Irish Cinema Catches the Public Eye in February 1916

Audience P&Pg 19 Feb 1916p475

Voices filling the dark; Pictures and the Picturegoer 19 Feb. 1916: 475.

At the end of January 1916, cinema-trade-journal Bioscope’s Irish correspondent Paddy congratulated George Hay, manager of Waterford’s Broad Street Cinema, on his catchy new programmes. “‘The Picture and Picturegoer’ is on sale in the theatre,” he observed, “and Mr. Hay has had his entire programme printed on the front page. This catches the public eye, and moreover, when the paper is left lying about at home it catches the eye of other members of the family.” Getting and remaining in the public eye was important to the cinema business, but much of the publicity it garnered in Ireland in February 1916 was negative.

Elaine Hand Sep 2 1915 Bio

Eye-catching ad for The Exploits of Elaine incorporating the clutchching hand motif; Bioscope 9 Sep. 1915: 1127.

Cinema’s “Clutching Hand” certainly caught the public’s eye in February 1916. The Exploits of Elaine (US: Wharton, 1914) serial had been showing in many Irish picture houses, including Dublin’s Rotunda, which had shown the first episode, “The Clutching Hand,” on 18 October 1915. The plucky Elaine’s (Pearl White’s) repeated imperilling by master criminal the Clutching Hand (Sheldon Lewis) and rescuing by scientific detective Craig Kennedy (Arnold Daly) proved a lucrative formula. Showing one episode a week, the Rotunda reached the 14th and final episode, “The Reckoning,” on 20 January 1916. “Those who have followed the various episodes in this serial picture must not omit to visit the Rotunda,” a newspaper article warned, “and witness the first dénouement of the Clutching Hand, in which the culprit is revealed through his inadvertence in referring to the hidden treasure” (“The ‘Clutching Hand’ Revealed”). “Thus far,” the Irish Independent observed, “‘Exploits’ may claim to have established a record in general interest, and increased attendances are like to be experienced as the story reaches its climax” (“Dublin and District”).

Exploits_of_Elaine_-_The_Devil_Worshippers_(1914)

Poster for the episode of The Exploits of Elaine in which the Clutching Hand’s identity is revealed. Source: Wikipedia.

Other picture houses were not far behind the Rotunda. On 10-12 February, Cork’s Coliseum showed the 13th episode, “The Devil Worshippers,” in which the identity of the master criminal the Clutching Hand is revealed. Smaller towns started the serial later, with the first episode being offered to audiences in Ballina in June 1916 and in Longford town in July 1916. Seeing its success, producers Wharton Studios had quickly followed it with The New Exploits of Elaine (US: Wharton, 1915), and the Rotunda and others would begin showing this as soon as the original concluded. As a result, the phrase “Clutching Hand” was in circulation in Ireland as a synonym for criminality throughout 1916. Calling for an enquiry into the military killing of civilians during the Easter Rising, for example, Dublin alderman Laurence O’Neill described himself as having “the clutching hand of the military authority upon him” (“Action of Corporation”).

Pictures and the Picturegoer 26 Feb. 1916.

Pictures and the Picturegoer 26 Feb. 1916.

We have seen here that White’s Elaine offered young women an adventurous role model, but court cases reveal that the Clutching Hand proved equally inspirational for the criminal careers of Irish child gangs. A writer in the Southern Star noted that “the Exploits of Elaine, or the Clutching Hand, is drawing crowded houses at the local Kinema” in Kinsale, Co. Cork. As a result, “[a]ll our youth are now budding Sherlock Holmes.” But the influence of the serial was not so clear cut:

This habit of observation properly cultivated is a very useful thing and fits the youngster for life’s battle, but, judging by the cases before the local court on Saturday last the Clutching Hand is also in evidence. A month was the reward in this case. (“Kinsale Notes and Notions.”)

Cinema could be educational by providing “useful lessons by ocular demonstration” but the “Clutching Hand remains.”

The Southern Star writer did not provide details of the case in Kinsale, but more evidence exists for those the Clutching Hand inspired in Newry and Mullingar. On 9 February 1916, seven boys and one girl were each sentenced to five years in various reformatories and industrial schools for stealing from shops in Newry. As each child was sentenced and put in a room beside the court, they sang the popular World War I song “Are We Downhearted? No!” – a song that begins by mentioning Pat Malone of the Irish Fusiliers – and cheered.“[A]s each fresh defendant came from the magistrates’ hands he was received with the sign of the ‘Clutching Hand,’ and solemnly responded” (“Boys and the ‘Clutching Hand’”). Sentenced to five years at Philipstown Reformatory for stealing 16s 7d and some handkerchiefs on 14 January, Bernard Hughes described how

they planned the robberies, and with the proceeds went to a picture palace, in the café of which they had tea, bread and butter, lemonade, chocolate, wine, and cigarettes. After sleeping in “Duck” Marron’s common lodginghouse all night at 4d. each, they visited Warrenpoint next day, where they were arrested.

The rich food and lodgings they experienced on their spree contrasted markedly to the conditions in which at least some of them lived. Head Constable Mara gave evidence of having been invited by accused James O’Hare’s father, a sailor home on leave, to see how his children were living:

They were covered with vermin, and their mother was drunk. The house was filthy, and nothing in it but a dirty sack for five children to sleep on. [Another accused John] Hanratty, it was stated, lived in the worst house in Newry, with his mother and his sister.

Such testimony does not appear to have influenced the magistrates towards any more leniency than extended incarceration. Nevertheless, the solidarity between the children in court seems remarkable. By mentioned just these signs of defiance in court without the details of their desperate living conditions, most papers presented the case as a commentary on the antisocial nature of cinema.

The Exploits of Elaine showing in Mullingar. Westmeath Examiner 26 Feb. 1916: 8.

The Exploits of Elaine showing in Mullingar. Westmeath Examiner 26 Feb. 1916: 8.

Reports of the Newry case, or similar cases elsewhere, may have inspired the behaviour of the 12-year-old John Connor, Thomas Keena and Michael Creevy who on 26 February 1916 were arrested for stealing in Mullingar. Sergeant Campbell informed the petty sessions that having been told by J. F. Gallagher that £1 10s had been robbed from his shop, he went to Healy’s Picture House and found the boys in possession of the remainder of the money. Although the chairman of the petty sessions seemed inclined to grant Creevy’s mother’s request for bail for her son, the boy himself asked not to be sent home but to go to a detention home with the other boys. While in the cells at the police barracks, the boys reportedly sang “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” and shouted “Hurrah for the Clutching Hand” (“Robbery in Patrick Street”). The magistrates hearing the boys’ case sent a resolution to the Mullingar Town Commissioners urging them not to renew picture house licences until the proprietors undertook not to show any film that depicted burglary to children under 16 (“Youths Charged with Robbery”). The Commissioners simplified this by barring boys under 16 from evening performances (“Mullingar Town Commissioners”).

These cases lent fuel to the campaigns to regulate – or eliminate – cinema. “What is really a little alarming,” argued a writer in the Irish Times citing the Newry case,

is the prospect of a gradual Americanisation – and a very cheap sort of Americanisation at that – of all our English and Irish ideals and of the whole British outlook on things in general. To-day the picture-house does little or nothing for patriotism; it is not helping us to victory in the field. (“American Films.”)

This writer supported H. G. Richards’ suggestion in the London Times that the importation of all foreign – mainly American – films be banned, including raw film stock. Richards argued this move would save £2 million, free up space on cargo ships, encourage the British film industry to expand, and make films more educational. Considering some of the economic and moral arguments for and against a ban, the Sunday Independent seemed to come down against it. “Naturally for the defence,” an editorial item observed, “we have the sound standing arguments of the public need of diversion in war as well as peace-time, and the benefit to temperance of the competition of the Cinema theatres with the publichouses.” The writer seemed to consider something of a clincher the fact “that on each of the British battle cruisers which await the appearance of the German fleet is installed a picture show for the amusement of the fighting men” (“The Passing Show”).

Few in the industry shared Richards’ views. Fan magazine Pictures and the Picturegoer pointed out that while British audiences were staunch supporters of British films, domestic companies could not supply the market. “[U]nfortunately, the [British] films that are worth much would not go far to feed the four thousand odd theatres,” s/he observed. “Indeed, if all the British film companies suddenly decided to work day and night in order to turn out films with the rapidity of a munitions factory, the output would provide but a mere drop in the ocean” (“Don’t Close Our Picture Theatres”). As the article pointed out, the dearth of people and materials in wartime made it unlikely that the British industry could expand to any great degree.

While these kind of arguments were unlikely to convince those intent on reshaping a mainly entertainment medium into a mainly educational one, other government priorities militated against a film-import ban. The Irish papers prepared their readers for the imposition of an amusement tax in the upcoming budget as a much-needed revenue-raising measure. Cinemagoers would feel the clutching hand of the war economy in May.

References

“Action of Corporation: Petition to House of Commons.” Freeman’s Journal 3 Aug. 1916: 7.

“American Films.” Irish Times 14 Feb. 1916: 4.

“Boys and the ‘Clutching Hand’: Remarkable Case at Newry.’” Irish Times 10 Feb. 1916: 6.

“The ‘Clutching Hand’ Revealed.” Irish Times 20 Jan. 1916: 9.

“Don’t Close Our Picture Theatres: ‘Movies’ the War-Time Medicine of the Masses.” Pictures and the Picturegoer 26 Feb. 1916: 494.

“Dublin and District: Rotunda Pictures.” Irish Independent 20 Jan. 1916: 5.

“Kinsale Notes and Notions.” Southern Star 5 Feb. 1916: 7.

“Mullingar Town Commissioners: Cinemas and the Youth.” Westmeath Examiner 18 Mar. 1916: 6.

Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 27 Jan. 1916: 344.

“The Passing Show.” Sunday Independent 13 Feb. 1916: 4.

“Robbery in Patrick Street: Extraordinary Performance of Boys.” Westmeath Examiner 4 Mar. 1916: 8.

“Youths Charged with Robbery: Cheering for the ‘Clutching Hand.’” Westmeath Examiner 18 Mar. 1916: 6.

“The Wonder-Seeking Mind of the Peasant”

By October 1913, picture houses had begun to be a permanent presence not only in such Irish cities as Dublin, Belfast and Cork but also in towns with even as few as 5,000 inhabitants. In such places, the film show would be the first professionally produced mass entertainment available on a long-term basis. However, many towns still relied on travelling companies to bring professional entertainment of any kind, including film shows. Clearly, population was not the only factor, but it was very likely in 1913 that a town with 10,000 people or more would have had at least one permanent picture house, but only some towns of around 5,000 had a dedicated film venue, and most of the latter were likely to be served by travelling picture or picture-and-variety shows. However, market towns of 5,000 might have a dedicated picture house if they also had a good train service and a local person or persons with access to capital who saw the opportunities being exploited successfully elsewhere.

In early October 1913, Paddy, the Irish correspondent for the British trade journal Bioscope reported on a film-and-variety show by Clarence Bailey in Ballina, Co. Mayo:

To County Mayo is rather a far cry. Nevertheless, picture shows go there from time to time, and no touring show is thought so much about as the “livin’ pictur’” one. At Ballina recently, we had Clarence Bailey’s show, a mixture of variety and films. Some of the latter included the “Derby of 1913.” Wild West subjects naturally predominate in travelling shows of this nature, the breathless rush over the dusty plains appealing to the wonder-seeking mind of the peasant (Paddy).

This piece’s use of brogue and mention of “the peasant” was typical of Paddy’s humorous condescension in covering small-town and rural Ireland. Peasants are hicks who live in the far-away west, unsophisticated provincials who lap up Westerns and out-of-date news and in so doing, provide a telling contrast to the readers of Paddy’s column as well as demonstrating the increasing reach of the metropolitan film business. Nevertheless, Paddy also provides some unique details of film exhibition in the west of Ireland a century ago. Travelling shows such as Bailey’s are very difficult to track because they often did not advertise in the local newspapers of the towns they visited, and consequently, the newspapers – the source most likely to provide details of local reception – frequently ignored them unless something else newsworthy occurred. The September-October issues of the Western People and Ballina Herald do not mention, let alone give details of the programme. Clearly, Bailey was not in the first rank of Irish travelling exhibitors, which included the town-hall showman James T. Jameson and the fairground exhibitor John Toft. Bailey’s name is known to film scholars (Barton 14), but Paddy allows us to place him in Ballina showing Westerns and the newsreel of the Epson Derby that retained some interest four months after the race not only because of an abiding interest in horseracing among an audience who had not yet seen these moving pictures but also because this was the race at which suffragette Emily Wilding Davison was killed by King George V’s horse (some fascinating discussion of this case here and here).

Ballina had recently experienced its own suffragette controversy, when Irish Women’s Franchise League members Helen Chevenix and Clara Moser visited the town on 14 August to organize a town-hall meeting for 2 September. When the women held an impromptu meeting in the street, the conservative Protestant Balina Herald claimed that “though on the whole the crowd seemed sympathetic, some unruly parties kept interrupting, and on one occasion an egg or an orange – we don’t quite know which – was flung and narrowly missed one of the ladies” (“Lady Suffragettes in Ballina”). At the September meeting, the Western People explained that the women lost the sympathy of the largely nationalist audience by a “very ill-timed reference to the assistance ladies in the North were giving Sir Edward Carson in his swash buckling campaign against Home Rule [which] made many persons think that the lady who unburdened her mind in this manner came there to preach the cause of Unionism, under the guise of a Suffragette” (“A Suffrage Meeting”). The People strongly denied the “statement that the motor car conveying the Suffragettes and their friends was stoned as it left the hall after the meeting,” all that occurred being “confined to derisive booing and shouting” (ibid.). How these local incidents may have affected reception of the film, or how the film may have cast new light on the local events, or even which film of the Derby was shown is difficult to say, but the picture shows by travelling exhibitors such as Bailey provided the opportunity, at least, to re-examine them.

Toftpwp358

John Toft’s fairground cinematograph show at Tramore, Co Waterford, in 1901. From National Library of Ireland’s catalogue.

With a population of 4,662, Ballina did not have a dedicated venue at which such opportunities might arise on a regular basis. However, Ballinasloe, a town with the slightly larger population of 5,608 was in October 1913 awaiting the opening of a long-running, if not permanent, film venue. Although in the western county of Galway, Ballinasloe is located along the Galway-Dublin road and rail line, at the terminus of the Grand Canal. It is on the eastern border of that county, which means that it was and is nearer to the middle of the country than the west coast, and as such has long been an important meeting point between east and west, epitomized in its longstanding October fair, one of the oldest in Ireland. The town transport links and the fair’s large crowds drew travelling entertainers, so that in September 1913 alone, two travelling film companies visited before John Toft arrived to take part in the fair.

Cirque and Tofts Ballinasloe 1913

Circus and fairground shows with film: Morgan’s Cinema Cirque and Toft’s Amusements in Ballinasloe, autumn 1913. Ads for the East Galway Democrat 13 Sep. 1913 and 20 Sep. 1913.

Toft displayed a remarkable ability to manage publicity and consequently increase his audience. The East Galway Democrat praised his “readiness to aid every good work” that included his

“Benefit Night” this week in aid of the Temperance Hall, his generous subscriptions to the Nursing Fund, the Fund for the Poor, and the Gaelic League, as well as his kindness in giving the patients and inmates of our public institutions a little enjoyment. […] It is not to be wondered at that Mr Toft’s Amusements are well patronised, and that he makes friends wherever he goes (“Local Topics: Deservedly Popular Show”).

However, when Toft travelled on from Ballinasloe a few day after the end of the fair, local businessmen John Thomas Greeves-O’Sullivan and Timothy J Dolan opened a winter season of their Greeves-O’Sullivan and Dolan Picture and Variety Company, running at the Town Hall from 24 November and over the Christmas period. “No expense has been spared to provide first-class pictures,” the Democrat revealed, “and the machine to be used for the purpose of showing them is one of the latest on the market. An experienced operator has been engaged, and the Ballinasloe Orchestra will discourse selections during the entertainments” (“Local Topics: Picture and Variety Co. for Ballinasloe”).

Dec 20 1913 EastGalway Democrat

East Galway Democrat 20 Dec. 1913: 4.

The company advertised regularly in the press and were acknowledged with notices, including one on 6 December that appears to bear out their claim that they changed films nightly: “to-night (Friday) a grand feature film, ‘Heartt [sic] of the First Empire or The Days of Napoleon,’ a splendid Military Drama; Sunday 7th Dec., ‘The Kerry Gow,’ a three-reel Irish Drama, Monday, 8th Dec., ‘Woman’s Heart,’ and on Friday, 12th Dec., ‘District Attorney’s Conscience,’ a splendid emotional drama” (“Living Pictures”). Despite the use of “variety” in their name, the company appears primarily to have shown pictures and their variety seems to have been limited to selections from the orchestra between films, with the piano selections of Eddie Kelly being particularly singled out in one notice.

The use of such local resources as the orchestra for commercial gain was the main criticism of the company expressed in the press. In an exchange of letters with Greeves-O’Sullivan, the orchestra’s conductor James Roche refused to participate in the venture, explaining that although he had been working with orchestra for a year without remuneration, he was not prepared to continue unpaid “where the band was being used for a private commercial speculation” (“Correspondence”). Greeves-O’Sullivan replaced Roche with local hairdresser Patrick Burke and seems to have gone on using the orchestra, but the exploitation by local businessmen of such community resources as orchestras and town halls for their own profit did cause conflict elsewhere during this period in the development of cinema.

References

Barton, Ruth. Irish National Cinema. London: Routledge, 2004.

“Correspondence.” East Galway Democrat 13 Dec. 1913: 5.

“Lady Suffragettes in Ballina.” Ballina Herald 21 Aug. 1913: 3.

“Living Pictures.” East Galway Democrat 6 Dec. 1913: 5.

“Local Topics: Deservedly Popular Show.” East Galway Democrat 18 Oct. 1913: 4.

“Local Topics: Picture and Variety Co. For Ballinasloe.” East Galway Democrat 15 Nov. 1913: 5.

Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 2 Oct. 1913: 31.

Phelan, Martin. “Emigration.” East Galway Democrat 15 Nov. 1913: 7.

“A Suffrage Meeting.” Western People 6 Sep. 1913: 6.