A Happy and Appropriate Synchronism: Passion Films at Easter 1914

The release of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (US: Paramount/Regency/Protozoa/Disruption, 2014) on cinema screens around the world in the run up to Easter 2014 is a distribution strategy at least a century old. “As a Passion Play,” wrote a reviewer  in Dublin’s Evening Telegraph of the latest release at the Rotunda’s in early April 1914, “‘The Messiah’ holds one with its intense impressiveness and pathos, and its exhibition just at this holy season is a happy and appropriate synchronism” (“‘The Messiah’ at the Round Room Rotunda”). This synchronism – or well-established distribution and exhibition strategy – was familiar to cinemagoers of the 1910s who would have seen the practice of releasing biblically based films for this religious festival as entirely unremarkable. In fact, this practice reproduced in a new medium the centuries-old Christian tradition of performing passion plays at Easter. Filmic passion plays were among the first moving pictures (Cosandey passim), and they were so popular that The Messiah shown in Dublin in April 1914 was the 1913 remake (dir. Maurice-André Maître) by French company Pathé of its La vie et la passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ, which the company had first produced in 1903 and again in 1907 (Abel 319-20). And this was just the output of one – albeit large – production company.

Jameson

Rotunda manager James T. Jameson as he appeared in a caricature in the Bioscope in November 1911.

Easter Monday fell on 13 April 1914, but James T. Jameson, director of the Irish Animated Picture Company, and his son, Ernest, who managed the Rotunda, had begun the run up to Easter much earlier. In early March, Jameson senior had secured the Irish rights to two long “exclusives”: The Messiah and Spartacus, or the Revolt of the Gladiators (Italy: Pasquali, 1913) (“Items of Interest”). In its review of Spartacus at the Rotunda in the week beginning 23 March, the Dublin Evening Mail compared it to Quo Vadis? (Italy: Cines, 1912), the Italian epic that had been the biggest hit of 1913 and that had been available to Dublin audiences as lately as 2-7 March at the Camden Picture House (“Rotunda Pictures”). However, The Messiah was a more important film for the Rotunda than Spartacus. For one thing, it was longer; Spartacus shared its bill with the comedies The Awakening at Snakesville (US: Essanay, 1914) and When Cupid Takes in Washing (US: Lubin, 1914), but The Messiah was the only thing on the Rotunda’s programme for the two weeks beginning Monday, 30 March. As well as this, because it depicted the life of Christ, The Messiah had the potential to be as controversial as From the Manger to the Cross (US: Kalem 1913) had been the previous year. The superiority of The Messiah was emphasized by the Evening Telegraph, which urged “any person who witnessed “From Manger to Cross to pay a visit to the Rotunda and see what a drastic and extraordinary difference can be introduced in the treatment of the same subject, and more especially the grandeur of its colouring” (“‘The Messiah’ at the Round Room Rotunda”).

The Messiah was certainly a success at the Rotunda. Quoting figures supplied by the Rotunda management, the Telegraph revealed that by the Saturday of the first week of its run, it had been seen by over 22,000 people, “including a considerable proportion of the clergy of every denomination, and there have been nothing but the highest eulogies expressed by everybody who had the pleasure of seeing this marvellous production” (ibid). Paddy, the Irish correspondent of the British trade paper Bioscope, speculated that the audience for the full two-week run would number 50,000, commenting that the film “easily surpassed anything of the kind ever seen in Dublin, and the special music, so brilliantly rendered by Miss May Murphy’s Irish Ladies’ orchestra, added to the reverent screening of this great film” (Paddy). Although Jameson offered a new bill from Easter Monday featuring Christopher Columbus (US: Selig, 1912) and a film of the Grand National Steeplechase, he brought back – purportedly due to popular demand – The Messiah by the end of that week for selected matinees and early evening shows until Friday, 24 April.

This success of the passion films and such Italian historical epics as Quo Vadis? and Spartacus points to the existence of types of quality filmmaking based on high-cultural criteria. The Rotunda had long pursued a middle-class audience by promoting its film shows as both educative and entertaining, but Jameson had usually favoured programmes of shorter films – and some live variety acts – rather than a single long film. A review of the Rotunda in early March had stressed cinema’s multiple attractions:

The elaborate production of cinematograph films shows how much this form of entertainment has grown in public favour. Unlike skating rinks, living pictures seem to have come to stay. They supply an easy means of transporting oneself for a time from the uneventful round of daily life. Sitting in a comfortable seat, the spectator can in a moment travel from China to Peru, from the waste of the open sea to the sun-bathed mart of some Eastern town; he can witness fire and flood and return safely to a good supper by his civilized fireside (“Irish Animated Picture Company”).

The Rotunda had aimed to provide such a variety of attractions with multiple films in its two-hour shows, but the Italian epics could provide a range of spectacles in one film, as well as a patina of high-cultural value associated with classical education. As adaptations of literary works, Quo Vadis? – from Henryk Sienkiewicz’s novel – and The Last Days of Pompeii (Gli ultimi giorni di Pompeii; Italy: Ambrosio, 1913) – promoted as Lord Lytton’s great work” when it played at the Camden Street Picture House in the week beginning 20 April (“Camden Street Pictures”) – could benefit from recognition by middle-class audiences, as well as bestowing cultural prestige on the film and the picture house at which it was shown. Among other significant literary adaptations on exhibition in Ireland at Easter 1914 was Cines’ Antony and Cleopatra (Italy, 1913), a story that prospective spectators at the Opera House in Derry were informed “has been variously dealt with by many famous writers, including the immortal Shakespeare” (“Easter Amusements”).

Edison Talking Pictures at the Picture House, Royal Avenue, Belfast. Belfast Newsletter 3 Apr. 1914: 1.

Edison Talking Pictures at the Picture House, Royal Avenue, Belfast. Belfast Newsletter 3 Apr. 1914: 1.

The extent to which a shared or imposed set of cultural values deriving from literary culture, classical education and Christian doctrine was the source of the popularity of The Messiah or the Italian epics is difficult to say definitively without some discussion of how images of these circulated more widely (Uricchio and Pearson). Certainly, the promotion of such films as respectable by the trade press, newspapers and other forms of picture-house promotion did not prevent other cultural forces from continuing to attempt to impose their own control on cinema and its audiences. 

Easter 1914 seemed to be a particularly auspicious time for Irish nationalists. This point was well expressed in the nationalist Evening Telegraph, in which an editorial observed that

this will be the last Easter before Home Rule becomes the law, for the Home Rule Bill will reach the Statute Book in the course, probably, of the next five or six weeks. It is well that Easter should herald the coming of Ireland’s resurrection, for in the Christian sense it symbolises the Resurrection (“Easter”).

Christianity here meant the Catholicism of the Telegraph’s readership and of the majority of Dublin Corporation’s dominant nationalist faction. With Home Rule apparently imminent, more militant forces within the church were determined that cultural policy reflect a Catholic ethos, regardless of how this might affect the business interests of certain Catholic nationalist councillors.

Lord Mayor Lorcan Sherlock came under criticism from Catholic church-based groups in early March when he showed reluctance to introduce local censorship of films – the Corporation “are satisfied, as indeed are so many other civic bodies, with the verdict of the Board of Trade Censor” – or close picture houses on Sundays – “‘They have been,’ he said, ‘patronised to an extraordinary extent on Sunday by the working people of the city’” (“Picture Theatres: Conditions of Licensing”). Responding in a letter to the Telegraph, William Larkin, who had recently been praised rather than fined by a magistrate for protesting loudly during a theatre show, wondered whether or not the general public were “to be left at the mercy of the Corporation in the matter of taste in living pictures” whose “educational value […] in Dublin at present are nil” (“Sunday Pictures: For Working People”). He left no doubt that lay Catholic organizations would not let the matter rest:

Does his lordship know that the United Sodalities of Dublin (male and female) are out for reform of the picture theatres? Does his lordship know that the United Confraternities of the city are out for the same object? And does he also know that the Theatre Reform League of Dublin (which will later embrace all of Ireland) are on the watch against the class of production that has flooded our capital for some time now? (ibid).

Although Larkin and those named lay organizations would lead the campaign, priests and bishops lent the support of the hierarchy. A letter from a Father Gleeson calling for “an Irish National Censor, who understands the hearts and minds of the Irish people” accompanied Larkin’s  (“Letter from Father Gleeson”). In April, the Lord Mayor “stated that Archbishop Walsh was not in favour of closing picture houses on Sunday, but he thought that a limit should be placed in the hours of opening so that there would be no interference with the freedom of persons to attend divine worship.” Under pressure from both inside and outside the Corporation, Sherlock “was writing to Archbishop Walsh asking him whether he would take upon himself the responsibility of suggesting what type of censorship should be put into operation” (“Picture Theatres: The Archbishop’s Views”).

Belfast Newsletter 9 Apr 1914: 9.

Ad for the newly opened Great Northern Kinema in Belfast Newsletter 9 Apr. 1914: 9.

Larkin ended his letter on Dublin picture houses with some architectural criticism by remarking that “the building themselves are not even decent looking” (“Sunday Pictures: For Working People”), but Easter for Belfast’s picture houses was notable for its openings of distinct contributions to the city’s streetscape. The latest addition to Belfast’s substantial tally of picture houses was the Great Northern Kinema in Gt. Victoria Street, which opened in the first week of April, a little over a week after the 23 March opening of the Crumlin Picture House on the Crumlin Road. The Kinema, “[t]his new, most picturesque , and artistic home of the Moving Picture Art,” was located beside the Gt. Northern railway station, as well as on some of the city’s major tram lines (“Belfast’s Newest and Most Up–to-date Picture House”). No single film seemed to dominate the picture house programmes over the holiday period in the same way as The Messiah did in Dublin. At the “luxurious and attractive” Kinema, “[t]he star film during the early part of the current week is a two-reel drama entitled ‘Silent Heroes’” (US: Broncho, 1913) (“Kinema House”). The city’s most highly publicized cinema offerings were Edison’s Talking Pictures at the Picture House, Royal Avenue, where they were joined in the week beginning Easter Monday by a programme that included Selig’s Christopher Columbus. The different relationship between the churches and cinema is suggested by the fact that several of the Protestant halls – the CPA Assembly Hall, the Grosvenor Hall, the City YMCA and the People’s Hall – offered not only their usual Saturday cinematograph shows but also special film shows on Easter Monday and Tuesday.

References 

Abel, Richard. The Ciné Goes to Town: French Cinema, 1896-1914. Berkeley: U of Califronia P, 1994.

“Belfast’s Newest and Most Up–to-date Picture House.” [Ad.] Belfast Newsletter 9 Apr. 1914: 9.

“Camden Street Pictures.” Evening Telegraph 21 Apr. 1914: 6.

Cosandey, Roland, André Gaudreault and Tom Gunning, eds. An Invention of the Devil? Religion and Early Cinema. Sainte-Foy and Lausanne: Éditions Payot/Laval UP, 1992.

“Easter.” Evening Telegraph 11 Apr. 1914: 4.

“Easter Amusements.” Derry Journal 13 Apr. 1914: 8.

“Irish Animated Picture Company.” Irish Times 10 Mar. 1914: 5.

“Items of Interest.” Bioscope 12 Mar. 1914: 1109.

“Kinema House.” Belfast Newsletter 14 Apr. 1914: 9.

“Letter from Father Gleeson.” Evening Telegraph 11 Mar. 1914: 5.

“‘The Messiah’ at the Round Room Rotunda.” Evening Telegraph 4 Apr. 1914; 7.

Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope16 Apr. 1914: 313.

“Picture Theatres: Conditions of Licensing.” Evening Telegraph 10 Mar. 1914: 3.

“Picture Theatres: The Archbishop’s Views.” Evening Telegraph 20 Apr. 1914: 3.

“Rotunda Pictures.” Dublin Evening Mail 24 Mar. 1914.

“Sunday Pictures: For Working People.” Evening Telegraph 11 Mar. 1914: 5.

Uricchio, William and Roberta E. Pearson. Reframing Culture: The Case of the Vitagraph Quality Films. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993.

Screening the Lockout (?)

Image

Dublin tramway workers pass the Rotunda, one of the city’s most important picture houses. (“Dublin Tramwaymen’s Strike.” Dublin Evening Mail 27 Aug. 1913: 2.) A different view of this picture house can be found here.

A hundred years ago, on Tuesday, 26 August 1913, the labour dispute known as the Dublin Lockout began when just before 10am, some 200 motormen and conductors of the Dublin United Tramway Company abandoned their trams in the city centre. The tram strike would prompt the Dublin Employers’ Federation – led by the tram company’s chairman and owner of the Irish Independent and Evening Herald newspapers William Martin Murphy – to lock out workers affiliated with Jim Larkin’s Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union. Riots, the arrests of union leaders, demonstrations and vicious police baton charges followed. Newspapers played an important part in this dispute – and in how we remember it a century later; see Century Ireland – but what about cinema?

As early as 1907, cinema was being called the art form of the working class (Patterson), an accessible and relatively cheap form of not just entertainment but also information about the world in moving pictures that did not require a high level of literacy. Although Dublin had just a few film venues before 1910, the new medium of cinema very quickly came to have a significant place in Irish society in the early 1910s. By August 1913, Dublin had three times more picture houses than it did theatres, and half of the theatres also showed fiction films and newsreels on a regular basis as part of their variety programmes. Picture houses were not only located in the city’s business core like the theatres but also in residential areas and in the suburbs and townships adjacent to the city. They often therefore relied to a greater extent than the theatres on the patronage of local audiences. However, these picture houses were also businesses, in which a dichotomy between worker and employer also existed.

As such, activity in Dublin’s picture houses during the last week of August into September 1913 demonstrates something of how the new cultural institution of cinema would mediate the momentous Irish events of the 1910s, and how the institution would be shaped by these events in turn. As regards programming, only the Rotunda in O’Connell/Sackville Street (both names were used at the time, with the preference usually based on whether ones politics were nationalist or unionist) appears to have allowed unfolding events to influence its choice of films. For the three days (the usual length of a cinema programme) from 1-3 September, the Rotunda showed the American film The Labour Struggle (1913), made by Kalem, a film production company particularly well known in Ireland because of the many films they had shot in the country. However, The Labour Struggle had nothing to do with Ireland. Although a reviewer of another timely choice of production that week, the play The Labour Leader at the Queen’s Theatre, commented that “visitors will not see much resemblance between the hero of the play and the local product” (“The Queen’s Theatre”), another writer took allegorical meaning from the conclusion of The Labour Struggle:

If its conclusion were to be interpreted in one sense the raging fire against which by mutual help the employer and employes in the end fought successfully may be taken to picture anarchy. When both sides to the struggle came to recognise the peril which threatened them, they ceased to quarrel, and, turning their strength against the common foe, they subdued it, and then taking a juster measure of one another it looked from the last film as if they were likely “to live happily together ever after” (“The Rotunda”).

How Dublin workers and employers might – Metropolis-like – identify a common foe, the writer does not speculate, and a happy ending to the dispute must have seemed remote to anyone walking the city’s streets. In any case, the film’s engagement with radical labour politics would likely have been diluted not just by its conclusion but also by its appearance on a bill with the live telephatic performer La Somna, a screen adaptation of Ivanhoe (IMP, 1913), and two film comedies featuring Vitagraph star John Bunny.

Sep 1 1913 DEM Rotunda Labour Struggle

Advertisement for the Round Room Rotunda showing Kalem’s The [Great] Labour Struggle and a local film of the Neptune Rowing Club. Dublin Evening Mail 1 Sep. 1913: 4.

Apart from fictional representations produced elsewhere, local film producers could have filmed the demonstration themselves to produce a local news film. Norman Whitten had set up a company in May – with an office at 76 Talbot Street (“Irish Enterprise”) – to take such films. James T. Jameson and his sons, including Ernest who managed the Rotunda – but Ernest had got married on Thursday 28 August, so perhaps he deserves congratulations and the benefit of the doubt – had been shooting such films for a decade. Tellingly perhaps, neither Whitten nor Jameson caught on film Jim Larkin’s famous address to the proclaimed demonstration of workers in O’Connell Street on 31 August or the notorious baton charge that followed it, despite the fact that both had business addresses on or just off that street. The bills at Jameson’s picture houses had long been known for their local films. During the week of 25-30 September, both the Rotunda and the Jameson-run Town Hall Rathmines had shown films of each day of the prestigious Dublin Horse Show. And in lieu of a local strike film, The Labour Struggle was accompanied at the Rotunda by a film of a social event at the Neptune Rowing Club, “a local event of direct personal interest to numbers of the citizens” (“The Rotunda”), but those citizens were likely to have been the middle-class audience Jameson had long courted.

Other exhibitors more reliant on a working-class audience do not seem to have modified their bills in response to the strikes even to the extent that Jameson did. The Phoenix Picture Palace on Ellis Quay widely advertised the fact that it was showing Quo Vadis? (Cines, 1912) for the whole of Horse Show Week; in April, the Phoenix had been the first Dublin picture house to show the Italian spectacular. A similar taste for a full week of spectacle to attract well-heeled Horse Show visitors inspired the Dame Street Picture House to book The Life and Works of Richard Wagner (Messter, 1913), which allowed the house orchestra to accompany the silent film with a different Wagner selection at each performance. Other programmes from picture houses that advertised in the newspapers at this time – the Town Hall, Rathmines, the World’s Fair Varieties, the Mary Street Picture House, the Picture House, Sackville Street (called the “O’Connell Picture House” by the nationalist press), the Grand, the Volta, the Theatre de Luxe, the Camden Picture House, the Clontarf Electric Theatre and the Assembly Picture Hall, Serpentine Avenue – show no immediate impact of the Lockout.

Although the picture houses largely failed to represent the early days of the Lockout on screen, the impact of the struggle for workers’ representation that was being fought out in the streets was also felt in the auditorium, projection booth and cash box. Dublin projectionists had organized themselves into the Irish Cinematograph Operators’ Association and initially affiliated themselves with the National Association of Cinematograph Operators (“N.A.C.O. Dublin Branch”). However, in order to represent themselves in solidarity with other picture house workers, the projectionists later affiliated instead with the National Association of Theatrical Employees (NATE). As a result, even the unskilled cinema workers were able to make strong demands for fixed wages to the cinema owners at a special meeting of the Irish Cinematograph Exhibitors’ Association in early September: “In the case of the doormen this should be 26s. for the first doorman, 20s. for the second, and 18s. for the third. It was also proposed to give the inside attendants 12s. per week, the cash-box girl getting 15s” (“Pictures in Ireland”). The cinema owners were not altogether happy with these proposals, and by mid-September, NATE members would be picketing the Theatre de Luxe in Camden Street (Rockett 43). But that is a story for another day.

References

“Irish Enterprise.” Bioscope 12 June 1913: 781.

“N.A.C.O. Dublin Branch.” Bioscope 29 May 1913: 623.

Patterson, Joseph Medill. “The Nickelodeons: The Poor Man’s Elementary Course in the Drama.” Saturday Evening Post 23 November 1907: 10+.

“Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 4 September 1913:

“The Queen’s Theatre.” Evening Telegraph 2 Sep. 1913: 2.

Rockett, Kevin and Emer. Film Exhibition and Distribution in Ireland, 1909-2011. Dublin: Four Courts, 2011.

“The Rotunda.” Evening Telegraph 2 Sep. 1913: 2.