Instructive Images on Irish Cinema Screens in Late Summer 1917

Kingstown Pav DEM 6 Aug 1917

William Quinn – “The McCormack of the West” – was among the vocalists that the Pavilion engaged to attract the wealthy residents of Kingstown. Douglas Fairbanks’ The Good Bad Man (US: Fine Arts, 1916) was of secondary importance. Dublin Evening Mail 6 Aug. 1917: 2.

At the Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire) Horticultural Show on 1 August 1917, local landlord Lord Powerscourt won not only the Challenge Cup for roses but also the Kingstown Picture House’s Cup for sweet peas (“Kingstown Horticultural Show”). That an Irish picture house was sponsoring such an event is indicative of cinema’s increasing integration into everyday life, and particularly its penetration of the realms occupied by the genteel gardeners of south County Dublin. Extra urgency had been added to the Kingstown’s courting of this audience by the reopening on 7 July 1917 of the Kingstown Pavilion. The Picture House had had the entertainment pickings of this wealthy town to itself since the Pavilion burned down on 13 November 1915. It would face well-advertised competition from the stylishly rebuilt Pavilion – designed by Coliseum architect Bertie Crewe – which sought to attract the affluent Kingstownites with vocal accompaniments to its films. You can get there [from Dublin] by tram or train,” an unnamed reviewer of the new picture house observed, “and whatever way you travel you will find plenty to please the eye en route” (“Cinema by the Sea”).

Irish Limelight 1:9 (Sep. 1917): 6.

In late summer of 1917, cinema usefulness, its embeddedness in Irish society was evident not just in the importance of propagandistic films featuring soldiers at the front but also in its instructive role in relation to food production and child rearing. Lord Powerscourt may have been happy with decorative roses and sweet pea, but the food shortages caused by the continuing war meant that people unused to agricultural work were being urged to assist in the harvests and to grow their own food. A Women’s Land Army was established in mid-1917 to provide an agricultural workforce. Among the ways in which this force was to be promoted and trained was through “an excellent cinema film […] showing the work of women on the land” (“The Women’s Land Army”). “In these days of war savings and general cheeseparing,” J. B. Holland, the writer of the “Motor News” column in Dublin’s Daily Express, reported at the end of July 1917, “it is something worthy of note to find a brand new word added to our vocabulary, and one that you can use too in polite society. Well that is the word – ‘Agronomist.’” This expansion to the writer’s vocabulary came from a film exhibited “in a cubby-hole cinema in a Sussex village” and depicting “a number of Agronomists in the very act of agronomising (or whatever the verb may be) with the result that all of us, individually and collectively decided at once to ‘go thou and do like likewise’” (Holland).

“You ought to know better than to send in seed potatoes for eating”; framegrab from Everybody’s Business (Britain: London, 1917), viewable here.

Holland did not name this film, but the Kingstown Pavilion had featured Everybody’s Business on its opening programme which may not have been an agronomizing film but was a fictional “food economy film.” It was, according to the trade journal Bioscope “in many respects the most important, and quite the most successful propaganda film that has been issued since the beginning of the war” (“Food Economy Film”). Although the “speeches of politicians, the canvassing by constituted societies, striking posters and press campaigns all have their effect,” the Bioscope argued that

a film which incorporates the essential parts of all these methods, contained in a pleasing and simple story, well told and admirably presented, must have a stupendous effect when circulated by a medium which has grown to be the most widely popular form of entertainment.

The Health Visitor (Dorothea Baird) teaches a new mother how to wash her baby in Motherhood (Britain: Trans-Atlantic, 1917). Image from the Women’s Film Pioneers Project.

Fiction films with such an explicit instructional intent were becoming more common. Just a few days before Pavilion audiences were warned off food wastage, audiences in other Irish cinemas were learning about child rearing from Motherhood (Britain: Trans-Atlantic, 1917). Sponsored by the National Baby Week Council, the film had been written by and featured Dorothea Baird, well-known stage and screen actress and wife of actor H. B. Irving. It was released for Britain and Ireland’s first National Baby Week that ran 1-7 July 1917. Alongside Dublin’s official events centred around an exhibition at the Mansion House, the Carlton Cinema showed Motherhood, which “illustrates how the rearing of children can be made a joyful thing and happy in its results, even in the poorest homes if only kindly interest and help is given to the mothers” (“‘Motherhood’ at the Carlton”). As well as a fictional narrative that demonstrated how a new mother (Lettie Paxton) is introduced to a School for Mothers by a Health Visitor (Baird), the film carried the endorsement of celebrities such as Baird and members of the social and political elite. “Mrs. Lloyd George, the Duchess of Marlborough, Lady Rhondda, Sir Richard Burbidge, Mrs. H. B. Irving, and many other notabilities connected with the National Baby Week Council have been specially filmed,” a Dublin Daily Express article observed, “so that their portraits may accompany the messages which they send to the nation through this epoch-making picture.” Lady Wimborne, wife of Ireland’s Lord Lieutenant, also endorsed the film, albeit belatedly, by attending a screening on 17 July 1917 at the Grafton Street Picture House (“To-Day in Brief”).

In the context of this increasing elite support for cinema, Winston Churchill was going somewhat against the grain when he decided following his appointment as Minister for Munitions not to fulfil his contract with the Ideal Film Renting to write the script for a film about the origins of the war (“Mr. Churchill Not to Write Film Stories”). But then, cinema had not been completely shaped to serve the war economy. It still represented a largely proletarian entertainment form and a space removed from work or fully rationalized leisure. It continued to arouse various kinds of anxieties in those in authority. The fear that picture houses provided sanctuary for shirkers and deserters was well illustrated by a parliamentary question in late July. Henry Dalziel asked Undersecretary of State for War Ian MacPherson what the British government was doing about English men who fled to Ireland to escape conscription. “Is he aware that there are hundreds of these men to be seen at cinemas in Dublin every night,” Dalziel asked MacPherson, addressing him in the third person, “and cannot he net more than a few back?” (“Hundreds at Dublin Cinemas”).

Still from the Clontarf Aquatic Festival, one of the items in Irish Events 3. Irish Limelight I:8 (Aug. 1917): 18.

Apart from the instructive fiction films, draft dodgers and other members of the cinema audience in Ireland were offered instructive local topical films, while the Film Company of Ireland was facing challenges finishing its epic Knocknagow. An increasing number of picture houses subscribed to the recently launched Irish Events newsreel, which had produced seven weekly issues and some specials by the end of August 1917. “The success of the Irish Topical Gazette has exceeded Mr. Whitten’s wildest anticipations,” observed Irish columnist Paddy in the Bioscope. “Many exhibitors have booked a contract for an extended period” (Paddy, 16 Aug.). And it was not just Irish exhibitors who could look forward to booking Irish Events because “Mr Whitten is making all arrangements for its showing in London” (Paddy, 23 Aug.).

A newsreel of Eamon De Valera’s victory in the Clare Election on 11 July 1917 could be seen on the screen at Dublin’s Rotunda on 16 July. Dublin Evening Mail 16 July 1917: 2.

Irish Events 2, the second weekly instalment of this newsreel, was issued on 23 July 1917 and featured five one-minute items that represented a mix of social and political events. As such, it resembled other newsreels, but Whitten appears to have conceived of it as primarily for social events because four of the items were of this type: The Mullingar Races, Trotting in Shelbourrne Park, A Garden Fete at Bushey Park and The Metropolitan Regatta at Island Bridge. The sole political item was De Valera after the East Clare Election (“Irish Topical Films”). The election film depicted an important event, but when viewed in the week of 23-28 July, it was not particularly timely as De Valera had won for Sinn Féin on 11 July. Indeed, a film of the election had been shown at the Rotunda – and undoubtedly other picture houses – beginning on 16 July, the same day as Irish Events 1 appeared but not as part of it.

Rotunda Convention 26 Jul 1917 DEM

An ad for Dublin’s Bohemian featuring a newsreel special on the Irish Convention; Dublin Evening Mail 26 Jul. 1917: 2.

With the emergence of Sinn Féin, political events in Ireland were moving fast, too fast for a weekly newsreel to keep up. It appears that Whitten planned to release the regular issues of Irish Events with items that could be planned in advance of its Monday release but also to release special “stop-press” films of events that could not be included in this way. This was the case when the Irish Convention, a meeting of Irish representatives convened to tackle the “Irish problem,” opened on Wednesday, 25 July. Whitten released a newsreel special of the Convention that was screened in Dublin’s Bohemian on 26 July. “Mr. Whitten is determined,” Paddy reported, “to let nothing stand in his way as regards securing the latest topical events” (16 Aug.).

Irish Events faced competition from the filmmaking activities of the Princess picture house in Rathmines; Dublin Evening Mail 19 Jul. 1917: 2.

By releasing the films of important political events quickly, Whitten maintained the scoop on his competitors. He faced competition on the filming of newsworthy events particularly from Gaumont, which had a substantial presence in Ireland and whose Gaumont Graphic newsreel was very popular. As well as this, Irish Events also faced local competition in its depiction of social events. Throughout July and August 1917, the Princess Cinema in Rathmines filmed such social events as the British Red Cross Garden Fete and the Opening of the Irish Counties’ Hospital by Lady Wimborne and even The Bushey Park Fete, which Whitten had also featured in Irish Events 2. While the Princess advertised that their films were exclusive – taken by them and not to be seen elsewhere – Irish Events was designed to be widely distributed. Whitten and his cameraman J. Gordon Lewis would have a busy autumn as they worked on Irish Events, on advertising films for Court Laundry and Paterson’s matches, and on an animated film with cartoonist Frank Leah.

Joseph Holloway’s sketch of Frank Fay as Beresford Pender in a stage adaptation of Charles J. Kickham’s Knocknagow at the Queen’s Theatre in July 1917. National Library of Ireland.

Although it had some organizational problems, Ireland’s other major indigenous film production company, the Film Company of Ireland (FCOI) also entered the somewhat crowded field of local factual filmmaking. Paddy reported that FCOI “have just finished an enormous scenic film dealing with the beauties of rural Ireland, and also containing many character studies and views of historic places” (23 Aug.). Rather than one long film, this was a series consisted of 20 one-reel films. These may have been among the company’s films that Paddy reported that Glasgow’s Square Film Company had arranged to distribute. FCOI managing director James Sullivan also told Paddy that their “almost completed” Knocknagow would be nine reels long, “the longest production ever made in the United Kingdom.”

Sullivan was eager to keep the much-anticipated adaptation of Knocknagow in the forefront of the media discussion of the company rather than its recent winding up proceedings. On 25 June 1917, his wife Ellen Sullivan, as a company creditor, had applied for its winding up in order that it could be restructured. During the proceedings, it emerged that she had given the company £500 and that it was running at a loss of £1,526 (“Film Company of Ireland”). The restructuring was necessary because James Sullivan’s co-director Henry Fitzgibbon had gone to America to promote the company but had decided not to return to Ireland. The proceedings caused some anxiety in those who were peripherally involved in FCOI. “I recently saw that the Film Co. of Ireland has been before the Court for winding up prior to reconstruction,” playwright Martin J. McHugh wrote to Joseph Holloway. “This may, and I hope will, mean only a delay in the resumption of their work; but somehow it damps one’s confidence in Irish enterprise, which does not seem usually to be blessed with good management” (Holloway, 7 Jul. 1917). McHugh had written two scripts for FCOI, “one long since paid for and photographed, and the other yet to be produced – and I wonder what will become of them.”

While the future of Irish fiction filmmaking looked uncertain at the end of summer 1917, instructive images of various kinds filled the screens.

References

“Cinema by the Sea.” Irish Limelight 1:9 (Sep. 1917): 4.

“Film Company of Ireland.” Daily Express 26 Jun. 1917: 3.

“The Food Economy Film: “Everybody’s Business”: A Stirring Appeal to the People.” Bioscope 14 Jun. 1917: 1050.

Holland, J. B. “Motor Notes.” Daily Express 30 Jul. 1917: 3.

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

“Hundreds at Dublin Cinemas Every Night: Commons Questions.” Evening Herald 24 Jul. 1917: 1.

“Irish Topical Films.” Evening Telegraph 21 Jul. 1917: 4.

“Kingstown Horticultural Show: Decrease in Exhibits.” Daily Express 2 Aug. 1917: 7.

“‘Motherhood’ at the Carlton.” Daily Express 2 Jul. 1917: 7.

“Mr. Churchill Not to Write Film Stories.” Daily Express 21 Jul. 1917: 6.

Paddy. “Irish Notes.” Bioscope 5 Jul. 1917: 83; 16 Aug. 1917: 766; 23 Aug. 1917: 881.

“Seen and Heard: Notes and Notions on men and Matters.”  Evening Herald 22 Aug. 1917: 2.

“To-Day in Brief.” Daily Express 18 Jul. 1917: 4.

“The Women’s Land Army” Daily Express 9 Jul. 1917: 4.

Exhibiting Tanks to Irish Cinema Fans, February 1917

A tank goes into battle in The Battle Ancre and Advance of the Tanks (Britain: British Topical Committee for War Films, 1917) from the Imperial War Museums.

A tank goes into battle in The Battle Ancre and Advance of the Tanks (Britain: British Topical Committee for War Films, 1917); Imperial War Museums.

Cinema was so popular in Ireland in February 1917 that the press had to search for a name for its adherents, and they found it in American vernacular. “This morning there is a heart-cry from a cinema fan,” the “Gossip of the Day” columnist in the Evening Telegraph noted on 21 February 1917:

He doesn’t know that he is a cinema fan, and that is the crux of the trouble – he is ignorant of the great American language. I gather from his pathetic note that he is a regular patron of the “silent drama,” yet he finds a difficulty in understanding the explanatory inscriptions with which American producers seek to help the intellects of those who sit in the outer darkness.

Although cinema was primarily a visual medium and as such offered the promise of an international language, it still required words to specify the meaning of what might otherwise be ambiguous images. The silent film’s intertitles carried those words, but they were often in a dialect not universally understood. The columnist was surprised at this because s/he believed that “regular patrons of this form of amusement were able to understand any announcement on the screen from the ‘slick’ slang of East Side New York to the weird attempts at English of the Italian, French and Danish producers.”

Most of the films that Irish cinemagoers saw were indeed American, but it was a British film that sought to attract as many Irish cinema fans as possible in February 1917. Monday, 19 February saw the Irish opening of The Battle of the Ancre and Advance of the Tanks (Britain: British Topical Committee for War Films, 1917), a War Office-sponsored propaganda film more often called simply The Tanks. Despite this foreshortened title, tanks featured only occasionally in the film. “Throughout the five scenes,” the Evening Herald’s Man About Town complained, “the Tanks are seen about four times altogether, each time only for a very brief passing moment.”

Whatever about the coming disappointment, anticipation for the film could build on tantalizing glimpses of this new war machine that had been accumulating for several months. In autumn 1916, Irish people had read about the first battlefield deployment of tanks, and in November 1916, Dubliners had even had the opportunity of seeing a tank film, albeit it the animated Tank Cartoon (Britain: Kineto, 1916). The cinema trade press had also informed its Irish readers about the shooting of the War Office tank film (“About Those Tanks!”).

faugh-a-ballaghs-il-feb-1917

The Dublin Evening Mail appears not to have been exaggerating when it noted that the “coming of the “Tanks’ Film’ to Dublin has been eagerly anticipated.” Publicity for the film could draw on what appears to have been a widespread fascination with this new weapon, in a similar way to which the earlier propaganda films had focused on artillery or aircraft. Previewing the coming shows at Dublin’s Theatre Royal, the city’s largest entertainment venue, the Mail writer observed that the “film portrays the most interesting happenings during the Battle of the Ancre, when the Tanks were first heard of, and promises to prove one of the most successful of the many interesting war films already seen in Dublin. The Battle of the Ancre stands out as one of the most striking phases of ‘The Big Push’” (“‘The Tanks’ at ‘The Royal’”).

Indeed, the Royal starting advertising the film as early as 10 February, when a short item warned patrons to book the film to avoid disappointment: “Your remember the trouble you had getting a seat at the ‘Battle of the Somme’ films, but you say to yourself that there will be no difficulty with ‘The Tank’ films, and you delay booking only to find yourself in the same position as before” (“‘The Tanks’ Film at the Theatre Royal”). The added attraction of The Tanks was that it included footage of Irish soldiers: “There were no Irish regiments shown in the Somme film, but Lieut. Malins, who took the pictures, succeeded in getting some splendid films of our gallant Irish Brigade.” Despite such extensive publicity of the film, the Royal only showed it at matinees (beginning at 2.30pm), except on Wednesday, when the film replaced the Royal’s two evening variety shows (beginning at 6.45pm and 9pm). Nevertheless, the film was presented at the Royal with “special music and effects that […] should help one to realise ‘what it is like.’ The band of the famous Faugh-a-Ballaghs will play at every performance” (“‘The Tanks’ at ‘The Royal’”). Unfortunately no review of the Royal shows appears to exist that specifies what effects – presumably sound effects imitating exploding shells – were used during the shows and how the audiences responded.

tanks-grafton-dem-21-feb-1917

Dublin Evening Mail 19 Feb. 1917: 2.

The Royal was far from the only Dublin venue showing the film that week. Another large theatre, the Empire, showed the film all week alongside a somewhat reduced variety programme. Several of the most prestigious picture houses also screened it, with the Bohemian, Carlton, Masterpiece and Town Hall, Rathmines showing it for the first three days of the week, and the Grafton retaining it into the second half of the week. The Bohemian managed to show the film four times daily at 3, 5, 7 and 9, but this was eclipsed by the six shows that the Grafton managed to squeeze in at 1.45, 3.15, 4.45, 6.15, 7.45 and 9.15, “so that business men and others can all have an opportunity of making acquaintance with these new machines of war, of which Sir Douglas Haig says he cannot speak too highly” (“Grafton Picture House”).

While Dublin’s newspapers reviewed the film positively – even the Herald‘s Man About Town, despite his disappointment about the little screen time devoted to the tanks themselves – the Irish Times printed the longest review, and it was most forthright in clarifying the film’s ideological intent. Its “exhibition creates many thrills, and gives a very vivid conception of the war in all its phases,” the writer argued. S/he admitted that this had been done before, most notably by the very popular Battle of the Somme (Britain: British Topical Committee for War Films, 1916), but it had been criticized for showing British soldiers being killed. “[I]n the Tank films one is spared the somewhat gruesome side of the fighting. The tanks are awesome but not gruesome” (“‘Tanks in Action’”). In the face of so much evidence to the contrary, the film therefore helped recruiting by propagating a myth of British military invulnerability. “Should they stimulate our young men to help those Irishmen whom they see manning the trenches,” the Times writer concluded a lengthy review, “‘The Tanks in Action’ will be doing good work in Dublin.”

ultus-sydney-master-dem-24-feb-1917p2

Dublin Evening Mail 24 Feb. 1917: 2.

The Times did not usually offer extensive reviews of films, but other newspapers were taking cinema increasingly seriously. On 19 February, the Evening Telegraph – the evening edition of the Freeman’s Journal – resumed publication after a hiatus caused by the destruction of its premises during the Easter Rising. Among its innovations was a Saturday column entitled “Kinematograph Notes and News.” The first series of notes on 24 February included both international items and some of particular Irish relevance. The latter included a notice that Aurele Sydney, star of Ultus series, would attend the Masterpiece Cinema during the following week’s screenings of Ultus and the Secret of the Night (Britain: Gaumont, 1917). Another note concerned the views of John Bunny, a film star who had visited Ireland five years previously and discussed the possibilities for film production in the country. Given that it made no mention of the Film Company of Ireland’s recent filmmaking efforts, the reason for the inclusion of the note on Bunny is unclear, unless it was to quietly contradict the claim made in the Masterpiece’s ad that Sydney was the first cinema star to visit Ireland.

This column was praised by a writer in the Irish Limelight, the cinema magazine that had begun publication in January 1917. “Readers of the Saturday Evening Telegraph got an agreeable surprise recently when they found that cinema notes were introduced,” “Movie Musings” columnist Senix observed. The surprise that the staff at the Limelight got on seeing the column may not have been all that agreeable, given that a weekly newspaper column might steal much of the thunder of the monthly journal. Nevertheless, Senix took it to be a positive development, commenting that “[t]his recognition of the people’s amusement proves pleasant reading after the many bitter attacks which have been made in the local Press. And the fact that it comes so soon after the appearance of the Irish Limelight sets us thinking.”

Dublin Evening Mail 17 Feb. 1917: 2

Dublin Evening Mail 17 Feb. 1917: 2

Despite Senix’s optimistic reading of the appearance of the Telegraph‘s column, bitter attacks on cinema were still very much evident in February 1917, both in the press and in the auditorium. When the “Gossip of the Day” columnist had attempted to define “cinema fan” for his/her readers, s/he speculated that “‘fan’ must be American for ‘fanatic,’ as it is used to designate people who are peculiarly addicted to any pastime.” However, there may be reasons for distinguishing between cinema fans and cinema fanatics. Certainly serial protestor William Larkin was a fanatic often to be encountered in cinemas but not a cinema fan. Since 1914, Larkin had mounted periodic protests in Dublin’s picture houses against films that he and the Catholic Irish Vigilance Association (IVA) considered to be morally dubious. These protests occurred in the auditorium during the screening of the films and involved Larkin shouting about the need for a Catholic-influenced Irish censorship and/or throwing ink at the screen. Larkin sought arrest to magnify the reach of the protest through the newspaper reports of the disturbance and subsequent trial. He had usually found that the magistrates treated him leniently – even indulgently – but in December 1915, he had been jailed when he refused to pay a fine imposed for a cinema protest.

After a period of apparent inactivity during 1916, Larkin’s latest – and last for some years – cinema protest took place on 21 February 1917 during a screening of The Soul of New York (US: Fox, 1915; released in the US as The Soul of Broadway) at the Pillar Picture House in Dublin city centre (“City Cinema”). It followed a well-established pattern. At about 10.25pm, the picture-house porter heard a commotion in the auditorium, found that Larkin had thrown “a blue liquid” at the screen and went to get manager J. D. Hozier. Larkin made no attempt to escape and admitted to having thrown the liquid, which not only caused damage estimated at £30 to the screen but also “bespattered” the instruments and clothes of musicians Herbert O’Brien, Joseph Schofield and Samuel Golding in the orchestra (“City Cinema Scenes”). After several court appearances, the case seems to have been struck out at the end of March.

Evening Telegraph 22 Feb. 1917: 1.

Evening Telegraph 22 Feb. 1917: 1.

Although this “exciting episode” certainly garnered press coverage, how Larkin’s direct-action methods complemented the Irish Vigilance Association’s ongoing campaign for cinema censorship is not clear. Indeed, despite his previous affiliation with the IVA, Larkin may have been acting on his own in this instance. The IVA’s well organized political lobbying for the introduction and effective exercising of film censorship was well advanced by February 1917. In June 1916, Dublin Corporation had appointed Walter Butler and Patrick Lennon as film censors, and in January 1917, it had engaged two women as “lady inspectors” of picture houses (“Amusement Inspectors,” “Dublin Lady Censors”). The IVA found a ready welcome at Dublin Corporation. On the last day of February, its Public Health Committee (PHC) invited a seven-member IVA deputation to address them on Sunday opening (“Cinema on Sundays”). Answering the deputation’s complaint that many cinemas opened at 8 o’clock on Sunday evenings, thereby intruding on hours set aside for Catholic devotions, PHC chairman and former mayor Lorcan Sherlock assured the deputation that the Corporation would enforce a 8.30pm Sunday opening.

Therefore, Irish cinema was engaging both fans and fanatics in February 1917.

References

“About Those Tanks! Extraordinary Interest of the Latest ‘Big Push’ Films.” Bioscope 12 Oct. 1916: 121.

“Amusement Inspectors: Reports to Be Made on Dublin Performances.” Evening Herald 10 Jan. 1917: 3.

“Cinemas on Sundays: Vigilance Association and the Hours of Opening.” Evening Telegraph 1 Mar. 1917: 2.

City Cinema: Exciting Episode: Blue Liquid Thrown.” Evening Telegraph 22 Feb. 1917: 1.

“City Picture-House Scene.” Dublin Evening Mail 28 Feb. 1917: 2.

“Dublin Lady Censors: Names Submitted.” Freeman’s Journal 15 Jan. 1917: 4.

“Gossip of the Day: Comments on Current Events.” Evening Telegraph 21 Feb. 1917: 2

“Grafton Picture House.” Dublin Evening Mail 17 Feb. 1917: 5.

“Kinematograph Notes and News.” Evening Telegraph 24 Feb. 1917: 5.

The Man About Town. “Thing Seen and Heard.” Evening Herald 19 Feb. 1917: 2.

Senix. “Movie Musings.” Irish Limelight 1:3 (Mar. 1917): 3.

“‘The Tanks’ at ‘The Royal.’” Dublin Evening Mail 17 Feb. 1917: 4.

“‘The Tanks’ Film at the Theatre Royal.” Dublin Evening Mail 10 Feb. 1917: 5.

“‘Tanks in Action’: Cinema Pictures in Dublin.” Irish Times 20 Feb. 1917: 3.

“The Birth of a Nation” in Ireland, Autumn 1916

Theatrical poster; Wikipedia.

Theatrical poster; Wikipedia.

D. W. Griffith’s racist epic The Birth of a Nation (US: Epoch, 1915) caused a sensation when it finally reached Ireland in the autumn of 1916, more for its epic ambitions than for its racism. It played exclusively at just three venues: first, at Belfast’s Grand Opera House, for the three week from 7 to 26 August; next, at Cork’s Opera House for the week of 28 August-2 September; and finally, at Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre for a two-week run from 18 to 30 September. Clever marketing to middle-class tastes, a mastery of filmic spectacle and even its title in a country consumed by a struggle for or against the birth of a more-or-less autonomous nation propelled it into the Irish consciousness like few previous films.

“‘Ireland will never be fit to take its place among nationalities, big or small, until it is recast and remade. It is in the melting-pot now…. What picture of the process of remoulding will the historian of the future give his generation? ” This question from US senator Patrick J. Maguire appeared as “To-Day’s Thought” at the top of the Man About Town’s “Seen and Heard” column in the Evening Herald on 26 September 1916.  In the column’s “Afterthought,” the Man About Town answered: “Why a moving picture, of course – another ‘Birth of a Nation.’” As writers in the Bioscope and Dublin Evening Mail had earlier in the year, the Man About Town thought that the historiography of the near future would be written not on the page but on the screen, with the light of the film camera and projector. Unlike these previous writers who had discussed British propaganda films, the Man About Town was referring to the fictional Birth of a Nation, which was then starting the second of its two-week run at the Gaiety.

Dublin Evening Mail 16 September 1916: 2.

One of a series of large display ads for The Birth of a Nation in the Dublin Evening Mail, this one appeared on 16 September 1916: 2.

“By the way, have you seen it – the ‘Birth of a Nation’ at the Gaiety?” the Man About Town continued, clearly somewhat overwhelmed by this version of the American Civil War and period of Reconstruction that followed it. Focusing on the Northern Stoneman and Southern Cameron families, Griffith depicts the Civil War as a national tragedy, that was followed by the assassination of Abraham Lincoln which allowed such radical Republicans as Austin Stoneman (George Siegmann) – a fictional version of Thaddeus Stevens – to unleash on the defeated South a plague of carpetbaggers and state legislatures of freed blacks incapable of governing even their own behaviour never mind a state. Order could only be restored when Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall) founded the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), which restores order and rescues white women from the sexual depredations of black men. Awed by the film’s technical achievements, Irish journalists tended to treat it as a factual retelling of events. “If you fail to see it you are missing a part of your education,” the Man About Town warned. “I have sat out some kinema shows in my time, but nothing to come near this. It’s the greatest screened drama that ever came to Dublin.”

Childhood friends but belonging to opposing Union and Confederate armies, the youngest sons of the Cameron and Stoneman families meet on the battlefield and die in each other's arms.

Childhood friends but belonging to opposing Union and Confederate armies, the youngest sons of the Cameron and Stoneman families meet on the battlefield and die in each other’s arms in The Birth of a Nation.

Under the title “Absolutely It,” Jacques’ review at the Evening Herald concluded that it was “the most enthralling thing in film land ever presented to a Dublin audience” and declared the reviewer lost for words. “If you ask me to give a full and detailed account of all the characters, love stories, historical incidents and thrilling incidents that occurred during the two hours that ‘The Birth of a Nation” reel kept spinning at the Gaiety Theatre last night,” he confided, “I’m sorry to say I can’t do it.” He nevertheless usefully provided what he called “but the baldest outline”:

The film shows us with almost overwhelming detail life in America, both North and South, just previous to and during the course of the Civil War. Mixed up with the fighting we follow the fortunes of two families united by ties of friendship but on opposite sides in the struggle. Then, when the war is over, we see the rising of the blacks, who, thanks to the slushy policy of the North, get all the power into their own hands and become bestial tyrants in consequence.

Kindly before our eyes is pictured the inception of the biggest secret society the world has ever seen, for it embraced every white in the South and yet remained secret. Finally we see how this society – the Ku-Klux-Klan – by the employment of mailed glove methods and working on negroid superstition, was enabled to stamp out the black peril and permit the whites in the Southern States to live without the men carrying their lives (and their six-shooters) in their hands.

Jacques was somewhat unusual among Irish reviewers in focusing on the second, more audaciously racist part of the film, which deals with the Reconstruction, and his use of such terms as “bestial tyrants,” “negroid superstition” and “the black peril” leaves little doubt that he accepted the film’s racism.

The very picture of imperilled femininity, Elsie Stoneman (Lillian Gish) awaits her forced marriage to the mixed race Silas Lynch in The Birth of a Nation.

In just one climactic instance of racially imperilled femininity, Elsie Stoneman (Lillian Gish) awaits her forced marriage to the mixed race Silas Lynch in The Birth of a Nation.

The Man About Town largely avoided explicit white-supremacist phrasing but made clear that the film’s affective power – frequently evoked with images of imperilled femininity – was deployed to ensure that the audience identified with Southern whites:

It gives you every emotion in the human gamut. One time you marvel at the beauty of the sunny cottonfields, then you smile at the quaint costumes. You want to kiss and cuddle the sweet young person loved by heroic young men. You feel an all-overness when you see howling mobs surging in flaming towns; you grip yourself at the sight of men amuck smashing and tearing houses above the heads of cellared women; you feel the shock of battle. You laugh and cheer and cry. It’s better than a good play. It’s a marvel.

The reviewer at the Belfast News-Letter contended that the emotional charge was intensified over the film’s three-hour span in order to offer the audience a final release by cheering the KKK. “Historically of the greatest value,” s/he claimed,

“The Birth of a Nation” holds the audience enthralled for over three hours, and the enthusiasm of the spectators waxes stronger and stronger with each succeeding scene, until, towards the close, they seize the opportunity afforded by the thrilling exploits of the Ku Klux Kan [sic] to give vent to their long pent-up emotions in frequent and hearty outbursts of applause. (“Grand Opera House”  BN.)

Only the reviewer at Cork’s Evening Echo in any way questioned the film’s racial politics. “The southern cotton planters were persuaded nature intended the negroes to be bought and sold and to cultivate cotton,” s/he observed, commenting that the “outlook of these planters appears peculiar at the present day,” but undermining what may be a mild criticism by adding that “one can to some extent understand it” (“Opera House”). “Mr. Griffith, it is easy to see, has a strong Southern bias,” the Northern Whig reviewer pointed out, “but this would not matter if it did not lead him to overstate an excellent case.” This overstatement was particularly evident in the depiction of the KKK: “to represent [the KKK] as a new order of chivalry is simply fantastic.” However, the writer’s problem appears to have been historical accuracy – the fact that it “is tinged too deeply with melodrama” – and not racist ideology: “If the Ku-Klux-Klan cannot be adorned with a halo, Mr. Griffith uses it to produce some splendid sensational thrills and the final fight for Piedmont is as good a realistic spectacle as one has ever seen staged” (“Grand Opera House” NW 8 Aug.).

It is possible to track these difference in reception of The Birth of a Nation because it received so much newspaper coverage, and this in turn was because it played exclusively at three of Ireland’s most prestigious theatres rather than at Belfast’s, Cork’s and Dublin’s picture houses. This formed part of a deliberate international exhibition strategy designed to distinguish The Birth of a Nation as a cultural event unlike any previous film screening. Rather than be distributed through existing distribution companies, the film was exhibited in a “road show” format, brought to the cities in which it was to be shown by a travelling company of technical crew and musicians. The company’s arrival was heralded by an elaborate marketing campaign that included large newspaper display ads describing – or rather exaggerating – the film’s unprecedented scale (Stokes 121). The claim repeated most often in Irish newspaper ads related less to the film’s narrative than to the assertion that the extent of the production needed to be measured in the thousands:  18,000 people, 5,000 horses and £10,000 costs.

This ad quoted the overwhelmingly positive reviews in Belfast's papers; Northern Whig 9 Aug. 1916: 7.

This ad quoted the overwhelmingly positive reviews in Belfast’s papers. Notable missing is the nationalist daily Irish News, which did not advertise or review the film. Northern Whig 9 Aug. 1916: 7.

Every ad also carried a note from director D. W. Griffith guaranteeing that “‘The Birth of a Nation’ will never be presented in any but the highest-class theatres and at prices charged for the best theatrical attractions.” Theatrical prestige was financially lucrative. “At both houses yesterday large audiences attended,” the Irish Times’ reviewer noted in the course of a comparatively short review of the Gaiety shows, observing that luxury and expense were sometimes forced on “later comers at the evening performance [who were] unable to obtain admission, except to the dearer parts of the theatre” (“‘Birth of a Nation’” IT). The Irish exhibition of The Birth of a Nation awaited a British road-show company that came – according to the ads – “direct from its sensational success at Drury Lane, London.” As a result, the film had taken a year and half to reach Ireland.

Belfast News-Letter 15 Aug. 1916: 1.

The Panopticon’s “mirth of a nation”; Belfast News-Letter 15 Aug. 1916: 1.

The attempt to suggest that the prestige theatres should be the exhibition spaces for prestige films was, not surprisingly, resisted by picture-house owners. During the Belfast run, the rival Panopticon advertised that if not “the birth of a nation,” it was providing “the mirth of a nation,” albeit that its main feature Burnt Wings (Britain: Broadwest, 1916) – in which a woman adopts her husband’s illegitimate child – does not seem altogether mirthful (“Panopticon”). For distributors of other high-profile films, the choice of picture house or theatre appears to have been more pragmatic. When the most ambitious of the British government’s propaganda films The Battle of the Somme finally opened on 11 September, it was first shown in Dublin at a theatre, the Theatre Royal, but in Belfast, it was shown at the luxurious Picture House, Royal Avenue. “[N]ever have the facts of war been more vividly brought home to people living far away from the scene of action,” the Belfast News-Letter commented. “For this latter feature we are indebted to the pictures which have from time to time been obtained by means of the cinematograph [… F]rom the moment of preparation, all through that deadly, but glorious, First of July, on to the crash of victory, the story is unfolded in all the strength and simplicity which such photography can give ” (“Battle of the Somme”).

Dublin Evening Mail 26 Aug. 1916: 2.

Carmen, a silent-screen opera; Dublin Evening Mail,  26 Aug. 1916: 2.

Undoubtedly, certain picture houses were capable of mounting productions that rivalled the theatres’ biggest spectacles. In the week beginning 28 August, Dublin’s Bohemian capitalized on its acknowledged superiority in musical attractions by exhibiting the opera film Carmen (US: Lasky, 1915), directed by Cecil B. DeMille and starring Metropolitan Opera diva Geraldine Farrar in her first film role. Farrar did not, of course, appear at the Bohemian to sing her part, but the live musical accompaniment by the Bohemian orchestra was supplemented by both concert instrumentalists Achille Simonetti and Clyde Twelvetrees and vocalists Belgian tenor Carlo Berckmans and Irish basso Irvine Lynch.

Although it did not have such vocal attractions, The Birth of a Nation outdid all of these in other ways. One of these was its exceeding length, running almost three times longer than either Carmen or The Battle of the Somme. Indeed, its running time of over three hours was 50-100% longer than most picture-house programmes, which usually consisted of several films. And however exaggerated the figures that appeared in its ads, local reviewers recognized it as an unusually lavish production. “The Grand Opera House was filled to overflowing last night,” the Belfast News-Letter‘s reviewer observed,

and collectively and individually, without exception, the members of the huge audience that peopled the vast auditorium were thrilled to the very core by the stupendous historical drama that was unfolded before their eyes. “The Birth of a Nation” is unquestionably the finest cinematograph production ever seen in this city, but it represents far more than that; it is one of the mightiest and most moving spectacles ever seen upon any stage, and its creation is an epochal event in the history of the art of cinematography. (“Grand Opera House” BN.)

Joseph Holloway saw several films apart from The Birth of a Nation in September 1916, including a second viewing of the Film Company of Ireland’s O’Neil of the Glen, at which he sketched actor J. M. Carre.

Joseph Holloway saw several films apart from The Birth of a Nation in September 1916, including a second viewing of the Film Company of Ireland’s O’Neil of the Glen, at which he sketched actor J. M. Carre.

However, it seems that audiences in Dublin and those in Belfast interpreted the spectacle in different ways. Writing of Dublin, Nicholas Andrew Miller has pointed out that “[i]f the film produced a local political impact on the Irish audience, then, it is not because it narrated Irish historical experience, but because it created a discursive space in which local Irish references – and memories – could appear in the guise of spectacle” (115). Citing the diary of inveterate theatregoer Joseph Holloway, Miller shows that members of the Gaiety audience used the film to criticize post-Easter Rising Ireland. Holloway had attended the Gaiety on 20 September, when he thought the film “stupendous […] & to say that I was thrilled by visiting it is to state but downright fact. It is a story of the War between North & South & its after effect until the negroes were again put in their proper place.”  Holloway also reports that his neighbour Miss Conroy told him of shouts at one of the screenings concerning British Army commander John Maxwell, who had imposed harsh martial law on Dublin in the aftermath of the Rising and had executed 15 of the leaders. The comments came during a scene in the film in which

Lincoln refuses to deal harshly with the Southern Leaders, & says, “he’ll treat them as if nothing occurred at all!” – on a shout coming from one of the audience “where is Sir John Maxwell to hear that?” followed by great approval & the contrary, till she got quite frightened of there being a row.

(The barber’s assistant, who was present at opening show first night, said one on gallery called out after seeing the above incident – “For our second Cromwell!”). (Holloway.)

For Miller, the memories and local references the film evoked related to nationalist politics, in this case, the Easter Rising.

This film ad openly praised the Ku Klux Klan; Belfast News-Letter 3 Aug. 1916: 7.

This film ad openly praised the Ku Klux Klan; Belfast News-Letter 3 Aug. 1916: 7.

The Belfast context was quite different. As no equivalent of Holloway’s diary exists for Belfast and as the Irish News – the city’s main nationalist newspaper – did not advertise or review the Grand Opera House shows, the surviving responses to The Birth of a Nation come from the city’s unionist newspapers. As well as this, the film opened on 7 August, more than a month earlier than in Dublin, putting it in the high summer, when an exodus from the city to seaside resorts was being reported (“Holiday Scenes in Belfast”). “Even in such hot weather as we have been experiencing recently a visit to the Opera House to see the ‘Birth of a Nation’ will not be regretted, but on the other hand will long be remembered with much pleasure by all who pay it” (“Birth of a Nation” NW). Despite this, the film ran for three weeks, a week longer than in Dublin, and the papers reported that the enthusiasm of Belfast audiences had not waned even by its third week, “which finds the film in higher favour than ever. […] Not only is Mr. Griffith’s spectacle continually drawing new admirers but a great many people are discovering that it well repays a second and even a third visit” (“Grand Opera House”  NW 22 Aug.).

For the reviewers in Belfast, the outstanding feature of local relevance in The Birth of Nation was its depiction of war, which made it particularly timely given that the papers were elsewhere reporting on the battles of the Somme and Verdun and at one point, on the increased use of non-white soldiers in battle (“Coloured Men and the War”). “The battle of Petersburg, in which the Federal troops sustained their greatest and final defeat, caused great interest on account of the close analogy it bears to the fighting on the Western front to-day,” the Belfast News-Letter observed, “it was one of the earliest, if not the first occasions in history, on which the contending armies entrenched in the open with the opposing lines only a few yards apart” (“Grand Opera House” BN).

However, the film’s contemporary relevance came  not just for these battlefield details but also from the depiction of the emotions felt by soldiers’ families.

The departure of the troops for the scene of action, the pathos of parting from their friends and relatives, the tragic letters which tell of their devotion and sacrifices, the sorrow and suffering that are bravely endured by grief-stricken parents who have given their sons to their country – all these things are typical of what is happening at the present time. No one can witness this mighty spectacle without being moved to tears. There are scenes of indescribable pathos, and there are also scenes of surpassing beauty and of infinite sweetness and tenderness. (“‘Birth of a Nation’” BN.)

Although a greater emphasis fell on the war scenes in Belfast – “where picture houses thrive and claim thousands of habitués” – it was also true of Dublin and Cork that “[t]he prophesy that the film would create a sensation wherever it was produced has been fulfilled to the letter” (“Grand Opera House” NW 15 Aug.). Irish filmgoers – but not cinemagoers – thronged to see Griffith’s massive spectacle in the autumn of 1916, were duly impressed by it and few had qualms about its racism.

References

“The Battle of the Somme: Historic Film to be Exhibited in Belfast.” Belfast News-Letter 18 Aug. 1916: 8.

“The Birth of a Nation.” Northern Whig 12 Aug. 1916: 6.

“‘The Birth of a Nation’: Impressive Spectacle at the Grand Opera House.” Belfast News-Letter 12 Aug. 1916: 2.

“‘The Birth of a Nation.’” Irish Times 20 Sep. 1916: 3.

“Cinema’s Popularity: Manifold Potentialities: Shows What Theatre Only Tells.” Belfast Evening Telegraph 29 Sep. 1916: 4.

“Coloured Men and the War.” Belfast News-Letter 4 Aug. 1916: 8.

“Grand Opera House: ‘The Birth of a Nation.’” Belfast News-Letter 8 Aug. 1916: 2.

“Grand Opera House: ‘The Birth of a Nation.’” Northern Whig 8 Aug. 1916: 7; 15 Aug. 1916: 7; 22 Aug. 1916: 7.

Holiday Scenes in Belfast: Big Exodus to the Seaside: The Railway Stations Besieged.” Belfast News-Letter 8 Aug. 1916: 4.

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

Hughes, Tom. How Belfast Saw the Light: A Cinematic History. Belfast: Hughes, 2014. Pp. 237-40.

Jacques. “Absolutely It: Amazing Realism at Gaiety Theatre: ‘Birth of a Nation.’” Evening Herald 19 Sep. 1916: 3.

The Man About Town. “Things Seen and Heard.” Evening Herald 26 Sep. 1916: 2.

Miller, Nicholas Andrew. Modernism, Ireland and the Erotics of Memory. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002).

“Opera House: ‘The Birth of a Nation.’” Evening Echo 29 Aug. 1916: 2.

“Panopticon.” Belfast News-Letter 15 Aug. 1916: 2.

Stokes, Melvyn. D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation: A History of “the Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time.” New York: Oxford UP, 2008.

From the Stomach to the Front: Projecting the World on Irish Screens in April 1915

The growth of picture houses in the 1910s provided Irish people with unprecedented visual access to the world. The increasing number of cinemagoers could view otherwise difficult or impossible to see geographical spaces, the geopolitical spaces of Europe’s battlefields and even the intimate spaces within the human body.

Stomach film DEM 24 Mar 1915

Dublin Evening Mail 24 March 1915: 5.

“You can take a series of X-Ray pictures at intervals of a few minutes each, while the stomach is busy digesting food,” observed an article in the Dublin Evening Mail in late March 1915.

[P]ut these pictures together on a film, thrown them on a screen, and –

You virtually have a MOVING PICTURE of the stomach in action while digesting your food. (“Moving Pictures of the Stomach.”)

Designed to look like a news item, this article was actually an advertisement for Bisturated Magnesia, a treatment for excess stomach acid. It used the term “moving pictures” – capitalized like no other word in the body of the article – to attract the roving eye of newspaper readers (and film historians), dyspeptic or not. Some advertisers clearly saw moving pictures as a desirable technology with which to associate their product in this way, as the promoters of White’s Fruit Jelly Crystals had done in the same newspaper in August 1913 (“Really Moving Picture”).

In their use of stomach X-rays, the advertisers of Bisturated Magnesia were, however, undoubtedly making a specific reference to Dr John MacIntyre’s experiments in what is now called medical imaging and specifically to Dr John MacIntyre’s X-Ray Film (1896, 1909), which includes early cineradiography of the stomach. Despite being a medical doctor and pioneer of radiography, MacIntyre could also see that X-rays were a spectacular visual technology, of interest far beyond the medical community (Cartwright 22). As such, he had something in common with the showmen who in the late 1890s exploited the entertainment possibilities of X-rays in theatres and fairgrounds, including in Ireland (Condon). This occurred at precisely the same time as the first projected moving pictures were being exhibited. Unlike moving pictures, however, the entertainment career of X-rays was short. For a start, the danger of radiation burns from prolonged exposure to the rays soon became obvious. As well as this, once audiences had seen the bones of their hands or the contents of a locked wooden box, the novelty value of X-rays was exhausted, but they retained a strong imaginative fascination. By contrast, moving pictures were inexhaustible in the potential subjects they could show, from X-ray images of such interior spaces to the exterior spaces of the historical world and the imagined spaces of fiction.

Moving pictures has also prompted the creation of the new social spaces of the picture houses, which were becoming increasingly ubiquitous on the Irish streetscape in April 1915. Although the Grand in Lurgan, Co. Armagh, had opened in autumn 1914, it garnered attention beyond local audiences when it was reviewed in glowing terms by the Bioscope’s “Jottings from Ulster” columnist on 1 April 1915. “Situate on the main street and approached through a spacious and ornate foyer,” the Grand held about 1,000 patrons who were stratified by their ability to pay 3d., 6d. or 1s. This was not, then, a utopian space of horizontal social relations. Although a stepped floor ensured that all patrons had a good view of the screen, “the patrons of the highest priced seats are comfortably and exclusively catered for in a handsome balcony abreast of the operating chamber, nest-o’spring seats and deep framed backs being provided in this section” (“Jottings,” 1 Apr.). Jottings favoured a programme that combined films with live acts, expressing strong approval of the fact that H. G. Austin, who managed the Grand for proprietor Sam Hewitt, had introduced varieties acts into the programme. As a result of this combination of entertainments, Jottings concluded: “I would not be surprised to find the magnificent tapestry with which the walls are decorated, being removed to make room for the appreciative crowds.” However, like other Irish towns with a similar population (12,553), Lurgan had more than one picture house. At the longer-established Picture House in Carnegie Street, manager Clarke embodied Jotting’s favoured combination of variety and cinema, having been part of the variety duo Clarke and Clare (“Jotings,” 22 Apr.).

Evening Telegraph 3 Apr. 1915: 1.

Evening Telegraph 3 Apr. 1915: 1.

If the Lurgan Grand was in many ways typical of the picture houses opening in mid-sized Irish towns at this time, Dublin’s Coliseum Theatre, which opened on Easter Monday, 5 April 1915, was exceptional. With a seating capacity of 3,000, it was Ireland biggest entertainment venue, and its stage was “one of the largest in the kingdom, being not less than 80 ft. wide and 40 ft. deep, capable of staging the largest spectacular scenes” ([Editorial Item]). In its initial stage of development, the Coliseum had been planned as a large picture house called the Premier Picture Palace, but its promoters had decided that another Dublin variety theatre would be more lucrative than a cinema. Nevertheless, given that film projection had become a stable part of variety programmes, a projection booth had been incorporated into the plans for the building and not as an unsightly supplementary structure within the auditorium, as was the case in older theatres. Praising the features of the Coliseum in advance of its opening, the Evening Herald noted that the “biograph chamber is so designed that it will beautify not mar the general scheme” (“Dublin’s New Theatre”).

Despite a general acknowledgment of the quality of the construction and the beauty of the finished theatre, controversy dogged both the building and the opening of the Coliseum. As noted in an earlier post, although other Dublin theatre owners had objected at an August 1914 hearing to the granting of a patent to this new venue, architect, diarist and theatregoer Joseph Holloway had spoken in favour of the new theatre because it offered the prospect of more drama in the city. The most immediate drama came offstage, from such craftspeople as local fibrous-plaster companies and furniture makers who were denied contracts for work in favour of cheaper British firms. In Dublin, the support of local industries was not only a way of creating good will among potential theatregoers but also of mollifying nationalist Anglophobia. With an ill-tempered public correspondence between the theatre and contractors conducted through the newspapers, the negative publicity for the theatre continued over months, causing Holloway to change his mind about its promise and “wish the new theatre a speedy failure under the circumstances. There is no hope ahead for us poor playgoers in Dublin!” (Holloway, 17 Mar. 1915).

Holloway attended the Coliseum’s opening night, and unlike the newspapers’ positive reviews, his diary entries suggest that the management misjudged the Dublin audience. This is noteworthy given that Lorcan Sherlock, the city’s former Lord Mayor, was one of the theatre’s directors. The theatre’s opening bill was headed by the singer Zona Vevey accompanied on organ by Max Erand. Although their act had been going very well and they had been called back for several encores,

the turn that was doing so well was completely spoiled by her singing of a recruiting Jingo song, “Your Country Wants You.” “It does, and we intend to stop it” said a man behind me as she sang. “Give us something Irish” shouted another, and then I knew trouble was brewing for her, and sure enough when she had finished, a stream of hissing and booing broke out and the two artists, retired amid a tornado of ugly sounds. (Holloway, 5 Apr. 1915.)

http://comeheretome.com/2014/05/09/is-it-over-yet-hiding-out-in-the-coliseum-theatre-1916/

Opened in Easter 1915, the Coliseum was destroyed in the fighting of Easter 1916. “The possibility of fire is put almost outside the pale of consideration” (“Dublin’s New Theatre”). Source: http://comeheretome.com/2014/05/09/is-it-over-yet-hiding-out-in-the-coliseum-theatre-1916/

The bioscope pictures – “introducing the Topical Budget of up-to-date current events” – with which the programme concluded appears to have been entirely unremarkable because they received no coverage, but Holloway claims that the opening night ended ignominiously:

A bar of England’s anthem brought the first show to an inglorious end, amid hissing, which cut short the music, as the imported conductor dropped his baton when he saw the way the land lay. This anthem has always been translated, when played in Ireland, into ‘To Hell With The Catholics’, and will always, I fear until we are allowed to govern ourselves. Therefore, it is better omitted from programmes of a general nature. (Ibid.)

Despite Holloway’s misgivings, the Coliseum’s opening was widely reported a success, and its advent tipped the balance of entertainment seats in Dublin city centre firmly back from picture house to theatre. The Evening Herald’s Man About Town was disappointed by the hackneyed nature of some of the opening acts, but he also saw a packed house that included “a few eminent K.C.’s, a land commissioner, several leading medicos, an Abbey Theatre author of distinction, and a trustee of the same concern.” For the Evening Telegraph, among the reasons that the Coliseum “opened its career auspiciously” was that it enjoyed an “advantageously central position […] adjoining the General Post Office and at the tram terminus for all parts of the city and suburbs” (“Coliseum Theatre”).

Those same trams might bring pleasure seekers away from the city centre and to the increasing number of picture houses in the suburbs. The arrival of the picture house had reconfigured entertainment space in the city. Some of the suburban picture houses courted more middle-class patrons in search of higher standard of entertainment in the guise of exclusive films, comfortable surroundings and musical offerings. The Bohemian Picture Theatre in Phibsboro – an area on the northern edge of the city well served by two tramlines – was building its reputation as a venue that provided enhanced musical accompaniment. The Bioscope’s Paddy observed that “one of the finest orchestras to be found in any picture outside London – or in London for the matter of that – is that now installed in the Bohemian.” The Bohemian had twelve musicians “and every instrument seems to have been pressed into use, thus affording a musical feast absolutely unapproached by any other house in Ireland” (Paddy, 25 Mar.).

Cinemas also competed for audience by offering more luxurious furnishings. Dublin’s Pillar Picture House had “an immense mirror […] beautifully set in a gilded frame[…] Thick luxurious carpets are on the stairs leading to the balcony, and the general appearance of the entrance leads one to imagine that a fairy palace of some sort was about to be entered” (Paddy, 4 Mar.). Some picture houses offered early evening patrons free tea. “A big feature is now being made of glow-lamp teas at Kinema House, Belfast,” noted Jottings. “Dainty tables with shaded lights are arranged in full view of the screen, and considerable advantage is being taken of the innovation by those who sacrifice their siestas to the pictures in the afternoons” (Jottings, 1 Apr.). This kind of offering seemed to have been designed to appeal largely to middle-class women who had the leisure to visit the picture houses while shopping in cities and towns in the afternoons.

Some religious groups and magistrates saw cinemagoing as an activity to be restricted rather than encouraged among the middle class. One of the main ways in which they sought to do this was through restrictions or a ban on Sunday opening. The ongoing controversy on Sunday opening came to something of a head at the end of March, when the Recorder of Dublin heard applications for music-and-dancing licences for picture houses. The Recorder reiterated his view that Sunday opening should be restricted to working-class areas of the city, where people had little opportunity to attend entertainments during the week. He therefore granted just a six-day music licence to Jacob Elliman’s Blackrock Picture House because it was located in “a residential place, with a very small number of working people” (“Picture Theatres”). And he again refused a Sunday licence to the Dame Street Picture House, which, he argued, was not frequented by working-class people because it was located on a city-centre shopping street similar to Grafton Street and Sackville/O’Connell Street.

Some religious groups and magistrates saw cinemagoing as an activity to be restricted rather than encouraged among the middle class. One of the main ways in which they sought to do this was through restrictions or a ban on Sunday opening. The ongoing controversy on Sunday opening came to something of a head at the end of March, when the Recorder of Dublin heard applications for music-and-dancing licences for picture houses. The Recorder reiterated his view that Sunday opening should be restricted to working-class areas of the city, where people had little opportunity to attend entertainments during the week. He therefore granted just a six-day music licence to Jacob Elliman’s Blackrock Picture House because it was located in “a residential place, with a very small number of working people” (“Picture Theatres”). And he again refused a Sunday licence to the Dame Street Picture House, which, he argued, was not frequented by working-class people because it was located on a city-centre shopping street similar to Grafton Street and Sackville/O’Connell Street.

These cases reveal a curious class, sectarian and even acoustic geography of the city that emerged in relation to its picture houses.

References

Cartwright, Lisa. Screening the Body: Tracing Medicine’s Visual Culture. Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 1995.

“Coliseum Theatre: The Opening on Monday.” Evening Telegraph 3 Apr. 1915: 4.

Condon, Denis. “‘Spleen of a Cabinet Minister at Work’: Exhibiting X-Rays and the Cinematograph in Ireland, 1896.” Film History and National Cinema: Studies in Irish Film 2. Ed. John Hill and Kevin Rockett. Four Courts Press: Dublin, 2005.

“Dublin’s New Theatre: The Opening of the Coliseum on Monday.” Evening Herald 2 Apr. 1915: 5.

“Jottings from Ulster.” Bioscope 1 Apr. 1915: 33; 15 Apr. 1915: 260.

The Man About Town. “Things Seen and Heard.” Evening Herald 6 Apr. 1915: 4.

“Moving Pictures of the Stomach During Digestion.” Dublin Evening Mail 24 Mar. 1915: 5.

Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 4 Mar. 1915: 824; 18 Mar. 1915: 1051; 25 Mar. 1915: 1111.

“Picture Theatres: Recorder and Sunday Opening: Many Applications.” Evening Herald 29 Mar. 1915: 5.

“A Really Moving Picture.” Dublin Evening Mail 12 Jul. 1913: 3.

“Sunday Opening in Dublin: Important Cases.” Bioscope 8 Apr. 1915: 155.

Rolls of Honour: Irish Film Businesses and the War, Autumn 1914

“The British Cinematograph Industry has made a magnificent response to the country’s call for men at this terrible crisis,” observed the trade journal Bioscope shortly after Britain’s entry into the First World War. The magazine requested that “managers of the cinematograph business houses or theatres, any of whose workers have temporarily left them for this noble purpose, kindly communicate the fact to us, mentioning the name of the man and the regiment he is joining” (“Trade Topics”). The following issue’s “Roll of Honour” (20 Aug.), a list of members of the trade who had joined the armed forces, did not mention any men from Irish companies, but Irish correspondent Paddy observed that one of the sons of Irish exhibitor James T. Jameson had “been called to the colours” (Paddy, 20 Aug.).

Roll of Honour 1

The Bioscope’s second “Roll of Honour” for men in film businesses who enlisted featured five Irishmen; 27 Aug. 1914: 784.

Beginning on 27 August, the names of employees in Irish or Ireland-based film companies began to appear on the Bioscope’s “Roll of Honour.” The first of those mentioned was William Vass Morris of Cork, described in the census of 1911 as a photographic agent, who was joining the South Irish Horse. Morris was joined on this list by three members of Gaumont’s Dublin office, another Morris, Ganey and Kinnemont, and by Byrne of Dublin’s Grand Cinema. Two members of Provincial Cinematograph’s Belfast staff – Cummings and Lydall – appeared on the first “Roll of Honour” in September. Provincial had already publicized the special contribution of its personnel to the war effort, and the Dublin Evening Mail had duly passed on this information to its readers (“The Picture House Staff”). Those named by the Evening Mail article had prominent positions in the company’s London head office, including chairman of the board Sir William Bass and general manager Aubrey Meares. It also claimed that

[b]etween 60 and 70 attendants at various theatres owned by this company have been called out on reserve, and the company has decided to allow 10s per week to the wife, and 2s 6d for each child during the man’s absence. All employes will be re-instated at the conclusion of the war. (Ibid.)

By early October, Dublin’s Evening Telegraph was putting the number of Provincial staff who had “joined his Majesty’s forces” at 109 (“Picture House Employes”).

Ad for war films at the Grafton; Dublin Evening Mail, 14 Sep. 1914: 2.

Ad for war films at the Grafton; Dublin Evening Mail, 14 Sep. 1914: 2.

Some Irish film production companies expanded their business during the war, taking advantage of new filmmaking opportunities – although these were not without risks – as well as pursuing some innovative work. Norman Whitten of the General Film Supply featured in a short article in the Bioscope in mid-September. It explained that Whitten had mounted a platform in front of a train to take “the beautiful scenery around Galway Bay. In the light of recent stirring events, the ‘topcials’ secured should be of distinct value to exhibitors” (“New Series of Irish Topicals”). As well as this kind of work that he had been doing for some time, Whitten – assisted by a Mr. Ashton who presumably had taken the place of Whitten’s previous cameraman, Benny Cann – made several war-themed films, but not as many as he planned. In early September, Paddy reported that Whitten had been threatened with being shot if he persisted in trying to film soldiers embarking on transport ships at Dublin’s North Wall. The War Office had revoked the permit to film that Whitten had earlier obtained. As Paddy observed, this was disappointing for Whitten, who had been building up his business in local topicals to a point where his film Funeral of Victims Shooting Affair Sunday, July 26th circulated in eight copies, which “constitutes rather a record” (Paddy, 3 Sep.). This film was of continuing relevance because of the campaign of the relatives of victims to get Dublin Corporation to petition the king (“Bachelor’s Walk Outrage”).

Whitten appears to have had eight regular subscribers for his topicals in Dublin, but such a circulation seems small by comparison with the other kinds of war films his company was making at the time. Paddy described Whitten’s Sons of John Bull as both a topical and a “‘cartoon’ film,” but the element of animation is not clear from his description, which makes the film appears to have been a series of filmed portraits and/or still images connected with dissolves and intertitles:

[I]t is a series of photos, hand-coloured, of famous people connected with the war. Each subject dissolves into the next, which rather enhances the beauty of the film. Another portion of the film is entitled “Friends,” and depicts famous men connected with our Allies, including a splendid photo of the king of Belgium. (Paddy, 3 Sep.)

The film ran 100 feet (or about 1 minute 40 seconds), but it is not clear why Paddy considered it “a great advance over the system of still slides,” which it clearly resembled, albeit without the presence of a lantern lecturer to explain the images.

By early October, Paddy was characterizing this film as “a pronounced success in Dublin and elsewhere,” and revealing Whitten’s plans to release a second film of the same kind on 22 October (Paddy, 1 Oct.). Twice the length of Son of John Bull at 200 feet, Britannia’s Message appears to have included newsreel and to have begun with an animated sequence. It

opens with Britannia drawing aside some curtains and revealing a German spy. Interesting scenes include an outside view of hundreds of young fellows besieging a recruiting office, a view of the Rugby Volunteers drilling at Lansdowne Road, Dublin, and a view of troops leaving for camp. (Ibid.)

The latter was presumably shot after Whitten had been given a new permit. The potential public interest beyond Ireland in these pro-war shorts was indicated by the fact that British distributor Cosmopolitan was handling them.

Within Ireland, business at the cinemas was reported to be good. In mid-September, Paddy made a tour of many of Dublin’s cinemas reporting that “in the great majority of cases [I] found business excellent; in fact, in certain houses exceptionally brisk.” His researches made him conclude that there was a difference between working-class and middle-class picture houses. He argued that

it is chiefly the houses which make an appeal to the 2d. and 3d. people that suffer most from the war. The patrons of these houses were largely drawn from reservists of one kind and another and their families. The bread-winner being away on service, the family naturally are thrown back on slenderer resources, and so cannot attend the “movies” as frequently as they might wish. However, as business gradually resumes more normal aspects, it is to be hoped that this state of things will be somewhat alleviated. (Paddy, 24 Sep.)

The Picturedrome is visible on the right of this photograph of Dublin's Harcourt Road. https://www.flickr.com/photos/nlireland/7628356832/

The Picturedrome is visible on the right of this photograph of Dublin’s Harcourt Road in c. 1912. https://www.flickr.com/photos/nlireland/7628356832/

One working-class picture house that he visited was the Picturedrome in Harcourt Road. For Paddy, the Picturedrome was “a theatre which I regret to find I have not mentioned in these notes for some time,” but he was not alone in his lack of coverage because the Picturedrome – catering for a local working-class audience – did not advertise in the Dublin newspapers and so was ignored by reviewers. “Business here was fairly brisk,” Paddy observed, “considering the regular patrons of the hall are drawn from men now with the colours.” Manager Will Sommerson was presenting a bill dominated by three Vitagraph films The Auto Bandits of New York, Old Reliable and Her Mother’s Wedding Gown. “[I]t’s astonishing the popularity of Vitagraph films in Ireland” – although The Auto Bandits seems to have been made by the Ruby Feature Film Company. The only other film he mentioned at the Picturedrome was “an exceptionally interesting scenic, ‘The Volcanoes of Java’” (ibid.).

Tivoli Theatre of Varieties, Burgh Quay, Dublin, May 1915. https://www.flickr.com/photos/nlireland/12082817723/

Tivoli Theatre of Varieties, Burgh Quay, Dublin, May 1915. https://www.flickr.com/photos/nlireland/12082817723/

The most notable thing about the Picturedrome’s programme is that Sommerson appears to have chosen none of the war-themed films that some other exhibitors were making a point of including on their programmes. At the Tivoli Theatre of Varieties, for example, the music-hall bill included the films Cyclists of the Belgian Army and The 23rd French Dragoons, which “had been specially procured by Mr. Charles M. Jones for the benefit of his patrons – a large proportion of soldiers being amongst the audience each night” (ibid.). At the Dorset Hall, manager Frederich Sullivan accompanied the dramas Jim, the Fireman (Britain: Barker, 1914) and In the Wolf’s Fangs (US: Bison, 1914) with “the authentic film of the Germans entering Brussels, and I noted that this film had been passed by the Censor” (ibid.).

The Man About Town's "Things Seen and Heard" column began with items on film on 5 and 10 Oct. 1914: 2.

The Man About Town’s “Things Seen and Heard” column in the Evening Herald began with film items on 5 and 10 Oct. 1914: 2.

Commentators in the Dublin papers were more ambivalent about war films. Also writing on 24 September, the same day as Paddy’s coverage of the Dublin picture houses appeared in the Bioscope, the Evening Herald columnist The Man About Town was pleased to hear from “the proprietor of one of our largest picture houses” that business was quite good, as well as to get a demonstration of the Topical Picture Slide, a new method of displaying topical news. Despite this unnamed proprietor’s focus on matters topical, he told the Man About Town that “[p]eople hear so much about the war that when they go to a cinema they look for something to relieve their minds from the awfulness of it, and I find that with a carefully selected and well-balanced programme business is really good.” A regular cinemagoer, the Man About Town provided an example a week later of a picture house patron who was traumatized by war images on screen. “I was attending a picture theatre the other day with a lady,” he revealed,

and gradually it was borne in upon me that my airy persiflage was falling on deaf or, at least, inattentive ears. The film was telling a thrilling story, and the incidents just being depicted were those of a naval encounter in the course of which the hero – an officer of the Royal Navy – is fatally wounded. My companion seemed a little distraite, and at last observed: “Oh, I wish they wouldn’t show things like this.” Then I remembered that her brother is at present serving in a ship in the North Sea. The cunning of the scene was too much for her. (30 Sep.)

Earlier in the month, he had suggested that certain picture houses were clumsily attempting to elicit patriotic responses from the Dublin audience. “In a picture theatre in — street yesterday a picture of King — was shown,” he observed,

the band played “— Save the King,” the audience uncovered (their heads), and there was some applause. So far so well. Then a raucous voice shouted in an unmistakable brogue, “Hip, hip, hurrah.” Without being able to swear to it, I have no doubt, having regard to the accent, the venue, and the audience, that this enthusiast was a paid rather than a paying spectator. In other words that he was one of the staff. Surely enthusiasm should grow of itself, and not be fomented in this way? As it was the demonstration fell flat. (12 Sep.)

The role of the picture house attendant who cheered was clearly crucial here, but music also played a significant part in this case and generally in shaping the experience of patrons. Paddy commented that the music at the Phibsboro Picture House at the northern edge of the city was “deserving of great praise, and no one takes more interest in her work or gives a more spirited and tasteful exhibition of playing than Miss Eagar”(24 Sep.). The Man About Town included an item entitled “‘Glorious’ War,” in which he demonstrated the way that talented musicians could influence the audience’s reception of war films. “While I was at a picture-house the other night,” he began, “scenes were shown of Belgian wounded being removed in ambulances. The pictures were rather harrowing, and as they were being displayed the band discoursed Elgar’s famous march, ‘Pomp and Circumstance.’ It set one thinking” (14 Sep.).

Therefore, although Irish film businesses generally embraced the pro-war patriotism that dominated the British industry, local exhibitors and audiences were more ambivalent about what they were seeing on the screen.

References

“Bachelor’s Walk Outrage: Relatives of the Victims: Corporation Resolution: To Petition King.” Evening Telegraph 5 Oct. 1914: 4.

The Man About Town. “Things Seen and Heard: ‘Glorious’ War.” Evening Herald 12 Sep. 1914: 2; 14 Sep. 1914: 2; 24 Sep. 1914: 2; 30 Sep. 1914: 2.

“New Series of Irish Topicals.” Bioscope 17 Sep. 1914: 1079.

Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 20 Aug. 1914: 752; 3 Sep. 1914: 913; 24 Sep. 1914: 1129; 1 Oct. 1914: 31.

“Picture House Employes.” Evening Telegraph 10 Oct. 1914: 3.

“The Picture House Staff: Many Men Off to the Front.” Dublin Evening Mail 21 Aug. 1914: 4.

“Roll of Honour.” Bioscope 20 Aug. 1914: 784; 27 Aug. 1914: 3 Sep 1914: 869.

“Trade Topics.” Bioscope 13 Aug. 1914: 617.

Shadow Soldiers Flickering on a Screen: Irish Cinema and the Beginning of World War I

Provincial War Pics

These ads appeared in the Dublin Evening Mail 7 Aug. 1914: 2; and 18 Aug. 1914: 2.

“It is ever so much more a patriotic thing to go down the quays and give the soldiers a good send-off than it is to sit in a darkened picture house watching, perhaps, ‘shadow soldiers’ flickering on a screen,” reported Paddy, the Ireland correspondent of the British cinema trade journal Bioscope in August 1914 explaining the falloff in attendance at Dublin’s picture houses at the start of the Great War. “[T]he fact that the Lord Mayor of Dublin had to publicly ask the people through the medium of the Press, to refrain from causing a block on the quays and assist in getting the soldiers embarked more expeditiously shows how matters stand” (Paddy, 13 Aug., 673). Mobilization affected the cinema and its relationship with the popular audience in various ways. Those who lined the Dublin quays, Paddy suggested, were particularly the popular audience who would otherwise have occupied the picture houses’ cheapest – usually three-penny or 3d. – seats. Although Frederick Sparling, manager of Phibsboro’s Bohemian Picture Theatre, reported brisk business, “he experienced a great falling off in the attendances at the 3d. seats, and he expected that receipts generally would show a drop for a little time” (ibid).

Paddy claimed that the effect in Ulster was quite different, with the outbreak of the war bringing unionist and nationalist audiences together in the face of a common enemy. “[T]he one-time rivals now fraternise,” he observed, “and quiet, law-abiding and gaiety-loving citizens are now taking their pleasures with less sadness than had been their wont during the two gloomy years from which Ireland has just emerged” (Paddy, 13 Aug., 675). Unfortunately, this somewhat unlikely harmony would be short-lived because the difficulties of procuring enough flax and other raw material for Ulster’s factories would mean that mill workers, “the backbone of the support of the cinema in Ulster as in other manufacturing centres,” would be placed on half-time working at half-pay, leaving “nothing to spend on amusements of any description” (ibid).

Actuality films of the war appeared on the cinema programme alongside such  fiction film as D. W. Griffith's Judith of Bethulia (US: Biograph, 1914).

Actuality films of the war appeared on the cinema programme alongside such fiction film as D. W. Griffith’s Judith of Bethulia (US: Biograph, 1914). Dublin Evening Mail 24 Aug. 1914: 2.

Nevertheless, Irish picture houses attempted from a very early point in the war to provide shadow soldiers on the screen for their audiences, and not only working-class ones. On 7 August 1914, the Dublin Evening Mail carried the first of a series of unusually large ads for the Picture House, Grafton Street and the Picture House, Sackville Street showing films depicting “the latest developments of the War, day by day.” Both of these cinemas were owned by the London-based chain Provincial Cinematograph Theatres, which also ran the less-salubrious Volta in Mary Street and Belfast’s Picture House, Royal Avenue. The company promoted its venues – and particularly the recently renovated and extended Grafton on Dublin’s most prestigious shopping street – as offering luxuries suitable for prosperous city-centre shoppers. Strollers who stopped into the Grafton’s public café might be induced to see the war pictures by a sign that indicated which of the six-to-eight films typically on a cinema programme was currently playing in the auditorium.

Judith (Blanche Sweet) prepares to behead Holofernes in Judith of Bethulia.

Judith (Blanche Sweet) prepares to behead Holofernes in Judith of Bethulia.

Although such passersby or Evening Mail readers arrested by the prominent ads continued to be offered a programme of films after the outbreak of hostilities, they seem to have been presented with an overwhelming number of war-themed films. The Grafton featured England’s Menace (Britain: London, 1914), a “stunning naval drama,” for the week beginning 10 August, the six-day run representing twice the usual period for which a film was shown. For the first three days of the following week, the Grafton exhibited Maurice Elvey’s In the Days of Trafalgar (Britain: British and Colonial, 1914), supported by a programme that included the first part of the British Army Film (Britain: Keith Prowse, 1914), the second part of which ran in the latter half of the week on a bill headed by The Spy, or The Mystery of Capt. Dawson (1914), a detective drama involving the stealing of plans for a new quick-firing gun. The Belgian War Scenes advertised on 24 August were said to have come “from actual photographs [i.e., films] taken in Belgium on Thursday last,” and these played on the programme with D. W. Griffith’s Judith of Bethulia (US: Biograph, 1914), an adaptation of the biblical Book of Judiths story of war and decapitation.

Provincial was not the only cinema proprietor to show actual war footage – Dublin’s Rotunda, Phoenix and Bohemian all advertised their latest war films, as did many others in newspapers or through more ephemeral forms such as posters and handbills that no longer survive. Provincial, however, made a special effort to exhibit the actualities in programmes with other kinds of war-themed films to cater for – or indeed, help to create – a patriotic war fever. Given the recentness of the war, none of the fiction films just mentioned concerned the current conflict with Germany, nor did the British Army Film, a documentary about ordinary life in the army that was made before the war and that had attracted a protest in March. There was nothing new in popular culture assembling and re-presenting pre-existing elements in a new combination that served the prevailing ideology, particularly at a time of crisis. The live music that accompanied silent film in picture houses of the 1910s could add further jingoism. There were precedents for the use of film in war-time patriotic shows as early as the Boer War, but the popular audience in many parts of Ireland had often been vocally resistant to such anti-Boer/pro-British jingoistic shows (Condon).

What had changed between the turn of the century and the 1910s, however, was cinema’s place within the mediascape in Ireland as elsewhere. By 1914, Ireland had a large number of picture houses that provided news alongside dramatic entertainment. Although picture houses could not match the newspapers’ detailed coverage of topical events, newsreels from the front provided by such companies as Pathé and Gaumont offered something the press could not: moving images of battle sites and the people who fought in the war. Because newsreel scenes recorded on film needed to be physically transported from the front, their newsworthiness had dissipated. Some picture theatres, including the Grafton and Sackville, entered into agreements with telegraphic wire services to offer instantaneous messages during shows, a phenomenon that bears resemblance to a Twitter feed. One ad for these picture houses informed the public that “[a]rrangements have been completed with the Central News Agency for a complete service of telegrams from the Front, to be supplied to this Theatre. As the news arrives it will be immediately thrown on to the screen” (“The War”).

As the war began, commentators in the press debated cinema’s place among other media. To some, it was an absurd form. “In a city picture house, a man tells me,” confided Dublin’s Evening Herald columnist The Man About Town in mid-August 1914,

he has just acquired some curious and too little known facts about the Roman Empire. It would appear that the Caesars were in the habit of decorating their apartments with busts of Dante (which certainly showed remarkable foresight on their part), while their consorts sought relaxation by perusing printed volumes, handsomely bound. Verily, to live is to learn, but seeing is not always believing.

Seeing the past – or present – in the form of the “cineanachronisms” provided in the picture houses was not to be believed by this canny man about town. At least not always.

Other commentators took a more considered but not uncritical view of what had become the country’s most ubiquitous theatrical entertainment, reaching parts of small-town, rural and suburban Ireland that had never had regular professional theatrical entertainment before. By the end of 1914, Dublin Corporation approved licences for 25 premises to show films, with two or three others also under consideration. A small group of these were the theatres – the Theatre Royal, Tivoli Theatre, Empire Theatre and Queen’s Theatre – that had been showing films for two decades or more as part of their mainly live theatrical entertainments. The rest were dedicated picture houses in which the main entertainment was the projection of recorded moving pictures onto a screen, with the live elements limited to musical accompaniment, vocalists who sang between films, and in some venues, one or more variety acts. “Personally, I think we are carrying the picture business to excess,” opined the Dublin Evening Mail’s “Music and the Drama” columnist H.R.W. “The opening of theatres [i.e., picture houses] in the suburbs has much to commend it, but the many additions to the already large number of picture houses in the city is rather risky enterprise” (“War and the Drama”). This was not just a problem among competing picture house owners, but also among theatres proprietors because “ [t]he increasing popularity of the Picture Theatre is making the future of the drama and the music hall a serious problem” (“The Invasion of the Film”). H.R.W. felt that Dublin theatre managers had allowed this to happen by offering increasing amounts of music-hall entertainment and neglecting drama:

the vast public which desires something romantic and dramatic has been catered for by the activity of picture theatres, which, with their cheapness, the casual nature of the performances, and the liberty of smoking, has earned for them a considerable degree of popularity. (Ibid.)

By the outbreak of the war, cinema had become a truly mass medium, providing both news images and dramatic entertainment in a very particular setting. Even without overt propaganda films, individual picture houses or cinema chains could in their choice of films, music and other elements of their programmes present the war in ways that influenced the popular audience that governments needed to prosecute the war. If the Irish popular audience was indeed crowding the quays waving off Irish soldiers, it seemed likely that they would return to the picture houses to cheer on the screen’s shadow soldiers.

References

“Belgian War Scenes.” Advertisement. Dublin Evening Mail 24 August 1914: 2.

Condon, Denis. “Receiving News from the Seat of War: Dublin Audiences Respond to Boer War Entertainments.” Early Popular Visual Culture 9:2 (May 2011), pp. 93-106.

H. R. W. “Music and the Drama: War and the Drama.” Dublin Evening Mail 3 Aug. 1914: 2.

—. “Music and the Drama: The Invasion of the Film.” Dublin Evening Mail 27 Jul. 1914: 4.

The Man About Town. “Cineanachronisms.” Evening Herald. 13 Aug. 1914: 2.

Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 13 Aug. 1914: 673-5.

“The War: Picture House News Service.” Advertisement. Dublin Evening Mail 12 Aug. 1914: 2.

Changing the Entertainment Geography of the City: The Bohemian Picture Theatre Opens

Ad for the opening of the Bohemian Picture Theatrre. Dublin Evening Mail, 6 Jun. 1914: 7.

“Glasnevin has fallen into line – it has not merely one Picture House, but two. Handsome buildings they are, both of them,” observed the Evening Herald’s Man About Town at the end of May 1914. He also noted developments in cinema far from Dublin, in the west coast Aran Islands: “Kilronan, Islands of Arran, too, has ‘joined the movement.’ Kilronan people to the number of 400 turned in on Saturday week last to their Picture Palace, and, as our Arran correspondent adds, ‘thoroughly enjoyed the films shown’” (“Thing Seen and Heard”). However accurate may have been his intriguing information on cinemagoing on islands far from the city that was his beat, he was wrong about the location of the two new Dublin picture houses; they were in the north-city district of Phibsborough, a mile from the more remote village of Glasnevin.

Bohemian

Letterhead from 1916 featuring image of Bohemian Picture Theatre. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

On 9 June 1914, the Irish Times somewhat more accurately reported that the “Bohemian Picture House, in Phibsborough road, was opened yesterday afternoon under conditions which promise well for the future success of the entertainment given there” (“Bohemian Cinema”). The location was right here, as the Bohemian – taking its name from the local soccer club – was built on the site of two demolished houses at 154 and 155 Phibsborough Road. However, as the controversy over the recently opened Phibsboro Picture House’s showing of In the Shadow of the Throne continued into the week beginning 8 June, conditions looked a little less auspicious than the writer would have his/her readers believe. The British trade journal Bioscope’s detailed account of the incident only appeared on 11 June, describing it as “A Catholic Protest” that had been counterproductive because it had “evoked a desire in other people to see [the film] and judge for themselves” (“‘In the Shadow of the Throne’).

Two small shops flanked the entrance to the Bohemian.

Two small shops flanked the entrance to the Bohemian, which was approached by a set of steps.

Nevertheless, both the Times and Herald rightly agreed that the Phibsborough picture houses were handsome, well-equipped buildings. The plans for the Bohemian were drawn up by Dublin’s most prominent cinema architect, George L. O’Connor. Having already prepared the plans for the Mary Street Picture House and the Rathmines Picture Palace (opened in March 1913 and soon afterwards named the Princess), O’Connor was said to be making “a speciality of designing cinema theatres” (“Another New Cinema Theatre for Dublin”). His design for the Bohemian resembled that of the Rathmines Picture Palace in incorporating two shops on either side of the entrance, each only a single storey in order not to block the view of the theatre itself (“More Cinema Theatres for Dublin”). The facade was “finished in red brick and chiselled limestone dressings, gables and finials” (“Building News”). Although set back from the street, the picture house announced itself with a canopy that extended between the shops. Patrons entered the auditorium by climbing a set of steps to the lobby. Inside, a wide stairs led to a spacious gallery, while an auditorium 104 feet by 38 feet was furnished with seats and carpets in shades of blue and topped by an elliptical ceiling finished in decorative fibrous plaster (ibid).

While noting the comfortable furnishings and the lighting and ventilation systems, the Irish Times also took an unusual interest in the details of the cinematic equipment. The projection box held two Ernemann Jubilee projectors, in which

the film is entirely enclosed throughout its length, thus giving complete immunity from fire risks. From lens to screen is a distance of 105 feet, and the screen, 20 feet by 15 feet, is slightly inclined from the vertical in order to give a proper view from every part of the house (“Bohemian Cinema”).

“The Bohemian Boy”: Caricature of Bohemian owner Frederick Sparling. Irish Limelight Aug. 1917: 1.

“The Bohemian Boy”: Caricature of Bohemian owner Frederick Sparling. Irish Limelight Aug. 1917: 1.

The 24-year-old Bohemian owner Frederick Arthur Sparling chose to compete with the more experienced proprietors of the Phibsboro Picture House located just 50 yards away with a very similar entertainment. Both venues offered continuous performances from 3 to 10:30, but the Boh’s prices of 3d, 6d and 1s were slightly higher than the Phibsboro’s 3d, 6d and 9d, and on Sundays, the cost of 3d seats increased to 4d. The ad for the Boh’s opening promised “refinement, good music and clear, steady pictures,” with its programme for the first six days headed by the four-reel British racing drama In the Hands of London Crooks (Barker, 1914). On Sunday 14 June, the main film was the two-reel In the Grip of Circumstance (US: Essanay, 1914), followed on Monday, 15 June, by Lieutenant Daring and the Stolen Invention (Britain: British and Colonial Kinematograph, 1914), and on Thursday, 18 June by The Drudge (US: Vitagraph, 1914). Sparling likely left the choice of “exclusive” films to his manager W. O. Ashton, who had recently been working for the Dublin branch of the distribution company Films, Limited (Paddy,18 Jun.). Musical director Percy Carver supervised the accompaniment, which “plays during the whole of the performance” (“Bohemian Picture Theatre”).

Map showing the main picture houses and theatres showing films in 1914. The slightly anomalous clustering of the Bohemian and Phibsboro.

Map showing the main Dublin picture houses and theatres showing films by 1914, with the location of the Bohemian and Phibsboro indicated.

The Times put the number of seats at 900, while other sources estimated 860 (“More Cinema Theatres for Dublin”), 1,000 (“Building News”) and 1,200 (Paddy, 4 Jun.). Taking even the lowest estimates for the two Phibsborough picture theatres (the Phibsboro with 570 and Bohemian with 860), early June 1914 saw this suburb on the northern edge of the city gain more than 1,400 cinema seats in just over two weeks. To ensure healthy profits, the picture houses would have had to have induced patrons to travel to Phibsborough, perhaps on one of the two tram lines that served the area. This was an extraordinary development because it showed the degree to which cinema had changed the entertainment geography of the city by bringing professionally produced theatrical entertainment into the suburbs.

References

“Another New Cinema Theatre for Dublin.” Irish Builder 31 Jan. 1914: 72.

“Bohemian Cinema.” Irish Times 9 Jun. 1914: 5.

“Bohemian Picture Theatre,” Dublin Evening Mail 13 Jun. 1914: 3.

“Building News.” Irish Builder 19 Dec. 1913: 868.

“‘In the Shadow of the Throne’: A Catholic Protest.” Bioscope 11 Jun. 1914: 1106.

“More Cinema Theatres for Dublin.” Irish Builder 16 Aug. 1913: 536.

Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 4 Jun. 1914: 1069; 18 Jun. 1914: 1261.

“Thing Seen and Heard: Glasnevin.” Evening Herald 25 May 1914: 5.