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.

“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.