Early Irish Cinema: Serial Queens and Super Villains

| December 2, 2013 | Comments (0)

3-musketeers-phoenix-nov-20131

Denis Condon’s blog Early Irish Cinema looks back at the early development of cinema in Ireland on the anniversaries of those developments and  offers information on what cinemagoers could have seen in Irish cinemas a century ago. Here Denis takes a look back at November 1913.

 

Early Irish Cinema
What’s On in Irish Cinemas – 100 Years Ago

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

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

3 Musketeers Phoenix Nov 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Happened Mary Fuller

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

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

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

Oct 24 1913 IL Flapper Cartoon

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Denis Condon lectures in film at NUI Maynooth.

Contact: denis.j.condon@nuim.ie

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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