“A Photo-Play of Unique National Interest”: Seeing Knocknagow in Irish Cinemas, January-April 1918

On 22 April 1918, Knocknagow  (Ireland: FCOI, 1918) opened at Dublin’s Empire Theatre after a tour of many of Ireland’s towns and cities.

Ad for Knocknagow in the Irish Limelight Feb. 1918: 10-11.

In inviting Irish exhibitors to the trade show of the long-awaited Knocknagow on 6 February 1918 at Dublin’s Sackville Street Picture House, the Film Company of Ireland (FCOI) described the film as “a photo-play of unique national interest.” Knocknagow would become the most significant film made in Ireland during the silent period. Appearing just over two months after the three-reel comedy Rafferty’s Rise, Knocknagow was very different from anything FCOI had yet released. An epic nine-reel (8,700-feet or 2 hours 25 minutes at 16fps) adaptation of the best-selling Irish novel of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, Knocknagow was by far the FCOI’s most ambitious work to date. Part of the national interest of the film may have been in making accessible a novel that some critics have argued was very widely bought but very little read (Donovan). Indeed, when in August 1917 the film was announced and a stage adaptation was proving popular, the Evening Herald’s Man About Town wondered “what the opinion of the author of Knocknagow would be if he saw his novel on the cinema screen, or its dramatized version drawing crowded houses in the theatres throughout the country.”

Tailor Phil Lahy (Arthur Shields) fits out Mat the Thrasher (Brian Magowan) for a new coat in Knocknagow. Image and essays on the film available here.

One of the things he would likely have thought is that the film was very selective in what it took from the novel. “The story meanders along through over six hundred pages its placidity disturbed by very little of what the playwright dubs ‘action,’” the Evening Telegraph critic JAP noted of the novel in his review of the trade show.

To extract from the [novel’s] 600 pages enough incidents for a photoplay – which, above all things, must have virile action, – and to contrive that there should be sufficient continuity to sustain interest throughout a half-dozen reels, was a task to daunt the most expert scenario writer. (“Gossip of the Day.”)

Although impressed by the film in other ways, particularly the acting, JAP did not seem to think that the scenario attributed to Mrs. N. T. Patton had been particularly successful in delivering virile action. Indeed, two weeks later, although no longer referring to Knocknagow, he argued that “the best books should not be filmed. To turn a book into a photo-play must be always an unsatisfactory business” (27 Feb.). However, in the trade-show review, he advised that “the action could be brisked up by sub-editing it down from eight reels to six, the sub-titles would be improved by more frequent quotations from the book and better choice of incidents would have helped to get more of the ‘atmosphere.’”

J.M. Carre as the villainous land agent Beresford Pender.

The version of Knocknagow that survives today is about an hour shorter than the original cut. As a result, it is difficult to say exactly what Irish audiences saw in early 1918, but a general description probably captures many of its essential features. Set in 1848, the film concerns the relationships among a large cast of characters who live on or adjacent to the lands of the absentee landlord Sir Garrett Butler, particularly in the village of Kilthubber and the hamlet of Knocknagow. Prominent among these are Mat “the Thrasher” Donovan (Brian Magowan); the tailor Phil Lahy (Arthur Shields), whose sickly daughter Nora (Kathleen Murphy) is betrothed to turfman Billy Heffernan (Breffni O’Rourke); large tenant farmer Maurice Kearney (Dermot O’Dowd) whose daughter Mary Kearney (Nora Clancy) is attracted to theology student Arthur O’Connor (Fred O’Donovan, who also directed); and villainous land agent Beresford Pender (J.M. Carre), who schemes to remove tenants from the land to make way for more lucrative cattle grazing. The film interweaves scenes of rural work and leisure (ploughing, tailoring, Christmas celebrations, a wedding, a hurling match, a fair) with more strongly plotted sequences, such as the developing love stories or Pender’s strategies to evict certain tenants and frame Mat for robbery. “With a true appreciation of the artistic,” the reviewer in Cavan’s Anglo-Celt contended

the various degrees of tone have been lifted from the novel, and placed on the screen just as Kickham would have done it himself. The happy peasantry, the prowess of the youth at the hurling match, the hammer-throwing contest, the unexpected “hunt,” the love scenes and the comedy – the life as it was before the agent of the absentee landlord came like a dark shadow on the scene, and with crowbar and torch, laid sweet Knocknagow in ruins – all were depicted by the very perfect actors who made up the cast. (“‘Knocknagow’ on the Film.”)

Pender’s eviction of the Brians, a farm labouring family, is depicted in detail, with titles superimposed on the images of the land agent dancing before their burning cottage.

Apart from transposing a bestselling Irish novel into an accessible screen format, two other definitions of “national interest” seem to be particularly relevant to thinking about the release of Knocknagow in early 1918: the commitment to local exhibition and the politics of Irish nationalism. The first of these is illustrated by the fact that the trade show had, unusually, followed rather than preceded a special premiere run in Clonmel from 30 January to 2 February, and the film’s first run after the trade show would not be in the cities of Dublin or Belfast but in Carlow on 18-19 February. The Clonmel opening was designed to acknowledge that the film had been shot almost entirely in the Tipperary locations of Clonmel and Mullinahone associated with Kickham’s source novel. However, given that audiences not only in Clonmel and Carlow but in many other small towns saw the film before it opened to the public in Dublin on 22 April underscores FCOI’s commitment to a definition of national interest that associated it first and foremost with small-town Ireland.

The importance of the Tipperary landscape is emphasized at several points of the film, including a sequence of iris shots in which Mat says farewell to Ireland as he makes ready to emigrate.

Other aspects of the exhibition of Knocknagow deserve discussion, but the 22 April opening date of the film in Dublin also marked a turning point in Irish national politics. That day was flanked by two days of demonstrations against the conscription of Irish men into the British army. Sunday, 21 April represented a particular Catholic church influenced protest, with mass meeting and fiery speeches in every parish in the country, while Tuesday, 23 April was the day chosen by trade unions for a general strike that meant, among other things, that “there were neither newspapers nor cinema shows” during a “universal cessation of work throughout Nationalist Ireland” (“Labour’s Protest”). The British government’s determination to extend conscription to Ireland would finally succeed in uniting the warring factions of Irish nationalism against it.

Newsreel special of the by-election in South Armagh, Dublin Evening Mail 4 Feb 1918: 2.

This turning point of the conscription crisis came after the film’s release in much of the country, however, and it was in a political context of the rise of Sinn Féin that the film was produced and initially exhibited. In late 1917 and early 1918, the long stable link between the achievement of nationhood and the Home Rule of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) was severely under threat from the vision of a more radical independence offered in the wake of the 1916 Rising by the new Sinn Féin party. The set pieces of this struggle from the time Knocknagow began shooting in Tipperary in the early summer of 1917 and through the period of its exhibition in late winter and spring 1918 were a series of six by-elections in which Sinn Féin ran candidates in constituencies where the IPP had previously held Westminster seats, winning three of them. After losing four seats in all to Sinn Féin in 1917, the IPP may have seemed to be regaining the momentum by winning the three by-elections in early 1918, but one of these included the Waterford seat left vacant by the death on 6 March of the man most associated with Home Rule, IPP leader John Redmond. Cinema audiences could follow these developments through the newsreel footage of the by-elections and Redmond’s funeral provided by Irish Events and exhibitors such as William Kay of Dublin’s Rotunda who filmed these events.

General Film Supply sought sales of its film of the Funeral of the Late John Redmond, M.P. beyond its usual Irish Events network by placing this ad with the entertainment ads in the Evening Telegraph of 11-12 Mar. 1918.

As well as these party-political events, Knocknagow was released in a country that was experiencing increasing incidents of local unrest of many kinds, with a large number of prosecutions for cattle driving and for illegal drilling by Irish Volunteers, as well as a hunger strike by Sinn Féin prisoners in Mountjoy Jail. In early March, County Clare was placed under martial law, and Major-General W. Fry issued a proclamation “prohibiting the holding of any meeting or procession within the Dublin Metropolitan Police Area between March 6 and March 27,” a period that included St. Patrick’s Day (“Proclamation”). In one high-profile case, men arrested for illegal drilling in Dundalk refused to recognize the court and sang “The Soldier’s Song” to disrupt proceedings. This tactic became so common that one defendant (Michael Murray) in a Clare cattle-driving case refused to recognize “this concert” (“Court Scene”). However, when during the Dundalk case, a variety company sang the same “Sinn Féin” songs at one of the local picture house, a section of the audience left in protest (“Round Up”). More seriously, members of an audience at Limerick’s Tivoli Picture House on 4 March became victims of violence when 15 to 18 soldiers who had been involved in running battles with young men in the street burst into the auditorium and attacked the crowded audience at random with sticks and truncheons, injuring many, including the musical director (“Soldiers & People in Conflict”).

Mat leads the Knocknagow hurling team for a match that the Derry Journal reviewer thought was “a topsy-turvey affair, resembling a rugby scramble more than a game of caman” (“‘Knock-na-Gow’ at the Opera House”). Some more on that aspect of the film here.

In these circumstances in which, it seems, politics could irrupt into the auditorium at any moment, Knocknagow looks like quite an indirect, even tame intervention. The FCOI’s choice of Kickham’s novel as the basis for its first landmark film seems, on the one hand, an overtly nationalist statement: its author was a former president of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and one of the best known Irish revolutionaries of the latter half of the nineteenth century. On the other hand, the nature of the book – rich in detail of Irish country life in the 1840s but also sprawling and sentimental rather than overtly political – was such that it could be adapted without courting political controversy. As such, the film contrasts with the films made in Ireland between 1910 and 1914 by US filmmakers Sidney Olcott and Gene Gauntier for Kalem and subsequently their own production companies, some of which openly feature armed political rebellion against Britain, albeit that these films are also set in the past.

ArthurO’Connor and Mary Kearney pursue their romance.

This is not to argue that FCOI was politically conservative but that the company had to negotiate strict censorship. The attempt to show Ireland a Nation (US: Macnamara, 1914) in Dublin in January 1917 or even the more recent controversy over the potential banning of the Finn Varra Maa pantomime had shown that to have produced a film that the authorities judged to have been overtly nationalistic would undoubtedly have been to see the film immediately banned under the particularly strict wartime censorship provisions of the Defence of the Realm Act. Apart from anything else, the banning of Knocknagow would have been a financial disaster for the already struggling FCOI.

Scenario competition in Irish Limelight Dec 1917: 11.

In this context, Kickham’s work took on a renewed importance in its ability to subtly re-articulate a familiar set of representations in a political way through its association with the author’s republicanism. Despite its setting in the mid-19th century, Knocknagow still resonated with Irish audiences, as the popularity of the stage adaptation shows. And 1918 would be the year of Kickham film adaptations: with a similar setting in time and place, Kickham’s other major novel Sally Cavanagh would be adapted by J. A. McDonald for a scenario competition run by the Irish Limelight in early 1918. Given that Knocknagow’s director Fred O’Donovan joined Limelight editor Jack Warren in judging the competition, it is perhaps not surprising that McDonald’s scenario, Untenanted Graves, won, but its seems never to have been produced (“Untenanted Graves”).

Films made in Ireland by US filmmakers Sidney Olcott and Gene Gauntier for Kalem dominated this list of Irish films available to Irish exhibitors through Dublin-based General Film Supply; Irish Limelight Dec. 1917: 18.

As the Kickham film that was made, Knocknagow in itself, and in the company’s rhetoric around it, emphasized its embeddedness in particular Irish locations that were different from the ones popularized by previous, foreign filmmakers in Ireland, especially the Killarney of the enduringly popular Olcott-Gauntier films. Unlike Olcott and Gauntier, the FCOI filmmakers were – predominantly – Irish born, and the company was based in Dublin. In keeping with this rhetoric, local exhibition was of more than usual importance to Knocknagow. FCOI had opened previous films in regional picture houses, despite the claim by the Dame Street Picture Theatre in Dublin that all the company’s productions could be seen there first. But for Knocknagow, regional exhibition was a part of its national significance.

Ad for premiere of Knocknagow at Magner’s Theatre, Clonmel; Nationalist 26 Jan. 1918: 6.

Indeed, successful regional exhibition in Ireland was to be part of the promotion of the film with audiences and exhibitors abroad. On 13 April, while Knocknagow was showing in Derry, Dublin’s Evening Herald published a brief interview from its drama critic Jacques with FCOI producer James Mark Sullivan. Sullivan was on the cusp of bringing the FCOI films to America (on the film in America, see here and here), and Jacques quoted him on the company’s intentions:

“We desire,” he says, “to show Ireland sympathetically; to get away from the clay pipe and the knee breeches; to show Ireland’s rural life, with pride in the same; to show Ireland’s metropolitan life intelligently, depicting the men and women of the 20th century – in short, Ireland at its best in every walk of human endeavour.”

This may have been his desire but if it had any basis in a reality beyond advertising rhetoric, it must have referred to the earlier FCOI films and not Knocknagow. Knocknagow persisted in representing the Irish of the mid-19th century and doing so in familiar ways, including costumed in knee breeches. In addition, Sullivan made specific claims about the way that Knocknagow was being welcomed in Ireland “like no other picture was ever received in Ireland or out of Ireland before. From every place where it has once been shown,” he contended,

we are receiving return bookings—a remarkable thing in the case of a picture, though very ordinary in that of a play or opera. For instance, the city of Limerick gave us four bookings, and I question if any other picture every received over two. The same is true of Waterford, Clonmel, Cork, Carlow, and other towns. This week we are breaking all records in Waterford. I mention these facts to indicate that there is prospect of promise and permanency in our enterprise.

The ad for Knocknagow at Derry’s Opera House was dwarfed by an ad for the opening of the city’s newest picture house, the Rialto, on 29 April. Derry Journal 12 Apr. 1918: 2.

Although the surviving evidence in Ireland’s regional newspapers does not quite support Sullivan’s attempts to boost Knocknagow in advance of its Dublin opening, the film had been shown – or in the case of Limerick, was about to be shown – in the towns he named. To clarify, before its week-long run at the Empire Theatre in Dublin (22-27 Apr.), the film was shown at Magner’s Theatre in Clonmel (30 Jan.-2 Feb.), the Sackville Picture Theatre in Dublin (trade show, 6 Feb.), the Cinema Palace in Carlow (18-19 Feb.), the Town Hall Cinema in Cavan (25-27 Feb.), the Cinema in Kilkenny (6-7 Mar.), the Opera House in Cork (18-23 Mar.), the Coliseum in Waterford (1-6 Apr.), the Opera House in Derry (8-13 Apr.), the Empire Theatre in Belfast (15-20 Apr.), the Shannon Cinema in Limerick (15-17 Apr.) the Picturedrome in Tralee (18-20 Apr.) and the Town Hall in Galway (22-24 Apr.).

Anglo-Celt 23 Feb. 1918: 7.

A survey of the reception of Knocknagow in the run up to the Dublin opening has shown something of the way in which the film resonated with audiences around the country. It makes clear that the film was certainly popular with Irish cinemagoers, with local critics consistently praising its fidelity to Kickham’s novel, the quality of the acting and the beauty of the Tipperary scenery. However, few reviews mentioned the film’s contemporary political relevance. Indeed, some suggested that audiences abroad would be particularly impressed by the film, including the Anglo-Celt‘s reviewer, who subtitled his/her notice “A Picture Play that Will Create a Furore in America” (“‘Knocknagow’ on the Film”).

Despite such potentially politically sensitive scenes as the eviction, this was probably due to the fact that such events were depicted in the past, safely distanced, with Cork Evening Echo emphasizing that the film would attract “all those who take an interest in the economic and social development which has taken place in this country during the past two generations” (“Opera House”). These events had happened “many years ago” even for those such as the Evening Herald’s Jacques, for whom the film vividly recalled personal memories of “the cabin doors broken and the furniture flung out, and the poor half-dressed occupants lying on the roadside amid the wreckage of their home.”

An illustrated intertitle introduces the eviction scene, emphasizing its importance.

It was only really in Galway that a critic saw the film’s immediate political relevance by arguing that it

pointed a topical moral at the present time. We saw the evictions, the crowbar brigades, the burnings, the landlord oppression of 70 years ago, the attempt to wipe out a race. Such memories – only of the other day – as it revived scarcely accommodated the mind of the beholder to the nation of conscription. (“Town Hall.”)

By the time this reviewer was writing on or about 26 April, conscription had become the politically unifying issue for nationalists that it had not been earlier in Knocknagow’s run.

While FCOI could not have foreseen such events, the company enhanced its connection to the local audience in many of the places Knocknagow was shown by having members of the cast sing at screenings. This was a unique feature of the film’s exhibition in Ireland. Film actors had on rare occasions attended screenings of their films, but they did not contribute to the events’ live music. Brian Magowan, the film’s main star and an actor familiar with musical theatre, appeared most often, regularly accompanied by fellow cast member Breffni O’Rourke. This was not Magowan’s first vocal accompaniment of a FCOI film; he had sung at the premiere of the company’s first film, O’Neill of the Glen. In the case of Knocknagow, however, the FCOI gave this feature special prominence by having Magowan and O’Rourke, dressed in character, sing folk songs connected with the film. Although they did not appear at every venue where the film was shown, and of course, they could not have when the film was showing simultaneously in geographically remote locations, Magowan’s and O’Rourke’s live appearances were regular features of the first run of the film in Ireland.

While ploughing a field with a view of Slievenamon (mountain), Mat pauses to sing “The Farmer’s Boy,” with an intertitle helpfully providing musical notation and the song’s refrain.

Their earliest appearance seems to have been in Cavan, where the Anglo-Celt reported that “[a]n interesting feature of the entertainment was that Mr. J. McGowan, who, as ‘Mat the Thrasher’ was the hero on the film, appeared each evening in the flesh and sang some old Irish ballads in very charming voice, while Mr. Breffni O’Rourke (‘Bill Heffenan’ in the play) gave some traditional Irish lays and witty stories” (“‘Knocknagow’ on the Film”). Magowan most important contribution was “Slievenamon,” a song about the Tipperary mountain whose lyrics Kickham had composed. The centrality of this song to the FCOI’s conception of the ideal accompaniment of the film is underlined by the reproduction of Magowan’s arrangement of the song for voice and piano that was included in a programme for a later (probably 1919) run of the film (NLI).

The film has many musical scenes, including this one in which Billy Heffernan plays the flute while the Lahys dance.

The reviews are unclear on whether they sang before, after or during the projection of the film, but the film itself includes moments that motivate vocal accompaniment. In an early scene of the film, Mat is introduced by an intertitle and then shown ploughing a field in long shot. In a mid-shot, he turns around to the camera, and an intertitle appears with a musical stave and the refrain from the folk song “The Farmer’s Boy.” The cut back to Mat shows him singing animatedly before he returns to his ploughing in the shadow of Slievenamon. These on-screen cue might provide the place for Magowan to sing or they might encourage the audience to sing these popular tunes. A similar series of shots occurs later when tailor Phil Lahy sings “The Black Horse,” whose opening lines are printed on an intertitle.

Made and released during a fraught historical moment, Knocknagow sought to engage its audiences with a bestselling literary text and popular songs and involve them in the process of readjusting the representation of the Irish on screen.

References

“Court Scene: Clare Cattle Drivers Refuse to Recognise ‘this Concert.’” Dublin Evening Mail 16 Mar. 1918: 3.

Donovan, Stephen. “Introduction: Ireland’s Own Film.” Screening the Past 33 (2012). Available at <http://www.screeningthepast.com/2012/02/introduction-ireland%E2%80%99s-own-film/&gt;

Jacques. “Knocknagow Filmed: Wonderful Irish Picture of Storied Incident.” Irish Limelight Apr. 1918: 5.

JAP. “Gossip of the Day: Film Version of Kickham’s Most Famous Novel.” Evening Telegraph 7 Feb. 1918: 2.

—. “Gossip of the Day: The Present Fashion in Films.” Evening Telegraph 27 Feb. 1918: 2.

“‘Knock-Na-Gow’ at the Opera House.” Derry Journal 10 Apr. 1918: 4.

“‘Knocknagow’ on the Film: A Picture Play that Will Create a Furore in America.” Anglo-Celt 2 Mar. 1918: 6.

“Labour’s Protest.” Freeman’s Journal 24 Apr. 1918: 2.

The Man About Town. “Thing Seen and Heard.” Evening Herald 22 Aug. 1917: 2; 9 Mar. 1918: 2.

NLI (National Library of Ireland). MS 50,000/272/82, Liam O’Leary Archive. Programme for Knocknagow, n.d.

“Opera House.” Evening Echo 14 Mar. 1918: 2.

“Proclamation: Processions Forbidden for the Next Three Weeks in the Dublin Area.” Dublin Evening Mail 7 Mar. 1918: 3.

“A Round Up: Many Volunteers Arrested.” Evening Telegraph 12 Mar. 1918: 3.

“Soldiers & People in Conflict: Scenes in Limerick.” Irish Independent 6 Mar. 1918: 3.

“Town Hall.” Galway Express 27 Apr. 1918: 4.

“The Untenanted Graves.” Irish Limelight Apr. 1918: 13.

“An Injustice to Good Productions”: Irish Film Distribution, Programme Changes and New Picture Houses in November 1914

The Sign of the Cross.

An exclusive film exhibited in Ireland in November 1914: The Sign of the Cross (US: Famous Players, 1914). Image: The Silent Film Still Archive.

The published information on film distribution in Ireland in the 1910s is useful in general, but it lacks the detail to say something about how Irish cinemas acquired films in, say, November 1914 (Condon, Early Irish Cinema, 215-17; Rockett 38-41). However, the trade press, particularly the London-based Bioscope, and the local papers that month give some more specific details. By this time, exhibitors no longer bought films outright, as the – much smaller number of – exhibitors in the 1900s had. Films were rented from distributors or renters, and the distribution business in Ireland and Britain was based in London. The sea crossing was an issue for distributors into Ireland, particularly as military operations changed the priorities on the transport of goods in 1914. However, such issues were more easily negotiated by the film distributors who had offices in Ireland or worked through Irish agents.

Bioscope 6 Aug. 1914: xix.

Ad for Gaumont’s Chrono projector; Bioscope 6 Aug. 1914: xix. This ad appeared just as war was breaking out; even a few weeks later, it would not have been acceptable in the context of discussions of severing links with enemy companies as part of the war effort.

“I dropped up the other day to see Mr. Young of the Gaumont Company, Lord Edward Street, Dublin,” revealed Irish correspondent Paddy in the Bioscope in early November 1914 (Paddy, 5 Nov.). Since opening early in 1913, the luxuriously appointed Dublin branch office of Gaumont in London sold the company’s popular Chrono projector, held trade viewings in a dedicated screenings room of the films it distributed, and shot many local topical films since its first ones in June 1913, such as The Launch of the Britannic and a film of a hurling match between Kilkenny and Cork (13 Nov.). Paddy noted that “Mr. Young seemed pleased with how matters were progressing, and he expressed the opinion that the falling off on account of the war was practically negligible” (5 Nov.). A year earlier, Paddy had found Young’s predecessor also pleased with business, including the fact that “[a] great many more Irish theatres have thrown in their lot with the Gaumont Film Service” (13 Nov.), including the Grand in Dublin’s O’Connell Street (Paddy, 24 Jul.), Limerick’s Gaiety Bijou (7 Aug.), and Belfast’s Princess Picture Palace (“Jottings,” 12 Nov.).

Gaumont did not have Irish distribution to itself. In November 1914, the Ideal Film Renting Company set up their Dublin office at 40 Dawson Street, Dublin. “There is little doubt that by opening in Dublin,” opined Paddy, “The Ideal Company have stimulated competition and made it possible for exhibitors to make a better selection on the spot” (5 Nov.). Among the exclusive films that Ideal handled were Danish production company Nordisk’s For the Sake of a Man (1913) and Her Hour of Temptation (1914), as well as Joan of Arc (Italy: Savoia, 1913), for which “[s]pecial posters are available” (ibid.).

1The Palace, Frances Street, Newtownards whowing Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1923). http://www.newtownards.info/frances-st.htm

The Palace, Frances Street, Newtownards showing Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1923). http://www.newtownards.info/frances-st.htm

Other London-based distributors relied on travelling salespeople or on the Irish-based companies that acted as their agents. In the week of 5 November, Paddy also “ran into Mr. Hagan, the Scottish and Irish representative for Messrs. Ruffells’ exclusives,” who “had secured bookings running to over £350” (ibid.). Norman Whitten’s General Film Supply (GFS) appears initially to have been a branch of the London-based General Film Agency, and although Whitten was better known as a maker and distributor of his own local topicals, GFS also distributed the films of other companies. Some larger Irish cinema chains, such as James T. Jameson’s Irish Animated Picture Company, had their own buyers in London (Condon, “Limelight,” 253). An “Item of Interest” in the Bioscope on 19 November informed trade readers that the Palace in Newtownards, Co. Down, had appointed Lillah Dawson as its film reviewer: “Miss Dawson has recommended the features booked at this hall during the past few weeks, and as a result the seating accommodation and the cork lino have come in for some severe wear, strong evidence that this lady weighs up a subject in a capable and experienced manner” (“Film Reviewer Appointed”).

Depending on the nature of the programme at the picture house or houses concerned, a representative such as Dawson might have had a more or less arduous job. Something has already been said here about the content of the film programme, particularly in regards to the number and length of the films and the length of the programme itself. The dominant practice in cities and towns was for picture houses to change their programmes twice a week, on Monday and Thursday, with a third change for those picture houses that held a Sunday licence. As a result, most films had a three-day run, with the possibility of holding over an especially attractive film – most likely, an “exclusive” – for the second half of the week, in which case the other items on the programme were usually changed. A run of longer than six days for any film was really exceptional. Shorter runs were possible. In early November 1914, Dublin’s Rotunda advertised the fact that beginning on 9 November, it would have three changes in the week, which for this venue with no Sunday licence meant two-day programmes, with changes on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. “Large audiences,” a preview in the Evening Telegraph predicted, “are sure to appreciate this move on the part of the management, who certainly spare no expense in catering for the entertainment of their patrons” (“Rotunda Pictures”).

“Programmes Changed Daily: An Injustice to Good Productions.” Bioscope 19 Nov 1914: 789.

An extract from a Bioscope article discussing daily programme changes at the Omagh Picture Palace; 19 Nov 1914: 789.

The generosity – if it can be called that – of the Rotunda management was no match for that of the management at the Picture Palace in Omagh, Co. Tyrone, a town with a population of less than 5,000. Just ten days after the Rotunda had instituted its new programming changes,a Bioscope article drew attention to the fact that the Picture Palace changed its programme every day. As the article’s subtitle – “An Injustice to Good Productions” – suggests, the writer of this article – described as “our Ulster representative,” so presumably it was the writer of the “Jottings from Ulster” column – saw this as an unusual and unwelcome development (“Programmes Changed Daily”). Although conceding that “a manager on the spot knows his own business best,” s/he endorsed the arguments of “a very astute Ulster manager, who favours the bi-weekly change” because of the mutually supporting nature of printed and word-of-mouth publicity:

He argues that on a Monday and Tuesday a hall attracts by its publicity matter only those patrons of the movies who are influenced by good pictorials and by well-written and attractively-set letterpress. On the Tuesday and Wednesday, and again on the Friday and Saturday, the advertising ceased to be of any account. Personal recommendation or condemnation takes its place and either does such good as to comfortably fill the hall, whilst the programme runs, or is so hurtful in its effects as to prove the incompetency of the manager in the selecting of such pictures as please the majority of the people of his district. (Ibid.)

1Ads for Omagh Picture Palace showing variations in programming. Tyrone Constitution 30 Oct. 1914: 4 and 6 Nov. 1914: 4.

Ads for Omagh Picture Palace showing variations in programming. Tyrone Constitution 30 Oct. 1914: 4 and 6 Nov. 1914: 4.

The trade anxieties manifest in this advice about the effective rhythms of advertising had little to do with the Picture Palace’s choice of films but more with the number of films required. Driven from Home (1914), Shadows (US: IMP, 1914) and Lost in Mid-Ocean (US: Vitagraph, 1914) “want a lot of beating as star subjects. Why not, therefore give them an opportunity to prove their value?” (ibid.). Indeed, assuming a complete daily change of programme, the Picture Palace would likely have shown between 25 and 50 films a week, depending on their length. This suggests that the management had a very different view than the Bioscope of the nature of the entertainment it provided. The competing interests of film producers and exhibitors were shown in late November 1914, when the Bioscope cited the call by Carl Laemmle, head of the US production company Universal, to “cheaper American theatres to raise their prices of admission [to cover] the growing cost of film production” (“Trade Topics”). The management of the Omagh Picture Palace appears to have paid little attention to the quality of individual films and focused instead on audience choice and creating a constituency of daily cinemagoers.

First ad for Sandford Cinema; Evening Herald 3 Nov. 1914: 4.

First ad for Dublin’s Sandford Cinema; Evening Herald 3 Nov. 1914: 4.

Omagh’s abundance of films seems to parallel a more general return of optimism to the Irish film trade in late 1914, which saw the opening of some new picture houses. “That little thought is here given to the approach of lean days,” “Jottings” observed, “is evident from the fact that a new hall is now in full swing in Lurgan, under the direction of Mr. Hewitt”, as well as from the enlargement of Lisburn’s Electric Palace, and the equipping of new picture houses in Coleraine and Belfast’s Corn Market (5 Nov.). In Dublin, the Sandford Cinema opened on 2 November with little newspaper publicity. The first notice was a brief review in the Evening Herald the following day, alongside reviews of the Kinemacolor pictures at the Theatre Royal, the Phoenix Picture Palace’s screenings of The Sign of the Cross (US: Famous Players, 1914) – the most heavily publicized film in Ireland in late 1914 – and the Masterpiece Picture House. The review did not give the titles of the films that “were so much admired at the opening show,” focusing instead on the decor of the building that “is sumptuously fitted up interiorally, the costly furniture being supplied by Clery and Co., Ltd.” (“New Picture Theatre in Ranelagh”). Paddy later revealed the opening “star films” to have been England’s Menace (Britain: London, 1914) and The Village of Death (19 Nov.). No other newspaper coverage of the Sandford appeared in the first week of November, but in the following week, several papers carried ads for In the Bishop’s Carriage (US: Famous Players, 1913), with Mary Pickford, for the first three days and The Wheels of Destiny (US: Majestic, 1914) for the last three.

Managed by John and P.W. Whittle, the Sandford was “quite a high-class” picture house, “replete with all modern conveniences,” including Gaumont projectors and the “indirect system of lighting” in the auditorium (Paddy, 19 Nov.). Paddy found the building to be “a beautiful structure, with a fine flight of steps leading up to the pay-box. The entrance doors are finished in stained glass,” and inside, there was a “considerable rake to the floor, thus enabling all patrons to have a full view of the screen” (ibid.). Despite this focus on the experience of all cinemagoers, the audience was to be divided based on ticket price both outside and inside the premises. “The building stands on a corner site, thus enabling the 3d. entrance to be distinct from the 6d. and 1s., [and once inside, the] 1s. seats are distinguished from the 6d. by neat squares of crochet work on the backs” (ibid.). The management did not, however, show the same attention to detail in securing the required official documents, and it was prosecuted on 20 November for operating without a cinematograph licence (“Sandford Cinema Theatre”). Nevertheless, Inspector Gray of the Dublin Metropolitan Police testified that the premises were “extremely comfortable and suitable in every way for a picture theatre. The pictures he had seen were excellent” (ibid.).

Elsewhere – and almost everywhere – war films remained popular. When Dublin’s Daily Express reviewed In the Hands of the Kindly Dutch at the Rotunda in early November, it emphasized the personal response many in the audience might have made to topical films about the war. The film “shows the division of the Naval Brigade who were interned in Holland after the surrender of Antwerp , and was so clear that anyone could recognise a relative or friend” (“The Rotunda Pictures”). In the same week, the Kinemacolor matinees at the Theatre Royal were providing colour films of the front. The fact that these films were shown in such a large theatre rather than in one of the smaller picture houses indicates that the management expected considerable interest in them, and it went out of its way to create further publicity. “On the kind invitation of the management,” the Express reported, “a number of wounded soldiers attended the [Kinemacolor war films] yesterday, and received quite an ovation from the large audience. Others who were unable to attend will be present this afternoon” (“Theatre Royal”).

Evening Telegraph 28 Nov. 1914: 6.

Evening Telegraph 28 Nov. 1914: 6.

Although the Express observed that “[t]he audience yesterday was unreservedly enthusiastic concerning the display” of war pictures at the matinee, certain members of the audience at the Theatre Royal were neither enthusiastic nor reserved about patriotic displays at the theatre’s live evening show (“Picture Matinees”). On 2 November, a group of young men wearing republican badges protested by booing, hissing and groaning when, during one musical number, several Union Jack flags were unfurled and the orchestra played “Rule Britannia.” When 18-year-old Thomas Smart refused to stop, he was arrested and fined 40 shillings in court (“Scene in Theatre Royal”).

Ad for two Irish-themed films from the US production company Domino; Bioscope 12 Mar. 1914: xviii.

Ad for two Irish-themed films from the US production company Domino; Bioscope 12 Mar. 1914: xviii.

Smart and his fellow protestors might have been more appreciative of the Irish week run by the Masterpiece at the end of November. The main film was True Irish Hearts (US: Domino, 1914), supported by The Filly (US: Domino, 1913), Rory O’More (US: Kalem, 1911), The O’Neill (US: Kalem, 1912), films of Irish scenic landscapes and a topical of the Castlebellingham Feis and Louth Volunteers. During the previous week, manager Cathal McGarvey “had appeared personally at each performance during the week in his original humorous monologues, and these met with a great reception, there being no better humorous reciter in Dublin than Mr. McGarvey” (Paddy, 19 Nov.). For the Masterpiece’s Irish Week, however, McGarvey allowed popular baritone W.A. Sheehan to enhance the live musical accompaniment by singing Irish songs (“An Irish Week”). These kinds of Irish Weeks were not new, but they were facilitated by the fact that such producers as Domino and Kalem were continuing to make Irish subjects. The Domino titles were new ones, available through Western Import since March and April 1914, but the Kalem ones were older titles that required that a distributor – in this case, the Express Film Service – hold on to them for such events.

References

Condon, Denis. Early Irish Cinema, 1895-1921. Dublin: Irish Academic, 2008.

—. “Limelight on the Colleen Bawn: Resisting Autoexoticism in Provincial Irish Picture Houses in the Early 1910s.” Les cinémas périphériques dans la période des premiers temps. Peripheral Early Cinema: Domitor 2008. Perpignan: PU Perpignan, 2010. 245-255.

“Dublin and District: Ranelagh’s New Picture House.” Irish Independent 10 Nov, 1914: 4.

“Film Reviewer Appointed.” Bioscope 19 Nov. 1914: 706.

“An Irish Week at the Masterpiece.” Evening Telegraph 28 Nov. 1914: 6.

“Jottings from Ulster.” Bioscope 13 Nov. 1913: 589; 5 Nov. 1914: 543; 12 Nov. 1914: 647.

“New Picture Theatre in Ranelagh.” Evening Herald 3 Nov. 1914: 4.

Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 24 Jul. 1913: 267; 7 Aug. 1913: 413; 13 Nov. 1913: 601; 5 Nov. 1914: 525; 19 Nov. 1914: 736.

“Picture Matinees at the Theatre Royal.” Daily Express 3 Nov. 1914: 8.

“Programmes Changed Daily: An Injustice to Good Productions.” Bioscope 19 Nov 1914: 789.

Rockett, Kevin and Emer. Film Exhibition and Distribution in Ireland, 1909-2010. Dublin Four Courts, 2011.

“The Rotunda Pictures.” Daily Express 3 Nov. 1914, 2.

“Rotunda Pictures.” Evening Telegraph 7 Nov. 1914: 6.

“Scene in Theatre Royal: A Row in the Gallery.” Daily Express 4 Nov. 4 1914: 3.

“Sandford Cinema Theatre.” Evening Telegraph 21 Nov. 1914: 4.

“Trade Topics.” Bioscope 26 Nov. 1914: 821.