Irish Audiences Watch “O’Neil of the Glen,” August 1916

If cinema in Ireland in July 1916 prompts reflection on film as a weapon of war, developments the following month show significant developments in the emergence of film as an expression of national culture. On 7 August 1916, audiences at Dublin’s Bohemian Picture Theatre were the first to see O’Neil of the Glen (often spelled O’Neill of the Glen), the first Film Company of Ireland (FCOI) production to be publicly released. Formed in March 1916 by James Mark Sullivan and Henry Fitzgibbon, the FCOI would become the most important indigenous fiction film producer of the 1910s. Ò’Neil of the Glen itself, however, is believed to be a lost film, like all FCOI’s other production except Knocknagow (1918), Willy Reilly and His Colleen Bawn (1920) and one reel of the two-reel comedy Paying the Rent (1920). Nevertheless, its success with audiences was vital to securing FCOI’s future.

O'Neil Boh 7 Aug 1916

Ad for the first public exhibition of O’Neil of the Glen, at Dublin’s Bohemian, Dublin Evening Mail 7 Aug. 1916: 2.

That success was won in part by the careful management of publicity, a fact that means that the surviving ads, articles and reviews in the press must be treated with caution. It may be a forgivable exaggeration for the papers to have hailed the premiere of O’Neil of the Glen as the start of a new Irish industry, but it was not true that this was “the first picture-play ever produced in Ireland by an Irish company of Irish players,” a claim repeated almost verbatim in several paper, indicating that the journalists were working from the same FCOI publicity materials (“New Irish Industry,”  “O’Neill of the Glen,” “Irish Film Triumph”). Most recently, Charles McEvoy of Dublin’s Masterpiece Cinema had funded Fun at Finglas Fair – even if it had allegedly been destroyed during the Easter Rising before being publicly shown – and in 1912-13, cinema-owner and mayor John J. Farrell had made a number of films with his company Irish Film Productions (Rockett 95, Condon 237).

IRISHLIMEGHT1_MAY_P6 001

Abbey Theatre and Film Company of Ireland actor – and later director – Fred O’Donovan; Irish Limelight 1:5 (May 1917): 6.

Nevertheless, although O’Neil of the Glen was not the first indigenous Irish fiction film, it was a very significant one by the country’s most important film production company of the 1910s. On 29 June, FCOI announced a “trial exhibition,” or what would now be called a test screening, of their first completed production, O’Neil of the Glen, at Dublin’s Carlton. By this time, and in the context of management difficulties at the Abbey Theatre, FCOI had been able to contract J. M. Kerrigan and Fred O’Donovan, two of the Abbey’s biggest stars, albeit that they were permitted to appear in certain plays (“Abbey Theatre,” “Platform and Stage”). Kerrigan, indeed, directed and played a part in O’Neil of the Glen, a three-reel feature based on a script adapted by W. J. Lysaght from M[argaret] T. Pender’s story of the same title that had been serialized in the Shamrock in 1891. The film told how Don O’Neil (Brian Magowan), the son of a landowner who had been defrauded by the solicitor Tremaine (J. M. Carre), saves the life of Tremaine’s daughter, Nola (Nora Clancy), whose love he wrests from Graves (O’Donovan), a blackmailing suitor (“Bohemian,” Evening Mail).

“The film is of a quality which leads one to anticipate success for the venture,” wrote an Irish Times correspondent at the trial exhibition, noting that it was part of a process of perfecting the film: “the promoters are engaged in a ruthless revision of the film to bring it up to the highest possible standard” (“Irish Film Production”). The Bioscope’s Irish correspondent Paddy’ was less complimentary about this early cut of the film, pointing out that although “[g]reat care was taken with the production and camera work,” it possessed “many of the weak points common to first productions” (“Paddy,” 13 Jul.). Addressing a lunch for the press at the Gresham Hotel after the screening, Fitzgibbon claimed that FCOI “had started an industry which would eventually be a source of great revenue in Ireland.” For his part, Sullivan argued that the film showed that Irish productions – taking advantage of Irish “imagination, ideals, and artistic temperament and beautiful scenery” – could competing with those anywhere (“Irish Film Production”).

Paddy began to revise his lukewarm opinion of O’Neil of the Glen in light of the news that Frederick A. Sparling had booked the film for its first run at his Bohemian for the week of 7-13 August. The Bohemian was one of Dublin’s biggest and most luxurious cinemas, and Sparling’s commitment to a run that was twice the usual three days “speaks well for the film and the undoubted drawing powers such a production will have for Irish audiences” (Paddy, 27 Jul.). In the event, Sparling also included an unplanned Sunday show to take advantage of the phenomenal level of interest.

Although FCOI appears to have taken the bookings itself, prominent local distributor Ben Cowan of Express Film Agency handled this and other FCOI films from 1916 by running trade shows and placing advertisements in the daily and trade press. It was likely one of Cowan’s “novel ideas in the advertising line” for FCOI cameraman John A. Bennett – a former projectionist at Dublin’s Rotunda – to film the audience on the first night and for this local film to be shown subsequently with the feature (Paddy, 27 Jul.; 17 Aug.). “Don’t miss this chance of seeing what you look like on the Screen,” ads warned the opening-night audience. The musical attractions included a special programme of Irish melodies and the cinema’s “world-renowned violinist” Signor Simonetti playing a fantasy on the “Snowy Breasted Pearl” at the evening shows. “It is confidently hoped that large audiences will visit the Bohemian during the coming week,” revealed a preview in the Evening Mail, “and thus mark in a tangible manner their appreciation of what may justly be described as a really first-class picture-play, and one that is sure to bring the work and the players of the Film Company of Ireland right into the forefront of popularity with audiences and trade alike” (“Bohemian”).

The surprising extent of the success of O’Neil of the Glen must be measured in the first instance as a marketing victory rather than an artistic one, by FCOI. The degree to which these early films challenged existing ways of representing the Irish is questionable, but many contemporary commentators seem initially to have been content that films with wholly Irish creative input were finally being made. Nevertheless, the way in which the company were able to capitalize on the interest and goodwill attending the exhibition of this first indigenous Irish fiction film and, crucially, to publicize the large attendances not only in Ireland, where interest was likely to be strong in any case, but also in Britain, appears to have secured a British distribution deal and thereby to have ensured the company survival in this initial period. This success was built on what appears to have been a genuinely surprising level of interest in the picture. “The film, which was expected to prove a good draw, actually surpassed all anticipations,” observed Paddy, warming further to the film, “a record being established for the week, and queues being the rule every evening” (17 Aug.). The Irish Times commented that enthusiastic audiences in a crowded cinema “proves that the Dublin public is always ready to support and encourage Irish enterprise” (“Film Company of Ireland,” 9 Aug.). “That the genuine enthusiasm displayed last night at the conclusion of the film will be the means of bringing before the public a second production by the Irish Film Company in the near future,” observed the Freeman’s Journal, “is a universal wish” (“Bohemian”).

O'Neil Victoria 9 Sep 1916p4

Ad for Galway’s Victoria Cinema Theatre for the week in which O’Neil of the Glen featured. Connacht Tribune 9 Sep 1916: 4.

This wish would be soon fulfilled, and O’Neil of the Glen was exhibited around the country in the following weeks and months. When following substantial runs in Dublin and Belfast it was announced for a three-day run at Galway’s Victoria Cinema Theatre on 11-13 September, a Connacht Tribune reporter distinguished its attractions from that of American films, which were unrivalled “in the matter of cinematographic thoroughness and all-round fullness and finish of technique, but one can get too much of a good thing.” The FCOI’s “national or […] patriotic enterprise” offered something that monotonously perfect and ubiquitous American films could not: “The production is Irish, the subject is Irish, the mise-en-scene is Irish, and the actors and actresses are Irish” (“‘O’Neill of the Glen’”). A writer in the Cork Examiner during the film’s run at Cork’s Coliseum Theatre (14-16 September) concurred, arguing that

[t]hrere certainly should be an opening for cinema representation of Irish drama as played by native Irish actors, whose one object is to show Irish life in its true perspective, without grotesque exaggeration, or what is just as bad, giving an unreal picture of it, even when the intention is friendly to the country and the people. (“Coliseum Theatre.”)

A journalist at the Derry People was particularly interested in the local connections of a film “in which well-known Irish artistes will be screened, and details dealing with Tyrone and neighbouring localities introduced in splendid style” (“Hall”). The film’s second Dublin run was at the Dame Street Picture House (21-3 September) – the cinema closest to FCOI’s offices and where all their subsequent 1916 films would premiere – before it had first and second runs in Belfast, at the Duncairn (28-30 September) and the Clonard (2-4 October). Subsequent screenings included Mullingar’s National (14-15 October), Kilkenny’s Cinema (18-19 October) and Dublin’s Fr Mathew Hall (2 December).

FCOI IT 14 Aug 1916p4

Irish Times 14 Aug. 1916: 4.

While O’Neil of the Glen toured the country, the company quickly followed up this successful debut with the announcements of their next films in the dailies and trades. On the Monday after the last show of O’Neil of the Glen at the Bohemian, the Dublin papers carried an advertisement headed “Films that Draw Crowded Houses Every Night!” that recommended FCOI’s new films on the basis of the audience-drawing power of that first film. Four two-reel comedies were scheduled for release in September – The Miser’s Gift, Woman’s Wit, Food of Love and An Unfair Love Affair – and nine other forthcoming productions were named, only one of which, “Willie Reilly,” is recognizable as a subsequent FCOI release. An Evening Mail reporter who attended The Miser’s Gift trade show at the Dame Street PH later that week commented that “[i]t is not only characteristically Irish, it is characteristically good. The Irish Picture-House manager who does not support an Irish company which can produce work of the class of ‘The Miser’s Gift’ is missing an opportunity of giving his shows a touch of distinction” (“‘Miser’s Gift’”).

The Miser’s Gift is also lost, but its narrative appears to involve a scheme of Eileen Dolan (Nora Clancy) and her lover, Ned McGrath (Fred O’Donovan), to get her miserly father (J. M. Kerrigan) drunk and dream of leprechaun gold so that he will look favourably on their relationship. “It is agreeable to have pictures such as this,’ commented the Irish Times, “preserving a genuinely Irish atmosphere and that inherent charm which is to be found in Irish life. The sight, for instance, of lepracauns and other little people who live in legend disporting themselves in a fairy fort is a feature which surely is pleasing to Irish eyes” (“Film Company of Ireland,” 18 Aug.). The Irish public got its first chance to delight in authentic Irish leprechauns disporting themselves on the cinema screen at the Dame from 26–8 October 1916.

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Bioscope 24 Aug. 1916: 754.

As these arrangements were being made for Ireland, FCOI also entered the British film market on the foundation of O’Neil of the Glen’s Irish success. The Bohemian debut was the subject of an article on the company in the Bioscope of 24 August, which also carried a full-page advertisement listing the actual and intended films mentioned in the Irish papers (“First Irish Film”). Both the article and the advertisement included quotes from Sparling on the huge business the film generated, “the absolutely whole-hearted appreciation of every person who has seen it,” and the fact that “the ‘music’ at the pay-box has kept time with the orchestra throughout.” In contrast to Paddy’s original critical assessment of the film, this article described the audiences’ appreciation of “the exceptional excellence of the first film produced in Ireland by an Irish company and by Irish players.” A month later, although mentioning the film’s success everywhere it had been exhibited, Paddy contended that FCOI’s “second picture, ‘The Miser’s Gift,’ is greatly in advance of the first as regards the quality, and if this company stick to their guns they should still be well in the front rank of British producers” (28 Sep.). Despite Paddy’s reservations, the message prevailed that O’Neil of the Glen packed cinemas in Dublin and Belfast and that Irish exhibitors were eager for more, a message that helped FCOI to acquire a British distributor (Paddy, 14 Sep.). The company did this at the end of October, when Davidson’s Film Sales Agency bought the rights for FCOI’s 1916 films (Paddy, 2 Nov.).

Indigenous Irish film production may not have started with O’Neil of the Glen, but it did enter a new phase.

References

“Abbey Theatre.” Irish Times 7 Aug. 1916: 3.

“The Bohemian.” Dublin Evening Mail 5 Aug. 1916: 5.

“The Bohemian.” Freeman’s Journal 8 Aug. 1916: 6.

“Coliseum Theatre: ‘O’Neill of the Glen.’” Cork Examiner 15 Sep. 1916: 2.

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

“The Film Company of Ireland.” Irish Times 9 Aug. 1916: 6; 18 Aug. 1916: 2.

“First Irish Film: Success of ‘O’Neil of the Glen.’” Bioscope 24 Aug. 1916: 689.

“The Hall.” Derry People 16 Sep. 1916: 5.

“Irish Film Production.” Irish Times 30 Jun. 1916: 7.

“Irish Film Triumph: Several New Plays.” Cork Examiner 16 Aug. 1916: 6.

“‘The Miser’s Gift’: New Irish Comedy.” Dublin Evening Mail 17 Aug. 1916: 2.

“New Irish Films: Four Coming Comedies.” Freeman’s Journal 15 Aug. 1916: 4.

“New Irish Industry: Film Company of Ireland.” Connaught Telegraph 5 Aug. 1916: 8.

“New Irish Industry: The Film Co. of Ireland: A Promising Enterprise.” Freeman’s Journal 30 Jun. 1916: 6.

“‘The O’Neill of the Glen.’” Derry People 12 Aug. 1916: 5.

Paddy. “Ireland: With the Renters and Exhibitors.” Bioscope 13 Jul. 1916: 173; 27 Jul. 1916: 359; 17 Aug. 1916: 655; 14 Sep. 1916: 1060; 28 Sep. 1916: 1285; 2 Nov. 1916: 518.

“Platform and Stage.” Irish Times 7 Oct. 1916: 9.

Rockett, Kevin. The Irish Filmography. Dublin: Red Mountain, 1996.

“Topics of the Week.” Bioscope 10 Aug. 1916: 466.

 

“War Looks Like ‘Reel’ Business”: Irish Cinema at the End of 1914

The Pillar Picture House opened on 2 December 1914. This photo shows it in 1921, its distinctive semicircular veranda displaying damage like surrounding building from the fighting of the War of Independence and Civil War. RTE Stills Library; image and discussion here.

Neither weather nor war could seem long to inhibit the progress of Irish cinema in late 1914. “From the cinema man’s point of view this war looks like ‘reel’ business,” announced a one-line item gnomically in Dublin’s Evening Telegraph’s Saturday “Music and the Drama” column, without expanding on any cinematic developments. Nevertheless, this single line seems better to capture developments in popular entertainment in the mid-1910s than the several paragraphs devoted a week later by another columnist in the same newspaper to arguing that “our tastes in amusements and entertainments, indoor and outdoor, run on well-defined lines, and are marked by an extraordinary lack of initiative” (“Notes and Comments”). Drawing on the examples of the ping-pong and roller skating crazes – “the handsome rinks brought very poor prices as scrap” – to show that people prefer “Standard Amusements,” the columnist contended that the “theatre, concert and dance are just the theatres, concerts, and dances of by-gone years with some infinitesimal variations.” “Once or twice in every generation, there are signs of revolt, which are none the less interesting because the innovations have never even a sporting chance of securing a permanent footing” (ibid).

Cinema seems to be left conveniently out of consideration here. Although it had similarities with existing forms of entertainment, it was also significantly different and – as developments in late 1914 showed – was highly successful. Indeed, many of the roller-skating rinks build around the country in the short rinking craze of 1909-11 were not scrapped but had by 1914 become picture houses. Significant capital was also being invested not only in adapting other existing buildings – halls, shops and even churches – but also in constructing new purpose-built picture-houses premises. And building continued five months into the war. As it became part of the Irish streetscape, cinema integrated into the business practices of Irish cities, towns and rural areas; as it became more profitable to be a picture-house proprietor, so it became more socially acceptable to be one. Although doubts about the business stability and the respectability of cinema certainly remained at the end of 1914, it was being reshaped in ways that made it not only acceptable but also ever-more desirable to the dominant business and social class, which was itself changing in the context of the war.

However good its prospects, the cinema business faced challenges. On an elemental level, as a form of entertainment that required people to leave their homes and travel to a picture house, cinema was affected by the weather, particularly extremes of heat or inclement conditions that made travel difficult. Storms of unusual ferocity struck Ireland in the opening week of December 1914. “About midnight last night a violent storm swept over the city,” reported the Evening Telegraph,

bringing about a marked change from the extreme cold that prevailed all yesterday, and that became intensified as the night advanced. A high wind, accompanied by intermittent showers, blew till daylight, when heavy rain fell, and with the gale still fierce, it rained in merciless fashion till after noon, when it developed into a continuous and drenching downpour, which, with violent gusts across the city, made all form of traffic difficult and unpleasant. Dublin has not been visited with such an inclement day for a very considerable time. (“The Weather in Dublin.”)

Hurricane-force winds around the Irish and British coasts severely disrupted shipping, leading to the deaths of 14 men from the steamer Glasgow off the Lizard and 19 of the 250 horses for military use on the Teviot out of Dublin (“Havoc of Hurricane,” “Channel Hurricane,” “Heavy Gale in Dublin”).

Dublin’s Evening Telegraph 2 and 4 Dec. 1914: 2, providing details on opening hours and admission prices at the new Pillar Picture House.

These raging storms had consequences for at least the first of the two cinemas opened in Dublin and Belfast at the start of December and in time for the Christmas season. Although Dublin’s Pillar Picture House opened its doors on that stormy Wednesday, 2 December, it was only formally declared open two days later (“Pillar Picture House”). It was located in the middle of Sackville/O’Connell Street opposite Dublin’s landmark Nelson’s Pillar. At a time of limited personal transport, “the proprietors are especially fortunate in this, as the position is the terminus of all city and suburban trams” (ibid.). The proprietor was the Pillar Picture House Co., headed by John J. Farrell, a prominent member of Dublin Corporation who also had shares in three other Dublin picture houses. The Pillar was managed by Bob O’Russ, who was also managing Farrell’s picture houses in Phibsboro and Mary Street (Paddy, 24 Dec.), and May O’Russ – one of the city’s women musicians who formerly operated the Mary Street Picture House with her husband – directed the Pillar’s orchestra (Paddy, 17 Dec.).

Like many of the city-centre picture houses of the prewar period, the building was small, with a seating capacity of just 400, but it was architecturally striking both inside and out (“The Pillar Picture House, Dublin”). “The façade of the new premises is handsomely proportioned and cleverly treated in modern classic,” commented the Irish Builder, proceeding to detail its attractive features:

The approach is covered with a semi-circular verandah, which follows the sweep of a broad arch, and the opening under is filled in with Sicilian marble and leaded glass. The vestibule is very effectively treated with walnut and satinwood panelling with a fibrous plaster frieze of figured plaques and swagwork. The ceiling is elaborately ornamented and has a semi-circular dome of leaded glass. The staircase to the balcony is also panelled in walnut, and the enclosing walls artistically decorated in fibrous work. (Ibid.)

The overall impression was of “comfort and art combined in a most successful manner,” and commentators also stressed that the work of Irish manufacturers had been preferred (“Pillar Picture House”). “The general contractor was Councillor John Dillon, and the fibrous plaster contractor was Councillor John Ryan. Councillor M‘Guiness was the consulting electrical engineer, and the architect was Mr. Aubrey V. O’Rourke” (ibid.).

Belfast Evening Telegraph 5 Dec. 1914: 2.

Belfast Evening Telegraph 5 Dec. 1914: 2.

The role of city councillors was even more prominent in the considerable publicity that accompanied the opening of Belfast’s Imperial Picture House on 7 December. Before “an exceptionally large attendance of invited guests, including representatives of the Corporation, public Boards, the Church, the legal profession, and the business community,” the Lord Mayor, Councillor Crawford M‘Cullagh “said he was glad to be privileged in his official capacity to be associated in some degree with the progress and business activity of the city,” in this case embodied by “his colleague, Councillor W G. Turner, and his friend, Mr. James Barron, the directors of the Ulster Cinematograph Theatres, Ltd.” (“Imperial Opened”). The opening was filmed and shown as a special feature of the Imperial programme from 11 December.

The invitation-only opening ceremony was extensively covered in the Belfast’s papers and in the Bioscope, which carried a full page article on the Imperial’s architectural features. Prominently located “in that old-world part of the great industrial centre known as Corn Market,” the Bioscope’s Special Representative reported, the Imperial was “[c]onstruucted on the most improved lines [in such a way that] every possible arrangement has been made for the welfare, comfort, and enjoyment of the patrons of the theatre, or of the clientele which the beautifully appointed tearooms is sure to enjoy” (“Ancient and Modern”). Although the writer provided details of the auditorium – particularly such decorative features as the oil-painted panoramas of Belfast above the proscenium – s/he emphasized the the attractions that were not directly connected to watching a film. “A ladies’ retiring room is provided on the mezzanine floor, writing materials, etc., being supplied free of charge. A telephone and cloakroom are provide in the vestibule for the benefit of patrons, and shoppers may have their parcels addressed in care of the hall if they so desire” (ibid). Like a luxury hotel or department store, the Imperial advertised itself as a place where people, particularly the wealthy, would want to linger.

Ad for special war benefit at the Imperial; Belfast Evening Telegraph 14 Dec. 1914: 4.

Ad for special war benefit at the Imperial; Belfast Evening Telegraph 14 Dec. 1914: 4.

The Imperial maintained a high level of publicity throughout December, publishing more ads than any other form of entertainment. In the Belfast Evening Telegraph, for instance, it published ads not only among the other entertainment ads on page 1 but also on as many of two additional internal pages. As well as this, it advertised and sponsored a benefit on Wednesday, 16 December for the war fund of the lady mayoress, who arranged the participation of local artistes and spent the proceeds on entertaining soldiers who were confined to camp over Christmas (“To Entertain Tommy”).

This kind of publicity strategy was not new but one that the evolving cinema business adapted not only from such longer-established entertainment businesses as theatres but also from business in general, which increased its publicity in the run-up to Christmas, the year’s busiest festival. Despite an expected drop in business during the first Christmas of the war, an extravagance similar to that seen at the Pillar and Imperial seems to have been experienced in the shops. “There are actually areas in the city where more money is being spent than has circulated within living memory,” observed Dublin’s Evening Telegraph. “The crowds are filling the streets. The shopmen are working at high pressure” (“Christmas Eve”)

One of the Irish-Ireland journal The Leader rare picture houses ads was this title page one for The Sign of the Cross at the Bohemian in mid-November 1914.

This title page ad for The Sign of the Cross (US: Famous Players, 1914) at the Bohemian in mid-November 1914 is one of the few picture houses ads that appeared in the Irish-Ireland journal The Leader.

One area of Dublin where more money was being spent on entertainment than ever before was the northern suburb of Phibsboro, where two cinemas had opened in early summer 1914. John J. Farrell’s Phibsboro Picture House had to compete with Frederick Sparling’s Bohemian Picture Theatre. The Bohemian was formidable competition, advertising far more widely than the Phibsboro and introducing such new attractions as the church organ that was installed in November 1914 to accompany the exclusive film The Sign of the Cross (US: Famous Players, 1914). The ability of the Bohemian to secure such desirable exclusive films was, of course, important to maximizing its audience, which for both Phibsboro picture houses meant inducing patrons to travel by tram to this part of the city. The Bohemian also secured the loyalty of its patrons by giving them promotional gifts. While commending Sparling and manager Ernest Matthewson for their choice of Selig’s 9,000-foot adaptation of Rex Beach’s bestselling 1906 novel The Spoilers, Paddy observed that the “Bohemian perfumed calendars and matchbook covers are already well known both to the stern and gentle sex” (Paddy, 24 Dec.).

Evening Telegraph 15 Dec. 1914: 2.

The war was also “reel” business for picture house managements because it provided a topical subject matter with which to attract audiences. There was a popular understanding the films of the war had a persuasive function, particularly when it was used by the enemy. This was highlighted in early December when the Evening Telegraph’s daily column “Sidelights on the War” published an item called “German Victories on the Cinema,” which reported the alleged experiences of “a gentleman who has been to a biograph show in Germany” and who described “[h]ow the news of fictitious victories is circulated.”

A picture of the Kaiser standing with field-glasses in the trenches (delirious enthusiasm). The picture had to be shown over and over again on a screen a hand writes the latest war news: “An English battleship, believed to be the Warrior, was this morning, near Dover, torpedoed by a German submarine and sank.”

[…]

Next picture: The Crown Prince on horseback. A rather subdued applause follows. On the screen the hand thereupon writes: “A German squadron has this morning reached Ireland; mariners have made a landing in the town – name not permitted by censor.” The audience gets up and sings “Deutschland, Deutschland uber alles.” (“Sidelights on the War.”)

Interesting juxtaposition of an ad calling for volunteers to the Royal Engineers and one for the film in which a young man sacrifices himself on a World War I battlefield.

Belfast Evening Telegraph 26 Nov. 1914: 2.

This item clearly implied that the cinema could promote blind devotion to the Kaiser among the German popular audience that generated a war fever that was a danger not only to the sailors of the Warrior but also to Irish citizens facing a German invasion. No similar analysis of Allied war films appeared in mid-December when the Provincial Cinematograph Theatres’ Picture Houses in Dublin’s Grafton Street and Sackville/O’Connell Street and Belfast’s Royal Avenue showed the film With King George in France with The Belgians in Action. Although protests occurred at jingoistic entertainments and criticism appeared in more radical publications, loyalty to King George was accepted by the mainstream Irish press. In late November, the propaganda potential of the war-themed fiction film being produced in increasing numbers by British production companies was highlighted when an ad for one of these films appeared in the Belfast Evening Telegraph below a recruiting ad. While the recruiting ad called for volunteers to the Royal Engineers, the ad for V.C. (Britian: London, 1914), in which a young man dies on a World War I battlefield to vindicate his family’s honour, offered “scenes in the trenches [that] vividly portray modern war conditions.”

The wartime uses of moving pictures were not restricted to their propaganda value in the picture houses. The Bioscope reported comments from the Berlin correspondent of the Spanish El Mundo Cinematografico that “it is evident how much theatrical and cinematographic works can do to lift up and sustain a love of the fatherland in the whole public” (“Cinematography Employed by the Germans”). Citing evidence from the same source on the use of cameras for aerial reconnaissance, the Bioscope argued that “the Germans may claim to be the first nation to put the cinematograph to direct military use in warfare” and urged the War Office and British and French inventors to surpass their enemy (ibid).

By the end of 1914, cinema was showing no signs of going the way of roller skating. It was becoming firmly embedded in the business and entertainment life of Irish cities and towns.

References

“Ancient and Modern: Belfast’s Latest Cinema Described: By Our Special Representative.” Bioscope 10 Dec. 1914: 1143.

“Channel Hurricane: Vessels ‘Sub-Marine’ Passage: Life Boat Lost from ‘Teviot.’” Evening Telegraph 5 Dec. 1914: 4.

“Christmas Eve: Dublin at Its Best: Business Booming.” Evening Telegraph 24 Dec. 1914: 3.

“Cinematography Employed by the German Army: Interesting Details from Berlin of an Alleged New Invention.” Bioscope 10 Dec. 1914: 1076.

“Havoc of Hurricane: Horses Killed on Board Ship: Steamers Forced Back to Dublin: Vessels Blown Down the Liffey: Sailings Postponed and Cancelled.” Evening Telegraph 4 Dec. 1914: 3.

“Heavy Gale in Dublin.” Irish Times 5 Dec. 1914: 5.

“The Imperial Opened: Belfast’s Palatial Picture House: A Civic Ceremony: Home of Pleasure and Comfort.” Belfast Evening Telegraph 9 Dec. 1914: 2.

“Music and the Drama.” Evening Telegraph 5 Dec. 1914: 6.

“Notes and Comments: Standard Amusements.” Evening Telegraph 11 Dec. 1914: 2.

Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 17 Dec. 1914: 1217; 24 Dec. 1914: 1347.

“Pillar Picture House.” Evening Telegraph 5 Dec. 1914: 6.

“The Pillar Picture House, Dublin.” Irish Builder 27 Feb. 1915: 98.

“Sidelights on the War: German Victories on the Cinema.” Evening Telegraph 7 Dec. 1914: 2.

“To Entertain Tommy.” Belfast Evening Telegraph 17 Dec. 1914: 5.

“The Weather in Dublin.” Evening Telegraph 2 Dec. 1914: 2.

Shadow Soldiers Flickering on a Screen: Irish Cinema and the Beginning of World War I

Provincial War Pics

These ads appeared in the Dublin Evening Mail 7 Aug. 1914: 2; and 18 Aug. 1914: 2.

“It is ever so much more a patriotic thing to go down the quays and give the soldiers a good send-off than it is to sit in a darkened picture house watching, perhaps, ‘shadow soldiers’ flickering on a screen,” reported Paddy, the Ireland correspondent of the British cinema trade journal Bioscope in August 1914 explaining the falloff in attendance at Dublin’s picture houses at the start of the Great War. “[T]he fact that the Lord Mayor of Dublin had to publicly ask the people through the medium of the Press, to refrain from causing a block on the quays and assist in getting the soldiers embarked more expeditiously shows how matters stand” (Paddy, 13 Aug., 673). Mobilization affected the cinema and its relationship with the popular audience in various ways. Those who lined the Dublin quays, Paddy suggested, were particularly the popular audience who would otherwise have occupied the picture houses’ cheapest – usually three-penny or 3d. – seats. Although Frederick Sparling, manager of Phibsboro’s Bohemian Picture Theatre, reported brisk business, “he experienced a great falling off in the attendances at the 3d. seats, and he expected that receipts generally would show a drop for a little time” (ibid).

Paddy claimed that the effect in Ulster was quite different, with the outbreak of the war bringing unionist and nationalist audiences together in the face of a common enemy. “[T]he one-time rivals now fraternise,” he observed, “and quiet, law-abiding and gaiety-loving citizens are now taking their pleasures with less sadness than had been their wont during the two gloomy years from which Ireland has just emerged” (Paddy, 13 Aug., 675). Unfortunately, this somewhat unlikely harmony would be short-lived because the difficulties of procuring enough flax and other raw material for Ulster’s factories would mean that mill workers, “the backbone of the support of the cinema in Ulster as in other manufacturing centres,” would be placed on half-time working at half-pay, leaving “nothing to spend on amusements of any description” (ibid).

Actuality films of the war appeared on the cinema programme alongside such  fiction film as D. W. Griffith's Judith of Bethulia (US: Biograph, 1914).

Actuality films of the war appeared on the cinema programme alongside such fiction film as D. W. Griffith’s Judith of Bethulia (US: Biograph, 1914). Dublin Evening Mail 24 Aug. 1914: 2.

Nevertheless, Irish picture houses attempted from a very early point in the war to provide shadow soldiers on the screen for their audiences, and not only working-class ones. On 7 August 1914, the Dublin Evening Mail carried the first of a series of unusually large ads for the Picture House, Grafton Street and the Picture House, Sackville Street showing films depicting “the latest developments of the War, day by day.” Both of these cinemas were owned by the London-based chain Provincial Cinematograph Theatres, which also ran the less-salubrious Volta in Mary Street and Belfast’s Picture House, Royal Avenue. The company promoted its venues – and particularly the recently renovated and extended Grafton on Dublin’s most prestigious shopping street – as offering luxuries suitable for prosperous city-centre shoppers. Strollers who stopped into the Grafton’s public café might be induced to see the war pictures by a sign that indicated which of the six-to-eight films typically on a cinema programme was currently playing in the auditorium.

Judith (Blanche Sweet) prepares to behead Holofernes in Judith of Bethulia.

Judith (Blanche Sweet) prepares to behead Holofernes in Judith of Bethulia.

Although such passersby or Evening Mail readers arrested by the prominent ads continued to be offered a programme of films after the outbreak of hostilities, they seem to have been presented with an overwhelming number of war-themed films. The Grafton featured England’s Menace (Britain: London, 1914), a “stunning naval drama,” for the week beginning 10 August, the six-day run representing twice the usual period for which a film was shown. For the first three days of the following week, the Grafton exhibited Maurice Elvey’s In the Days of Trafalgar (Britain: British and Colonial, 1914), supported by a programme that included the first part of the British Army Film (Britain: Keith Prowse, 1914), the second part of which ran in the latter half of the week on a bill headed by The Spy, or The Mystery of Capt. Dawson (1914), a detective drama involving the stealing of plans for a new quick-firing gun. The Belgian War Scenes advertised on 24 August were said to have come “from actual photographs [i.e., films] taken in Belgium on Thursday last,” and these played on the programme with D. W. Griffith’s Judith of Bethulia (US: Biograph, 1914), an adaptation of the biblical Book of Judiths story of war and decapitation.

Provincial was not the only cinema proprietor to show actual war footage – Dublin’s Rotunda, Phoenix and Bohemian all advertised their latest war films, as did many others in newspapers or through more ephemeral forms such as posters and handbills that no longer survive. Provincial, however, made a special effort to exhibit the actualities in programmes with other kinds of war-themed films to cater for – or indeed, help to create – a patriotic war fever. Given the recentness of the war, none of the fiction films just mentioned concerned the current conflict with Germany, nor did the British Army Film, a documentary about ordinary life in the army that was made before the war and that had attracted a protest in March. There was nothing new in popular culture assembling and re-presenting pre-existing elements in a new combination that served the prevailing ideology, particularly at a time of crisis. The live music that accompanied silent film in picture houses of the 1910s could add further jingoism. There were precedents for the use of film in war-time patriotic shows as early as the Boer War, but the popular audience in many parts of Ireland had often been vocally resistant to such anti-Boer/pro-British jingoistic shows (Condon).

What had changed between the turn of the century and the 1910s, however, was cinema’s place within the mediascape in Ireland as elsewhere. By 1914, Ireland had a large number of picture houses that provided news alongside dramatic entertainment. Although picture houses could not match the newspapers’ detailed coverage of topical events, newsreels from the front provided by such companies as Pathé and Gaumont offered something the press could not: moving images of battle sites and the people who fought in the war. Because newsreel scenes recorded on film needed to be physically transported from the front, their newsworthiness had dissipated. Some picture theatres, including the Grafton and Sackville, entered into agreements with telegraphic wire services to offer instantaneous messages during shows, a phenomenon that bears resemblance to a Twitter feed. One ad for these picture houses informed the public that “[a]rrangements have been completed with the Central News Agency for a complete service of telegrams from the Front, to be supplied to this Theatre. As the news arrives it will be immediately thrown on to the screen” (“The War”).

As the war began, commentators in the press debated cinema’s place among other media. To some, it was an absurd form. “In a city picture house, a man tells me,” confided Dublin’s Evening Herald columnist The Man About Town in mid-August 1914,

he has just acquired some curious and too little known facts about the Roman Empire. It would appear that the Caesars were in the habit of decorating their apartments with busts of Dante (which certainly showed remarkable foresight on their part), while their consorts sought relaxation by perusing printed volumes, handsomely bound. Verily, to live is to learn, but seeing is not always believing.

Seeing the past – or present – in the form of the “cineanachronisms” provided in the picture houses was not to be believed by this canny man about town. At least not always.

Other commentators took a more considered but not uncritical view of what had become the country’s most ubiquitous theatrical entertainment, reaching parts of small-town, rural and suburban Ireland that had never had regular professional theatrical entertainment before. By the end of 1914, Dublin Corporation approved licences for 25 premises to show films, with two or three others also under consideration. A small group of these were the theatres – the Theatre Royal, Tivoli Theatre, Empire Theatre and Queen’s Theatre – that had been showing films for two decades or more as part of their mainly live theatrical entertainments. The rest were dedicated picture houses in which the main entertainment was the projection of recorded moving pictures onto a screen, with the live elements limited to musical accompaniment, vocalists who sang between films, and in some venues, one or more variety acts. “Personally, I think we are carrying the picture business to excess,” opined the Dublin Evening Mail’s “Music and the Drama” columnist H.R.W. “The opening of theatres [i.e., picture houses] in the suburbs has much to commend it, but the many additions to the already large number of picture houses in the city is rather risky enterprise” (“War and the Drama”). This was not just a problem among competing picture house owners, but also among theatres proprietors because “ [t]he increasing popularity of the Picture Theatre is making the future of the drama and the music hall a serious problem” (“The Invasion of the Film”). H.R.W. felt that Dublin theatre managers had allowed this to happen by offering increasing amounts of music-hall entertainment and neglecting drama:

the vast public which desires something romantic and dramatic has been catered for by the activity of picture theatres, which, with their cheapness, the casual nature of the performances, and the liberty of smoking, has earned for them a considerable degree of popularity. (Ibid.)

By the outbreak of the war, cinema had become a truly mass medium, providing both news images and dramatic entertainment in a very particular setting. Even without overt propaganda films, individual picture houses or cinema chains could in their choice of films, music and other elements of their programmes present the war in ways that influenced the popular audience that governments needed to prosecute the war. If the Irish popular audience was indeed crowding the quays waving off Irish soldiers, it seemed likely that they would return to the picture houses to cheer on the screen’s shadow soldiers.

References

“Belgian War Scenes.” Advertisement. Dublin Evening Mail 24 August 1914: 2.

Condon, Denis. “Receiving News from the Seat of War: Dublin Audiences Respond to Boer War Entertainments.” Early Popular Visual Culture 9:2 (May 2011), pp. 93-106.

H. R. W. “Music and the Drama: War and the Drama.” Dublin Evening Mail 3 Aug. 1914: 2.

—. “Music and the Drama: The Invasion of the Film.” Dublin Evening Mail 27 Jul. 1914: 4.

The Man About Town. “Cineanachronisms.” Evening Herald. 13 Aug. 1914: 2.

Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 13 Aug. 1914: 673-5.

“The War: Picture House News Service.” Advertisement. Dublin Evening Mail 12 Aug. 1914: 2.

Changing the Entertainment Geography of the City: The Bohemian Picture Theatre Opens

Ad for the opening of the Bohemian Picture Theatrre. Dublin Evening Mail, 6 Jun. 1914: 7.

“Glasnevin has fallen into line – it has not merely one Picture House, but two. Handsome buildings they are, both of them,” observed the Evening Herald’s Man About Town at the end of May 1914. He also noted developments in cinema far from Dublin, in the west coast Aran Islands: “Kilronan, Islands of Arran, too, has ‘joined the movement.’ Kilronan people to the number of 400 turned in on Saturday week last to their Picture Palace, and, as our Arran correspondent adds, ‘thoroughly enjoyed the films shown’” (“Thing Seen and Heard”). However accurate may have been his intriguing information on cinemagoing on islands far from the city that was his beat, he was wrong about the location of the two new Dublin picture houses; they were in the north-city district of Phibsborough, a mile from the more remote village of Glasnevin.

Bohemian

Letterhead from 1916 featuring image of Bohemian Picture Theatre. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

On 9 June 1914, the Irish Times somewhat more accurately reported that the “Bohemian Picture House, in Phibsborough road, was opened yesterday afternoon under conditions which promise well for the future success of the entertainment given there” (“Bohemian Cinema”). The location was right here, as the Bohemian – taking its name from the local soccer club – was built on the site of two demolished houses at 154 and 155 Phibsborough Road. However, as the controversy over the recently opened Phibsboro Picture House’s showing of In the Shadow of the Throne continued into the week beginning 8 June, conditions looked a little less auspicious than the writer would have his/her readers believe. The British trade journal Bioscope’s detailed account of the incident only appeared on 11 June, describing it as “A Catholic Protest” that had been counterproductive because it had “evoked a desire in other people to see [the film] and judge for themselves” (“‘In the Shadow of the Throne’).

Two small shops flanked the entrance to the Bohemian.

Two small shops flanked the entrance to the Bohemian, which was approached by a set of steps.

Nevertheless, both the Times and Herald rightly agreed that the Phibsborough picture houses were handsome, well-equipped buildings. The plans for the Bohemian were drawn up by Dublin’s most prominent cinema architect, George L. O’Connor. Having already prepared the plans for the Mary Street Picture House and the Rathmines Picture Palace (opened in March 1913 and soon afterwards named the Princess), O’Connor was said to be making “a speciality of designing cinema theatres” (“Another New Cinema Theatre for Dublin”). His design for the Bohemian resembled that of the Rathmines Picture Palace in incorporating two shops on either side of the entrance, each only a single storey in order not to block the view of the theatre itself (“More Cinema Theatres for Dublin”). The facade was “finished in red brick and chiselled limestone dressings, gables and finials” (“Building News”). Although set back from the street, the picture house announced itself with a canopy that extended between the shops. Patrons entered the auditorium by climbing a set of steps to the lobby. Inside, a wide stairs led to a spacious gallery, while an auditorium 104 feet by 38 feet was furnished with seats and carpets in shades of blue and topped by an elliptical ceiling finished in decorative fibrous plaster (ibid).

While noting the comfortable furnishings and the lighting and ventilation systems, the Irish Times also took an unusual interest in the details of the cinematic equipment. The projection box held two Ernemann Jubilee projectors, in which

the film is entirely enclosed throughout its length, thus giving complete immunity from fire risks. From lens to screen is a distance of 105 feet, and the screen, 20 feet by 15 feet, is slightly inclined from the vertical in order to give a proper view from every part of the house (“Bohemian Cinema”).

“The Bohemian Boy”: Caricature of Bohemian owner Frederick Sparling. Irish Limelight Aug. 1917: 1.

“The Bohemian Boy”: Caricature of Bohemian owner Frederick Sparling. Irish Limelight Aug. 1917: 1.

The 24-year-old Bohemian owner Frederick Arthur Sparling chose to compete with the more experienced proprietors of the Phibsboro Picture House located just 50 yards away with a very similar entertainment. Both venues offered continuous performances from 3 to 10:30, but the Boh’s prices of 3d, 6d and 1s were slightly higher than the Phibsboro’s 3d, 6d and 9d, and on Sundays, the cost of 3d seats increased to 4d. The ad for the Boh’s opening promised “refinement, good music and clear, steady pictures,” with its programme for the first six days headed by the four-reel British racing drama In the Hands of London Crooks (Barker, 1914). On Sunday 14 June, the main film was the two-reel In the Grip of Circumstance (US: Essanay, 1914), followed on Monday, 15 June, by Lieutenant Daring and the Stolen Invention (Britain: British and Colonial Kinematograph, 1914), and on Thursday, 18 June by The Drudge (US: Vitagraph, 1914). Sparling likely left the choice of “exclusive” films to his manager W. O. Ashton, who had recently been working for the Dublin branch of the distribution company Films, Limited (Paddy,18 Jun.). Musical director Percy Carver supervised the accompaniment, which “plays during the whole of the performance” (“Bohemian Picture Theatre”).

Map showing the main picture houses and theatres showing films in 1914. The slightly anomalous clustering of the Bohemian and Phibsboro.

Map showing the main Dublin picture houses and theatres showing films by 1914, with the location of the Bohemian and Phibsboro indicated.

The Times put the number of seats at 900, while other sources estimated 860 (“More Cinema Theatres for Dublin”), 1,000 (“Building News”) and 1,200 (Paddy, 4 Jun.). Taking even the lowest estimates for the two Phibsborough picture theatres (the Phibsboro with 570 and Bohemian with 860), early June 1914 saw this suburb on the northern edge of the city gain more than 1,400 cinema seats in just over two weeks. To ensure healthy profits, the picture houses would have had to have induced patrons to travel to Phibsborough, perhaps on one of the two tram lines that served the area. This was an extraordinary development because it showed the degree to which cinema had changed the entertainment geography of the city by bringing professionally produced theatrical entertainment into the suburbs.

References

“Another New Cinema Theatre for Dublin.” Irish Builder 31 Jan. 1914: 72.

“Bohemian Cinema.” Irish Times 9 Jun. 1914: 5.

“Bohemian Picture Theatre,” Dublin Evening Mail 13 Jun. 1914: 3.

“Building News.” Irish Builder 19 Dec. 1913: 868.

“‘In the Shadow of the Throne’: A Catholic Protest.” Bioscope 11 Jun. 1914: 1106.

“More Cinema Theatres for Dublin.” Irish Builder 16 Aug. 1913: 536.

Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 4 Jun. 1914: 1069; 18 Jun. 1914: 1261.

“Thing Seen and Heard: Glasnevin.” Evening Herald 25 May 1914: 5.