The Lure of the Picture House: Disaster and Comedy in Irish Cinemas, May 1915

By May 1915, cinema had become so compulsive for some Irish people that it landed them in trouble with the law. Dublin newspapers reported on “the lure of the picture house” that had led two children, Annie Hughes and Rose Kavanagh, from Newtown Park Avenue in Stillorgan, to beg door-to-door to get money to go to the cinema (“Lure of the Picture House”). At the Police Court in Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire), Kavanagh’s father said that his daughter acted without his knowledge and that “it was the attractions of the picture houses that cause them to beg” (ibid.). Hearing from the police that the girls were constantly begging, Justice Michael Macinerney put them on probation for 12 months.

Illustrated ad for Rupert of Henzau (Britain: London, 1915) at Dublin's Picture House, Grafton Street; Evening Telegraph 31 May 1915: 2.

Illustrated ad for Rupert of Henzau (Britain: London, 1915) at Dublin’s Picture House, Grafton Street; Evening Telegraph 31 May 1915: 2.

Whatever about its compulsion to drive people to illegal activity – a point made both by some reform groups and by some wrongdoers seeking to lay the blame for their actions with the new medium – other commentators were making the point that cinema had become a habit for many people. Writing in Irish Life, playwright and novelist Edward McNulty assessed the progress of the cinematograph against the many claims made for it:

[A]ll the things predicted of the cinematograph are undoubtedly realisable, but, unfortunately, most of the brightest anticipations have not been achieved. The cinema was, above all, to be educational. All the drudgery of teaching was to vanish. Schools and colleges were to be transformed into theatres of instruction; the daily paper was to be supplanted by the Cinema News Bureau, and the French irregular verbs were to be assimilated in the guise of light comedy. (Paddy, 20 May).

Nevertheless, “ in spite of its defects and disappointments, we must gladly acknowledge that the marvel of cinema is the vehicle of diurnal delight all over the civilised globe” (ibid).

Although Irish cinema of the period was certainly a vehicle for diurnal delight, May 1915 was striking for the motivations other than delight that lured patrons to the picture houses. If diurnal delight was epitomized by Charlie Chaplin’s comedies, their power of attraction was at least matched by war films. The Cinema News Bureau had not – and would never – replace the newspaper, but the sinking of the RMS Lusitania showed how the media worked together to serve wider ideological war needs. The Cunard Line’s transatlantic steamer was torpedoed by a German submarine off Kinsale, Co. Cork, at about 2pm on 7 May, and initial reports appeared in the evening newspapers (“Lusitania”), with fuller accounts dominating the news on 8 May. The story had several aspects of interest to Irish papers, some of which had particularly local resonance and other of which linked to war-related issues. Rescue efforts were coordinated from the Cork port of Queenstown (now Cobh), where survivors and victims were initially brought and the inquest held. The large loss of civilian lives – almost 1,200 of the nearly 2,000 people on board died – world have made this a particularly important story in any case, and one that justified propagandistic condemnation of German disregard for civilian life and the rules of war. As well as this, the fact that more than 100 Americans were among the victims provided an impetus for discussion of the hoped-for US entry into the war on the British side.

Newspaper reports were joined on Monday, 10 May by the first newsreel images. The big newsreel companies Gaumont and Pathé sent film units to Queenstown. “Immediately the news was received,” revealed the trade journal Biosocpe,

Gaumont’s dispatched four photographers to the south of Ireland – one from London, Liverpool, Dublin and Belfast – and their joint film contributions were promptly sent to London, where they were supplemented by a few views of the arrival at Euston of survivors. The subject is introduced by a general view of the Lusitania, Messrs. Pathé Frères had men at Queenstown, and a staff of three photographers at Lime Street Station, Liverpool, to meet the train conveying survivors. (Filming ‘Lusitania’ Incident.”)

On Monday, Gaumont released a 350-foot “special topical,” while Pathé initially included just a 50-foot (approx. 1 minute) item in their regular Pathé Gazette, with the intention of supplementing this with a further 150-foot item for the weekend. “The enterprise of these two firms is only surpassed by their restraint,” commented the Bioscope, “when it is remembered that about ten cameras were employed, and the output of film ran into four figures” (ibid.).

Entertainment ads showing impact of Lusitania sinking; Evening Telegraph 10 May 1915: 1.

Entertainment ads showing impact of Lusitania sinking; Evening Telegraph 10 May 1915: 1.

Irish audiences also had the opportunity to see these films. Patrons of Dublin’s Rotunda were offered “a series of pictures depicting incidents connected with the arrival of the Lusitania victims and survivors at Queenstown” (“Rotunda Pictures,” 11 May). The depth of emotion expressed by the journalist who visited the Picture House in Sackville/O’Connell Street suggests that s/he saw the longer Gaumont film. “A picture showing scenes and incidents after the sinking of the Lusitania was shown at this House yesterday;” s/he reported.

[I]t was both interesting and pathetic, and one left with feelings of deepest emotion at the havoc and misery caused to countless human beings by the unmediated act of murder on the part of the German submarine, which, with a total disregard for the lives of women and children sent the mighty ship to the bottom. (“O’Connell Street Picture House.”)

The clear anti-German feeling here was congruent with the reporting on the sinking in general and particularly with the verdict of the inquest, which was given in an editorial item on the same page as the review of the Sackville/O’Connell. “This appalling crime was contrary to international law and the convention of all civilized nations,” it began, “and we, therefore, charge the owners of the submarine, the German Emperor, and the Government of Germany, under whose orders they acted, with the crime of wilful and wholesale murder” (“The Kinsale Verdict.”)

What seems incongruous – but may only seem so – is that the writer so affected by the Lusitania film should find immediate relief in the comedies that accompanied it on the same programme. “After viewing those harrowing incidents,” s/he observed, “the excellent comedies came as a most welcome change; they included ‘Love and Dough,’ featuring the well-known screen comedian Ford Sterling” (“O’Connell Street Picture House”). Images of war and physical comedy complemented each other on the picture-house screen, and as will be seen below, Chaplin had become the comedian in highest demand. Although for audiences in the early 21st century such changes of tone may seem strange or even inappropriate, for audiences in the 1910s, used to entertainments that included variety and contrast, this appears to have been perfectly acceptable.

In any case, films of various kinds provided the imaginative means for coming to terms with the tragedy of war, as well as the spectacle of such new technologies as the zeppelin, the torpedo and the submarine. Bearing echoes of the Lusitania sinking, for example, Dublin’s Masterpiece placed a special ad in the Evening Telegraph at the end of May advising the public that it would give its final exhibition of The Italian Navy “in which is shown a torpedo at its deadly work of sinking a passing vessel” (“The Masterpiece,” 29 May). The Lusitania sinking also had consequences for Irish cinema that only became clear much later. Although Walter Macnamara had shot the Irish historical drama Ireland a Nation for his New York-based production company partly in Ireland in 1914, a copy of the film did not reach the country until 1917 because “the first copy dispatched by them was lost with the ill-fated Lusitania; a duplicate copy was substituted, but […] this also failed to successfully run the submarine ‘blockade’” (“Between the Spools”).

The Lusitania films were joined by other propagandistic war films in mid-May. On 13-15 May, a “very important” War Office film of Lord Kitchener’s visit to British army headquarters in France was shown at Dublin’s Picture Houses in Grafton and Sackville/O’Connell Streets (‘“Lord Kitchener in France”’). Over the same period, the Grafton was also showing a film of the Battle of Neuve Chapelle,

“illustrated by Kineto War Map No. 5. By means of this exceedingly clever animated map the Battle of Neuve Chapelle is shown in a manner most thrilling to watch. The representation of the whole battle is wonderful, and everyone who sees it will be more than interested, as it forcibly portrays the difficult struggle of the British to hold this position against the heavy fire of the enemy’s’ batteries. (Ibid.)

Ad for Dublin’s Masterpiece showing The Secret of Adrianople (1913); Evening Telegraph 15 May 1915: 1.

Ad for Dublin’s Masterpiece showing The Secret of Adrianople (Denmark: Kinografen, 1913) and Bohemian ad drawing attention to the big Whit Monday attraction, Tillie’s Punctured Romance (US: Keystone, 1914); Evening Telegraph 15 May 1915: 1.

For the week of 16-22 May, the Masterpiece advertised The Secret of Adrianpole. The preview in the Evening Telegraph described it as “a magnificent four-part war drama, the scene of which is laid in the now famous Dardanelles, and shows the defences of the much-talked-of Turkish forts” (“The Masterpiece,” 11 May). However, the film was not set during World War I, having been released under the title Adrianopels hemmelighed by the Danish company Kinographen in 1913. Interest in the Dardanelles raised by the Gallipoli land campaign that began on 25 April 1915 lent it renewed topicality:

Now, when all eyes are focused on the Dardanelles, and every scrap of information about the present bombardment eagerly devoured, this great picture comes most opportunely, reproducing in interesting fashion the places daily mentioned in the Press, and showing particularly the actual defences of Fort No. 13, one of the fortifications of so much interest at the moment. (Ibid.)

Although these war films clearly attracted audiences, by early summer 1915 Charlie Chaplin was Irish cinema’s most consistent draw. As already mentioned, the Rotunda showed the Lusitania newsreel beginning on Monday, 10 May; however, the “principal attraction for the great majority of the audience who will frequent the Rotunda this week will, undoubtedly, be the Keystone comedy film entitled ‘The Knockout’” (“Rotunda Pictures,” 11 May). The Knockout (US: Keystone, 1914) actually starred Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Minta Durfee, with Chaplin in a minor role, but the review of the Rotunda shows mentioned only that it featured “the well-known comedian, Charles Chaplin, as referee in a boxing match of a decidedly novel description” (ibid.). This favouring of Chaplin was consistent with a recent comment that no cinema “programme now is complete without the well-known comedian, Charles Chaplin” (“Rotunda Pictures,” 8 May).

Charlie Chaplin, caught between Mabel Normand and Marie Dressler in Tillie's Punctured Romance (US: Keystone, 1914)

Charlie Chaplin, caught between Mabel Normand and Marie Dressler in Tillie’s Punctured Romance (US: Keystone, 1914).

For the week beginning with the Whit Monday holiday, 24 May 1915, the Rotunda again featured a Chaplin film, Charlie’s New Job (US: Keystone, 1914), but the Bohemian upstaged them by securing exclusive rights to Tillie’s Punctured Romance (US: Keystone, 1914). The first feature-length comedy, the six-reel Tillie’s Punctured Romance starred Chaplin alongside stage actress Marie Dressler and Keystone favourite Mabel Normand. Reporting on a press showing of the film on 9 May, a writer in the Evening Telegraph observed that the “farcical element throughout the whole performance has full sway, and the spirit of fun dominates the various scenes. […] The film has been secured by the ‘Bohemian’ at the cost of £100, and the enterprise of the management should meet with a huge measure of public appreciation” (“Bohemian Picture House”). Their enterprise apparently was rewarded because the reviewer of the Whit Monday show commented that “Chaplin is certainly at his best in this production, and all those desirous of seeing him should go early, as the demand for seats last evening was very great” (“The Bohemian”).

Such diurnal delights would continue to lure audiences for many years to come.

References

“Between the Spools.” Irish Limelight 1:2 (Feb. 1917): 19.

The Bohemian.” Evening Telegraph 25 May 1915: 2.

“Bohemian Picture House.” Evening Telegraph 10 May 1915: 2.

“The Kinsale Verdict.” Evening Telegraph 11 May 1915: 2.

“Filming ‘Lusitania’ Incident.” Bioscope 13 May 1915: 623.

‘“Lord Kitchener in France.”’ Evening Telegraph 12 May 1915: 4.

“The Lure of the Picture House.” Evening Telegraph 3 May 1915: 6.

“Lusitania: Sinking Off Cork Coast: Help from Queenstown: 1,400 Passengers on Board.” Evening Telegraph 7 May 1915: 3.

“The Masterpiece.” Evening Telegraph 15 May 1915: 8; 29 May 1915: 8.

The O’Connell Street Picture House.” Evening Telegraph 11 May 1915: 2.

Paddy. “Picture in Ireland.” Bioscope 20 May 1915: 773.

“Rotunda Pictures.” Evening Telegraph 8 May 1915: 8; 11 May 1915: 2.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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