Monopolizing the Limelight: Irish Cinema and Politics in Autumn 1915

“Valentine Grant in All for Old Ireland, the first of a series of Lubin comedy dramas made in Irelnad.” Pictures and the Picturegoer 11 Sep. 1915: 461. Courtesy of the Media History Digital Library.

In late August 1915, a Dublin Evening Mail columnist urged readers to pay more attention to such politicians as Winston Churchill than to celebrities. “It would undoubtedly be very bad for the nation,” s/he argued,

if its greatest heroes were, say, Mr. Harry Lauder […] or Charlie Chaplin, who is said to be making a colossal fortune by comic performances for the cinematograph films. These people deserve our respect, no doubt; they scarcely ever fail to get our applause; but we must not give them the monopoly of the limelight. (“Town Topics.”)

Given that limelight was the late 19th century’s favoured theatrical lighting, this was precisely what one should expect such star performers as Harry Lauder and Charlie Chaplin to be monopolizing, had not “limelight” already become synonymous by 1915 with public attention. Churchill, Chaplin and limelight: even as the Mail reporter denies it, the juxtaposition is suggestive of an early celebrity culture that made little distinction between a personality’s reasons for occupying the public’s gaze, be his or her forte politics or pratfalls. In Irish picture houses in mid-autumn 1915, politics – if not Churchill – were important, but Chaplin was everywhere.

Evening Telegraph 13 Sep. 1915: 2.

Lord Kitchener, all but pointing his finger at us in this illustrated ad from the Evening Telegraph 13 Sep. 1915: 2.

Churchill did not appear on Irish cinema screens at this time – or at least, he was not noted to have done – but politics both international and national was visible in films and in the picture-house auditorium. Irish-born Horatio Herbert Kitchener, British Secretary of State for War, was a more visible and commanding presence in pictures houses than Churchill in September 1915. His image appeared on illustrated ads for the film Lord Kitchener in the Firing Line (Britain: Gaumont, 1915). “At one point Lord Kitchener is seen observing the German positions,” noted the Freeman’s Journal, “at another he is reviewing the French troops. Taken altogether, the film is of great historic interest” (“Grafton Picture House”). Film’s usefulness as a recruiting tool was also being recognized in Ireland, where the Dublin Recruiting Committee awarded Norman Whitten’s General Film Supply a contract to produce an Irish recruiting film (Paddy, 9 Sep.).

Bioscope 23 Sep. 1915: 1380.

Full-page from the Bioscope 23 Sep. 1915: 1380.

It was not only in such newsreel specials that the war was represented but also in fictional propaganda films (see more here, here and here). In late September, Eclair publicized “Give Up your Gold, It’s for Britain!!” (France, 1915), which aimed to increase public subscription to war funds. Although the War Office had begun to make and commission films itself, this film was produced by a commercial company that expected the film to be popular by catching widespread support for the war. “Although we have had many ‘war films,’” the Bioscope observed, “[i]n too few cases has the wonderful power of the cinema drama in propaganda work been realised and made use of” (“Give Up Your Gold”). As was the Bioscope’s practice, such significant if modest progress in British – or in this case, Franco-British – propaganda was said to be more than matched by developments in Germany. The paper reprinted a report from the Daily Chronicle outlining the expansion and increased coordination of the film department of the “‘Central For Foreign Service,’ whose mission is the circulation of ‘true information’ about Germany in neutral countries” (“German Film Campaign”). The article emphasized that this was a well-connected and competent committee that included “Baron von Mumm, late German Ambassador at Peking, and the notorious Herr Dernburg,” a film producer. The worrying damage its films could do in neutral European countries might be bad enough, but “an American has had duplicates of all the new films supplied to him and […] he is pledged to exhibit them in the United States” (ibid.).

Irish loyalty and commitment to the war effort was by no means unanimous, but it was widespread given the number of Irishmen serving in the British armed forces. In the initial months of the war, the Bioscope had kept a tally of cinema personnel, including those from Ireland, who had volunteered, but as the war wore on, the journal had discontinued the practice. However, in August 1915, Paddy – the Irish correspondent – had reported on a ceremony at the Princess Cinema in Rathmines, Dublin, honouring James Ball, Thomas Butler and James Burke, members of staff who had recently joined the Royal Irish Fusiliers. “Each of the boys was presented with a suitable gift” from managing director Izidore Bradlaw, Paddy observed, “and they were informed that their places would remain open for them on their return” (Paddy, 12 Aug.).

Catherine Countiss and Lionel Barrymore in A Modern Magdalen. Moving Picture World 13 Mar. 1915: 1614

Catherine Countiss and Lionel Barrymore in A Modern Magdalen. Moving Picture World 13 Mar. 1915: 1614. Courtesy of Media History Digital Library.

Such events suggest that a consensus existed in picture houses, but descriptions of certain happenings in the auditorium make one wonder how anything on the screen could have monopolized picture-goers’ attention. The Catholic Dublin Vigilance Committees’ campaign to ensure that cinema would be suitable for their vision of Irish society had gained momentum in 1915, thanks particularly to William and Francis Larkin’s series of protests in picture houses (see here, here, here and here). William Larkin was busy again on the evening of 14 September, when during a screening of A Modern Magdalen (US: Life Photo Film, 1915) at the Bohemian in Phibsboro, Dublin, he shouted that Ireland needed film censorship. His shouting caused people to leave in a hurry, and on the steps outside the building, he continued to harangue the departing patrons. By now familiar with Larkin’s antics, proprietor Frederick Sparling had him arrested on a charge of offensive and riotous behaviour. This was, of course, exactly what Larkin wanted: the guaranteed extra publicity that would come with a court appearance (“A Scene in Picture Theatre”). And as in previous cases, the judge demonstrated at least tacit approval for Larkin’s actions by dismissing the case on the basis that it was not possible to behave offensively and riotously – as least not as the law defined it – in a theatre or picture house (“Scene in a City Cinema”). This was the end of the matter for a while, but Sparling would pursue it further later in the year (Condon).

The Catholic nationalist press supported the Vigilance movement. This photo was captioned “The Freeman’s Journal and ‘Evening Telegraph’ Section of the Procession, including motor vans.” Evening Telegraph 6 Sep. 1915: 6.

The Catholic nationalist press supported the Vigilance movement. This photo of the Vigilance demonstration in Dublin on 5 September was captioned: “The Freeman’s Journal and ‘Evening Telegraph’ Section of the Procession, including motor vans.” Evening Telegraph 6 Sep. 1915: 6.

Larkin was not acting alone in his policing of the morals of popular entertainment but was part of a mass movement. On 5 September, he had addressed an overflow meeting of people who congregated outside Dublin’s Mansion House for the now-annual demonstration of Ireland’s Vigilance Committees. Larkin had not been invited to speak at the main meeting in the Mansion House, but his audience numbered about 20,000, who heard him relate his experiences of protesting with impunity in Dublin’s theatres and picture houses (“Fighting a Plague”). Perhaps inspired by Larkin’s words, two days later, on 7 September, a group of men associated with the Catholic Arch-Confraternity of the Holy Family chased the artistes performing the variety revue Everything in the Gardens from the stage of Limerick’s Rink Palace (“Limerick to the Rescue”). The Rink Palace was part of the circuit operated by Ireland’s best known film exhibitor, James T. Jameson, who ran occasional weeks of pure variety revue but mostly offered programmes of pictures accompanied by one variety act. With over ten-years’ experience of Irish show business, Jameson should have known his audience well enough to avoid such a confrontation, but it appears that he fell afoul of a vigilance revival (“Vigilance Revived”).

“Limerick to the Rescue.” Leader 25 Sep. 1915: 153. The verse below the image explains that it “[r]epresents the raided revue with the performer flying, the audience clearing out, and the rotten Press man tearing up his puff. Wee Lorcan [Sherlock, theatre owner and Dublin’s former mayor] is seen gazing in consternation form a box.”

The pro-vigilance press was delighted with this action, perhaps none more so than D.P. Moran’s Leader. In July, Moran had published a Tom Lalor cartoon with accompanying verse by A.M.W. (John Swift) that characterized the Dublin popular audience as degenerate. Now just over two months later, the Leader published the reverse angle of this image, portraying and praising not a typical degenerate audience but the actual members of the audience of Limerick’s Rink Palace, who vowed – among other things – that “No Cockney dirt shall e’er disgrace / The fame of this historic place” (“Limerick to the Rescue”). While these popular actions continued, some of the members of the Vigilance Committees who had been inside the Mansion House were meeting with members of Dublin Corporation (“The Corporation”). Newspaper reports put particular emphasis on the discussion of objectionable film posters and of suggestive music-hall revues. Alderman J.J. Farrell, who as proprietor of the Phibsboro Picture House had experienced protests by Larkin, was adamant that none of the picture houses he controlled showed objectionable material and challenged the delegation to name the offending premises. However, Lord Mayor James Gallagher assured the delegation that “any machinery in the hands of the Corporation would be set in motion at once” (ibid. and Rockett 44-51).

Freeman's Journal 16 Sep. 1915: 8.

Classified ad for Chaplin imitators, Freeman’s Journal 16 Sep. 1915: 8.

That the Vigilance Committees did not fully understand cinema is seen in their lack of attention to Charlie Chaplin. The pattern of Larkin’s protests, the Leader’s articles and the terms on which they approached the Corporation indicate that they saw cinema as a kind of theatre. For them, it was a recorded version of the scandalous plays that Larkin also disrupted or the suggestive revues that the Arch-Confraternity men scattered. Although cinema certainly included these kinds of entertainments, Chaplin worked the other way around. His tramp character had been created on film and was assumed into a diverse range of cultural contexts. All picture houses showed his films as soon as they got them, but some created special Chaplin-themed events. The Electric Theatre in Dublin’s Talbot Street did not often advertise, but it did so during the period of 27 September-2 October, which it dubbed Chaplin Week. The management was confident that this would repay the cost of publicity because they had run a very successful Chaplin Week at the end of August. During the same week, ads for Dublin’s Coliseum Theatre promoted the live revue Charlie Chaplin Mad, featuring “A Stage Full of Charlie Chaplins” and “The Only Charlie Chaplin Girl Extant.” The last claims seems unlikely if a Bioscope item on a women’s fashion trend was to be taken seriously. “Mr. Charles Chaplin, whose ears at present must be in a chronic state of tingling,” the item began, “[h]as further added to his unique reputation by inspiring a well-known firm of ladies’ costumiers to the designing of a Charlie Chaplin costume” (“Trade Topics”).

Ads featurng Chaplin, autumn 1915. Left, Evening Telegraph 12 Aug. 1915: 2; right, Dublin Evening Mail 11 Sep. 1915: 5.

Ads featuring Chaplin, autumn 1915. Left, Evening Telegraph 12 Aug. 1915: 2; right, Dublin Evening Mail 11 Sep. 1915: 5.

Chaplin attracted an audience but also inspired an expressive fandom. The editor of the Sunday Herald claimed to have received thousands of replies when s/he offered readers £10 for the funniest story in response to the title “Why Charlie Chaplin makes me laugh.” The Masterpiece Theatre, also in Dublin’s Talbot Street, held what it called a Chaplin Revue in the week of 13-18 September, but this was a “real Chaplin week” – a jibe at the Electric for the relatively few Chaplin films they had shown in August – offering six Chaplin films for the first three days of the week and seven for the second three days (“Chaplin Revue”). During the week, the management encouraged audience interaction when it invited local Chaplin imitators to compete against one another by being filmed and having the public judge the best impersonation. “A very large entry has been secured,” the Evening Telegraph reported, “and the pick of these when filmed should make a picture of more than ordinary interest” (“Masterpiece”).

In this context at least, Chaplin certainly was monopolizing the limelight.

References

“Chaplin Revue at the Masterpiece.” Evening Telegraph 13 Sep. 1915: 6.

Condon, Denis. “‘Offensive and Riotous Behaviour’? Performing the Role of an Audience in Irish Cinema of the mid-1910s.” Performing New Media, 1890-1915. Eds. Kaveh Askari et al. New Barnet, Herts: John Libbey, 2014. 193-202.

“Fighting a Plague: Vigilance Committee’s Crusade: Annual Procession and Meeting.” Irish Catholic 11 Sep. 1915: 2.

“German Film Campaign: Herr Dernburg – Film Producer.” Bioscope 23 Sep 1915: 1360.

“‘Give Up Your Gold, It’s for Britain!!”” Bioscope 30 Sep. 1915: 1473.

“The Grafton Picture House.” Freeman’s Journal 14 Sep. 1915: 7.

“Limerick to the Rescue.” Leader 25 Sep. 1915: 153.

“The Masterpiece.” Evening Telegraph 21 Sep. 1915: 2.

Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 12 Aug. 1915: 679; 9 Sep. 1915: 1176.

Rockett, Kevin. Irish Film Censorship: A Cultural Journey from Silent Cinema to Internet Pornography. Dublin: Four Courts, 2004.

“A Scene in Picture Theatre in Dublin: Young Man Charged with Causing Disturbance: ‘Modern Magdalen’: Production of a Film and the Sequel.” Evening Herald 15 Sep. 1915: 5.

“Scene in a City Cinema: ‘Irish Censor Board Wanted’: Charge of Creating a Disturbance: The Case Dismissed.” Dublin Evening Mail 22 Sep. 1915: 5.

“Town Topics.” Dublin Evening Mail 23 Aug. 1915: 2.

“Trade Topics.” Bioscope 23 Sep. 1915: 1319.

“Vigilance Revived: Rink Palace Stormed.” Limerick Leader 8 September 1915: 3.

“Experiments Against the Public Taste” in Irish Picture Houses, August 1915

Evening Telegraph, 23 Aug. 1915: 1.

Evening Telegraph, 23 Aug. 1915: 1.

In its reviews of entertainments on Tuesday, 24 August 1915, Dublin’s Freeman’s Journal departed from the usual blandly favourable tone of newspaper notices to criticize the choice of film at the Bohemian Picture Theatre. Although the reviewer praised the “discrimination exercised by the management in the selection of films” since the picture house had opened the previous year, s/he regretted that the “inclusion of ‘Sapho’ this week introduces an unedifying subject” (“Bohemian”). Although the reviewer conceded that the film actually contained “very little to which exception might be taken,” s/he argued that “these experiments against the public taste are very dangerous, as might have been gathered from the attitude of the audience” (ibid).

The reviewer neglected to say, however, what had been the audience actual reaction to Sapho. Others were a little more forthcoming. Attending the Bohemian’s 7pm show on Monday evening, Joseph Holloway thought that the “unpleasant love story of Jean & Sapho was well enacted – a crowded audience witnessed it & many were waiting outside to see the 9 o’clock show as I came out” (Holloway, 23 Aug. 1915). Holloway did not mention any manifestations of dangerous attitudes among this apparently enthusiastic audience, but a report in the trade journal Bioscope some weeks later perhaps accounts for the Freeman’s hints about agitation among the audience. “During the screening of ‘Sapho,’ at the Bohemian Theatre,” Paddy, the Bioscope’s Irish correspondent, claimed that “the Vigilance Committee – or what purported to be the same – held a massed meeting at the corner of the street, and also secured a brass band which did a few triumphal processions past the theatre” (Paddy).

The Bohemian had been and would continue to be a target of Dublin Vigilance Committee (DVC) activity, but the use of a brass band was not repeated there. This may be because this tactic failed to attract the same level of publicity as the disturbance in the auditorium, arrest and court appearance favoured by such DVC activists as William and Francis Larkin.

A poster for Olga Nethersole’s theatrical version of Sapho, written by Clyde Fitch. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In any case, few audience members – and certainly not the journalists, Holloway or members of the Vigilance Committee – can have been unaware that Sapho was about a woman’s extramarital affairs. Alphonse Daudet had adapted his own popular 1884 novel for the stage, and it had been lent further notoriety when in 1900, Olga Nethersole produced and starred in a US stage version written by Clyde Fitch that told the story from Sapho’s point of view. Both the French and US versions had played in Dublin in the 1900s. So well known was the novel and play that when Nethersole returned to the Gaiety in 1906, the Irish Times commented that it

is unnecessary at this period of time to discuss the morals of the play, or argue the question whether its enactment is calculated to promote a wholesome spirit or not. The subject is one on which people have made up their minds one way or another, and judging by the constitution of last night’s audience the vast bulk, if not the entire of those present, understood perfectly the class of production which they had gone to witness.” (“Gaiety Theatre.”)

Any experiments against the public taste had long yielded their results, it seems, at least as far as the audience at the Gaiety was concerned. However, cinema had altered Ireland’s mediascape by bringing entertainment out of the city centres to the suburbs, small towns and rural areas, and because it was cheaper than theatre, it was more accessible to the working class. With these shifts in entertainment, the definition of “public taste” and “audience” was up for grabs.

In any case, not all journalists were as accepting of the taste experiments represented by plays such as Sapho as the jaded Irish Times reporter appears to have been. In July 1915, D.P. Moran, editor of the Leader, reminded readers of his 15-year-long “campaign against music hall and theatrical filth” (“‘Dirty Dublin’ Again”). He claimed this campaign was necessary because of the complicity of the newspapers with theatre owners:

The names of such plays as “Zaza” “Sapho,” and “Kitty Grey” will recall that campaign to the recollection of our older readers. But the daily Press was then as it is now rotten. We took a big start out of the dailies of that time, and they were cautious of their puffs of imported dirt, but they stuck like wax to the advertisements of the entertainments and plays however dirty. (Ibid.)

Sapho had been one of the key works in Moran’s long-running crusade against the laxity of the mainstream press. And he was right to indicate that theatre and picture-house owners paid to advertise and expected that reviews would at least pay sympathetic attention to their entertainments, if not outright reproduce promotional materials masquerading as criticism. This also makes reviews of limited use for historical purposes. In contrast to this commercial motivation, Moran was – as a self-styled Irish-Irelander interested in Gaelic culture rather than Nationalist politics – hostile to popular entertainments for their Anglicizing influence, which included promoting forms of sexual expression at odds with Irish Catholicism.

“A Review of the Audience.” Leader 17 Jul. 1915: 541.

Moran’s campaign was not limited to the content of theatrical shows or press complicity but also aimed to refashion the Irish audience. This aspect of his crusade took visual form in July 1915, when he published Tom Lalor’s cartoon entitled “A Review of the Audience.” The accompanying verses by A.M.W. (John Swift) directed readers to contemplate the “dirty degenerates ever so keen / To welcome the smut of a music hall scene.” Among these were the “Johnnie, or nut,” “the College effeminate brat, / Ne’er keen on a lesson that’s wholesome or nice, / But apt in the study of music hall vice,” as well as “the old reprobate well to the fore / In years far advanced but in vices much more.” The press was also excoriated:“Our Press lends its aid to the stuff it should drown, / The ‘Freeman’ and ‘Mail’ that should give it hard knocks / Encourage the same from a seat in a box.”

Although the picture houses were not yet on Moran’s agenda in July 1915, they soon would be when he supported the DVC coming campaign for film censorship, and the appearance of a well-publicized film adaptation of Sapho would no doubt have put him on the alert. The version of the film shown at the Bohemian in August 1915 was one of two film versions released into the British film market in 1913. When the French company Éclair released its version, starring Nethersole, in Britain in March 1913, it became a cause celebre within the industry. The film was banned in Leeds and other places, and when an exhibitor was prosecuted for showing it in Darlington, the Cinema Exhibitors’ Association took up his defence (“The ‘Sapho’Case”).

But it was the US version, released in Britain in November 1913, that would eventually make its way to Ireland. It was made by the Majestic Motion Picture Company and starred Florence Roberts. Whatever its other faults, the adaption to the screen met with approval: “Daudet’s work loses nothing in its production on the cinema, and the large audiences followed the picture through its six parts with interest” (“The Bohemian Picture House”). However, if Irish exhibitors hoped to avoid controversy by waiting nearly two years before booking the film, they miscalculated not so much the public taste as the growing power of the Catholic guardians of morality.

References

“The Bohemian.” Freeman’s Journal 24 Aug. 1915: 2.

“The Bohemian Picture House.” Dublin Evening Mail 24 Aug. 1915: 6.

“‘Dirty Dublin’ Again.” Leader 10 July 1915: 519-20.

“Gaiety Theatre.” Irish Times 20 Sep. 1906: 6.

Holloway, Joseph. Holloway Diaries. National Library of Ireland.

Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 9 Sep. 1915: 1176.

“The ‘Sapho’Case.” Bioscope 31 Jul. 1913: 349.