Summer was usually a bad time for indoor entertainments such as cinema. But the Irish weather during July 1915 – like that of July 2015 – did not favour outdoor activities. “It has been a sad time for July holiday-makers,” observed the Irish Times in early August, “and as yet there is no hint of a better hope for August, except that which may be taken from the thought that what has persisted so long must soon change” (“Wet Weather”). While some temporary picture houses opened at seaside resorts, some established venues followed the practice of the theatres and closed for several weeks in July and/or August. Although Dublin’s Rotunda usually stayed open throughout the summer, it took advantage of this practice in 1915 by closing on 7 June for extensive renovations and reopening on 26 July.
The weather didn’t stop Dublin architect Joseph Holloway from travelling across town on the evening of Friday, 9 July, from his home in Northumberland Road south of the city to the Bohemian Picture Theatre in the northern suburb of Phibsborough. He was clearly quite taken with the “great film drama of a legendary story in five parts, called Neptune’s Daughter featuring Annette Kellerman (the Perfect Woman)” because he described it in more detail than any other film he had seen that year (Holloway, 9 Jul. 1915). The film was one of the several mermaid fantasies the Australian swimmer made during her film career in the 1910s and early 1920s. Dublin audiences had seen Kellerman three years previously in a similar live stage show, when she had appeared at the Theatre Royal with a company of 40 artistes in Undine, a 14th-century set “idyll of forest and stream” (“Theatre Royal”). Although a skilled athlete, Kellerman’s celebrity was partly based on her controversial promotion of a form-fitting one-piece swimsuit for women. This attire allowed women swimmers the ease of movement needed for athletic achievement, which was not permitted by form-hiding two-piece Victorian bathing costumes. Her championing of women’s athletics fitted well with such contemporary campaigns for women’s equality as the suffrage movement, and at a special matinee during her week in Dublin in 1912, Kellerman gave a lecture on women’s physical culture. At the same time, the publicity for her theatrical appearances fully exploited the spectacle of her body, which was declared perfect because it corresponded so exactly to the measurements of the Venus de Milo.
Photographs published by the glossy illustrated weekly Irish Life in July and August 1912 – just after Kellerman’s visit – throw some light on the degree of controversy her appearance is likely to have caused in the early 1910s. Irish Life published many photographs of Ireland’s leisure class at golf, tennis, horse riding, motoring and other activities. Under the title “Summer at Last!” the issue of 19 July 1912 published photos of six women bathers, and the one-piece swimsuit is much in evidence: only one of the women has a swimsuit that covers her upper legs, arms and shoulders. Although four of the women are on or beside bathing machines that suggest the persistence of Victorian seaside practices, they appear unconcerned by the gaze of the camera or are even welcoming of it. The photo story suggests a fairly permissive view of the display of the female body in such public spaces as beaches and of the reproduction of such photographs in a widely circulating magazine of the “respectable” classes.
However, this sense of the freedom of bodily display is somewhat challenged by the letter of complaint that the editor received the following month in response to Irish Life’s publication on 9 August 1912 of a postcard with a bather – in this case, probably a model – no more undressed or welcoming of the camera’s gaze than the previous women. The complaint was not a trivial one: it came from the Catholic Church based Dublin Vigilance Committee (DVC). Founded in early November 1911, the DVC had grown rapidly and held the first of what was to become an annual show of strength in the form of a procession through the streets of Dublin and a mass meeting at the Mansion House in July 1912. This was an astonishingly successful event, drawing letters of support not only from the Irish Catholic hierarchy but also the pope. The fact that it took place at the Mansion House meant that the movement already had the imprimatur of Dublin’s Lord Mayor, who attended, but the meeting was also addressed by Ireland’s highest government official, the Lord Lieutenant, Lord Aberdeen, who had also been the president of the National Vigilance Association of England for the previous 15 years. This was a movement with serious political clout. Nevertheless, when Irish Life responded to the complaint on 16 August, it was with an article that was more resentful than contrite and that was illustrated by children playing on a beach who were “Quite Happy! / Provided There Are no Vigilance Committees to Object.”
Three years later, at the Bohemian on the evening of 9 July 1915, Holloway was also quite happy with Neptune’s Daughter (US: Universal, 1914). However, the filmmakers – including Dublin-born director Herbert Brenon – pushed the degree of bodily display in Kellerman’s performance to full nudity, causing Holloway some qualms. “The story was splendidly enacted,” he thought, “but Annette Kellerman’s lack of costume was very daring at times.” Nevertheless, Holloway
thought it a very beautiful film, with nothing suggestive in it, – perhaps the incident of the diving from the rocks, again and again, clad only in nature, might have been omitted, with no hurt to the story, but, then Annette Kellerman wanted to show what an expert diver she is, & gave the display.
Holloway’s defensiveness here is understandable because the DVC had not gone away in the interim and was in 1915 shifting its focus from what it termed “evil literature” to “the filthy picture screen” (“Fighting a Plague”). Neptune’s Daughter had been due to finish its three-day run at the Bohemian on Wednesday, 7 July – two nights before Holloway saw it – but because of its popularity, Bohemian manager Frederick Sparling extended its run into the second half of the week. On the Thursday night, the packed Bohemian was visited by William and Francis Larkin, the members of the DVC most likely to make a protest. The newspapers reported that at 9 o’clock, the Larkins “began to hiss, and they persisted in this form of protest for forty minutes, to the end of the film” (“‘Neptune’s Daughter’”). “It was evident that the audience found nothing of a suggestive or offensive nature in the production,” opined the Freeman’s Journal, “and they showed their approval by applauding warmly (“Annette Kellerman at the Bohemian”). The Larkins and the DVC had by no means finished with cinema, and Neptune’s Daughter encountered some further difficulties. The film was condemned from the altar by a local priest when it opened on 22 July for a three-day run at Sparling’s other picture house, the Sandford in the south-city suburb of Ranelagh. “I have reason to believe,” the Bioscope’s Paddy contended, “that the Reverend Father in question had not seen the film but was going on the strength of the publicity matter – which, it will be admitted is rather striking” (Paddy).
Part of the reason the Bohemian was the site of these events was that it had become one of the most popular picture houses in Dublin. It was a venue that could induce Holloway and presumably others to travel across the city, albeit that Holloway travelled to see Annette Kellerman in Neptune’s Daughter. Regular newspaper ads helped to build and maintain this popularity. At the end of July on a page headed “City Theatres and Picture Palaces to Visit During the Holidays,” the Bohemian published an unusually large ad with a photograph illustrating its claim to be “the best appointed and most luxurious picture theatre in Dublin.” If this ad was addressing potential audience members with reasons to choose the Bohemian from among the other picture houses, those reasons had to do with the luxury experience to be had there. Taken from the back of the balcony, the photo emphasized the decorative plasterwork, light fittings, comfortable seating and large screen. The ad’s largest text apart from the Bohemian’s name referred not to the film offerings but to the “Finest Orchestra in Ireland,” made up of 16 performers. You went to the Bohemian for its beautiful physical and aural environment.
Whereas the Bohemian’s ad pushed film titles to a peripheral position, the ads for the Bohemian’s five rival Dublin picture houses prominently displayed film titles they had chosen for the August holiday weekend. Charlie Chaplin featured in four of the six picture house ads, with the Electric Theatre in Talbot Street emphasizing that it had the “Real Charlie Chaplin in Some Comedy (Not an Imitation).” This may have been a general reference to Chaplin’s multitude of screen and stage imitators or a more specific one to the music hall comedian Jack Edge, who was shown in the Coliseum Theatre’s advertisement on the same page dressed as Chaplin.
The most prominent title advertised by the newly renovated Rotunda was a film of the funeral of the Fenian Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, an outdoor activity largely undisrupted by the weather. Organized by the Fenians’ revolutionary successors, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), the funeral was a massive demonstration of the ability of the IRB to mobilize the more militant factions of Irish nationalism. The IRB arranged for O’Donovan Rossa’s body to be repatriated from New York to Dublin, where it lay in state for three days at City Hall and was subsequently accompanied on Sunday, 1 August, by a procession of about 5,000 mourners – watched by at least ten times that number – to Glasnevin Cemetery, where Patrick Pearse delivered his renowned graveside oration. Pearse was not audible in the film by Whitten’s GFS, which recorded highlights of this three-day commemoration, but the volley of shots over the grave by armed Volunteers and the extent of public support were no doubt eloquent enough for the many people who watched the film in picture houses around the country in the coming days and months. Those eager to see the film first did not have to wait for the screenings at the Rotunda, which did not have a licence to open on Sundays, but could attend the Bohemian, where it was on view a few hours after the end of the funeral and at a picture house on the route of the funeral procession. There they could shelter from the vagaries of the Irish summer in some comfort.
“Annette Kellerman at the Bohemian.” Freeman’s Journal 10 Jul. 1915: 7.
“Fighting a Plague: Vigilance Committee’s Crusade.” Irish Catholic 11 Sep. 1915: 1
Holloway, Joseph. Holloway Diaries. National Library of Ireland.
“‘Neptune’s Daughter’: Protest in Dublin Picture House.” Irish Times 9 Jul. 1915: 6.
“Theatre Royal.” Sunday Independent 30 Jun. 1912: 6.
“Wet Weather.” Irish Times 4 Aug. 1915: 4.