A New Industry: The Film Company of Ireland’s First Season

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A photograph of Kathleen Murphy advertised the beginning of the Film Company of Ireland’s 1917 production season; Evening Telegraph 7 Apr. 1917: 4.

In April 1917, the Film Company of Ireland (FCOI) began publicizing the fact that they were beginning a second season of production. On 7 April, a photograph of Kathleen Murphy appeared in the Evening Telegraph‘s “Music and the Drama” column, with a caption indicating that she was playing the part of Nora Lahy in a film adaptation of Charles Kickham’s Knocknagow that was already in production. Based on Ireland’s most popular novel of the late-19th century, Knocknagow on film would be an ambitious undertaking, and it would be popular with contemporary Irish audiences. And because it – along with Willy Reilly and His Colleen Bawn (1920), is one of only two FCOI films that survive in a substantially complete form, it is relatively well known, at least by film scholars (see here, for example). However, the film of Knocknagow would not reach Irish audiences until early 1918.

Irish Independent 10 Nov. 1917: 2.

FCOI made two other feature films during the summer production season of 1917: the comedy Rafferty’s Rise and historical romance When Love Came to Gavin Burke. However, despite the fact that the May 1917 issue of Irish Limelight published photographs from Rafferty’s Rise, the release of these films would also take many months. As a result, the FCOI’s 1916 films continued to circulate and represent – indeed, to constitute – the company’s released output for much of 1917. Nevertheless, beyond O’Neil of the Glen and perhaps The Miser’s Gift – both of which have already been written about here – very little is known about the other 1916 films. This is not surprising because surviving information on them is scant. In marked contrast to the barrage of publicity that heralded the release of O’Neil of the Glen and, to a lesser extent, The Miser’s Gift, the later 1916 films seem to have appeared with little fanfare. Nevertheless, bringing together some of surviving information reveals hitherto unknown aspects of these obscure but important early Irish films and the company that made them.

FCOI advertised upcoming releases in the Irish press on 14-15 August 1916. This one appeared in the Irish Times 14 Aug. 1916: 4.

Even the number of films they made in 1917 is not entirely clear. With O’Neil of the Glen newly released and creating a stir in August 1916, the company announced in the Irish dailies that it had a further four films ready for release in September: The Miser’s Gift, Woman’s Wit, Food of Love and An Unfair Love Affair. As well as these presumably complete or almost complete films, it listed nine other titles that it had in production: The Upstart, Blarney, The Irish Girl, a series called Shanachies Tales, Irish Jarvey Tales – possibly another series – Bye Ways of Fate, Treasure Trove, Willie Reilly and The Girl from the Golden Vale. With so little surviving information, ads such as this have often been taken as confirming that these films were actually made. These films appear in the standard Irish and British filmographies – Kevin Rockett’s Irish Filmography and its online version, and Denis Gifford’s The British Film Catalogue, as they do in the books that take these reference works as a source.

Trade journals and local and national newspapers fill in some – but by no means all – of the details of FCOI’s filmmaking and exhibition exploits from the summer of 1916 to the summer of 1917. These sources show that all four films from the first group were subsequently released, albeit not in September 1917. Of the second group, only Willie Reilly is readily recognizable as an FCOI title – Willy Reilly and His Colleen Bawn – but it would not be released until April 1920. Some of the other eight films named in this ad may be working titles for the films that FCOI did release in late 1916 and early 1917. There is substantial evidence that in addition to the five films already named, the company released four others in this period: Puck Fair Romance, A Girl of Glenbeigh, The Eleventh Hour and Widow Malone.

Ad for FCOI films released in 1916 and made in 1917. Irish Limelight Dec. 1917: 16.

None of these corresponds exactly to the in-production titles mentioned in the ad, but some are close, such as the in-production titles The Girl from the Golden Vale and The Irish Girl which bear a similarity to A Girl of Glenbeigh. These were, of course, Irish versions of titles in the format “An X Girl” or “The Girl of X” that had been internationally popular for decades. However, as A Girl of Glenbeigh specifically names a place in Kerry, it is unlikely to have morphed from The Girl from the Golden Vale – with its reference to the rich farmland in the counties to the east of Kerry. But the film may have begun life under the less specific title The Irish Girl. That said, the in-production titles that include Irish place names suggest a different geography from the four that were finally made. Blarney and The Girl from the Golden Vale indicate a company working in Cork, while A Girl of Glenbeigh and Puck Fair Romance are firmly located in west Kerry.

The issue of the films’ geography deserves further discussion, but this blog will work on the basis that FCOI did not make all the films named in the 14-15 August ad. Evidence suggests that the company released not fourteen films but nine in its opening season, which nonetheless represents a substantial output. For clarity, those nine films are: O’Neil of the Glen, The Miser’s Gift, Woman’s Wit, Food of Love, An Unfair Love Affair, Puck Fair Romance, A Girl of Glenbeigh, The Eleventh Hour and Widow Malone. Although this blog will have something to say about the first two, it will mainly focus on the latter seven.

J. M. Kerrigan

J. M. Kerrigan, Irish Limelight January 1917: 3.

All nine of these films appear to have been directed – the contemporary term, confusingly, was “produced” – by Abbey Theatre actor J. M. Kerrigan, who also starred or at least had a prominent acting role in many of them. Kerrigan was one of FCOI co-founder and producer James Mark Sullivan’s earliest recruits to the company; he was already working with FCOI in March 1916 – the same month as Sullivan and his partner Henry Fitzgibbon registered the company – and may even have invested money in it (Holloway, 21 Mar.). Kerrigan was soon joined by other actors from the Abbey and other theatres, most frequently by Fred O’Donovan, Kathleen Murphy and Nora Clancy, and more occasionally by Brian Magowan, J. M. Carre, Irene Murphy, Valentine Roberts and others. Also a star of the Abbey, O’Donovan would take over as FCOI’s actor-director for the 1917 production season when Kerrigan left Ireland for the United States in early 1917 on a career path that would eventually see him become a well-loved Hollywood character actor. His permanent departure seems to have come as a surprise to some in the press. On 12 April, Paddy reported that Kerrigan “has left America on his return voyage, and is expected to arrive almost any day now.” A report a week later suggested that he had little thoughts of returning to Ireland. “He has ‘made good’ out there in a surprisingly short space of time,” J.A.P. (Joseph A. Power) noted in the Evening Telegraph on 20 April, referring to reviews of Kerrigan’s early US stage performances. “It is only a few months since he left Ireland, yet here are the blasé Yankee journalists hurling bouquets at him with all the vigour of the great American language” (“Gossip of the Day”).

Engaging prominent Abbey actors bolstered FCOI’s claim that it was the Film Company of Ireland and was extending into the new cinematic medium the Abbey’s project of representing Ireland differently. “With the assistance of such artists as they had associated with them,” Fitzgibbon was reported as saying at a press luncheon in June 1916 to celebrate the launch of O’Neil of the Glen, “with Irish scenery and Irish literary talent, they were bound to succeed and be proud of the enterprise in which they were engaged” (“New Irish Industry”). If anybody was well placed to revise the representation of Irish people through performance, it was Kerrigan and this group of Irish actors who were intimately familiar not only with the plays and acting styles of the Irish revival developed at the Abbey but also with the modern drama represented by Shaw and Ibsen. But the company was also open to performers from beyond Ireland: “In the next film,” the Irish Times reported, “Mrs. H. M. Fitzgibbon, a vivacious French lady will make her appearance” (“Irish Film Production”). Although FCOI publicity made much of the claim that their films were “all Irish,” Fitzgibbon’s wife Peggy Darval was mentioned among the cast on occasion (“Back from Kerry”). This remark about his marriage to an actress also suggests that Fitzgibbon, about whom little else is known, may have had a personal motivation for getting involved in the film business.

FCOI seeks scriptwriters: Irish Independent 28 Mar. 1916: 1.

But actors alone were not enough for the company’s success. When Fitzgibbon mentioned the “Irish literary talent,” he must have been referring in part to Bernard Duffy, the writer of several one-act rural comedies for the Abbey who had also attended O’Neil of the Glen’s launch. Duffy praised FCOI for its “wholesome desire to reproduce the atmosphere of the country, and the motive was not purely mercenary. A vast field of folk literature was yet to be explored and utilised” (“Irish Film Production”). Nevertheless, sourcing new or adapted stories seems to have been difficult, and few if any Abbey playwrights were involved in the company. FCOI advertised more frequently in the press in 1916 for scenario writers than for other kinds of collaborators.

Following the destruction of its offices in Henry Street during the Rising, FCOI moved to Dame Street. Dublin Evening Mail 12 May 1916: 7.

Discussion of the company often mentions the destruction during the Rising of FCOI’s offices at 16 Henry Street but less frequently reveals the names of the people who worked there or in their new offices at 34 Dame Street. All the 1916 films were shot by John A. Bennett, who had worked for many years as the chief projectionist – or “operator” – and sometimes cameraperson for James T. Jameson’s Irish Animated Film Company based mainly at Dublin’s Rotunda, as well as later acting as the Dublin manager for the distribution company Films, Limited (Paddy, 18 Nov.; 13 Jul.). However, by January 1917, Bennett was seeking other work, presumably because he was not being paid by FCOI (Paddy, 11 Jan.). In any case, FCOI’s camera work in 1917 was first taken up by the company’s secretary Robert Justice – he featured in a June 1917 Irish Limelight article in this role – before Pathé camera operator William Moser became the company’s cinematographer (“With the Film Co. of Ireland”).

Joseph Boland Irish Limelight Jun. 1917: 6.

Among the other identifiable members of the company in 1916 and early 1917 were the sales and marketing operatives Mr. Coen, Joseph Boland and Ben Cowan. These men were vital to FCOI’s success, and although usually ignored by later film historians, they received considerable attention from contemporary trade journals because these were the people that journalists and cinema managers were most likely to meet. Coen was the company’s sales agent in Ireland until September 1916 when he was replaced by Boland, who for some years had been the travelling representative for General Film Supply (GFS), Ireland’s other major film production company of the period (Paddy, 28 Sep.). Boland appears to have had a good reputation in the industry in Ireland; the distributor M.P. Sales tried unsuccessfully and publically to lure him away from GFS in early 1916 (Paddy, 17 Feb., 24 Feb., “Bioscope Parliament”). Cowan – one of a number of Russian Jews working in the early Irish film industry – ran Express Film Agency, the Irish agent for several British distributors, and he acted as publicist for the very successful 7 August launch of O’Neil of the Glen. Following this, he told reporters that “he intends to introduce many novel ideas in the advertising line. Another Trade show will shortly be held, at which it is Mr. Cowan’s intention to screen two more subjects” (Paddy, 27 Jul.). In the event, the second trade show on 17 August 1916 at the Dame Street Picture House would feature just The Miser’s Gift.

FCOI was intensely busy in August 1916. In Dublin, Cowan was publicizing the five complete or nearly complete productions shot earlier in the summer, as well as the other eight titles notionally in production. The Miser’s Gift was trade shown three days later. At some point in early August, Sullivan and Kerrigan brought the cast and crew to Kerry to shoot the four fiction films that would actually make up the second half of their 1916 production season. The date of departure is not clear, but if Puck Fair Romance was actually shot at Killorglin’s Puck Fair in 1916, then the company would have to have been in Kerry before 12 August because the fair took place between 10 and 12 August. They were certainly in Kerry by 20 August. An article in the Kerry News reported on a fundraising concert that FCOI mounted on 3 September to clear the debt from Glenbeigh’s Catholic church. It observed that the company “came to Glenbeigh two weeks ago where they opened a tour of the Kingdom’s beauty spots, and at present they are staying at O’Sullivan’s hotel, Muckross, having the scenes in several new films laid in and around Killarney” (“Film Company of Ireland”). If “two weeks” here is to be taken literally, the company reached Kerry on or about 20 August, but this seems like a flexible temporality. Nevertheless, the concert does seem to have marked the end of FCOI’s visit to Kerry. By 5 September, Dublin’s Evening Herald was reporting the company’s return to Dublin (“Back from Kerry”).

This suggests that the production unit had left Dublin before the publication of 14 August ad mentioning the eight films that were not subsequently made, as well as the Miser’s Gift trade show. Poor communication might explain why on 14 August, the company’s publicist did not have the titles for the scenarios that had begun shooting that week nor the locations at which they were being shot. But if this is true, then the production unit, which included Sullivan and possibly Fitzgibbon – it certainly included his wife – must have been surprized by the announcement of those eight titles in the national press. The tight timeframe also suggests that at least some and possible all of the scenarios were not carefully prepared and honed in advance but were hastily written on location. Only for The Eleventh Hour was a writer subsequently identified: Mark Coakley (“New Irish Film”).

Whatever FCOI’s reason for the eventual choice of Kerry above other parts of the country, accounts in the Kerry papers of FCOI’s filmmaking are very reminiscent of Sidney Olcott and Gene Gauntier’s filmmaking adventures in Ireland between 1910 and 1914. Making films for the Kalem Company and later for themselves, Olcott and Gauntier had repeatedly gravitated back to the Killarney area, often basing themselves in the village of Beaufort and taking advantage of the rugged mountain, lake and seashore landscapes available in west Kerry. Their dramas of rural life, emigration and historical rebellion had been very popular with Irish audiences, making this region the most identifiable early Irish cinematic landscape. The Post, however, chose to compare Olcott and Gauntier’s films unfavourably to the as-yet-unseen filmmaking efforts of FCOI. “We are glad that at length an Irish Company has appeared,” a columnist commented. “The misrepresentation of Ireland and her people were the aims of most of those who took up work such as this in the past. The production created a feeling of resentment and indignation” (“Notes on News”).

The last day of The Food of Love‘s run at the Dame Street Picture House; Dublin Evening Mail 4 Nov. 1916: 2.

Nevertheless, this does not look like FCOI offering radically new representations of Ireland. With at least some of their first five films shot in Wicklow – this certainly seems to have been the case with O’Neil of the Glen and The Food of Love whose publicity made much of “the lovely scenery around Glendalough” – and the final four shot in Kerry, FCOI was once again exploiting Ireland’s most reproduced picturesque locations (“Irish Film Production”).

Kerry location at which FCOI shot in August 1916.

That said, there may be some novelty in the choice of southwest Kerry locations, which can be established readily from the titles and synopses of the films. The Bioscope short synopsis of Puck Fair Romance – which it titled A Romance of Puck Fair – gives little indication that the film was actually shot at Killorglin’s famous festival. “He was addicted to walking tours, she was an artist,” it begins. “They met in the country, on a farm, She thought him ‘a farmer’s boy,’ he thought her a farmer’s daughter. They canoodled and when their separate ways, he regretting having left her, she sorry to have deceived him. When they met in town it was all right” (“Condensed Film Critiques,” 28 Dec.). Little is made here of the fair, with its central feature: the electing of a billygoat as King Puck and parading him on a raised platform. Nevertheless, the critic was complementary, if not completely positive, judging that it was “quite pretty, set in delightful Irish scenes, and there are two other nice people in it, his pal and her model, but they could not be expected to complete their romance in the same reel.”

Derry Journal 10 Jan. 1917: 2.

Killarney is most famous for its lakes, and as such, the lakeshore setting of The Eleventh Hour may be deemed clichéd. On the other hand, Coakley’s scenario – “in which the paternal instinct is the moving force” – was shot around the lesser known Caragh Lake, a scenic spot on the road between Glenbeigh and Killorglin (“New Irish Film”). A Girl of Glenbeigh indicates its setting in its title. Joseph Holloway’s comments on it when he saw it at the Rotunda on 15 Feb 1917 indicate how romance and landscape worked together. He observed in his diary that “[i]t told an interesting & effective love story that did not run smoothly, nicely amid beautiful scenery & surroundings – O’Donovan was the love in the story who had two strings to his bow – a farmer’s daughter & a lady. The latter two were played by the Miss Murphys.” Where Widow Malone – the fourth of the Kerry films – was shot is not clear from surviving sources. The Bioscope described its “simple” plot, in which

[p]retty widow Malone is counted by the political town councillor, the local schoolmaster and the village blacksmith. The two former are after her snug fortune, and are a couple of windbags, but the hearty smith, loyal when her fortune is supposed to be lost, wins Nora without much difficulty.” (“Condensed Film Critiques,” 14 Dec.).

While the period in Kerry was a busy one for the company, the return to Dublin seems to have put an end for some time to the involvement of many of the actors. Certainly, by the 25 September, Kerrigan and O’Donovan were back in Dublin and acting – in a special arrangement with FCOI – in John Bull’s Other Island, the opening play of the Abbey’s autumn season (“What’s on in Dublin”). There are some indications that the break up of the acting company was not altogether amicable. Holloway had a conversation with Abbey director John A. Keogh on 1 November 1916, who told him that “the Film Co. Of Ireland had burst up & the members all seeking engagements at the Abbey – O’Donovan had left it some time ago to join the Abbey Co.” Keogh comments may have to be treated with caution; he had hostility towards FCOI because of the special arrangements he had to make to be allowed to cast Kerrigan. Nevertheless, he did have information from the actors, so it may be true that “[f]unds had become low owing to the films released not catching on as was thought.”

Those involved in production may have been at a loose end by the start of September, but work for other elements of the business was increasing. At the end of August, Dublin Corporation considered an application from FCOI to build a studio on Pigeon House Road; the outcome of the application is not clear, but these studios were not built. Nevertheless, the Bioscope reported in September that FCOI “are fitting up very elaborate developing-rooms, etc., in their premises at 34, Dame Street, Dublin. Mr. W. James, chief operator at the Bohemian Theatre, Dublin, is in charge of the wiring and other electrical fittings” (“All-Irish Films”). This short item also renewed a call for scenario writers to “submit [FCOI] a sample of their work. The Scenario should preferably have Irish atmosphere, but this is not absolutely essential.”

Dublin Evening Mail 24 Oct. 1916: 4.

With this fit-out of post-production facilities underway, it took some time for the release of the remainder of the season’s films. The company’s first priority was the Irish market, and Boland appears to have been busy selling to cinemas all over the country. Despite the Dame Street Picture House claim in late October 1916 that it had secured “the initial presentation of all the films produced by the Film Co.,” the films premiered all over Ireland. Even FCOI’s long-heralded second release, The Miser’s Gift, had its first public viewings at Cork’s Coliseum on 12-14 October and a three-day run at Tralee’s Picturedrome (19-21 Oct.) before it had its Dublin debut at the Dame on 26-28 October. The Food of Love similarly premiered at the Coliseum on 23-25 October before appearing at the Dame for the three-day run of 2-4 November. However, Widow Malone was FCOI’s third release when it appeared at Kilkenny’s Cinema on Sunday, 22 October 1916 for a special benefit screening for the Gaelic League. The film had a more conventional three-day run at Belfast’s Kinema House later that week, beginning on 26 October.

Puck Fair Romance premiered in Belfast’s Kinema House; Belfast News-Letter 9 Nov. 1916: 1

Indeed, Belfast, with the largest cinema-going population in the country, could not be and was not ignored in the awarding of premieres. Audiences at the Kinema House were the first to be offered Puck Fair Romance from 9-11 November. The Dame does seem to have debuted An Unfair Love Affair on 23-25 November. A Girl of Glenbeigh, however, premiered in Kerry, at Tralee’s Picturedrome on 27-28 November. The Dame also had the first viewings of the final two releases of the year. It opened The Eleventh Hour – FCOI’s second three-reel film –on 30 November 1916 for a three-day, end-of-week run. It was nearly a month later when the final release of the season, Woman’s Wit, had its debut at the Dame on 26 December.

Much more remains to be discovered about this initial period of FCOI and the films they made in 1916, not least their November 1916 distribution deal with Davison’s Film Sales Agency and the patterns of exhibition in Britain. Let this attempt to bring together some of the newspaper and trade journal sources mark a start of that more complete account.

References

“All-Irish Films.” Bioscope 28 Sep. 1916: 1285.

“Back from Kerry: New Films Produced by Irish Company.” Evening Herald 5 Sep. 1916: 2.

“Bioscope Parliament.” Bioscope 2 Mar. 1916: 967-68.

“Condensed Film Critiques.” Bioscope 14 Dec. 1916: i; 21 Dec. 1916: iii; 28 Dec. 1916: i.

“Film Company of Ireland: Church Debt Wiped Out.” Kerry News 6 Sep. 1916: 4.

Gifford, Denis. The British Film Catalogue, vol. 1, Fiction Film, 1895-1994. 3rd ed. London and Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2001.

“Gossip of the Day.” Evening Telegraph 20 Apr. 1917: 2.

Holloway, Joseph. Holloway Diaries. National Library of Ireland.

“Irish Film Production.” Irish Times 30 Jun. 1916: 6.

New Irish Film.” Evening Herald 1 Dec. 1916: 3.

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

“Notes on News.” Kerry News 1 Sep. 1916: 2.

Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 18 Nov. 1915: 841; 17 Feb. 1916: 717; 24 Feb. 1916: 812; 13 Jul. 1916: 173; 27 Jul. 1916: 359; 28 Sep. 1916: 1285; 11 Jan. 1917: 194.

Rockett, Kevin. The Irish Filmography: Fiction Films, 1896-1996. Dublin: Red Mountain, 1996.

“What’s on in Dublin Next Week.” Evening Herald 23 Sep. 1916: 2.

“With the Film Co. of Ireland: A Day with the Producers.” Irish Limelight Jun. 1917: 10-11.

From the Stomach to the Front: Projecting the World on Irish Screens in April 1915

The growth of picture houses in the 1910s provided Irish people with unprecedented visual access to the world. The increasing number of cinemagoers could view otherwise difficult or impossible to see geographical spaces, the geopolitical spaces of Europe’s battlefields and even the intimate spaces within the human body.

Stomach film DEM 24 Mar 1915

Dublin Evening Mail 24 March 1915: 5.

“You can take a series of X-Ray pictures at intervals of a few minutes each, while the stomach is busy digesting food,” observed an article in the Dublin Evening Mail in late March 1915.

[P]ut these pictures together on a film, thrown them on a screen, and –

You virtually have a MOVING PICTURE of the stomach in action while digesting your food. (“Moving Pictures of the Stomach.”)

Designed to look like a news item, this article was actually an advertisement for Bisturated Magnesia, a treatment for excess stomach acid. It used the term “moving pictures” – capitalized like no other word in the body of the article – to attract the roving eye of newspaper readers (and film historians), dyspeptic or not. Some advertisers clearly saw moving pictures as a desirable technology with which to associate their product in this way, as the promoters of White’s Fruit Jelly Crystals had done in the same newspaper in August 1913 (“Really Moving Picture”).

In their use of stomach X-rays, the advertisers of Bisturated Magnesia were, however, undoubtedly making a specific reference to Dr John MacIntyre’s experiments in what is now called medical imaging and specifically to Dr John MacIntyre’s X-Ray Film (1896, 1909), which includes early cineradiography of the stomach. Despite being a medical doctor and pioneer of radiography, MacIntyre could also see that X-rays were a spectacular visual technology, of interest far beyond the medical community (Cartwright 22). As such, he had something in common with the showmen who in the late 1890s exploited the entertainment possibilities of X-rays in theatres and fairgrounds, including in Ireland (Condon). This occurred at precisely the same time as the first projected moving pictures were being exhibited. Unlike moving pictures, however, the entertainment career of X-rays was short. For a start, the danger of radiation burns from prolonged exposure to the rays soon became obvious. As well as this, once audiences had seen the bones of their hands or the contents of a locked wooden box, the novelty value of X-rays was exhausted, but they retained a strong imaginative fascination. By contrast, moving pictures were inexhaustible in the potential subjects they could show, from X-ray images of such interior spaces to the exterior spaces of the historical world and the imagined spaces of fiction.

Moving pictures has also prompted the creation of the new social spaces of the picture houses, which were becoming increasingly ubiquitous on the Irish streetscape in April 1915. Although the Grand in Lurgan, Co. Armagh, had opened in autumn 1914, it garnered attention beyond local audiences when it was reviewed in glowing terms by the Bioscope’s “Jottings from Ulster” columnist on 1 April 1915. “Situate on the main street and approached through a spacious and ornate foyer,” the Grand held about 1,000 patrons who were stratified by their ability to pay 3d., 6d. or 1s. This was not, then, a utopian space of horizontal social relations. Although a stepped floor ensured that all patrons had a good view of the screen, “the patrons of the highest priced seats are comfortably and exclusively catered for in a handsome balcony abreast of the operating chamber, nest-o’spring seats and deep framed backs being provided in this section” (“Jottings,” 1 Apr.). Jottings favoured a programme that combined films with live acts, expressing strong approval of the fact that H. G. Austin, who managed the Grand for proprietor Sam Hewitt, had introduced varieties acts into the programme. As a result of this combination of entertainments, Jottings concluded: “I would not be surprised to find the magnificent tapestry with which the walls are decorated, being removed to make room for the appreciative crowds.” However, like other Irish towns with a similar population (12,553), Lurgan had more than one picture house. At the longer-established Picture House in Carnegie Street, manager Clarke embodied Jotting’s favoured combination of variety and cinema, having been part of the variety duo Clarke and Clare (“Jotings,” 22 Apr.).

Evening Telegraph 3 Apr. 1915: 1.

Evening Telegraph 3 Apr. 1915: 1.

If the Lurgan Grand was in many ways typical of the picture houses opening in mid-sized Irish towns at this time, Dublin’s Coliseum Theatre, which opened on Easter Monday, 5 April 1915, was exceptional. With a seating capacity of 3,000, it was Ireland biggest entertainment venue, and its stage was “one of the largest in the kingdom, being not less than 80 ft. wide and 40 ft. deep, capable of staging the largest spectacular scenes” ([Editorial Item]). In its initial stage of development, the Coliseum had been planned as a large picture house called the Premier Picture Palace, but its promoters had decided that another Dublin variety theatre would be more lucrative than a cinema. Nevertheless, given that film projection had become a stable part of variety programmes, a projection booth had been incorporated into the plans for the building and not as an unsightly supplementary structure within the auditorium, as was the case in older theatres. Praising the features of the Coliseum in advance of its opening, the Evening Herald noted that the “biograph chamber is so designed that it will beautify not mar the general scheme” (“Dublin’s New Theatre”).

Despite a general acknowledgment of the quality of the construction and the beauty of the finished theatre, controversy dogged both the building and the opening of the Coliseum. As noted in an earlier post, although other Dublin theatre owners had objected at an August 1914 hearing to the granting of a patent to this new venue, architect, diarist and theatregoer Joseph Holloway had spoken in favour of the new theatre because it offered the prospect of more drama in the city. The most immediate drama came offstage, from such craftspeople as local fibrous-plaster companies and furniture makers who were denied contracts for work in favour of cheaper British firms. In Dublin, the support of local industries was not only a way of creating good will among potential theatregoers but also of mollifying nationalist Anglophobia. With an ill-tempered public correspondence between the theatre and contractors conducted through the newspapers, the negative publicity for the theatre continued over months, causing Holloway to change his mind about its promise and “wish the new theatre a speedy failure under the circumstances. There is no hope ahead for us poor playgoers in Dublin!” (Holloway, 17 Mar. 1915).

Holloway attended the Coliseum’s opening night, and unlike the newspapers’ positive reviews, his diary entries suggest that the management misjudged the Dublin audience. This is noteworthy given that Lorcan Sherlock, the city’s former Lord Mayor, was one of the theatre’s directors. The theatre’s opening bill was headed by the singer Zona Vevey accompanied on organ by Max Erand. Although their act had been going very well and they had been called back for several encores,

the turn that was doing so well was completely spoiled by her singing of a recruiting Jingo song, “Your Country Wants You.” “It does, and we intend to stop it” said a man behind me as she sang. “Give us something Irish” shouted another, and then I knew trouble was brewing for her, and sure enough when she had finished, a stream of hissing and booing broke out and the two artists, retired amid a tornado of ugly sounds. (Holloway, 5 Apr. 1915.)

http://comeheretome.com/2014/05/09/is-it-over-yet-hiding-out-in-the-coliseum-theatre-1916/

Opened in Easter 1915, the Coliseum was destroyed in the fighting of Easter 1916. “The possibility of fire is put almost outside the pale of consideration” (“Dublin’s New Theatre”). Source: http://comeheretome.com/2014/05/09/is-it-over-yet-hiding-out-in-the-coliseum-theatre-1916/

The bioscope pictures – “introducing the Topical Budget of up-to-date current events” – with which the programme concluded appears to have been entirely unremarkable because they received no coverage, but Holloway claims that the opening night ended ignominiously:

A bar of England’s anthem brought the first show to an inglorious end, amid hissing, which cut short the music, as the imported conductor dropped his baton when he saw the way the land lay. This anthem has always been translated, when played in Ireland, into ‘To Hell With The Catholics’, and will always, I fear until we are allowed to govern ourselves. Therefore, it is better omitted from programmes of a general nature. (Ibid.)

Despite Holloway’s misgivings, the Coliseum’s opening was widely reported a success, and its advent tipped the balance of entertainment seats in Dublin city centre firmly back from picture house to theatre. The Evening Herald’s Man About Town was disappointed by the hackneyed nature of some of the opening acts, but he also saw a packed house that included “a few eminent K.C.’s, a land commissioner, several leading medicos, an Abbey Theatre author of distinction, and a trustee of the same concern.” For the Evening Telegraph, among the reasons that the Coliseum “opened its career auspiciously” was that it enjoyed an “advantageously central position […] adjoining the General Post Office and at the tram terminus for all parts of the city and suburbs” (“Coliseum Theatre”).

Those same trams might bring pleasure seekers away from the city centre and to the increasing number of picture houses in the suburbs. The arrival of the picture house had reconfigured entertainment space in the city. Some of the suburban picture houses courted more middle-class patrons in search of higher standard of entertainment in the guise of exclusive films, comfortable surroundings and musical offerings. The Bohemian Picture Theatre in Phibsboro – an area on the northern edge of the city well served by two tramlines – was building its reputation as a venue that provided enhanced musical accompaniment. The Bioscope’s Paddy observed that “one of the finest orchestras to be found in any picture outside London – or in London for the matter of that – is that now installed in the Bohemian.” The Bohemian had twelve musicians “and every instrument seems to have been pressed into use, thus affording a musical feast absolutely unapproached by any other house in Ireland” (Paddy, 25 Mar.).

Cinemas also competed for audience by offering more luxurious furnishings. Dublin’s Pillar Picture House had “an immense mirror […] beautifully set in a gilded frame[…] Thick luxurious carpets are on the stairs leading to the balcony, and the general appearance of the entrance leads one to imagine that a fairy palace of some sort was about to be entered” (Paddy, 4 Mar.). Some picture houses offered early evening patrons free tea. “A big feature is now being made of glow-lamp teas at Kinema House, Belfast,” noted Jottings. “Dainty tables with shaded lights are arranged in full view of the screen, and considerable advantage is being taken of the innovation by those who sacrifice their siestas to the pictures in the afternoons” (Jottings, 1 Apr.). This kind of offering seemed to have been designed to appeal largely to middle-class women who had the leisure to visit the picture houses while shopping in cities and towns in the afternoons.

Some religious groups and magistrates saw cinemagoing as an activity to be restricted rather than encouraged among the middle class. One of the main ways in which they sought to do this was through restrictions or a ban on Sunday opening. The ongoing controversy on Sunday opening came to something of a head at the end of March, when the Recorder of Dublin heard applications for music-and-dancing licences for picture houses. The Recorder reiterated his view that Sunday opening should be restricted to working-class areas of the city, where people had little opportunity to attend entertainments during the week. He therefore granted just a six-day music licence to Jacob Elliman’s Blackrock Picture House because it was located in “a residential place, with a very small number of working people” (“Picture Theatres”). And he again refused a Sunday licence to the Dame Street Picture House, which, he argued, was not frequented by working-class people because it was located on a city-centre shopping street similar to Grafton Street and Sackville/O’Connell Street.

Some religious groups and magistrates saw cinemagoing as an activity to be restricted rather than encouraged among the middle class. One of the main ways in which they sought to do this was through restrictions or a ban on Sunday opening. The ongoing controversy on Sunday opening came to something of a head at the end of March, when the Recorder of Dublin heard applications for music-and-dancing licences for picture houses. The Recorder reiterated his view that Sunday opening should be restricted to working-class areas of the city, where people had little opportunity to attend entertainments during the week. He therefore granted just a six-day music licence to Jacob Elliman’s Blackrock Picture House because it was located in “a residential place, with a very small number of working people” (“Picture Theatres”). And he again refused a Sunday licence to the Dame Street Picture House, which, he argued, was not frequented by working-class people because it was located on a city-centre shopping street similar to Grafton Street and Sackville/O’Connell Street.

These cases reveal a curious class, sectarian and even acoustic geography of the city that emerged in relation to its picture houses.

References

Cartwright, Lisa. Screening the Body: Tracing Medicine’s Visual Culture. Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 1995.

“Coliseum Theatre: The Opening on Monday.” Evening Telegraph 3 Apr. 1915: 4.

Condon, Denis. “‘Spleen of a Cabinet Minister at Work’: Exhibiting X-Rays and the Cinematograph in Ireland, 1896.” Film History and National Cinema: Studies in Irish Film 2. Ed. John Hill and Kevin Rockett. Four Courts Press: Dublin, 2005.

“Dublin’s New Theatre: The Opening of the Coliseum on Monday.” Evening Herald 2 Apr. 1915: 5.

“Jottings from Ulster.” Bioscope 1 Apr. 1915: 33; 15 Apr. 1915: 260.

The Man About Town. “Things Seen and Heard.” Evening Herald 6 Apr. 1915: 4.

“Moving Pictures of the Stomach During Digestion.” Dublin Evening Mail 24 Mar. 1915: 5.

Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 4 Mar. 1915: 824; 18 Mar. 1915: 1051; 25 Mar. 1915: 1111.

“Picture Theatres: Recorder and Sunday Opening: Many Applications.” Evening Herald 29 Mar. 1915: 5.

“A Really Moving Picture.” Dublin Evening Mail 12 Jul. 1913: 3.

“Sunday Opening in Dublin: Important Cases.” Bioscope 8 Apr. 1915: 155.

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.