Early Irish Cinema: Urchins, Ragamuffins and Film Communism in Irish Cinemas, Summer 1915

| August 17, 2015 | Comments (0)
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 looks at how cinema democratised access to culture.

Poster for Gaby Deslys in Her Triumph (US: Famous Players, 1915)Poster for Gaby Deslys in Her Triumph (US: Famous Players, 1915). Source: http://allstarpics.famousfix.com/0595982/013521322/gaby-deslys-pic.html

In June 1915, the trade journal Bioscope celebrated the levelling that the cinema had performed on the geography of culture. “There is no provincialism about the picture theatre entertainment,” it asserted, claiming that films had removed the benefits formerly experienced by inhabitants of the metropolitan centres of culture.

The inhabitants of any townlet, however small, provided it possesses a cinema, may follow the latest developments of the new drama with every bit as much intelligence and intimacy as the metropolitan picture-lover. Thanks to the cinematograph, the American stage, with all its fine originality and vitality, is as accessible to the Londoner, as is the London stage to the American. (“The Communism of the Film.”)

Although the writer returns after just a brief sojourn in the de-provincialized townlets to London and the cities of America, it is undoubtedly true that local picture houses could offer the inhabitants of small towns and even villages unprecedented access to globalized popular culture. S/he concludes that cinema “has internationalised art and has completed the wonderful work of intellectual communism which was commenced by the printing press” (ibid.).

A century on, the word “communism” looks odd in this context. The nearest Irish cinema came to communism in the early to mid-1910s was during the Dublin Lockout of 1913-14, discussed here and here. Clearly “intellectual” significantly qualified the expected socio-economic meaning of communism, and the comment is really only made in passing, the writer being interested in communism merely to the degree that it allowed the wide availability of the performance of the scandalous French dancer and international celebrity Gaby Deslys in her film debut Her Triumph (US: Famous Players, 1915).

The Bioscope was not, of course, suggesting that the workers of the film trade would or should seize control of the means of cinematic production. But the idea that the cinema did democratize access to culture was current in Ireland and is worth exploring. Timothy Cronin, a young Tralee, Co. Kerry, publican and nationalist politician had strongly supported the coming of the cinema – “[f]rom the purely educational standpoint, it is possibly the most remarkable invention since Caxton brought the printing press into being” – to his home town in 1913 (“The Pictures”). “We sorely need nourishment for the intellect in our remote country town,” he had argued, and although it was on the Great Southern & Western rail line, Tralee was almost as geographically remote as it was possible to be in Ireland from Dublin and Belfast, or the greater metropolis of London. “In the pictures at the Theatre Royal, inspired as they are by the soft strains of Miss Queenie D’Arcy’s Orchestra, we have a present such nourishment. And more of it will do us no harm” (“The Animated Pictures”).

The revival by Dublin's Masterpiece of Quo Vadis? in June 1915 shows the film's continuing importance. Evening Telegraph 19 Jun. 1915: 1.

The revival by Dublin’s Masterpiece of Quo Vadis? in June 1915 shows the film’s continuing importance. Evening Telegraph 19 Jun. 1915: 1.

And although Cronin also wrote that “[i]t would be invidious to make a comparison between one or other of the films shown,” he later marvelled at the effect of the Quo Vadis? (Italy: Cines, 1912), on whose opening night he “witnessed the remarkable spectacle of a vast audience, representative of every section of the people, keenly appreciating what one might well have thought not one but the most highly cultured would be able to appreciate” (“The Pictures”). “After the performance,” he reveals, “I heard what I never expected to hear in my native town – groups of urchins excitedly discussing a classic drama! In my opinion, the Pictures are directly responsible for this remarkable raising of the popular standard” (ibid.).Cinema nourished the intellect, but the orientation towards classical Western culture – albeit that Quo Vadis? was based on an 1895 novel by Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz – and the celebrity culture of the 1910s does not seem especially revolutionary. The real source of cinema’s emancipatory potential may have come from its creation of new social spaces in which different social classes could mix in ways different from other entertainment venues. But the stratification of picture houses – depending on one’s ability to buy a ticket, the cost of one’s ticket and the location of the building – was well advanced in June 1915, when the Bioscope’s Irish correspondent Paddy was quite dismissive of a cheap working-class picture house. Located in Newry, Cos. Down and Armagh, and run by Mrs. M. Green, this cinema was a “‘picture palace’ – with an emphasis on the ‘palace’ – in a slum. Admission could be had by presenting an empty bottle or some rags. To see the show patrons also gave jampots” (Paddy, 24 Jun.).

Ad for the Frontier Palace, Newry; Frontier Sentinel 19 Jun. 1915: 4. Ad for the Frontier Palace, Newry; Frontier Sentinel 19 Jun. 1915: 4.

Showing little comradely feeling for Newry’s slum dwellers, Paddy found this to be “a rather amusing case,” finishing his item with the local Sergeant Little’s evidence of how he had once found the premises “full of ragamuffins” (ibid.). Paddy and the Bioscope had never mentioned this picture house in their previous reports on Newry, where they had focused on the Picture Palace, the Frontier, the Imperial and the occasion screenings at the Orange Hall. Mrs Green’s picture palace did not meet the image of a respectable and well-regulated business that a trade journal such as the Bioscope sought to present. It may, indeed, be wrong to read too much in to such an item, whose source is unclear; it does not seem to have been appeared in the local or national press. It may also be a mistake to place too much importance on such a venue, in which a form of barter may have been a way of extracting the little value slum children could afford by a local property owner. The 1911 Census lists two likely Mrs M. Greens in Newry: 70-year-old Mary Ann Green, who lists her occupation as “House Property,” and her 32-year-old daughter Margaret Green, a nurse.Few of the surviving historical sources allow us to linger long on the audiences of a century ago. Nevertheless, it is tempting to speculate on the educative value the urchins of Tralee or the ragamuffins of Newry would have derived not from literary adaptations but from the anarchic antics of Chaplin’s tramp in his little triumphs over bosses, property owners and police sergeants.

The vulnerability of the cinema trade as a whole to stories like this was revealed at the end of June 1915 when an appellant at the Dublin City Sessions claimed that the opening of a picture house nearby was grounds for a lower valuation on his/her premises (“Recorder of Dublin and Picture Houses”). Well known for his opposition to Sunday shows at certain Dublin picture houses, the Recorder (chief magistrate) expressed his displeasure at the unconditional granting of additional cinema licences by the Corporation in the city and the council in the adjacent township of Rathmines. It was, he said, “a most discreditable state of affairs” (ibid.). At the same time, in an indicative incidence of targeted selling an anonymous vendor was offering cinema companies the opportunity to acquire at a moderate price on a long lease with low rent a building in an unnamed southern town said to be suitable for use as a picture house (“To Picture Palace Companies”).

Handbill for Dorset Picture Hall, 4-19 Jun. 1915. Courtesy of National Library of Ireland. This surviving handbill for the Dorset Picture Hall, 21-26 Jun. 1915 offers a wealth of information on how this cinema operated that is not available elsewhere, such as in the corresponding ad that appeared in the Evening Telegraph 21 Jun. 1915: 4. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland.

Dorset 22 Jun 1915

 

Discussion of the Irish churches and cinema often revolved – and continues to revolve – around such issues as restrictive Sunday opening or the censorship of certain kinds of films. However, in mid-June 1915, Paddy reported on the Presbyterian General Assembly’s quite different views in their debate in Belfast on “The Utilisation of the Cinema in Church Missions” (Paddy, 17 Jun.). The Presbyterian churches’ screenings of films alongside preaching has already been noted here, but among the interesting extra details that emerged from this debate was the reported attendance of 60,000 people at the previous season’s Saturday night screenings at the Shankill Road Mission, with 6,000 attending every week during the winter months.

Despite film’s apparently successful missionary role, not all of the Assembly’s participants were in favour of picture shows. Although he assured the meeting that he never attended himself, Reverend S. Sims objected to the queues of boys and girls he observed waiting to get in on Saturday nights because they “paid 1d. or 2d. for admission that ought to be spent on clothing or food” (ibid.). Sims’s views were not endorsed by the meeting, which seems to have been more in accord with Dr Montgomery, who contended that it “was absurd for anybody to appear before that house and argue that a meeting opening with hymn and prayer, in which there was a gospel address, must be wrong because a cinematograph exhibition was given” (ibid.).

The approximately £750 a year that Sims alleged came from the pennies of Belfast’s poor young people suggests that even for religious uses of film, capitalism may have been the more applicable economic model than communism.

Denis Condon lectures in film at NUI Maynooth.

Contact: denis.j.condon@nuim.ie

 

References

“The Communism of the Film: Gaby Deslys as a Picture Actress.” Bioscope 10 Jun. 1915: 1096.

Cronin, Timothy B. “The Pictures.” Killarney Echo 10 Jan. 1914: 8.

—. “The Animated Pictures.” Kerry Evening Star 13 Mar. 1913: 3.

Paddy. “Pictures in Ireland.” Bioscope 17 Jun. 1915: 1165; 24 Jun. 1915: 1326.

“Recorder of Dublin and Picture Houses.” Irish Times 1 Jul. 1915: 3.

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