Shadows of Revolution in Irish Cinemas, March 1917

Among the offerings at Dublin’s Bohemian Picture for the first three days of the week beginning 19 March 1917, was footage of the Tsar of Russia; Dublin Evening Mail 19 Mar. 1917: 2.

“Things are very quiet in Dublin film circles just now,” observed the columnist of “Screenings: Kinematograph Notes & News” in Dublin’s Evening Telegraph on St. Patrick’s Day 1917, “but some big things are on the way.” The seeming quite may have been deceptive because big things were already underway in the shape of social upheaval in Russia, which Irish newspapers had first called a revolution the previous day. This was an event that was momentous even in a time of war, and cinema would, at the very least, provide moving images for Irish people to picture these developments. On 19 March, Dublin’s Bohemian Picture Theatre featured the “Latest Exclusive Pictures of The Czar of Russia,”  and the Dublin Evening Mail reviewer thought they “should prove a source of great attraction” (“Bohemian Picture Theatre”). Despite this, no reviews of the films appear to exist by which public reaction to them might be judged. In any case, while an undoubtedly old film of the Tsar might pique the curiosity raised by unfolding events, it was unlikely to have satisfied the desire to witness recent developments. But Dublin was not alone in this. “Russian pictures have been going strong in London since the Duma won through to victory,” the “Screenings” writer noted. “And now arrangements have been made to show in the Russian provinces a kinematograph film of the revolution in Petrograd” (“Screenings,” Mar. 24).

The shadow of revolution was also closer to Ireland than this. The Irish administration feared that the first national day after the Easter Rising would occasion some “big things” in the shape of subversive activity and as a result, had put all public buildings in the city under military control for St. Patrick’s Day (“Patrick’s Day”). However, in stark contrast to occurrences in Russia, the main leaders of Ireland’s rebellion had been executed, and many rank-and-file participants remained in prison, a fact raised in speeches at Westminster comparing Ireland and Russia by such Irish MPs as John Dillon and Joseph Devlin (“Broken Pledges”).

Laurence O’Neill (centre with moustache) attending a GAA match at Croke Park, c.1919, in the company of Arthur Griffith, Eamon DeValera and Michael Collins. Wikimedia Commons.

While the question of Irish political prisoners was being discussed, many believed that a scarcity of food was a more immediate potential cause for social unrest. Earlier in March, before the strikes and demonstrations in Russian had become a revolution, Dublin’s lord mayor, Laurence O’Neill, had invoked the French Revolution to warn of the dangers in the city caused by “unemployment and the scarcity and inflated prices of foodstuffs.” “[O]ne of the principal causes of the French Revolution was the luxury of the upper classes and the poverty of the poor,” he observed, “and the lesson of that Revolution was that no matter in which age the authorities or upper classes ignored their duties to the poor, there was bound to be discontent” (“Lord Mayor”).

The first two workers’ budgets from the Leo Guild; Evening Telegraph 24 Feb. 1917: 1.

Contemporary statistics on the living conditions of Dublin’s working poor support O’Neill’s warnings. In a series of newspaper articles between February and April 1917, these statistics were presented in the form of household budgets provided by the Leo Guild, a Catholic organization interested in the welfare of the deserving poor. Named after Pope Leo XIII – the “working-man’s Pope” – the Irish branch had been founded in Dublin in 1912 to counter the increasing influence of socialism and radical labour activism among Irish workers (“Father Mathew Hall”). Members of the Guild conducted research among the poor, and although they published them anonymously, the people featured in the budgets

were not chosen as being exceptional cases of distress, but because after investigation, they were considered to be typical specimens of their class. None of them belong to the class of poor who apply to the union or the charitable institutions. They are all hard working, sober, respectable and self-respecting folk.” (“How the Poor Live.”)

The Guild’s first budgets focused on two households: that of a labourer and that of a sweated seamstress. Neither of these households had discretionary income to spend on the cinema or other entertainments. The commentary on the budgets concluded, for instance, that the labourer – earning £1 a week to support himself, his wife and seven young children – had outgoings of £1 3s 4d: “The meaning is obvious and tragic. Rent is a fixture, coal can hardly be reduced. The only thing which can be reduced is food, which is spared to stretch over the following week.”

The Guild’s statistics were prepared as part of the Catholic Church’s struggle against organized labour, but they offer some insight into who could or who likely could not have attended the cinema in early 1917. Other writers offered different views on whether or not the working poor attended cinema in 1917. In an article in the third (March 1917) issue of the recently launched cinema journal Irish Limelight, Stephanie de Maistre suggested that they could, and indeed did, form a particularly notable part of the cinema audience. Discussing her dissatisfaction with theatre and music hall and preference for cinema, she focused on one particular unnamed picture house that, “whilst always well patronised in the higher priced seats, became a popular haunt for the working man, his sweetheart or his wife and family.” Maistre’s article addresses an audience perceived to be, like herself, middle class, capable of occupying the higher-priced seats and making entertainment choices not available to working people. Her self-consciously literary account constructs cinema as a place where harmony between the classes is achieved by a cross-class interest in the entertainment provided and by an accepted stratification of the audience based on one’s ability to pay for a seat among one’s social peers. But she sees films as particularly beneficial to the working class:

You see people happy, contented: something has come to break the monotony of their lives; to give them a glimpse of the wonders of the world; to bring sentiment and poetry into drab and barren existences, and who shall say what hearts have been touched, appealed to and changed “in the shadows”?

Chaplin Count Framegrab

Eric Campbell, Charlie Chaplin and Edna Purviance in The Count (US: Lone Star, 1916).

Dublin picture-house owners’ choices of films for St Patrick’s Day suggest that they perceived their audiences to be substantially working class and interested in Irish films. Class was central to The Count (US: Lone Star, 1916), Chaplin’s latest Irish release, which ended its first Dublin run at the Pillar Picture House on 17 March. “The management of the Pillar Picture House, O’Connell street, was largely responsible for the introduction of Charlie Chaplin to the Dublin public,” the writer of “Screenings” reported on 10 March, “and they are still first in the field locally with pictures of the little comedian.” In the film, a tailor (Eric Campbell) pretends to be a count to attend a society party but finds that his employee (Chaplin) has beaten him to it and is chats up both the cook and the rich hostess (Edna Purviance) until the real count unexpectedly shows up. In the week leading up to and including St Patrick’s Day, several other picture houses showed Chaplin’s The Floorwalker (US: Lone Star, 1916) and The Fireman (US: Lone Star, 1916), including the Rotunda Pictures, where it accompanied popular but sometimes controversial The Rosary (US: Selig Polyscope, 1915), the “Original Irish-American Drama.”

Chaplin was also a favourite among the children of the Irish in Britain. A 12-year-old Irish girl was one of the three London schoolgirls who in mid-March 1917 appeared before the Cinema Commission, a body formed by the National Council of Public Morals that began its inquiry into cinema’s public influence in January 1917 (“Mr. Goodwin’s Striking Figures”). When asked about the kinds of films they liked best, the girls choose Westerns and Chaplin comedies. However, they and their friends were not so enthusiastic about newsreels. “‘Sometimes when they have a Topical Budget,’ confessed one of the girls, ‘the Boys get up and go out’” (“At the Pictures”).

Boh Cleansing Fires ET 15 Mar 1917

In the three days up to St Patrick’s Day, the Bohemian showed two Irish films: the newly released Cleansing Fires (Ireland: FCOI, 1916) and The Eleventh Hour. Evening Telegraph 15 Mar. 1917: 2.

As well as the Irish-American Rosary, picture-house managers also followed the well-established practice of choosing Irish-shot films for St Patrick’s Day. In 1917, some of these were more authentically Irish shot than others. From 15-17 March, the Bohemian showed the already released The Eleventh Hour on a bill topped by Cleansing Fires. Cleansing Fires is sometimes mistaken as one of films made by the Film Company of Ireland (FCOI) in 1916, but FCOI merely controlled the rights of this film.

Film Fun July 1916: np.

Although not quite coinciding with St Patrick’s Day, The Innocent Lie (US: Famous Players, 1916) a “magnificent five-part Irish film,” opened on 26 March 1917 at Dublin’s Town Hall, Rathmines. This was the film’s second in Dublin; its first had been at the Grafton Picture House in January 1917. Given that it had been directed by Sidney Olcott and starred Valentine Grant and Jack Clark, Irish audiences would not have doubted that it had been, as the Evening Telegraph claimed, “produced amidst beautiful scenery in the South of Ireland” (“Screenings” Mar. 17). Olcott had shot many films for Kalem and other companies in Ireland, and these had been particularly popular around St Patrick’s Day. In 1915, for example, Dublin’s Masterpiece Cinema had run an Irish Week, at which Olcott’s The Colleen Bawn (US: Kalem, 1911), Ireland the Oppressed (US: Kalem, 1912) and The Mayor from Ireland (US: Kalem, 1912) were shown along with other Irish-shot or Irish-themed films (“Masterpiece Irish Week”). Olcott had made these films in Ireland, but the danger of U-boats on the Atlantic crossing meant that he could not do the same for The Innocent Lie. “The exteriors were photographed in Bermuda,” revealed George Blaisdell in the Moving Picture World before its US release on 8 May 1916, “and they are not only picturesque, but in atmosphere vividly remind of the land and shore of the troubled island they are intended to simulate.”

All in all, it seems things were not as quite as they may have seemed in Irish cinema in March 1917.

References

“At the Pictures: What School Girls Like.” Evening Telegraph 20 Mar. 1917: 2.

Blaisdell, George. “‘The Innocent Lie’: Valentine Grant Makes Good in Her Debut in Famous Players Five-Part Subject.” Moving Picture World 20 May 1916: 1349.

“Bohemian Picture Theatre.” Dublin Evening Mail 20 Mar. 1917: 5.

“Broken Pledges—Empty Threats: Mr. Dillon’s Indictment of the Government.” Freeman’s Journal 21 Mar. 1917: 5.

“Father Mathew Hall: ‘Are Irish Catholics Good Citizens.’” Freeman’s Journal 18 Sep. 1912: 5.

“How the Poor Live: Typical Budget: A Crying Grievance: Result of Leo Guild Inquiry.” Evening Telegraph 24 Feb. 1917: 1.

“The Life of the Poor: More Leo Guild Budgets: A Pressing Problem.” Evening Telegraph 17 Mar. 1917: 4.

“Lord Mayor and the Distress in the City: Gravity of the Situation Stated in Plain Terms.” Evening Telegraph 12 Mar. 1917: 1.

De Maistre, Stephanie. “In the Shadows.” Irish Limelight 3:1 (Mar. 1917): 4.

“The Masterpiece Irish Week.” Evening Telegraph 16 Mar. 1915: 6.

“Mr. Goodwin’s Striking Figures: Evidence of Film Industry’s Magnitude: First Sitting of Cinema Commission.” Bioscope 11 Jan. 1917: 96.

“Patrick’s Day: Quiet Observance in Dublin.” Evening Telegraph 17 Mar. 1917: 1.

“Screenings: Kinematograph Notes & News.” Evening Telegraph 17 Mar. 1917: 5; 24 Mar. 1917: 5.

“Growing in Favour to an Enormous Extent”: New Media, Ireland 1914

A little after 7pm on Friday, 6 February 1914, architect and inveterate theatregoer Joseph Holloway and his niece Eileen O’Malley arrived at Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre to find that the parterre was already full and there was standing room only in the upper circle. They decided not to stand for that evening’s final performance of the pantomime Jack and the Beanstalk, which was a benefit for comedian Jay Laurier, the actor who played Miffins. Instead they walked to the Nassau Street corner of Grafton Street to take a tram to the Dorset Picture Hall where they spent the evening watching a series of “interesting” but unnamed pictures (Holloway). It’s not clear why they passed the other picture houses along the tram route across the city to favour the Dorset, but Holloway seems to have taken a liking to the Dorset, having seen Kissing Cup (Britain: Hepworth, 1913) there with Eileen on 2 January and The Child from the Sea alone on 28 January. He had also recently seen Germinal (France: Pathé, 1913) at the Princess Cinema in Rathmines and the show of Kinemacolor films at the Queen’s Theatre.

Handbill for films at the Dorset during the week of 15-21 June 1914 with three changes of programme.

Handbill for films at the Dorset during the week of 15-21 June 1914 with three changes of programme. National Library of Ireland.

Holloway’s diary entries on his visits to Dublin’s picture houses are both unique and frustrating, providing the only sustained first-hand account by an Irish cinemagoer of this period but also offering merely tantalizing details of his visits. This contrasts markedly with his often lengthy comments on the city’s theatrical shows, many of which he saw on their opening night. Although he was committed to the theatre, he had also become since 1910 – almost without realizing it himself, it seems – a regular picture-house patron. Although more detail on goings-on in cinemas from an audience member’s point of view would certainly be welcome, the way in which going to the picture house had become such a mundane activity is fascinating. In his diary, Holloway notes significant films alongside theatre shows at the start of a week and often integrates a film show into his schedule, sometimes choosing a film but often choosing to see whatever was on at a favoured picture house.

Holloway and other cinemagoers would have increasing choice as 1914 progressed. “Dublin has not by a long way stopped in its career of opening picture houses,” reveals Paddy in the trade journal Bioscope in early February 1914. He mentions plans to open 18 more cinemas in the city, with plans for eight already approved.

There is no doubt that some of these new fry will pay, because they are to be built in districts badly provided for in the matter of theatres, but when I hear that it is proposed to open three new houses in Grafton Street, and two more in Sackville Street, I wonder what will happen. (Paddy, 5 Feb).

Comments on the growing popularity of Dublin picture houses were not limited to the trade papers. “There can be no gainsaying the popularity of picture theatres in the Irish metropolis,” comments Irish Times columnist the Clubman. “They seem to be always crowded and their proprietors must be making plenty of money out of them. Of course, the ‘man in the street’ will tell you that ‘the pictures’ are only a ‘craze,’ but they are a craze which will, I think, live for some time in Dublin, at any rate (“Dublin Topics”).

It was not just in Dublin, and it would not be a passing craze. In mid-January 1914, the Bioscope’s “Jottings from Ulster” columnist noted that the

Belfast Corporation cinematograph inspector, Mr. Campbell, reported at the last meeting of the Police Committee, that on Christmas Day, Boxing Day, and the 27th ult., 124,087 persons patronised the fourteen picture theatres in the city. These figures show an increase of about 15,000 as compared with Christmas, 1912, It is of considerable interest to note that 124,000 is roughly one-third of the entire population of Belfast; it may, therefore, be taken that the cinema is growing in favour to an enormous extent. (“Jottings,” 15 Jan.)

These are very interesting figures, adding some statistical support to the impression conveyed by Holloway’s diary and newspaper and trade-press articles. It remains more difficult to discern a hundred years later the degree to which individual films that appear to do so actually address such important issues as women’s suffrage, the labour movement and Home Rule. These questions might without too much distortion be phrased in the language of 2014 as concerning the way in which new media engage with questions of the changing nature of work, gender inequality and national sovereignty.

Asta Nielsen as suffrage activist Nelly Panburne being force fed in The Suffragette (1913).

Asta Nielsen as suffrage activist Nelly Panburne being force fed in The Suffragette (1913).

Women’s suffrage was one of the most prominent political questions of the 1910s, kept in the headlines by suffragette activism, including that by the Irish Women’s Franchise League. Suffragettes in Ireland – but not Irish suffragettes – had most directly used the new cinema technologies as a form of protest on the evening of 18 July 1912, when as part of a wider protest, English suffragettes Mary Leigh, Gladys Evans and Lizzie Baker had attempted to set fire to Dublin’s Theatre Royal by igniting the highly combustible nitrate film in the theatre’s cinematograph box between evening shows. “Had the lighted matches come in contact with the films, the substances of which are, of course, highly inflammable, a terrible disaster might have to be chronicled” (“Serious Suffragette Outrage”). For this and for a hatchet attack on British prime minster HH Asquith’s carriage, in which Irish nationalist MP John Redmond was injured, Leigh, Evans and Baker were sentenced to prison terms in Mountjoy Jail, where they joined eight Irish suffragettes and began a hunger strike.

Belfast's Panopticon advertises Asta Nielsen in The Suffragette (1913).

Belfast’s Panopticon advertises Asta Nielsen in The Suffragette (1913); Belfast Newsletter 3 Jan. 1914: 1.

Events such as these were fictionalized in the German film The Suffragette (Projektions AG, 1913), which offered Irish audiences the rare opportunity of seeing suffragettes on screen treated as something other than just comedy. Featuring the Danish star Asta Nielsen as Nelly Panburne – modelled on Christabel Pankhurst – the film shows how Nelly protests by breaking shop windows; is force-fed when she goes on hunger strike in prison; and carries a bomb intended to kill Lord Ascue, a British minister modelled on Asquith opposed to women’s rights. The film attempts to contain its radical energies with a romantic subplot that sees Nelly save Ascue  from the bomb and marry him. Despite the closeness of the film to actual events, the Belfast Newsletter commented that when it was exhibited in January 1914 at the Panopticon Picture Theatre, it “creates great merriment. Asta Neilson, described as the greatest of all picture artists, is seen at her best” (“Panopticon”).

Carson v Redmond
The confrontation between Irish unionists and nationalists had become such a part of popular discourse in Britain in early 1914 that this ad for films that had nothing to do with Ireland could expect to draw attention by using the names of Edward Carson and John Redmond as if they were prize fighters. Bioscope 12 Mar. 1914, p. 1186.

Perhaps the importance of the political events of a different kind in Belfast was among the factors that inclined the Newsletter towards downplaying a fictional representation of the suffrage movement. To keep up pressure on Asquith’s government, Edward Carson again visited Belfast In mid-January 1914 to rally unionist opponents of Irish home rule and review the massed ranks of the Ulster Volunteer Force prepared violently to resist the imposition of home rule. Such nationalist newspapers as Dublin’s Evening Telegraph and Belfast’s Irish News presented unionist demonstrations as a farce and drew attention instead to the counter-demonstration in Belfast led by nationalist MP Joseph Devlin (“Carson Comedy Co.,” “U.V.F. Comedy,” “Mr. Devlin, M.P., in West Belfast”). The unionists, however, again proved themselves more competent with the new cinematic medium. A newsreel camera was again in Belfast to record and relay images not of Devlin but of Carson, and this time, it was operated by Dublin-based Norman Whitten, who filmed the demonstration for Weisker Brothers, a firm to which he had recently affiliated (Paddy, 29 Jan.). Paddy commended Whitten for having the film of Carson ready to screen at Belfast’s Picture House, Royal Avenue on the evening of the rally (ibid).

Of more immediate concern to Dublin’s media from mid-January to early February was the end of the Lockout with the defeat of the striking workers. For the first three days of the week beginning Monday 19 January, the Evening Telegraph’s notice for the Phoenix Picture Palace recommended A Leader of Men, “dealing in a thrilling and sensation manner with an organised strike in a big shipbuilding industry. It is decidedly a picture that will appeal strongly to all at the present time” (“Phoenix Picture Palace”). On the same day, the Telegraph was reporting the “Collapse of Strike: No Food and No Money: Mr. Larkin Advise Men: To Go Back to Work: But to Sign No Agreement” (“Collapse of Strike”). If that drama was too close for comfort to current events, audiences could also enjoy more diverting material on the same bill in the dramas Fortune’s Turn and The Dumb Messenger and the comedies The Honeymooners, When Love Is Young and Cartoons, Mr PiffleAs well as this, to whom and in what way the film would appeal is not clear given that it is unlikely many of the workers impoverished by months of strike could have afforded to attend.

Nevertheless, as cinema continued to develop and picture houses occupied more spaces on the Irish streetscape, films would attract audiences not only by providing escape but also by confronting – both directly and obliquely – important political issues.

References

“Carson Comedy Co.: Performing in Belfast To-Day.” Evening Telegraph 17 Jan. 1914: 6.

“Collapse of Strike.” Evening Telegraph 20 Jan. 1914: 3.

“Dublin Topics by the Clubman.” Irish Times 31 Jan. 1914: 4.

Holloway, Joseph. Holloway Diaries. National Library of Ireland. 6 Feb. 1914: 295.

“Jottings from Ulster.” Bioscope 15 Jan. 1914: 263.

“Mr. Devlin, M.P., in West Belfast: Great Rallies of the Progressive Forces Hear Inspiriting Addresses.” Irish News 19 Jan. 1914: 5-6.

“Phoenix Picture Palace.” Evening Telegraph 20 Jan. 1913: 2.

Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 29 Jan. 1914: 454.

Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 5 Feb. 1914: 547.

“The Panopticon.” Belfast Telegraph 6 Jan. 1914: 9.

“Serious Suffragette Outrage: Two Attempts to Set Fire: To the Theatre Royal: An Explosive Used: A Panic Avoided.” Freeman’s Journal 19 Jul. 1912: 6.

“U.V.F. Comedy: Parade of the East Belfast Regiment: Inspection by Sir E. Carson.” Irish News 19 Jan. 1914: 7.