Shadows of Revolution in Irish Cinemas, March 1917

Among the offerings at Dublin’s Bohemian Picture for the first three days of the week beginning 19 March 1917, was footage of the Tsar of Russia; Dublin Evening Mail 19 Mar. 1917: 2.

“Things are very quiet in Dublin film circles just now,” observed the columnist of “Screenings: Kinematograph Notes & News” in Dublin’s Evening Telegraph on St. Patrick’s Day 1917, “but some big things are on the way.” The seeming quite may have been deceptive because big things were already underway in the shape of social upheaval in Russia, which Irish newspapers had first called a revolution the previous day. This was an event that was momentous even in a time of war, and cinema would, at the very least, provide moving images for Irish people to picture these developments. On 19 March, Dublin’s Bohemian Picture Theatre featured the “Latest Exclusive Pictures of The Czar of Russia,”  and the Dublin Evening Mail reviewer thought they “should prove a source of great attraction” (“Bohemian Picture Theatre”). Despite this, no reviews of the films appear to exist by which public reaction to them might be judged. In any case, while an undoubtedly old film of the Tsar might pique the curiosity raised by unfolding events, it was unlikely to have satisfied the desire to witness recent developments. But Dublin was not alone in this. “Russian pictures have been going strong in London since the Duma won through to victory,” the “Screenings” writer noted. “And now arrangements have been made to show in the Russian provinces a kinematograph film of the revolution in Petrograd” (“Screenings,” Mar. 24).

The shadow of revolution was also closer to Ireland than this. The Irish administration feared that the first national day after the Easter Rising would occasion some “big things” in the shape of subversive activity and as a result, had put all public buildings in the city under military control for St. Patrick’s Day (“Patrick’s Day”). However, in stark contrast to occurrences in Russia, the main leaders of Ireland’s rebellion had been executed, and many rank-and-file participants remained in prison, a fact raised in speeches at Westminster comparing Ireland and Russia by such Irish MPs as John Dillon and Joseph Devlin (“Broken Pledges”).

Laurence O’Neill (centre with moustache) attending a GAA match at Croke Park, c.1919, in the company of Arthur Griffith, Eamon DeValera and Michael Collins. Wikimedia Commons.

While the question of Irish political prisoners was being discussed, many believed that a scarcity of food was a more immediate potential cause for social unrest. Earlier in March, before the strikes and demonstrations in Russian had become a revolution, Dublin’s lord mayor, Laurence O’Neill, had invoked the French Revolution to warn of the dangers in the city caused by “unemployment and the scarcity and inflated prices of foodstuffs.” “[O]ne of the principal causes of the French Revolution was the luxury of the upper classes and the poverty of the poor,” he observed, “and the lesson of that Revolution was that no matter in which age the authorities or upper classes ignored their duties to the poor, there was bound to be discontent” (“Lord Mayor”).

The first two workers’ budgets from the Leo Guild; Evening Telegraph 24 Feb. 1917: 1.

Contemporary statistics on the living conditions of Dublin’s working poor support O’Neill’s warnings. In a series of newspaper articles between February and April 1917, these statistics were presented in the form of household budgets provided by the Leo Guild, a Catholic organization interested in the welfare of the deserving poor. Named after Pope Leo XIII – the “working-man’s Pope” – the Irish branch had been founded in Dublin in 1912 to counter the increasing influence of socialism and radical labour activism among Irish workers (“Father Mathew Hall”). Members of the Guild conducted research among the poor, and although they published them anonymously, the people featured in the budgets

were not chosen as being exceptional cases of distress, but because after investigation, they were considered to be typical specimens of their class. None of them belong to the class of poor who apply to the union or the charitable institutions. They are all hard working, sober, respectable and self-respecting folk.” (“How the Poor Live.”)

The Guild’s first budgets focused on two households: that of a labourer and that of a sweated seamstress. Neither of these households had discretionary income to spend on the cinema or other entertainments. The commentary on the budgets concluded, for instance, that the labourer – earning £1 a week to support himself, his wife and seven young children – had outgoings of £1 3s 4d: “The meaning is obvious and tragic. Rent is a fixture, coal can hardly be reduced. The only thing which can be reduced is food, which is spared to stretch over the following week.”

The Guild’s statistics were prepared as part of the Catholic Church’s struggle against organized labour, but they offer some insight into who could or who likely could not have attended the cinema in early 1917. Other writers offered different views on whether or not the working poor attended cinema in 1917. In an article in the third (March 1917) issue of the recently launched cinema journal Irish Limelight, Stephanie de Maistre suggested that they could, and indeed did, form a particularly notable part of the cinema audience. Discussing her dissatisfaction with theatre and music hall and preference for cinema, she focused on one particular unnamed picture house that, “whilst always well patronised in the higher priced seats, became a popular haunt for the working man, his sweetheart or his wife and family.” Maistre’s article addresses an audience perceived to be, like herself, middle class, capable of occupying the higher-priced seats and making entertainment choices not available to working people. Her self-consciously literary account constructs cinema as a place where harmony between the classes is achieved by a cross-class interest in the entertainment provided and by an accepted stratification of the audience based on one’s ability to pay for a seat among one’s social peers. But she sees films as particularly beneficial to the working class:

You see people happy, contented: something has come to break the monotony of their lives; to give them a glimpse of the wonders of the world; to bring sentiment and poetry into drab and barren existences, and who shall say what hearts have been touched, appealed to and changed “in the shadows”?

Chaplin Count Framegrab

Eric Campbell, Charlie Chaplin and Edna Purviance in The Count (US: Lone Star, 1916).

Dublin picture-house owners’ choices of films for St Patrick’s Day suggest that they perceived their audiences to be substantially working class and interested in Irish films. Class was central to The Count (US: Lone Star, 1916), Chaplin’s latest Irish release, which ended its first Dublin run at the Pillar Picture House on 17 March. “The management of the Pillar Picture House, O’Connell street, was largely responsible for the introduction of Charlie Chaplin to the Dublin public,” the writer of “Screenings” reported on 10 March, “and they are still first in the field locally with pictures of the little comedian.” In the film, a tailor (Eric Campbell) pretends to be a count to attend a society party but finds that his employee (Chaplin) has beaten him to it and is chats up both the cook and the rich hostess (Edna Purviance) until the real count unexpectedly shows up. In the week leading up to and including St Patrick’s Day, several other picture houses showed Chaplin’s The Floorwalker (US: Lone Star, 1916) and The Fireman (US: Lone Star, 1916), including the Rotunda Pictures, where it accompanied popular but sometimes controversial The Rosary (US: Selig Polyscope, 1915), the “Original Irish-American Drama.”

Chaplin was also a favourite among the children of the Irish in Britain. A 12-year-old Irish girl was one of the three London schoolgirls who in mid-March 1917 appeared before the Cinema Commission, a body formed by the National Council of Public Morals that began its inquiry into cinema’s public influence in January 1917 (“Mr. Goodwin’s Striking Figures”). When asked about the kinds of films they liked best, the girls choose Westerns and Chaplin comedies. However, they and their friends were not so enthusiastic about newsreels. “‘Sometimes when they have a Topical Budget,’ confessed one of the girls, ‘the Boys get up and go out’” (“At the Pictures”).

Boh Cleansing Fires ET 15 Mar 1917

In the three days up to St Patrick’s Day, the Bohemian showed two Irish films: the newly released Cleansing Fires (Ireland: FCOI, 1916) and The Eleventh Hour. Evening Telegraph 15 Mar. 1917: 2.

As well as the Irish-American Rosary, picture-house managers also followed the well-established practice of choosing Irish-shot films for St Patrick’s Day. In 1917, some of these were more authentically Irish shot than others. Cleansing Fires, the last of the ten films that the Film Company of Ireland (FCOI) made in 1916, featured at the Bohemian for 15-17 March. Of all the FCOI films, Cleansing Fires is the one about which the least information survives; even a bare plot summary seems not to exist. Nevertheless, it was undoubtedly shot in Ireland in the summer of 1916. On its Dublin premiere, Cleansing Fires headed a programme that also included another of the FCOI’s 1916 productions, the already released The Eleventh Hour.

Film Fun July 1916: np.

Although not quite coinciding with St Patrick’s Day, The Innocent Lie (US: Famous Players, 1916) a “magnificent five-part Irish film,” opened on 26 March 1917 at Dublin’s Town Hall, Rathmines. This was the film’s second in Dublin; its first had been at the Grafton Picture House in January 1917. Given that it had been directed by Sidney Olcott and starred Valentine Grant and Jack Clark, Irish audiences would not have doubted that it had been, as the Evening Telegraph claimed, “produced amidst beautiful scenery in the South of Ireland” (“Screenings” Mar. 17). Olcott had shot many films for Kalem and other companies in Ireland, and these had been particularly popular around St Patrick’s Day. In 1915, for example, Dublin’s Masterpiece Cinema had run an Irish Week, at which Olcott’s The Colleen Bawn (US: Kalem, 1911), Ireland the Oppressed (US: Kalem, 1912) and The Mayor from Ireland (US: Kalem, 1912) were shown along with other Irish-shot or Irish-themed films (“Masterpiece Irish Week”). Olcott had made these films in Ireland, but the danger of U-boats on the Atlantic crossing meant that he could not do the same for The Innocent Lie. “The exteriors were photographed in Bermuda,” revealed George Blaisdell in the Moving Picture World before its US release on 8 May 1916, “and they are not only picturesque, but in atmosphere vividly remind of the land and shore of the troubled island they are intended to simulate.”

All in all, it seems things were not as quite as they may have seemed in Irish cinema in March 1917.

References

“At the Pictures: What School Girls Like.” Evening Telegraph 20 Mar. 1917: 2.

Blaisdell, George. “‘The Innocent Lie’: Valentine Grant Makes Good in Her Debut in Famous Players Five-Part Subject.” Moving Picture World 20 May 1916: 1349.

“Bohemian Picture Theatre.” Dublin Evening Mail 20 Mar. 1917: 5.

“Broken Pledges—Empty Threats: Mr. Dillon’s Indictment of the Government.” Freeman’s Journal 21 Mar. 1917: 5.

“Father Mathew Hall: ‘Are Irish Catholics Good Citizens.’” Freeman’s Journal 18 Sep. 1912: 5.

“How the Poor Live: Typical Budget: A Crying Grievance: Result of Leo Guild Inquiry.” Evening Telegraph 24 Feb. 1917: 1.

“The Life of the Poor: More Leo Guild Budgets: A Pressing Problem.” Evening Telegraph 17 Mar. 1917: 4.

“Lord Mayor and the Distress in the City: Gravity of the Situation Stated in Plain Terms.” Evening Telegraph 12 Mar. 1917: 1.

De Maistre, Stephanie. “In the Shadows.” Irish Limelight 3:1 (Mar. 1917): 4.

“The Masterpiece Irish Week.” Evening Telegraph 16 Mar. 1915: 6.

“Mr. Goodwin’s Striking Figures: Evidence of Film Industry’s Magnitude: First Sitting of Cinema Commission.” Bioscope 11 Jan. 1917: 96.

“Patrick’s Day: Quiet Observance in Dublin.” Evening Telegraph 17 Mar. 1917: 1.

“Screenings: Kinematograph Notes & News.” Evening Telegraph 17 Mar. 1917: 5; 24 Mar. 1917: 5.

Exhibiting Tanks to Irish Cinema Fans, February 1917

A tank goes into battle in The Battle Ancre and Advance of the Tanks (Britain: British Topical Committee for War Films, 1917) from the Imperial War Museums.

A tank goes into battle in The Battle Ancre and Advance of the Tanks (Britain: British Topical Committee for War Films, 1917); Imperial War Museums.

Cinema was so popular in Ireland in February 1917 that the press had to search for a name for its adherents, and they found it in American vernacular. “This morning there is a heart-cry from a cinema fan,” the “Gossip of the Day” columnist in the Evening Telegraph noted on 21 February 1917:

He doesn’t know that he is a cinema fan, and that is the crux of the trouble – he is ignorant of the great American language. I gather from his pathetic note that he is a regular patron of the “silent drama,” yet he finds a difficulty in understanding the explanatory inscriptions with which American producers seek to help the intellects of those who sit in the outer darkness.

Although cinema was primarily a visual medium and as such offered the promise of an international language, it still required words to specify the meaning of what might otherwise be ambiguous images. The silent film’s intertitles carried those words, but they were often in a dialect not universally understood. The columnist was surprised at this because s/he believed that “regular patrons of this form of amusement were able to understand any announcement on the screen from the ‘slick’ slang of East Side New York to the weird attempts at English of the Italian, French and Danish producers.”

Most of the films that Irish cinemagoers saw were indeed American, but it was a British film that sought to attract as many Irish cinema fans as possible in February 1917. Monday, 19 February saw the Irish opening of The Battle of the Ancre and Advance of the Tanks (Britain: British Topical Committee for War Films, 1917), a War Office-sponsored propaganda film more often called simply The Tanks. Despite this foreshortened title, tanks featured only occasionally in the film. “Throughout the five scenes,” the Evening Herald’s Man About Town complained, “the Tanks are seen about four times altogether, each time only for a very brief passing moment.”

Whatever about the coming disappointment, anticipation for the film could build on tantalizing glimpses of this new war machine that had been accumulating for several months. In autumn 1916, Irish people had read about the first battlefield deployment of tanks, and in November 1916, Dubliners had even had the opportunity of seeing a tank film, albeit it the animated Tank Cartoon (Britain: Kineto, 1916). The cinema trade press had also informed its Irish readers about the shooting of the War Office tank film (“About Those Tanks!”).

faugh-a-ballaghs-il-feb-1917

The Dublin Evening Mail appears not to have been exaggerating when it noted that the “coming of the “Tanks’ Film’ to Dublin has been eagerly anticipated.” Publicity for the film could draw on what appears to have been a widespread fascination with this new weapon, in a similar way to which the earlier propaganda films had focused on artillery or aircraft. Previewing the coming shows at Dublin’s Theatre Royal, the city’s largest entertainment venue, the Mail writer observed that the “film portrays the most interesting happenings during the Battle of the Ancre, when the Tanks were first heard of, and promises to prove one of the most successful of the many interesting war films already seen in Dublin. The Battle of the Ancre stands out as one of the most striking phases of ‘The Big Push’” (“‘The Tanks’ at ‘The Royal’”).

Indeed, the Royal starting advertising the film as early as 10 February, when a short item warned patrons to book the film to avoid disappointment: “Your remember the trouble you had getting a seat at the ‘Battle of the Somme’ films, but you say to yourself that there will be no difficulty with ‘The Tank’ films, and you delay booking only to find yourself in the same position as before” (“‘The Tanks’ Film at the Theatre Royal”). The added attraction of The Tanks was that it included footage of Irish soldiers: “There were no Irish regiments shown in the Somme film, but Lieut. Malins, who took the pictures, succeeded in getting some splendid films of our gallant Irish Brigade.” Despite such extensive publicity of the film, the Royal only showed it at matinees (beginning at 2.30pm), except on Wednesday, when the film replaced the Royal’s two evening variety shows (beginning at 6.45pm and 9pm). Nevertheless, the film was presented at the Royal with “special music and effects that […] should help one to realise ‘what it is like.’ The band of the famous Faugh-a-Ballaghs will play at every performance” (“‘The Tanks’ at ‘The Royal’”). Unfortunately no review of the Royal shows appears to exist that specifies what effects – presumably sound effects imitating exploding shells – were used during the shows and how the audiences responded.

tanks-grafton-dem-21-feb-1917

Dublin Evening Mail 19 Feb. 1917: 2.

The Royal was far from the only Dublin venue showing the film that week. Another large theatre, the Empire, showed the film all week alongside a somewhat reduced variety programme. Several of the most prestigious picture houses also screened it, with the Bohemian, Carlton, Masterpiece and Town Hall, Rathmines showing it for the first three days of the week, and the Grafton retaining it into the second half of the week. The Bohemian managed to show the film four times daily at 3, 5, 7 and 9, but this was eclipsed by the six shows that the Grafton managed to squeeze in at 1.45, 3.15, 4.45, 6.15, 7.45 and 9.15, “so that business men and others can all have an opportunity of making acquaintance with these new machines of war, of which Sir Douglas Haig says he cannot speak too highly” (“Grafton Picture House”).

While Dublin’s newspapers reviewed the film positively – even the Herald‘s Man About Town, despite his disappointment about the little screen time devoted to the tanks themselves – the Irish Times printed the longest review, and it was most forthright in clarifying the film’s ideological intent. Its “exhibition creates many thrills, and gives a very vivid conception of the war in all its phases,” the writer argued. S/he admitted that this had been done before, most notably by the very popular Battle of the Somme (Britain: British Topical Committee for War Films, 1916), but it had been criticized for showing British soldiers being killed. “[I]n the Tank films one is spared the somewhat gruesome side of the fighting. The tanks are awesome but not gruesome” (“‘Tanks in Action’”). In the face of so much evidence to the contrary, the film therefore helped recruiting by propagating a myth of British military invulnerability. “Should they stimulate our young men to help those Irishmen whom they see manning the trenches,” the Times writer concluded a lengthy review, “‘The Tanks in Action’ will be doing good work in Dublin.”

ultus-sydney-master-dem-24-feb-1917p2

Dublin Evening Mail 24 Feb. 1917: 2.

The Times did not usually offer extensive reviews of films, but other newspapers were taking cinema increasingly seriously. On 19 February, the Evening Telegraph – the evening edition of the Freeman’s Journal – resumed publication after a hiatus caused by the destruction of its premises during the Easter Rising. Among its innovations was a Saturday column entitled “Kinematograph Notes and News.” The first series of notes on 24 February included both international items and some of particular Irish relevance. The latter included a notice that Aurele Sydney, star of Ultus series, would attend the Masterpiece Cinema during the following week’s screenings of Ultus and the Secret of the Night (Britain: Gaumont, 1917). Another note concerned the views of John Bunny, a film star who had visited Ireland five years previously and discussed the possibilities for film production in the country. Given that it made no mention of the Film Company of Ireland’s recent filmmaking efforts, the reason for the inclusion of the note on Bunny is unclear, unless it was to quietly contradict the claim made in the Masterpiece’s ad that Sydney was the first cinema star to visit Ireland.

This column was praised by a writer in the Irish Limelight, the cinema magazine that had begun publication in January 1917. “Readers of the Saturday Evening Telegraph got an agreeable surprise recently when they found that cinema notes were introduced,” “Movie Musings” columnist Senix observed. The surprise that the staff at the Limelight got on seeing the column may not have been all that agreeable, given that a weekly newspaper column might steal much of the thunder of the monthly journal. Nevertheless, Senix took it to be a positive development, commenting that “[t]his recognition of the people’s amusement proves pleasant reading after the many bitter attacks which have been made in the local Press. And the fact that it comes so soon after the appearance of the Irish Limelight sets us thinking.”

Dublin Evening Mail 17 Feb. 1917: 2

Dublin Evening Mail 17 Feb. 1917: 2

Despite Senix’s optimistic reading of the appearance of the Telegraph‘s column, bitter attacks on cinema were still very much evident in February 1917, both in the press and in the auditorium. When the “Gossip of the Day” columnist had attempted to define “cinema fan” for his/her readers, s/he speculated that “‘fan’ must be American for ‘fanatic,’ as it is used to designate people who are peculiarly addicted to any pastime.” However, there may be reasons for distinguishing between cinema fans and cinema fanatics. Certainly serial protestor William Larkin was a fanatic often to be encountered in cinemas but not a cinema fan. Since 1914, Larkin had mounted periodic protests in Dublin’s picture houses against films that he and the Catholic Irish Vigilance Association (IVA) considered to be morally dubious. These protests occurred in the auditorium during the screening of the films and involved Larkin shouting about the need for a Catholic-influenced Irish censorship and/or throwing ink at the screen. Larkin sought arrest to magnify the reach of the protest through the newspaper reports of the disturbance and subsequent trial. He had usually found that the magistrates treated him leniently – even indulgently – but in December 1915, he had been jailed when he refused to pay a fine imposed for a cinema protest.

After a period of apparent inactivity during 1916, Larkin’s latest – and last for some years – cinema protest took place on 21 February 1917 during a screening of The Soul of New York (US: Fox, 1915; released in the US as The Soul of Broadway) at the Pillar Picture House in Dublin city centre (“City Cinema”). It followed a well-established pattern. At about 10.25pm, the picture-house porter heard a commotion in the auditorium, found that Larkin had thrown “a blue liquid” at the screen and went to get manager J. D. Hozier. Larkin made no attempt to escape and admitted to having thrown the liquid, which not only caused damage estimated at £30 to the screen but also “bespattered” the instruments and clothes of musicians Herbert O’Brien, Joseph Schofield and Samuel Golding in the orchestra (“City Cinema Scenes”). After several court appearances, the case seems to have been struck out at the end of March.

Evening Telegraph 22 Feb. 1917: 1.

Evening Telegraph 22 Feb. 1917: 1.

Although this “exciting episode” certainly garnered press coverage, how Larkin’s direct-action methods complemented the Irish Vigilance Association’s ongoing campaign for cinema censorship is not clear. Indeed, despite his previous affiliation with the IVA, Larkin may have been acting on his own in this instance. The IVA’s well organized political lobbying for the introduction and effective exercising of film censorship was well advanced by February 1917. In June 1916, Dublin Corporation had appointed Walter Butler and Patrick Lennon as film censors, and in January 1917, it had engaged two women as “lady inspectors” of picture houses (“Amusement Inspectors,” “Dublin Lady Censors”). The IVA found a ready welcome at Dublin Corporation. On the last day of February, its Public Health Committee (PHC) invited a seven-member IVA deputation to address them on Sunday opening (“Cinema on Sundays”). Answering the deputation’s complaint that many cinemas opened at 8 o’clock on Sunday evenings, thereby intruding on hours set aside for Catholic devotions, PHC chairman and former mayor Lorcan Sherlock assured the deputation that the Corporation would enforce a 8.30pm Sunday opening.

Therefore, Irish cinema was engaging both fans and fanatics in February 1917.

References

“About Those Tanks! Extraordinary Interest of the Latest ‘Big Push’ Films.” Bioscope 12 Oct. 1916: 121.

“Amusement Inspectors: Reports to Be Made on Dublin Performances.” Evening Herald 10 Jan. 1917: 3.

“Cinemas on Sundays: Vigilance Association and the Hours of Opening.” Evening Telegraph 1 Mar. 1917: 2.

City Cinema: Exciting Episode: Blue Liquid Thrown.” Evening Telegraph 22 Feb. 1917: 1.

“City Picture-House Scene.” Dublin Evening Mail 28 Feb. 1917: 2.

“Dublin Lady Censors: Names Submitted.” Freeman’s Journal 15 Jan. 1917: 4.

“Gossip of the Day: Comments on Current Events.” Evening Telegraph 21 Feb. 1917: 2

“Grafton Picture House.” Dublin Evening Mail 17 Feb. 1917: 5.

“Kinematograph Notes and News.” Evening Telegraph 24 Feb. 1917: 5.

The Man About Town. “Thing Seen and Heard.” Evening Herald 19 Feb. 1917: 2.

Senix. “Movie Musings.” Irish Limelight 1:3 (Mar. 1917): 3.

“‘The Tanks’ at ‘The Royal.’” Dublin Evening Mail 17 Feb. 1917: 4.

“‘The Tanks’ Film at the Theatre Royal.” Dublin Evening Mail 10 Feb. 1917: 5.

“‘Tanks in Action’: Cinema Pictures in Dublin.” Irish Times 20 Feb. 1917: 3.