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 explores the particular case of the 1917 lost comedy Rafferty’s Rise.
On 12 November 1917, the Film Company of Ireland (FCOI) finally premiered Rafferty’s Rise, its first completed production of the year. In many ways this is a minor film. Like all of FCOI’s 1916 productions, this three-reel (approx. 50 minute) comedy is now lost, and it appears to have been little seen in 1917, having had a very limited release. It was overshadowed at the time by the organizational difficulties experienced by FCOI in 1917and by the fact that the company put its apparently dwindling resources into promoting the much more ambitious Knocknagow. Nevertheless, it is a film by Ireland’s most important fiction-film production company of the silent period and is the first film directed by Abbey Theatre actor-director Fred O’Donovan.
Although Rafferty’s Rise wouldn’t have its premiere until November, it was first mentioned in the Irish Limelight in May 1917. Indeed, it was not just mentioned; it was described in a 200-word article that was accompanied by a photo of Queenie Coleman, “the beautiful Irish Girl who plays Peggy in ‘Rafferty’s Rise,’ and illustrated by an additional full page of stills from the film itself that seem to confirm that it was actually “ready for release” in May, as one of the headings on the stills page asserts. “We extend our hearty congratulations to the Film Co. of Ireland upon their first 1917 release,” the article begins, “a three-reel comedy entitled ‘Rafferty’s Rise.’ The scenario deals with a young and ambitious Irish policeman who endeavours to employ scientific methods in the detection of crime and whose efforts to emulate Sherlock Holmes cause many laughter provoking incidents” (“Rafferty’s Rise” May).
In November, the Freeman’s Journal would identify the scenario writer as Nicholas Hayes, a writer remembered now mostly for the short-story collection In the Doctor’s Den (“Picture House Novelties”). As well as directing, Fred O’Donovan also played the eponymous Rafferty, and was supported along with Queenie Coleman, by Brian Magowan, Kathleen Murphy, Arthur Shields, Valentine Roberts, J. Storey and Brenda Burke (“Rafferty’s Rise” Nov.). The film was shot in the Dublin Mountains by former Pathé cameraman William Moser, in his first on-set job for FCOI (“Camera Expert”). The exact shooting period is not known, but it is likely to have been in April, in time for the publicity materials to appear in the Limelight’s May issue.
However, FCOI organizational problems meant that none of the films they had shot in summer 1917 were actually available to exhibitors until the end of October, when an Evening Herald ad announced the appearance of Rafferty’s Rise. A trade show or “private exhibition” referred to in some reviews likely took place at this point, at the end of October or beginning of November. Despite some indications in July that the film had been edited down from three reels to the two reels picturegoers expected of a comedy, the Rafferty’s Rise that went on release in November 1917 was still three-reels long (“Rafferty’s Rise” Jul). “It is a mark of the originality of the Company,” the Mail optimistically asserted, “that it is bold enough to go beyond the stereotyped 2-reels in the production of a humorous story” (“Film Company of Ireland”).
Both the Dublin Evening Mail and the Evening Telegraph previewed the film in their Saturday entertainment columns prior to its three-day run at the Bohemian beginning Monday, 12 November. “The record of this Film Company in 1916 aroused great interest in their productions,” the Telegraph observed. “Those who have seen the private exhibition of the film speak highly of the progress the company has made in technique over last year’s work” (“Really Irish Films”). The writer in neither paper, however, seems to have attended the private exhibition, and the previews have similarities that suggest that the writers not only hadn’t seen the film but were working from publicity material or other secondary accounts.
Nevertheless, the Telegraph preview is particularly interesting for the way it defines “really Irish films.” “While the company keeps free from propaganda of every kind in its stories so as to be able to appeal to all the Irish people,” it argued,
it nevertheless sticks steadfastly to the idea that its business is to idealise everything Irish that it photographs. In this, the Film Company of Ireland only takes a leaf from the book of the producers of other nations. The Americans always give us in the parts of chivalry and honour – American; the English companies show in the same roles – Englishmen; and the Film Company of Ireland continues, in its attitude and in its interpretations, strictly Irish.
Avoiding overt ideological positions, appealing to all Irish people, idealizing everything Irish and putting Irish people in heroic roles: this usefully provides some kind of framework for thinking about what “really Irish films” might have meant to observers at the time. But to explore the relevance of these characteristics to Rafferty’s Rise, we will need to look at the film’s reception.
Of the newspapers, only the Telegraph reviewed the film, and its review is brief and largely descriptive of what it saw as “an excellent three-reel comedy [that is] packed with clean, healthy fun” (“On the Screen”). The only substantial extant review seems to be in the Limelight, which from its opening issue had associated itself very closely and uncritically with FCOI. “The film is typically Irish,” Limelight reviewer R.A.O’F. commented after attending the private exhibition, “for you will find a Constable Rafferty in every little village in the country – and to anyone who has any experience of the ways and means of a stripe-chaser, it is simply IT.” Specifically, s/he praised the “clean and healthy” humour, the beautiful Dublin Mountains’ scenery and the quality of the photography and acting.
Much of R.A.O’F review is an extended plot summary that represents the most substantial account of the film. More than this, because the film is lost, this account is most of the film. The review is written in a comic style intended, no doubt, to be entertaining but as a result, it is not always clear or wholly accurate. For example, it includes the line: “All the girls loved Rafferty, and he could well afford to ignore the goo-goo eyes and tootsy-wootsy advances of silly Cissie.” The writer overreaches him/herself with the alliteration here because the name of the character who makes eyes at Rafferty is Peggy, played by Queenie Coleman. The following is a paraphrase in the interests of clarity: Rafferty is an officer in the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) stationed in a mountain village who wants to get promoted to sergeant by using methods of scientific detection. He is admired by the local girls, including farmer’s daughter Peggy McCauley. When a Traveller (“tinker,” in the original) visits the village, Kitty Hogan, daughter of the local RIC Sergeant, gives him an old pair of her father’s boots. The Traveller steals a dog from Peggy’s father, leaving footprints with the Sergeant’s boots. Rafferty sees the footprints and traces them to the Sergeant’s house, where he is forced to hide to keep his investigations secret, but the Sergeant finds him under Kitty’s bed. Rafferty accuses the Sergeant of stealing the dog, but his mistake is revealed. While Rafferty doesn’t get his promotion, he has some compensation by ending up with Peggy.
Given that the crime Rafferty investigates is a theft by a Traveller, discussion of ethnic stereotypes seems appropriate, but R.A.O’F language proves opaque here. “An honest tinker in a story would be responsible for the author being stamped as a ‘loony.’ However, the author of this scenario was quite sane, for his tinker was a rogue.” This is clear enough, but ethnic tensions are seemingly dispelled by the following sentence when the Traveller turns out possibly to have been honest after all: “He stole a dog—no he did no, he only exchanged dogs.” The Traveller is merely added as extra local colour in what might be described as a romantic comedy.
The main thing that R.A.O’F seems to want to convey about Rafferty’s Rise is that it was good clean fun and as such, it was typically Irish. This was also how the Mail’s preview assessed it, as “a good-natured, laughable Irish story without malice and replete with amusing situations” (“Film Company of Ireland”). Good and clean it may have been, but the somewhat more laconic and less positive response of one other contemporary observer suggests that it was not much fun. “I caught tram at Rotunda & went on to the Bohemian Picture House, Phibsboro, to see ‘Rafferty’s Rise,’” Joseph Holloway wrote as part of his diary entry for 12 November 1917, “with O’Donovan as the blustering Constable, seemed the plot was by Nicholas [Hayes], but the humour in the playing was forced & did not make for laughter as intended.” For Holloway, it was not a successful comedy.
A general acknowledgement that Rafferty’s Rise was not very good may account for why the film received so little attention at the time. FCOI’s loss of such key publicity personnel as Joseph Boland, their travelling salesman whom the Bioscope reported had left the company to represent Geekay in Ireland, can’t have helped (“Irish Notes”). The only other run of the film in 1917 appears to have been on 23-24 November at Tralee’s Picturedrome, where locals were encouraged to “support home industry” by seeing it. Beyond these factors, it might also be worth considering why a romantic comedy about the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) recommended itself to FCOI. Granted, Rafferty’s Rise doesn’t seem that different from the company’s 1916 dramas and comedies of Irish rural life, which among other topics had included a comedy about leprechauns. And of course, many film comedies of the period represented the police. But while US comedies tended to see the police either as buffoons or unsympathetic authority figures tasked with keeping (other) elements of the working class in line, Rafferty’s Rise represents the RIC as benign. Although Rafferty is foolish and over-ambitious, these faults are attributable to the follies of youth, and Sergeant Hogan – who “did not want to be a district Tzar” (R.A.O’F.) – is ultimately able to put a stop to them. The RIC is part of the “everything Irish” that should be idealized.
As 1917 drew to a close, the other main Irish film production company of the period, the General Film Supply (GFS), was idealizing the new technologies of war. The GFS took out a large ad on the cover of the Limelight’s December issues, offering Christmas greetings and publicizing the various aspects of its business, particularly its Irish Events newsreel and the Irish-themed fiction films it had for hire. The most striking feature of the ad is a photograph of a tank leading soldiers over an embankment. The text under the photo reads: “Irish enterprise in producing a wonderful film of the tanks in Dublin is now having its reward by the unstinted praise bestowed on Irish Events.” An interview with GFS cameraman J. Gordon Lewis reveals that the company were releasing their film of the tanks that was on manoeuvres near Dublin in instalments over four weeks. “I was agreeably surprised at the wonderful Tanks,” he enthuses:
I took a very nice picture from the inside of one of the Tanks. I sat on the driver’s seat and held the camera on my knees with the lens protruding through the look-out hole and held on to [the] side of the hole like grim death as we crawled along. […] I must say they are fine to ride in, and the heat of the inside will be welcome to many of Tanker Tommy during the winter months that are now among us. (“Filming the Tanks in Dublin.”)
There was as much fascination in Ireland with the spectacular new war technologies as there was anywhere else. In January 1918, the Limelight would reported that Lewis had topped his tank film by filming in a “battle-plane with the result that while 1,500 feet above the earth he secured a picture of another aeroplane in flight that is nothing short of sensational” (“Notes and News”).
With their focus on the police and army, Rafferty’s Rise and the GFS film of tanks in Dublin suggest in their different ways that at the end of 1917, Irish film producers were serving social stability and the war effort.
Denis Condon lectures in film at NUI Maynooth.
“A Camera Expert: Interview with Mr. William Moser of the Film Company of Ireland.” Irish Limelight Jul. 1917: 14.
“Film Company of Ireland.” Dublin Evening Mail 10 Nov. 1917: 2.
“Filming the Tanks in Dublin.” Irish Limelight Dec. 1917: 18.
Holloway, Joseph. Holloway Diaries. National Library of Ireland.
“On the Screen: Bohemian.” Evening Telegraph 13 Nov. 1917: 4.
Paddy. “Irish Notes.” Bioscope 1 Nov. 1917: 109.
“Picture House Novelties: New Productions of Film Company of Ireland.” Freeman’s Journal 12 Nov. 1917: 4.
“Rafferty’s Rise.” Irish Limelight May 1917: 4.
“‘Rafferty’s Rise.’” Irish Limelight Jul. 1917: 15.
R.A.O’F. “Rafferty’s Rise: Review of an Irish Comedy by Irish Players.” Irish LimelightNov. 1917: 6.
“Really Irish Films.” Evening Telegraph 10 Nov. 1917: 3.