating from a historical perspective.
The movie begins with a shot of a rustic cottage in the woods, with snow on the ground all around it. A small figure is dancing for the camera in the front yard – it is someone dressed up as a bear. This child-bear holds a Teddy Bear as he dances. Shortly, a Mama bear (with an apron) comes out and calls him into the house, but the cub resists, he wants to go on playing. After a brief chase the Mama bear calls out the Papa bear (he wears pants and glasses). Baby starts throwing snowballs at them, but he is shortly caught and brought in by the ear. Then the family goes inside the house. They quickly return, now dressed in winter clothing for a walk. They walk offstage together, Baby again dragging his Teddy Bear along.
As soon as they leave, a little girl walks up to the house, looking surprised to find such a thing in the deep forest. She goes in and the film cuts to show her walking into the dining room, where three bowls sit on the table. She goes in order from the largest to the smallest, pantomiming that the first is too hot, the second too cold (actually it just looks like it tastes bad) and the third is so good that she eats the whole bowl. She pretty much ignores the two chairs in the room, but takes some time to laugh at the pictures on the walls of bears wearing clothing and glasses.
Next, we see her climb a stairwell past a sign that says “God bless our home” to the second floor, where there are some wall panels with knotholes to look through. She jumps up and down as she looks in one of them, and the scene cuts to show us her perspective. Inside the knothole is a row of six Teddy Bears lined up in size order. Through the magic of animation, these bears do a complex dance-and-tumbling-act for the audience. When the dance is done, the child tries to open the panel to get to the dancing bears, but it is sealed shut. She is able to open the neighboring panel, however, and it turns out to be the entrance to the bear’s bedroom. She checks the beds in order of size, finding the first (it seems) too fluffy, the second too hard, and the third – you guessed it – just right. She snuggles up with a large Teddy Bear and goes to sleep.
We cut to the outside again and see the bears returning in the snow. They enter their dining room and discover that the bowls have been tampered with – the Baby being especially upset that his meal is eaten up! They leave the room and Baby comes back in without his clothes on, and gets into the rocking chair with his Teddy Bear. He refuses to come along when the parents return, also “bear” naked. Mama chases him around the table and puts him over her knee. We next see the bears ascend the stairs, now dressed in nightgowns. Baby takes a spill and starts crying, Mama dries his eyes and brings him up to bed. When they enter the bedroom, of course, the little girl is still there, and they quickly rouse her and she leaps out the window, taking the Teddy Bear with her.
Next comes a chase through the woods as the child tries to escape. She comes across a friendly huntsman, dressed like Teddy Roosevelt. Teddy shoots the Papa bear and the Mama bear when they arrive in pursuit, but the child stops him before he can shoot the Baby. They take the bear cub, still in pajama pants, into custody and the child shows Teddy the bears’ home. together, they loot it of its stash of Teddy Bears and bring them, and the captive Baby offscreen with them.
What’s that you say? You don’t remember Teddy Roosevelt in the version of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” you heard as a child? You don’t remember any dancing Teddy Bears? Well, there’s another side of this story, that makes a little more sense if you’ve already seen “Terrible Teddy, The Grizzly King.” There was a popular story that Roosevelt, who was promoted as a great outdoorsman and hunter (although he was actually kind of a dweeb), had one day shot a bear, only to spare the life of her cub. This story so endeared the President to children that it gave rise to the now-popular line of “Teddy Bear” dolls. Each doll was meant to represent that lucky cub whose parent had been murdered, apparently, and children could adopt it as their own thanks to the generosity of the brave President. Or something like that. Anyway, that is why the story has these two unlikely elements.
From a filmmaking point of view, the most exciting thing in this movie, and probably the hardest to produce, is the animated sequence, which runs for close to two minutes. It appears to be stop-motion with actual dolls, which can be very time consuming and expensive, and I’m impressed that Edwin S. Porter and Wallace McCutcheon were able to pull it off in 1907. Granted, the dolls have limited articulation, and for much of the sequence several of them are sitting out the dance and watching two of them tumble, but it’s still an accomplishment. Otherwise, there is a certain logic in the use of a fairy tale for an early film subject. It requires no Intertitles to be understood, and follows a simple, repetitive sequence that allows for the use of a few sets and simple props. No doubt it also served as a counter-argument to those who insisted that movies like “The Terrible Kids” were giving children bad role models. Here we see a family unit that maintains discipline and good behavior through ear-pulling and spanking when necessary, but also the warmth of a mother who takes care of the child’s hurts when it falls down. Of course, the family is gunned down at the end by a “heroic” character, but I guess if this was a popular story already, people must not have been too surprised by it.
Director: Edwin S. Porter and Wallace McCutcheon
Camera: Edwin S. Porter
Run Time: 14 Min
You can watch it for free: here.