Creating Great Trouble in a Most Laughable Manner: Chaplin in Dublin in 1914

Chaplin Lookalike Winner Film Fun Jan 1916

The winner of a Chaplin lookalike contest run by Dublin’s Masterpiece Theatre; Film Fun Jan 1916: n.p.

By October 1915, a Charlie Chaplin craze was in full swing in Dublin. Paddy, the Irish correspondent of the British cinema trade journal Bioscope, showed this when he reported on several simultaneous tributes to Chaplin less than two years after he made his first film. On 7 October, Paddy revealed that Captain Ahearne of the Dame Street Picture House had shown all-Chaplin programmes the previous week, while a live Chaplin revue at the Coliseum Theatre had distinguished itself from the Chaplin impersonation competition taking place at the Rotunda by featuring what Paddy claimed was “the only Chaplin girl extant” (Paddy, 7 Oct.).

Small ad calling for Chaplin imitators. Freeman's Journal 16 Sep. 1915: 8.

Small ad calling for Chaplin imitators. Freeman’s Journal 16 Sep. 1915: 8.

That such competitions were not wholly new was shown by the fact that Cathal MacGarvey manager of the Masterpiece Theatre, Talbot Street was exhibiting his film of a Chaplin impersonation competition that had taken place at his picture house in September (Paddy, 14 Oct.). Chaplin seemed to be everywhere you looked by the autumn of 1915. But this adulation had taken some time to grow.

The Bohemian Picture Theatre showed Mabel's Married Life in the first three days of the week beginning 30 Nov. 1914 and Her Friend the Bandit for the last three days of that week. Evening Telegraph 30 Nov. and 3 Dec. 1914.

The Bohemian Picture Theatre showed Mabel’s Married Life in the first three days of the week beginning 30 Nov. 1914 and Her Friend the Bandit for the last three days of that week. Evening Telegraph 30 Nov. and 3 Dec. 1914.

Irish audiences’ decades-long love affair with Charlie Chaplin, the biggest film star of the first half of the 20th century, began modestly a century ago. Cinema audiences in Ireland, like those around the world, knew the slapstick comedies for which Mack Sennett’s Keystone Film Company was already famous when Chaplin joined in December 1913. When he began shooting his first films in January 1914, Chaplin played supporting roles to such better-established comics as Mabel Normand, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Ford Sterling. However, he rapidly became the star player in films that he directed himself. Nevertheless, he did not renew his Keystone contract in December 1914, choosing instead to join George K. Spoor and Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson’s Essanay Film Manufacturing Company.

As the best remembered of the stars who emerged in the 1910s, Chaplin has already been discussed briefly here and here. Now that the centenaries of his year at Keystone have passed, it may be worth looking in more detail at the Irish reception of this initial stage of his career. Almost all the Keystone films he appeared in have survived, and thanks to the Chaplin Keystone Project, these have been restored to as watchable a condition as possible and are available in the DVD collection Chaplin at Keystone, accompanied by an informative booklet. Despite the films’ flashes of brilliance, however, it is hard not to agree with David Robinson that “[w]e can only look back at the first few Keystone films and see a crude, unfinished form, and the earliest tentative search for a screen character” (130). But as Robinson goes on to argue this is our problem in retrospect: “To the audiences of the time they were new and astonishing. From the very start, Chaplin had created a new relationship with the audience, provoking a response that no one had elicited before in film or in any other medium” (ibid).

Irish audiences’ first sight of Chaplin on screen was not as a tramp but as a “sharper” in Making a Living (US: Keystone, 1914).

Surviving accounts from Irish audience members are rare, but newspapers do offer some clues about how that relationship began in Ireland. These clues have to sifted out of ads and articles that are largely the product of the marketing needs of film production companies, distributors, picture houses and the newspapers that carried the material. Most of the cinema display ads, preview and reviews in Dublin newsaper were for the few picture houses that paid for advertising. The most regular picture-house advertising was from the Rotunda Pictures in Dublin’s O’Connell/Sackville Street, which had long used extensive advertising to construct its reputation as the city’s premier picture house. In roughly descending order of regularity of advertising, the Rotunda was followed in late 1914 and early 1915 by the Bohemian Picture Theatre in Phibsboro; the Masterpiece Theatre in Talbot Street; the Provincial Cinematograph Theatres pictures houses in Grafton and O’Connell/Sackville Streets; the Phoenix on Ellis Quay; the Dorset Picture Hall; the Volta in Mary Street; the Electric Theatre in Talbot Street; Dame Street Picture House; and the Pillar Picture House in O’Connell/Sackville Street. This represents just two-fifths of Dublin city’s cinemas, and many of those named often did not mention the titles of the short comedies that supported the main dramatic feature. Nevertheless, the display ads, previews notices and reviews of these picture houses allow us to track the release dates and something of the reception of Chaplin during his year at Keystone.

This review of the programme at the Rotunda Pictures gives a good indication of where comedies featured in the priorities of newspaper reviewers. Evening Telegraph 23 Jun. 1914: 2.

This review of the programme at the Rotunda Pictures gives a good indication of where comedies featured in the priorities of newspaper reviewers. Evening Telegraph 23 Jun. 1914: 2.

It was at the Rotunda that Chaplin first appeared on a screen in Dublin in the comedy Making a Living (US: Keystone 1914), which had a three-day run beginning on Monday, 21 June 1914. The Evening Telegraph’s review suggests that contemporary observers did not share the importance we would likely attribute to the beginning of Chaplin’s career. The highlight of the bill on which Making a Living appeared was for at least the nationalist members of the audience – as it was for the reviewer in the nationalist Evening Telegraph – “a splendid film showing the pilgrimage to Wolfe Tone’s grave, at Bodenstown, on Sunday” (“Rotunda Pictures,” 23 Jun.). This local topical (news film) “was received with possibly the greatest of applause yet extended to any film previously shown at this house,” and its exhibition was enhanced by the Irish Ladies’ String Orchestra playing “The Volunteers’ March”: “The opening bars of the martial music were drowned by the tumultuous cheering of the crowded audience” (ibid.). By contrast, Making a Living was merely mentioned in passing along with two other comedies that were also part of the programme.

Western Import Co. ad for Chaplin's early Keystone film hails him as the hit of the season and reminds readers of his stage career. Bioscope 9 Jul. 1914: xx.

Western Import Co. ad for Chaplin’s early Keystone films hails him as the hit of the season and reminds readers of his stage career. Bioscope 9 Jul. 1914: xx.

Making a Living was almost five months old by the time it reached Irish screens. It had been shot on 5-9 January 1914 and first released is the United States on 2 February 1914 (Chaplin at Keystone). From 21 June on, however, Chaplin’s films were released in Ireland in quick succession but not always in the same order as they had appeared in the US. This release pattern and much of the publicity material available to picture house managers came from the Western Import Company, the British and Irish distributor of all Keystone films. All the films released by Western Import up to the end of January 1915 were shown in Dublin. Western Import was based in London, and its ads in the trade papers reflected the fact that Chaplin’s films had been a particular hit in the US and were likely to be at least as popular in Britain where he had recently been a music-hall comedian.

In Mabel's Strange Predicament, Dublin audiences saw Chaplin's tramp costume for the first time in a film whose comedy comes largely after Mabel locks herself out of her hotel room in her pajamas.

In Mabel’s Strange Predicament, Dublin audiences saw Chaplin in his tramp costume for the first time, harassing Mabel Normand in her pyjamas.

Despite the information available from the distributor, the names of Mabel Normand or Ford Sterling were more likely to have caught the attention of comedy audiences that week. When Mabel Strange Predicament – the film in which Chaplin first appeared as the tramp – began its three-day run at the Rotunda on 2 July, the Dublin Evening Mail did not mention Chaplin but commented of Normand that “this little lady is now the leading comedienne in filmland” (“Rotunda Pictures,” 27 Jun.). And when Chaplin’s next film, Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal., was appreciatively reviewed during its Rotunda run (6-8 July), the reviewer misidentified Chaplin as Keystone’s more established Fatty Arbuckle, observing that the “famous ‘Fatty’ of the Keystone company, will be seen in a screamingly funny picture, ‘Kid Auto Races’” (“Rotunda Pictures,” ET 7 Jul.). This pattern was not confined to the first few of Chaplin’s films screened in Dublin but continued up to November, when Mabel’s Busy Day was described as “one of the funniest adventures of Mabel Normand, Keystone Company” (“Rotunda Pictures,” ET 21 Nov.). Although “[a]mongst the humorous contributions” to the bill at the Masterpiece on 22 December “Chaplin, of the Keystone Co., in ‘A Busy Day,’ was very amusing,” this did not distinguish him from Ford Sterling who had left Keystone for a time and was starring “in a highly diverting Sterling Comedy, ‘Three O’clock’” (“Masterpiece”).

As this suggests, Keystone was itself a brand that newspaper advertisers and reviewers expected readers to recognize. This was emphasized on 10 October, when a preview of the Rotunda’s programme recommended When Reuben Fooled the Bandits – featuring the lesser known Keystone player Charles Murray – on the sole basis that it was a Keystone, “which means the last word in comedy” (“Rotunda Pictures,” ET 10 Oct.). The company brand and the star brand were also frequently combined. On 17 October, the preview of the Masterpiece Theatre did not specify the title of the comedy films that would be on show in the following week, but one of them “is a highly diverting Keystone, featuring the inimitable [C]haplin” (“Masterpiece Theatre”).

All the Keystone films featuring Chaplin released onto the British market between late June 1914 and the end of January 1915 were shown in Dublin, and many of them had their first Dublin exhibition on or close to the day Western Import released the film. Some films, however, appear to have been screened weeks or months after the release date, but it is possible that they were screened earlier and in the period before the attractiveness of Chaplin’s name was fully realized, their titles were not mentioned in the press. In any case, Making a Living’s appearance at the Rotunda on 22 June was four days after its London release. Mabel’s Strange Predicament appeared at the Rotunda on 2 July, a week and a half after its 22 June release (“Rotunda Pictures,” DEM 27 Jun.). Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal. was release on 2 July and shown at the Rotunda on 6 July (“Rotunda Pictures,” ET 7 Jul.). Released on 6 July, A Thief Catcher – staring Ford Sterling but featuring Chaplin – ran at the Picture House, Grafton Street (9-11 July; ad, ET 9 Jul.), before the Rotunda (13-15 July; “Rotund Pictures,” ET 11 Jul., II 13 Jul.), and this seems also to have been the case with Between Showers, which was released on 9 July and exhibited first at the Grafton on 13-15 July (“Grafton Street Pictures”). A Film Johnnie was released on 13 July and shown at the Rotunda beginning on 20 July (“Rotunda Pictures,” ET 21 Jul), and His Favourite Pastime seems to have screen first at the Picture House, O’Connell/Sackville Street a week after its 20 July release (ad, ET 25 Jul.).

Chaplin's character in A Film Johnnie begins in a picture house and travels to the Keystone studios in pursuit of the Keystone Girl.

Chaplin’s character in A Film Johnnie begins in a picture house and travels to the Keystone studios in pursuit of the Keystone Girl.

No Chaplin film appears to have been released in August 1914, but September was busy. Tango Tangles – featuring Chaplin, Arbuckle and Sterling – was released on 10 September and shown at the Picture House, Sackville/O’Connell Street from 14 September (“O’Connell Street Pictures”). Cruel, Cruel Love’s 17 September release was followed by a 21 September Dublin opening at the Rotunda (“Rotunda Pictures,” ET 19 Sep.). Caught in the Rain was released on 21 September but does not seem to have had a Dublin screening until it was exhibited at the Volta’s well-advertised Sunday shows on 13 December (“Volta,”). Similarly, “Keystone screamer” Twenty Minutes of Love awaited a 17 January 1915 showing at the Volta despite a 28 September 1914 release (“Volta,” 16 Jan.).

Ad for the Masterpiece programme for the week, including The Fatal Mallet; Evening Telegraph 12 Dec. 1914: 1.

Ad for the Masterpiece programme for the week, including The Fatal Mallet; Evening Telegraph 12 Dec. 1914: 1.

Although October 1914 also saw no Chaplins released, November and December made up for it. The 9 November release of Caught in a Cabaret coincided with the same-day opening at the Rotunda (“Rotunda Pictures,” ET 7 Nov.). A Busy Day waited more than a month after its 12 November release until its Dublin premiere at the Masterpiece on 21 December (“Masterpiece”); the previous week (17-19 Dec.), the Masterpiece had shown The Fatal Mallet, which had been released on 19 November (ad, ET 12 Dec.). Mabel’s Busy Day had a release-day opening at the Rotunda on 23 November (“Rotunda Pictures,” ET 21 Nov.), and Mabel’s Married Life also opened in Dublin the day it was released at both the Rotunda and Bohemian on 30 November (“Rotunda Pictures,” ET 1 Dec.; “Bohemian”). On 3 December, the Bohemian gave Her Friend the Bandit an opening-day release (ad, ET 3 Dec.). And finally, Laughing Gas opened at the Picture House, O’Connell/Sackville Street on 7 January 1915, three days after its 4 January release (ad, ET 7 Jan.).

Chaplin prepares to deal with a difficult customer in Caught in a Cabaret.

Chaplin prepares to deal with a difficult customer in Caught in a Cabaret.

Very few of these 18 films were given more than a cursory mention. At the Rotunda in November, Chaplin’s Caught in a Cabaret was given unusual prominence for a comedy by being named as the first “of the principal films of the week” and as “a real live Keystone, one of the funniest yet” (“Rotunda Pictures,” ET 7 Nov.). “‘Caught in a Cabaret’ is the title of one of the best comedy pieces in cinematography yet shown in Dublin, and which is to be seen at the Rotunda Picture House. In all its details it proved a most laughable piece and drew forth loud applause” (“Rotunda Pictures,” ET 11 Nov.). Caught in a Cabaret was also popular at the Kelvin Palace in Bangor at Christmas:

Five performances were held on Christmas Day, and a like number of St Stephen’s [26 Dec.], at each show a complete change of pictures being screened – ten programmes in the two days. To be strictly accurate I should mention tha tone picture was retained in each programme. It was the screamingly-funny two-reel Keystone, “Caught in a Cabaret.” (“Jottings.”)

The most notice any Dublin newspaper reviewer gave to Chaplin in this initial period came at the end of July. “A splendidly long and most amusing comedy is ‘A Film Johnnie,” observed the Evening Telegraph’s columnist, noting the film’s reflexivity. “This picture features Charles Chaplin going to a cinema, where owing to an infatuation for a girl in the screen he creates great trouble in a most laughable manner” (“Rotunda Pictures” ET 21 Jul.). The Irish Times reviewer did not name Chaplin – referring merely to the “young man” in this “real good comedy series” – but commented that the “operations of the fire brigade in regard to that individual are the cause of much laughter” (“Rotunda Pictures,” IT 21 Jul).

Looked at week-to-week, Chaplin’s rise to fame looks more incremental than meteoric, but it would only be a few months before many members of the Dublin audience wanted to be Charlie.

References

“Bohemian Picture Theatre.” Evening Telegraph 1 Dec. 1914: 4.

Chaplin at Keystone. DVD Collection. London: BFI, 2010.

“Grafton Street Pictures.” Evening Telegraph 14 Jul. 1914: 2.

“Jottings from Ulster.” Bioscope 14 Jan. 1915: 146.

“Masterpiece.” Evening Telegraph 22 Dec. 1914: 6.

“Masterpiece Theatre.” Evening Telegraph 17 Oct. 1914: 6.

Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 7 Oct. 1915: 57; 14 Oct. 1915: 217.

Robinson, David. Chaplin: His Life and Art. London: Penguin, 2013.

“Rotunda Pictures.” Dublin Evening Mail 27 Jun. 1914: 3.

“Rotunda Pictures.” Evening Telegraph 23 Jun. 1914: 2; 7 Jul. 1914: 2; 14 Jul. 1914: 2; 21 Jul. 1914: 2; 19 Sep. 1914: 6. 7 Nov. 1914: 6; 11 Nov. 1914: 4; 21 Nov. 1914: 5; 1 Dec. 1914: 4.

“Rotunda Pictures.” Irish Independent 13 Jul. 1914: 5.

“Rotunda Pictures,” Irish Times 21 Jul. 1914: 7.

“The ‘Volta’ Sunday Pictures.” Evening Telegraph 13 Dec. 1914: 6; 16 Jan. 1915: 2.

“An Immense Power in the Refinement of the World”: Women Musicians in Irish Picture Houses

As the emergence of cinema in the early 1910s changed the nature of Irish popular entertainment, it offered certain women new career opportunities. Although there were some women picture-house managers and jobs in ticket and refreshment sales were generally reserved for women, the largest number of skilled picture-house jobs available to women were as musicians. Every new picture house had at least one musician, and as the 1910s progressed, the prestige of a picture house could be measured by the number of musicians in its orchestra, including known concert musicians whose solos could be advertised as discrete attractions. The boom in picture houses was also a boom in musical employment. For both men and women, these increasingly professionalized jobs required the kind of extended education available only to the middle class. The growing prestige of cinema opened up possibilities for suitably trained women of this class who needed or desired an income but who were restricted from much paid work by barriers to the professions and by such nebulous controls as the discourse on respectability, which, for example, put the menial work undertaken of necessity by many working-class women beyond consideration – or at least, acknowledgement. As such, the increasing number of women cinema musicians is also an index of the increasing acceptability and even respectability of cinema itself, which these women were helping to foster by taking these jobs.

Dorset Picture Hall’s advertisement for staff. Irish Times 20 March 1911: 1.

“Eva Hickie, late pianiste at the Dorset Picture Hall, Dublin, has accepted a similar position at Waterford,” reported Paddy, the Ireland correspondent for the British film trade journal the Bioscope,in mid-April 1914 (Paddy, 16 Apr. 1914). Three years previously, the 1911 Census of Ireland had listed just one Eva Hickie: the 25-year-old head of a household of five siblings and an aged servant, who were living in the north-city suburb of Phibsboro, not far from the Dorset. This Eva Hickie’s occupation is not mentioned, but by Census night, 2 April 1911, she may already have responded to Dorset manager William Shanly’s recent advertisement for “a Lady pianist […] who can play for pictures.” Whether or not she had applied for the job, she was not counted among the 979 Irish women who used the word “music” in the description of their occupation in the Census – the vast majority of them music teachers – and the further 94 who described themselves as musicians.

Despite this lack of self-definition as a musician, Hickie in many ways resembles May Murphy, the most prominent woman musician in Irish cinemas of the early 1910s. The Census puts both women in their mid-twenties and heading households of siblings belonging to the Catholic middle class, for whom music constituted one of the limited choices for respectable employment for women. However, Murphy appears to have been the more socially secure of the two, describing herself in the Census – as did 75 other women – as a professor of music. Although her previous career is obscure, by March 1912 she was leading the Irish Ladies’ Orchestras at James T. Jameson’s most prominent venues: Dublin’s Rotunda and the Pavilion in Kingstown, Co. Dublin:

A potent factor in the success with attends the pictures in the Dublin Rotunda Rooms and the Kingstown Pavilion is the Irish Ladies’ Orchestra, under the direction of Miss Murphy. In the Rotunda there are seven instrumentalists; in Kingstown three. Combined with the crimson and white colour scheme of their dresses, their little Zouave jackets complete a picture of dainty Bohemianism. Mr Jameson is to be congratulated on securing such a permanent attraction. (Paddy, 14 Mar. 1912)

Women’s orchestras were rare but by no means completely novel, and Dublin theatrical audiences might have been familiar with such acts as Les Militaires, a 12-piece women’s orchestra led by Mrs. Hunt and wearing Hussar uniforms and tricorn hats that had visited the city in 1889 (Watters and Murtagh 109-10). Neverthless, the visual spectacle of the Irish Ladies’ Orchestra’s dainty Bohemianism, which would be perfectly understandable in a theatre, seems out of place in a picture house, where the audience should surely be focusing on the screen. However, these musicians were expected to be noticed, a fact that indicates how the live musical portion of the programme was not just invisible accompaniment but was also a visual attraction.

Even as Paddy was asserting the permanence of the attraction, it was changing to offer an opportunity for another woman musician. Just a month after his announcement that Murphy was leading the two orchestras, he revealed that she had found it impossible to manage both the Rotunda and the Pavilion, located in a suburb 12km south of the city. Murphy focused on the Irish Ladies’ Orchestra at the Rotunda, and Jameson – “in no way minded to cut off the musical treat which the people of the Premier Township always expected” – employed a Miss D’Arcy to lead the newly renamed Pavilion Ladies’ Orchestra:

To fill up the place of one who has gone in such a manner that those left behind scarcely feel the vacancy is always a laudable ambition. That Miss D’Arcy has succeeded in maintaining the high state of excellence for which the Pavilion has been famous in the past speaks well for her directorship and ability. (Paddy, 25 Apr. 1912)

 

Publicity photograph of John Bunny, signed and dated 5 June 1914 (http://theloudestvoice.tumblr.com/page/328); and Vitagraph ad including Bunny Blarneyed (with title misspelled). Bioscope 12 Jun. 1913.

Vitagraph’s comic star John Bunny praised the Irish Ladies’ Orchestra and outlined the kind of benefits women musicians brought to the cinema. Bunny made his remarks on a working trip to Britain in 1912, during which he visited Ireland to shoot the short comedy Bunny Blarneyed, or The Blarney Stone (US: Vitagraph, 1913) at Cork’s most famous tourist attraction. Taking in a show at the Rotunda, he remarked that

“Women are always an immense power in the refinement of the world. The manager who, seeking to make his show suitable for all – from the little mites up – neglects this truth is only cheating himself of ultimate end. An orchestra composed of women is an undeniable asset to every hall in the world.” (Paddy, 12 Sep. 1912)

For Bunny – and for Paddy who quoted him favourably – such initiatives as the Ladies’ Orchestra put cinema at the forefront of respectable entertainment by putting women at the forefront of the cinema entertainment. There, they were visible signs and guardians of a refined amusement suitable for all the family.

Although Jameson made a particular feature of his Ladies’ Orchestras, other women musicians were also well known to audiences, even when they were less visible during screenings. Miss Frazer, the pianist at the Pavilion’s rival Kingstown Picture House, garnered special praise for her beautiful singing during the run of The Badminton Hunt in January 1913 because “she did not sing from a platform, the film was not stopped at any time. Simply you heard her charming voice coming out of the darkened stillness at the piano” (Paddy, 30 Jan. 1913). Paddy also noted that May Louise O’Russ conducted a very able orchestra at Dublin’s Mary Street Picture House, which was managed by her husband, Bob O’Russ (ibid).

As summer 1914 approached, it appeared that women were taking a more proprietorial role in Irish cinema. On 30 April, the Bioscope published the registration details of the Blackrock Picture Theatre Company, which had been incorporated in Dublin on 20 March. The report listed four women – Mrs. R. Murphy, Mrs. L. Casey, Miss E. Lineham and Miss M. Lineham – among its five directors (“World of Finance”). Little is known of these women, but Lucy Casey was the postmistress and a shopkeeper in the seaside village of Blackrock, Co. Louth, where the company’s new picture house was to be located. Blackrock was south of Dundalk, the largest town in the region, with its population of 13,128 supporting two competing picture houses. Blackrock, by contrast, had a very small resident population of just 418 that was swelled at holiday time by a large influx of tourists. Regardless of the success of their venture, these women joined the few other female picture-house owners and musicians to whom the cinema offered career opportunities.

References

Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 14 Mar. 1912: 759; 25 Apr. 1912: 275; 12 Sep. 1912; 797; 30 Jan. 1913: 329; and 16 Apr. 1914: 313.

Watters ,Eugene, and Matthew Murtagh. Infinite Variety: Dan Lowrey’s Music Hall 1879-97. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1975.

“World of Finance: New Companies.” Bioscope 30 Apr. 1914: 411.

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.

Serial Queens and Super Villains

On 25 November 1913, Dublin’s Evening Herald reported that haulier Sidney Norman of Neath, Wales, had seriously injured himself in the early hours of the previous Saturday when he had jumped ten feet from his bedroom window while dreaming he was escaping from robbers he had seen that evening on a picture theatre screen (“Man’s Leap to Escape Cinema Robbers”). For this ordinary Welshman, the images on the screen had literally become the landscape of his dreams, to his severe bodily cost. The Herald picked this up as a news oddity and published it on its front page, where its readers might wonder at the gullibility of some picture-house patrons or the need to control this new entertainment that was coming to increasingly direct the dreams of its audience.

One of the ways in which it did this was through films of greater length and complexity. The increasing length of films had been a particular issue in the film industry since 1911. “We can remember when a drama of 1,000 ft. was often grumbled at on account of its length,” noted an editorial in the British cinema trade journal Bioscope in September 1911, “but it seems as if that day were past, and the demand for a picture play constituting the usual length of an entire programme has sprung up (“The Length of the Film”). The film of 1,000 feet (about 16 minutes at 16 frames a second) was the standard product of the US distributors, but in Europe, longer films, often with high-cultural prestige such as Italian company Cines’s 1913 Quo Vadis?, captured both the imagination of the public and the film market where they were sold as features or exclusives.

3 Musketeers Phoenix Nov 2013

An unusually large ad for an unusually long film: Evening Herald banner for The Three Musketeers at the Phoenix, 15 Nov. 1913: 4.

In Dublin in November 1913, the Phoenix Picture Palace marketed itself as the picture house that specialized in the long film. “The Phoenix Picture Palace is rapidly becoming famous for the exhibition of big classic film productions,” began a notice in the Herald,

“From Manger to Cross,” “Quo Vadis?” “Monte Cristo,” “The Battle of Waterloo,” etc., have all been shown at the Phoenix within the last few months. Last evening the patrons of this popular house had presented to them the longest film yet shown in this country – the “Film D’Art’s” remarkable production of Dumas’s popular and widely read work, “The Three Musketeers” (“‘The Three Musketeers’”).

This issue of the long film was not resolved in 1911, however, and the Bioscope continued to favour a varied programme of shorter films, arguing in an October 1913 editorial that the long film’s “charm and importance can be better sustained outside the ordinary picture theatres. The popularity of the cinema has been built up on the variety of the entertainment it offers, and a lessening of that variety means a weakening of public interest” (“Exclusives and Other Matters”).

Doubtless, the Bioscope was influenced in its thinking by the nature of variety theatre, cinema’s chief rival in popular entertainment in Britain, Ireland and elsewhere. A solution to providing a lengthy film as part of a variety programme was available in another popular form: the serial. Fictional writing had long been serialized in newspapers and magazines, where it appeared alongside many other kinds of writing in another kind of variety format. In November 1913, the Evening Herald carried an episode of popular novelist Emma M. Mortimer’s Robert Wynstan’s Ward each day, and this was wholly unremarkable.

However, the autumn of 1913 saw a new phenomenon arrive in Ireland: the film serial. When the Rotunda began showing the serial What Happened to Mary in September 1913, the Dublin Evening Mail commented that the Rotunda “management in producing a ‘serial’ film, have broken new ground as far as Dublin picture houses are concerned” (“Rotunda Pictures” 23 Sep.). Unlike the Phoenix, the Rotunda favoured a more varied programme of shorter films, so that when High Tide of Misfortune, the tenth episode of What Happened to Mary, was exhibited there in the week of 24-29 November 1913, it shared the bill with the main film, Broken Threads United; a “very complete picture […] of the procession to Glasnevin on Sunday in connection with the Manchester Martyrs’ commemoration”; the comedies His Lady Doctor, Ghost of the White Lady and Love and Rubbish; and the Pathé Gazette newsreel (“Rotunda Pictures” 25 Nov). The serial was integrated into this variety film programme that was lent some locally produced coherence by being accompanied by the music of the Irish Ladies’ String Orchestra.

What Happened Mary Fuller

August 1912 cover of US magazine Ladies’ World featuring Mary Fuller and What Happened to Mary. From “The First Movie Serial.”

To what degree the variety format was more successful in attracting a larger and more diverse audience is debatable, but the inclusion of What Happened to Mary seemed a direct appeal to young women. Narrating the adventures of a country girl who comes to the city, What Happened to Mary was produced by Edison in twelve monthly episodes beginning in US picture houses in July 1912 in parallel with the serialized story that appeared in the US mass-circulation women’s magazine Ladies’ World, making its lead actress Mary Fuller into a star (Singer 213). Running from 22 September to 13 December, the first Irish exhibition at Dublin’s Rotunda tied in with its weekly serialization in the British women’s magazine Home Chat (“The Rotunda,” “The Picture Houses”). As such, it was clearly marketed primarily at women. An indication of its local success is the fact that the Rotunda immediately followed it with Who Will Marry Mary?, the Edison sequel, which again featured Mary Fuller.

Although it would take another year for the serial to reach the height of its popularity with such “serial queens” as Helen Holmes the adventurous heroine of The Hazards of Helen and Pearl White in The Perils of Pauline and The Exploits of Elaine, this earlier serial followed some of the patterns of the later ones. Shellley Stamp argues that “for a complete understanding of the template serial heroines offered viewers we must look beyond the screen exploits of Pauline and her compatriots towards the substantial star discourse that circulated around the actresses who played these women on screen” (Stamp 217). Some of the Dublin reviews suggested What Happened to Mary did create the desire in its audiences for more information about Mary Fuller: “‘Alone in New York’ is the second instalment of the ‘What Happened to Mary’ serial; all who have seen the opening scenes of Mary’s adventures will be eager to know more about this fascinating actress” (“Rotunda Pictures” 27 Sep.).

Flapper on Tram IL 24 Oct 1913

An Irish flapper finds space for herself in the public sphere; Irish Life 24 Oct. 1913: 91.

More specific information on the reception of What Happened to Mary among Irish audiences, and particularly Irish women, does not seem to survive. The fact that the exhibition of the film was tied to the publication of a British magazine is indicative of the subsidiary place of Ireland in the publishing and film industries. The Irish women’s magazine Lady of the House, which had very little to say about cinema of the period, made no mention of the serial, but it and other Irish periodicals show how women were represented in popular media. Was the young flapper shown travelling on a tram in a cartoon in the glossy and expensive Irish Life in October 1913 likely to have found Mary’s adventures or Mary Fuller’s star persona enthralling? Perhaps, but it is not clear that the serial form allowed Mary Fuller to capture the imagination of the public to a greater extent than the at-least-sometimes more active heroines of stand-alone films. In the Herald’s notice for the Rotunda on 30 September, the third episode of What Happened to Mary was not mentioned, but the reviewer focused on the heroine of A Wild Ride, set on a South African ostrich farm, in which “a resourceful and up-to-date heroine, in a situation of dire extremity, outwitted cunning and ferocious savages, rode an ostrich across the trackless veldt at high speed, and brought soldiers to the relief of her imprisoned family” (“Rotunda Pictures” 30 Sep.). Such derring-do in the serial would await The Hazards of Helen, which would not hit Dublin screens until 1915.

Other kinds of film serial followed quickly on the heels of What Happened to Mary and offered different forms of fascination – whether that be attraction or repulsion. Sharing the bill at the Rotunda with A Proposal Deferred, the fifth episode of What Happened to Mary in the week beginning 20 October was the second part of Gaumont’s five-part Fantômas (1913), each of which contained three to six episodes. Directed by Louis Feuillade and based on a popular series of 32 French novels by Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain that were published in monthly instalments between February 1911 and September 1913, the films followed the early exploits of the eponymous super villain as he terrorizes Paris (Walz and Smith). “Those who go to the Rotunda this week will, at any rate, get plenty of sensation,” observed the Irish Times.

The film, “Fantomas,” is a choice blend of mystery, tangled plot, and blood-curdling enterprise. It is not easy to grasp all the bearings of the incidents or their mutual relationship. The film, however, introduces us to some remarkable phases of Paris life and its institutions. And the glimpses of the city’s streets and parks are always full of interest. It is very admirably acted by all the characters (“Rotunda Living Pictures”).

Unlike What Happened to Mary, Fantômas did not appear on a reliable weekly or even monthly basis that might establish a loyal pattern of attendance. Nevetheless, even if not regular, Fantômas was popular, and the Rotunda continued to premiere the new parts as they were released, showing The Tragedy at the Masked Ball over the Christmas period of 1913 and the fifth part, The False Magistrate, in June 1914.

These serials were not restricted to city audiences but travelled on the important Irish Animated Picture Company exhibition circuit established by James T. Jameson of the Rotunda. In his praise of Jameson in January 1914, the Bioscope’s Irish correspondent Paddy revealed that two of the What Happened to Mary episodes had recently been seen around the country: A Proposal Deferred had been at Tralee, while the twelfth and final episode, Fortune Smiles – receiving “considerable applause” – was on the programme at Galway. The YMCA hall in Queenstown was showing the fourth part of Fantômas, The Tragedy at the Masked Ball (Paddy). As such they came, no doubt to inhabit the dream and nightmare worlds of many Irish people.

References

Birchland, Robert. “What Happened to Mary?” Hollywood Heritage 18: 2 (Fall 1999). Hollywoodheritage.org. http://hollywoodheritage.org/newsarchive/Fall99/Mary.html. 19 Nov. 2013.

“Exclusives and Other Matters.” Bioscope 9 Oct 1913: 87.

“The First Movie Serial.” 100 Years Ago Today. http://100yearsagotoday.wordpress.com/2012/07/26/the-first-movie-serial/. 19 Nov. 2013.

“The Length of the Film: A Question of Policy.” Bioscope 7 Sep. 1911: 471.

“Man’s Leap to Escape Cinema Robbers.” Evening Herald 25 Nov. 1913: 1.

Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 22 Jan. 1914: 351.

“The Picture Houses: Rotunda Pictures.” Evening Telegraph 30 Sep. 1913: 2.

“Pictures at the Rotunda.” Freeman’s Journal 21 Oct. 1913: 9.

“The Rotunda.” Irish Times 23 Sep 1913: 5.

“Rotunda Living Pictures.” Irish Times 21 Oct. 1913: 5.

“Rotunda Pictures.” Dublin Evening Mail 23 Sep. 1913: 3.

“Rotunda Pictures.” Evening Herald 27 Sep. 1913: 9.

“Rotunda Pictures.” Evening Herald 30 Sep. 1913: 5.

“Rotunda Pictures.” Dublin Evening Mail  21 Oct. 1913: 2.

“Rotunda Pictures.” Evening Herald 25 Nov. 1913: 5.

Singer, Ben. Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and Its Contexts. New York: Columbia UP, 2001.

Stamp, Shelley. “An Awful Struggle Between Love and Ambition; Serial Heroines, Serial Stars and Their Female Fans.” The Silent Cinema Reader. Ed. Lee Grieveson and Peter Krämer.London: Routledge, 2004.

“The Three Musketeers’” Evening Herald 18 Nov. 1913: 5.

Walz, Robin, and Elliott Smith. Fantômas. http://www.fantomas-lives.com/fanto6.htm. 28 Nov. 2013.