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.

Serial Queens and Super Villains

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

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

3 Musketeers Phoenix Nov 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Happened Mary Fuller

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

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

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

Flapper on Tram IL 24 Oct 1913

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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