Shadow Soldiers Flickering on a Screen: Irish Cinema and the Beginning of World War I

Provincial War Pics

These ads appeared in the Dublin Evening Mail 7 Aug. 1914: 2; and 18 Aug. 1914: 2.

“It is ever so much more a patriotic thing to go down the quays and give the soldiers a good send-off than it is to sit in a darkened picture house watching, perhaps, ‘shadow soldiers’ flickering on a screen,” reported Paddy, the Ireland correspondent of the British cinema trade journal Bioscope in August 1914 explaining the falloff in attendance at Dublin’s picture houses at the start of the Great War. “[T]he fact that the Lord Mayor of Dublin had to publicly ask the people through the medium of the Press, to refrain from causing a block on the quays and assist in getting the soldiers embarked more expeditiously shows how matters stand” (Paddy, 13 Aug., 673). Mobilization affected the cinema and its relationship with the popular audience in various ways. Those who lined the Dublin quays, Paddy suggested, were particularly the popular audience who would otherwise have occupied the picture houses’ cheapest – usually three-penny or 3d. – seats. Although Frederick Sparling, manager of Phibsboro’s Bohemian Picture Theatre, reported brisk business, “he experienced a great falling off in the attendances at the 3d. seats, and he expected that receipts generally would show a drop for a little time” (ibid).

Paddy claimed that the effect in Ulster was quite different, with the outbreak of the war bringing unionist and nationalist audiences together in the face of a common enemy. “[T]he one-time rivals now fraternise,” he observed, “and quiet, law-abiding and gaiety-loving citizens are now taking their pleasures with less sadness than had been their wont during the two gloomy years from which Ireland has just emerged” (Paddy, 13 Aug., 675). Unfortunately, this somewhat unlikely harmony would be short-lived because the difficulties of procuring enough flax and other raw material for Ulster’s factories would mean that mill workers, “the backbone of the support of the cinema in Ulster as in other manufacturing centres,” would be placed on half-time working at half-pay, leaving “nothing to spend on amusements of any description” (ibid).

Actuality films of the war appeared on the cinema programme alongside such  fiction film as D. W. Griffith's Judith of Bethulia (US: Biograph, 1914).

Actuality films of the war appeared on the cinema programme alongside such fiction film as D. W. Griffith’s Judith of Bethulia (US: Biograph, 1914). Dublin Evening Mail 24 Aug. 1914: 2.

Nevertheless, Irish picture houses attempted from a very early point in the war to provide shadow soldiers on the screen for their audiences, and not only working-class ones. On 7 August 1914, the Dublin Evening Mail carried the first of a series of unusually large ads for the Picture House, Grafton Street and the Picture House, Sackville Street showing films depicting “the latest developments of the War, day by day.” Both of these cinemas were owned by the London-based chain Provincial Cinematograph Theatres, which also ran the less-salubrious Volta in Mary Street and Belfast’s Picture House, Royal Avenue. The company promoted its venues – and particularly the recently renovated and extended Grafton on Dublin’s most prestigious shopping street – as offering luxuries suitable for prosperous city-centre shoppers. Strollers who stopped into the Grafton’s public café might be induced to see the war pictures by a sign that indicated which of the six-to-eight films typically on a cinema programme was currently playing in the auditorium.

Judith (Blanche Sweet) prepares to behead Holofernes in Judith of Bethulia.

Judith (Blanche Sweet) prepares to behead Holofernes in Judith of Bethulia.

Although such passersby or Evening Mail readers arrested by the prominent ads continued to be offered a programme of films after the outbreak of hostilities, they seem to have been presented with an overwhelming number of war-themed films. The Grafton featured England’s Menace (Britain: London, 1914), a “stunning naval drama,” for the week beginning 10 August, the six-day run representing twice the usual period for which a film was shown. For the first three days of the following week, the Grafton exhibited Maurice Elvey’s In the Days of Trafalgar (Britain: British and Colonial, 1914), supported by a programme that included the first part of the British Army Film (Britain: Keith Prowse, 1914), the second part of which ran in the latter half of the week on a bill headed by The Spy, or The Mystery of Capt. Dawson (1914), a detective drama involving the stealing of plans for a new quick-firing gun. The Belgian War Scenes advertised on 24 August were said to have come “from actual photographs [i.e., films] taken in Belgium on Thursday last,” and these played on the programme with D. W. Griffith’s Judith of Bethulia (US: Biograph, 1914), an adaptation of the biblical Book of Judiths story of war and decapitation.

Provincial was not the only cinema proprietor to show actual war footage – Dublin’s Rotunda, Phoenix and Bohemian all advertised their latest war films, as did many others in newspapers or through more ephemeral forms such as posters and handbills that no longer survive. Provincial, however, made a special effort to exhibit the actualities in programmes with other kinds of war-themed films to cater for – or indeed, help to create – a patriotic war fever. Given the recentness of the war, none of the fiction films just mentioned concerned the current conflict with Germany, nor did the British Army Film, a documentary about ordinary life in the army that was made before the war and that had attracted a protest in March. There was nothing new in popular culture assembling and re-presenting pre-existing elements in a new combination that served the prevailing ideology, particularly at a time of crisis. The live music that accompanied silent film in picture houses of the 1910s could add further jingoism. There were precedents for the use of film in war-time patriotic shows as early as the Boer War, but the popular audience in many parts of Ireland had often been vocally resistant to such anti-Boer/pro-British jingoistic shows (Condon).

What had changed between the turn of the century and the 1910s, however, was cinema’s place within the mediascape in Ireland as elsewhere. By 1914, Ireland had a large number of picture houses that provided news alongside dramatic entertainment. Although picture houses could not match the newspapers’ detailed coverage of topical events, newsreels from the front provided by such companies as Pathé and Gaumont offered something the press could not: moving images of battle sites and the people who fought in the war. Because newsreel scenes recorded on film needed to be physically transported from the front, their newsworthiness had dissipated. Some picture theatres, including the Grafton and Sackville, entered into agreements with telegraphic wire services to offer instantaneous messages during shows, a phenomenon that bears resemblance to a Twitter feed. One ad for these picture houses informed the public that “[a]rrangements have been completed with the Central News Agency for a complete service of telegrams from the Front, to be supplied to this Theatre. As the news arrives it will be immediately thrown on to the screen” (“The War”).

As the war began, commentators in the press debated cinema’s place among other media. To some, it was an absurd form. “In a city picture house, a man tells me,” confided Dublin’s Evening Herald columnist The Man About Town in mid-August 1914,

he has just acquired some curious and too little known facts about the Roman Empire. It would appear that the Caesars were in the habit of decorating their apartments with busts of Dante (which certainly showed remarkable foresight on their part), while their consorts sought relaxation by perusing printed volumes, handsomely bound. Verily, to live is to learn, but seeing is not always believing.

Seeing the past – or present – in the form of the “cineanachronisms” provided in the picture houses was not to be believed by this canny man about town. At least not always.

Other commentators took a more considered but not uncritical view of what had become the country’s most ubiquitous theatrical entertainment, reaching parts of small-town, rural and suburban Ireland that had never had regular professional theatrical entertainment before. By the end of 1914, Dublin Corporation approved licences for 25 premises to show films, with two or three others also under consideration. A small group of these were the theatres – the Theatre Royal, Tivoli Theatre, Empire Theatre and Queen’s Theatre – that had been showing films for two decades or more as part of their mainly live theatrical entertainments. The rest were dedicated picture houses in which the main entertainment was the projection of recorded moving pictures onto a screen, with the live elements limited to musical accompaniment, vocalists who sang between films, and in some venues, one or more variety acts. “Personally, I think we are carrying the picture business to excess,” opined the Dublin Evening Mail’s “Music and the Drama” columnist H.R.W. “The opening of theatres [i.e., picture houses] in the suburbs has much to commend it, but the many additions to the already large number of picture houses in the city is rather risky enterprise” (“War and the Drama”). This was not just a problem among competing picture house owners, but also among theatres proprietors because “ [t]he increasing popularity of the Picture Theatre is making the future of the drama and the music hall a serious problem” (“The Invasion of the Film”). H.R.W. felt that Dublin theatre managers had allowed this to happen by offering increasing amounts of music-hall entertainment and neglecting drama:

the vast public which desires something romantic and dramatic has been catered for by the activity of picture theatres, which, with their cheapness, the casual nature of the performances, and the liberty of smoking, has earned for them a considerable degree of popularity. (Ibid.)

By the outbreak of the war, cinema had become a truly mass medium, providing both news images and dramatic entertainment in a very particular setting. Even without overt propaganda films, individual picture houses or cinema chains could in their choice of films, music and other elements of their programmes present the war in ways that influenced the popular audience that governments needed to prosecute the war. If the Irish popular audience was indeed crowding the quays waving off Irish soldiers, it seemed likely that they would return to the picture houses to cheer on the screen’s shadow soldiers.

References

“Belgian War Scenes.” Advertisement. Dublin Evening Mail 24 August 1914: 2.

Condon, Denis. “Receiving News from the Seat of War: Dublin Audiences Respond to Boer War Entertainments.” Early Popular Visual Culture 9:2 (May 2011), pp. 93-106.

H. R. W. “Music and the Drama: War and the Drama.” Dublin Evening Mail 3 Aug. 1914: 2.

—. “Music and the Drama: The Invasion of the Film.” Dublin Evening Mail 27 Jul. 1914: 4.

The Man About Town. “Cineanachronisms.” Evening Herald. 13 Aug. 1914: 2.

Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 13 Aug. 1914: 673-5.

“The War: Picture House News Service.” Advertisement. Dublin Evening Mail 12 Aug. 1914: 2.

Irish Cinemagoers Feel the Heat of Summer 1914

July 1914 began with a heat wave in Ireland, and although temperatures fluctuated thereafter, political developments nationally and internationally grew increasingly heated up to the August bank holiday. “Tuesday’s sunshine was the hottest on record this year,” commented Dublin’s Evening Telegraph on Wednesday, 1 July.

From its rising to its setting the sun blazed in a cloudless sky. Ninety-six degrees were registered in the city, and in many parts of the country the thermometer rose to over 100 degrees in the sun. Monday, too, was intensely hot, registering 76 degrees in the shade. Dublin would seem to have been transferred to the tropics. (“The Heat Wave.”)

For such indoor entertainments as cinema, summer weather that allowed outdoor activities was bad news. “To successfully compete with the open-air attractions,” revealed a review of the Phoenix on Dublin’s Ellis Quay, “a big bid is being made by the Phoenix management (“Phoenix Picture Palace,”11 Jul.). As well as the right films, this picture house boasted about its comfortable environment. “The Phoenix is most comfortable this hot weather, for, besides being a big, airy house, it is supplied with electric fans that change the air constantly, and keep it delightfully cool” (“Phoenix Picture Palace,” 30 Jun). This kind of discussion was by no means exclusive to Dublin. The British trade journal Bioscope’s “Jottings from Ulster” columnist observed that “[a]t this time of year especially, temperature should receive as much attention as the programme” (“Jottings,” 9 Jul).

Ad for a fumigator of cinema audiences; Bioscope May 1913.

Ad for a fumigator of cinema audiences; Bioscope May 1913.

How the auditorium could be made bearable during even ordinary summer weather was a controversial subject. “The advent of the hot weather is always heralded by the revival of that interminable controversy dealing with ventilation,” noted the Bioscope. “Every cinema boasts of having a more or less “perfect” system of ventilation – a term which is so tentative as to mean almost anything” (“Trade Topics” 9 Jul). Although the Phoenix appears to have invested in a relative sophisticated air-conditioning system, it is not clear how the management of Dublin’s Volta kept it “well ventilated and cool” (“The ‘Volta’ Sunday Pictures”). It’s possible the Volta used the more cost-effective but unpopular strategy of having a cinema attendant spray a scent in the air above audience members – many of whom in 1914 had infrequent access to bathing facilities – as they sat watching the screen in the heat of an otherwise unventilated auditorium.

Ad for opening of Masterpiece Theatre, Evening Telegraph 25 Jul. 1914: 1.

Ad for opening of Masterpiece Theatre, Evening Telegraph 25 Jul. 1914: 1.

Despite their sometimes inability to deal with climatic conditions, new picture houses continued to open regularly in the immediate pre-war period. Following the openings of the Phibsboro Picture House and Bohemian Picture Theatre in late May and early June, the next picture house to open in Dublin was the Masterpiece Theatre at 99 Talbot Street. Owned by Charles McEvoy – “a gentleman with a good experience of the producing end of the business in Australia” (Paddy, 6 Aug.) – and designed by architect George L. O’Connor, it had “no gallery, so that the flow of air passes through the theatre uninterrupted” (“Masterpiece Picture Theatre”). The 450 patrons who fitted inside approached the picture house through an entrance that was

quite the finest in Dublin. The pay-box is on the right, and having passed through white doors set with stained glass, one traverses a short space of tiled flooring leading up to three steps. The steps surmounted and rich velvet curtains passed, one finds oneself in a form of lounge, beautifully decorated with framed photos of the leading picture play artistes. On either side of the lounge are long forms richly upholstered in Rose Barri tinted velvet. A sweet and cigarette kiosk stands at the left. (Paddy, 6 Aug.)

On either side of the screen were boxes for “the person who explains a particular picture or sings when pictures adapted to this use are thrown on the screen” (“Masterpiece Picture Theatre”) All seats were 6d., and performances were continuous from 1.30 to 10.30. The opening programme was headed by Joan of Arc (Giovanna d’Arco; Italy: Savoia, 1913), supported by “‘Relaying a Railway,’ ‘A Wise Old Dog’ (comic), Topical Topics (cartoons), and ‘Just Kids’ (Comedy)” (ibid).

The opening of the Masterpiece was accompanied by the founding of other new Irish cinema companies. On Dublin’s Sackville/O’Connell Street, J. J. Farrell was building what would be called the Pillar Picture House on part of the site formerly occupied by a pharmacy, while on the other part of this site “a notice has just been put up to the effect that Irish National Picture Palaces, Limited, have secured the site, and will shortly open a theatre capable of holding 1,200” (Paddy, 16 Jul.). Picture houses were also under construction in Dublin’s Manor Street, in Kilkenny, in Coleraine and in Newry. In Belfast and other parts of the north, the increasingly armed resistance of the Ulster Volunteers to Home Rule was no barrier to the local film business. “Despite the trouble now brewing in Ulster,” Jottings observed, “cinematograph theatres are springing up here, there and everywhere. Permanent buildings, too, for the days of the temporary halls are well on the wane in the Northern province of Ireland to-day” (Jottings).

Detail of Dublin Civic Exhibition’s Concert Hall and Cinema, from Evening Telegraph 14 Jul. 1914: 1.

Detail of Dublin Civic Exhibition’s Concert Hall and Cinema; Evening Telegraph 14 Jul. 1914: 1.

“I really do not know where the building of additional theatres in Dublin is going to stop,” marvelled Paddy, the Bioscope’s Irish correspondent, at the end of July, after a 600-seat temporary concert hall and cinema opened for the Dublin Civic Exhibition, which ran from 15 July to 31 August 1914. “At the Civic Exhibition the cinema theatre is, without the slightest doubt, one of the most popular sideshows” (Paddy, 30 Jul.). Erected on the site of the city’s Linenhall, the Civic Exhibition, aimed

to produce a considered plan, so as to show how Dublin can be made a better commercial and industrial centre, and how, with improved conditions (which will be illustrated by the various section and exhibits) the trade, manufactures, and commerce of the city must increase in a large degree.” (“Dublin Civic Exhibition: The Attraction for All Parts of the Country.”)

As with all such world’s fairs, the latest entertainments were vital not only to amuse audiences but also as a manifestation of the benefits of industrial progress. The appointing of vocalist John C. Browner as manager of the Exhibition’s concert and cinema hall rather than someone with picture-house experience seems to have been a deliberate strategy to promote the educative potential of the medium. In keeping with the theme of the exhibition, the most advertised “cinema” attraction was the Kinemacolor films that were combined with lantern slides of the National Cash Register Company of Dayton, Ohio, in order to illustrate the free daily lecture about this model factory “Industrial Welfare and Commercial Progress.”

Lord Lieutenant patronizes Princess in Rathmines for film of opening of Dublin Civic Exhibition; Evening Telegraph 18 Jul. 1914: 1. Ad for illustrated lecture in the Exhibition's Cinema Hall; Irish Times16 Jul. 1914: 9.

The Lord Lieutenant patronized the Princess in Rathmines to see the film of the opening of Dublin Civic Exhibition; Evening Telegraph 18 Jul. 1914: 1. Ad for illustrated lecture in the Exhibition’s Cinema Hall; Irish Times16 Jul. 1914: 9.

Although the Civic Exhibition did not reproduce the kind of commercial cinema that was thriving in the city beyond its grounds, it was the subject of a film shown in Dublin’s picture houses. “The Lord Lieutenant was present at the Princess Cinema, Rathmines, on Saturday afternoon,” reported the Irish Times,

when a picture of the opening of the Civic Exhibition was exhibited. By arrangement with the Exhibition Committee, the picture was produced by the management of the Princess Cinema. Eight cinematograph operators, under the direction of Mr. James Worth, were stationed at various points on the route of the procession and at the Linen-hall. The result of their work is highly creditable. (“Dublin Civic Exhibition: Lecture on Dublin Housing.”)

Chaplin causes havoc in a picture house and later in a film studio in A Film Johnnie.

Chaplin’s tramp causes havoc in a picture house and later in a film studio in A Film Johnnie.

Despite the commercial cinema’s exclusion from the exhibition itself, such high-profile screenings demonstrated the mutual benefits to the industry and dominant social class of cinema’s increasing absorption into Ireland’s mainstream media. Among the messages of this film was that despite the recent defeat of workers during the Lockout, the elite were engaged in tackling such problems as the appalling housing condition – and indeed homelessness – of the city’s poor. The Irish Times’s Clubman reported that Harvard professor of social ethics James Ford had told a conference convened as part of the exhibition that a city “in which a large section of the population lived in such a monstrous way as the 51,000 families are housed in Dublin was doomed to decay” (“Dublin Topics”). Although such analysis was important, it was also largely contained by the organization and media framing of the exhibition. Arguably more unsettling in the picture houses was the anarchic humour of Charlie Chaplin’s tramp character in such films as The Film Johnnie (US: Keystone, 1914), which was shown at the Rotunda on 21 July. The tramp provided working-class audiences with ways of seeing “their anger and frustrations recognized, transformed, and liberated” (Musser, 62).

The entertainment ads in the Evening Telegraph on Thursday, 30 Jul. Included a film of the funeral of the Bachelors Walk shootings at the Rotunda.

The entertainment ads in the Evening Telegraph on 30 Jul 1914 included a film of the funeral of the Bachelors Walk shootings at the Rotunda.

The cohesive social structure seemingly on show in the Civic Exhibition film was less in evidence after the Howth gunrunning on Sunday, 26 July, and the shooting dead by soldiers later that day of three people on Bachelors Walk. Following the Ulster Volunteer Force’s highly successful gunrunning at Larne in April 1914, the Irish Volunteers finally succeeded in landing and distributing arms at Howth in defiance of the police supported by a military detachment. Soldiers returning to barracks responded with bullets to the taunting of a crowd in the city centre. The Irish Times described the public funeral of those killed as an “impressive spectacle” that had been “made the occasion of a popular demonstration by the various elements of Nationalist forces, and, besides being an indication of sympathy with the relatives of those who were killed, it was chiefly intended as a protest against the action of the military” (“Dublin Shooting Affray”). Among the groups who turned out was a large contingent of the workers’ “Citizen Army, headed by Mr. James Larkin” (ibid). No footage was taken of the landing of the weapons, but the funeral was filmed. Among the film companies that covered the funeral was Norman Whitten’s General Film Supply, which shot part of their Funeral of Victims Shooting Affair Sunday, July 26th from the Bohemian Picture Theatre in Phibsboro (Paddy, Aug. 6).

Although the struggle for and against Home Rule had dominated Irish politics for decades, the outbreak of the Great War would complete change the country and its fledgling ciinema institution. As a harbinger of those changes, the Bioscope’s 6 August issue announced the first of a different kind of local film taken on 2 August that would set the tone for coming events: “The first local picture in connection with the war was taken in Glasgow on Sunday evening, when Messrs. Green’s Film Service secured a fine film of the Naval Reserve entraining en route for Portsmouth” (“Trade Topics,” 6 Aug). Capturing the initial patriotic war euphoria that cinema would help to foster, the article noted that “[t]he picture was shown in many halls in Monday, and was received with great enthusiasm.”

References

“The Champion Fight Pictures.” Evening Telegraph 11 Jul. 1914: 7.

“The Civic Exhibition.” Evening Telegraph 9 Jul. 1914: 7.

“Dublin Civic Exhibition: The Attraction for All Parts of the Country.” Irish Times 4 Jul. 1914: 7.

“Dublin Civic Exhibition: Lecture on Dublin Housing.” Irish Times 20 Jul. 1914: 10.

“Dublin Shooting Affray: The Funeral.” Irish Times 30 Jul. 1914: 7.

“Dublin Topics by the Clubman: City Housing.” Weekly Irish Times 1 Aug. 1914: 4.

“The Heat Wave: Yesterday Hottest Day of Year.” Evening Telegraph 1 Jul. 1914: 3.

“Jottings from Ulster.” Bioscope 9 Jul. 1914: 138.

“Masterpiece Picture Theatre.” Irish Times 28 Jul. 1914: 3.

Musser, Charles. “Work, Ideology, and Chaplin’s Tramp.” Resisting Images: Essays on Cinema and History. Eds. Robert Sklar and Charles Musser. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1990.

Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 16 Jul. 1914: 253; 30 Jul. 1914: 494; 6 Aug. 1914: 545.

“Phoenix Picture Palace.” Evening Telegraph 30 Jun. 1914: 3; 18 Jul 1914: 2.

“Trade Topics.” Bioscope 9 Jul. 1914: 113; 6 Aug. 1914: 532.

“The ‘Volta’ Sunday Pictures.” Evening Telegraph 11 Jul. 1914: 3.