Category: Archive

Lesson from the silver screen

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

In 1910, a young Irishman, Terry, was toiling with the turf in a Kerry bog. Nearby, his sweetheart, Aileen, was working away as well.
It struck Terry that there had to be a better life, and, as he leaned on his spade he made plans to leave for America.
Sad the departure, sadder still to leave Aileen, but soon Terry was thanking the priest and kissing his beloved for the last time before he leapt into a donkey cart. Next thing he knew, he was aboard the S.S. Baltic, bound for New York.
He worked hard in New York City — from the building site, he moved upward to business, and then politics beckoned.
But back home in Kerry, Aileen’s poor mother had passed on, the landlord stood menacingly at the door, and eviction loomed.
It is a compelling narrative, as familiar to us today as a Bible story. Yet this particular story is just that — a story told on celluloid. It is the plotline of a film made in Kerry in 1910 called “The Lad from Old Ireland.”
Recently brought to light in Ireland by film PhD student Dennis Condon in Dublin, the movie is believed to be the earliest piece of Irish cinema that has survived to the present day.
“The movie would be fairly well known within Irish film studies circles,” Condon said recently. His doctoral study examines early Irish filmmaking up until the 1923 Censorship Act passed by the fledgling Irish state.
“What it is, is the first film that we still have,” Condon explained. “It is also the first film made by an American company, and it is likely to be the first surviving fiction film.”
“The Lad from Old Ireland” is 9 minutes of silent black-and-white film in remarkably good condition, although the last two minutes are missing. This leaves the ending tantalizingly unknown, although it is likely to have been a happy one.
The landscape and people of County Kerry provide the backdrop for the exterior scenes in the film, as well as New York City. This, Condon said, is likely to be the first movie filmed on two continents as well as on the high seas. In one charming moment an old woman sits in as an extra, stroking a cat on her lap. The cat playfully paws at her shawl, while over a half door, the actress playing Aileen thinks wistfully of her Terry.
In 1910, filmmaking was still in its earliest stages both as an art form and as an industry. One of the pioneers from the era was actor-director Sidney Olcott, who born in Toronto in 1873 of Irish Catholic immigrant parents.
In 1907, George Klein, Samuel Long and Frank Marion founded the Kalem film company. One day, Marion asked Kalem’s leading director, Olcott, where in the world he wanted to make films.
Olcott, whose mother was from Dublin, pointed to Ireland on a map. It was to be a movie-making experiment that would produce 28 movies imagining Ireland that would be shown to Irish immigrants and Irish Americans back in New York. And it is a significant step in forming the Irish Diaspora’s idea of the island of Ireland.
Condon said that perhaps five movies survive in fragmentary form apart from “The Lad from Old Ireland.” They survived by sheer chance. Irish Film Archive researchers reckon that as much as 80 percent of early cinema about Ireland has been lost forever.
“Films were not archived until the 1930s,” said Condon. He explained that this movie ended up in Germany, where it was re-edited with intertitles in German, and then found its way into the collection of a Swiss headmaster, who had recognized the educational potential of movies.
At some point in the 20th century, the film was gifted to the archive. Although Irish film experts would have known of its existence, Condon’s PhD research helped bring it to light once again in the 21st century.
German intertitles aside, the movie is unmistakably an Irish tale. When making the movie, director Olcott, who also plays Terry, the male lead, used mostly local Kerry people as extras. Only in some interior shots are other actors present.
In the course of making the movies in and around the Killarney area, Olcott ended up using practically the whole local population in various melodramas such as “Rory O’Moore,” “Ireland the Oppressed,” “The Colleen Bawn”, “A Letter from America,” “The Irish Emigrant” and “The Fishing Maid of Ballydavid.”
One local resident, now deceased, described the arrival of Olcott and what it meant for the area. “We were waving goodbye to some guests when an American drew up and said they were making moving pictures,” Annie O’Sullivan said. “And My father said we had never seen anything like that but we had ‘Magic Lantern’ pictures. They told us that it was the same system except that the people in their pictures moved.”
The essence of the movie starring Terry and Aileen is like an A-B-C guide to the emigrant success story.
Leaving Kerry and his beloved Aileen is a bittersweet moment for Terry. But soon he is aboard a ship bound for New York — Olcott and crew actually filmed the ship segments on board the S.S. Baltic, carrying real immigrants, who are seen in the background as extras.
In New York, the newly arrived Terry is seen staring at the mysterious new city that is his home. He finds work on a building site, then is seen a few frames — and several years later — in a much finer suit, awaiting election results in what can only be Tammany Hall. Tensions run high as results are called in on a phone, and then to wild, uproarious applause, he is elected.
“We can presume that he is elected mayor of the city,” Condon explained. “There he is slightly later in a very fancy building. It is likely to mean City Hall.”
Even though the success story that is played out on the silver screen by Terry would have been inspiring for Irish people back in Ireland, the movie, Condon noted, was made for an Irish-American audience, and was probably first shown before a public audience in New York City.
Although the technology was primitive by modern standards, cinemas were usually packed houses, particularly when melodramas such as “The Lad from Old Ireland” described the kind of success story that many Irish immigrants would have hoped to lead.
“Films from this period frequently demanded imaginative leaps on the part of the audience,” Condon continued. “They were aided in making these leaps by intertitles, as well as the live music played in the nickelodeon or theater. There was also the spiel of a lecturer who might have explained the film as it was being projected. Then there would have been printed material, summaries, that could be found in popular film magazines and trade journals and that were sometimes posted up in the lobby of the nickelodeon.”
Audiences of between 100 and 200 may have watched “The Lad from Old Ireland” in the 1910s. They would have seen the movie portray Terry in fine clothing at the height of New York social life, then cutting to the poverty of Kerry, where Aileen, who was played by a close Olcott associate, the actress Gene Gauntier, finds her beloved grandmother has died.
The landlord arrives to evict her and her sisters. A letter reaches Terry in New York, and he sets off for home immediately.
Aboard the ship to Ireland, he wanders the deck in a pensive mood, and the audience is treated to an impressive piece of special effects for the era: as he thinks of what awaits him in Ireland, Aileen appears before him as a vision. When he reaches out to touch her, she vanishes. His face settles into a mask of determination and resolve, as he remembers how much he loves her.
“From its reception in trade papers at the time, this was state of the art,” Condon said. “Olcott was considered a good director.” Many people who came into the early movie industry, he added, came from a magician and showbiz background.
Just as significant, however, are the scenes shot in Ireland that show Terry returning on a train — perhaps the actual train from Cobh to Killarney, which would have been the route a real-life Terry would have taken.
After he gets off the train, the well-dressed Terry travels by donkey cart to his old village. Stepping down on to his native soil, Terry looks around him in wonderment, then heads for the old thatched cottage.
In a moment of high drama, he enters the house just as the landlord is about to do his worst and throw Aileen on to the street. It is a moment that would have evoked real, raw memories for many Irish Americans at the time. Terry pulls out a wallet stuffed with money, pays off the debt and — a final flourish – orders the landlord out and sends him scurrying.
Because of the missing last two minutes, we do not know the ending. Condon said that experts agree that the ending was a happy one.
A Jan. 11, 1912 edition of the early British movie trade paper “Bioscope describes the ending of “The Lad from Old Ireland,” although Condon said that academics had learned not to trust these often overembellished descriptions.
Bioscope said that after Terry returns to Ireland and sees off the grasping landlord, “[he] asks [Aileen] to come back to his new home in America, as his wife. She has waited long for her lover, and gladly gives herself to him.”
The message conveyed in the movie is embodied by the character of Terry, who, through emigration and hard work, climbs the ladder of American success — but never forgets his roots.
“It is definitely a significant film,” Condon said. “It is the first Irish American view of Ireland through film.”
As war loomed in 1914, the Kalem crew returned to New York, which was still the home of moviemaking before the industry moved west giving rise to Hollywood. They must have left indelible memories with the people of Killarney who had cameo-ed in the films. But more important is the record they left on film that survives today.
Olcott’s life was a colorful one. Often the various scrapes he got into presaged the ups and downs of some of the later heroes of Hollywood. As Kalem’s first director, from 1907, he got the company involved in a losing court case over the author’s copyright to his one-reel version of “Ben-Hur” shot at Manhattan Beach.
For a number of years he vanished, and it is unknown to this day what he was up to. He later resurfaced and returned to making movies.
One of his most significant pieces of works was a filmic life of Christ, one of the first directors to attempt to do so.
Called “From the Manger to the Cross” the film was enormously controversial at the time, drawing storms of protest from Church organizations.
Olcott, a man of the world with an eye to business, told the New York Times: “I knew then I had to make the film. With all that free publicity the film would obviously be a big profit-maker.”
At first no actor would play Jesus Christ, superstitiously fearing that it would be bad for their career.
Then Olcott met a British actor, Robert Henderson Bland, who — in another instant that echoed Hollywood at its more bizarre moments later in the 20th century — declared that the night before, God had appeared in a vision to him and told him that he was Christ. Therefore, the role ought to be an easy one, Bland said.
“Frankly, we thought he was mad,” Olcott later told a reporter. “But we didn’t argue. He was obviously what we wanted.” The film was made in Egypt and Palestine.
With Ireland only a few years away from the turmoil of the Rising, the revolution and the civil war, “The Lad from Old Ireland” is a remarkable snapshot of the countryside and its people. As a piece of filmmaking, it is virtuosic in its use of locals as extras, and also in its telling of what is perhaps Irish America’s founding fable: emigrate, work hard, rise up in society, but never forget one’s roots or the old country.
Not every immigrant makes it to the top of society in America, but for a movie-going generation in the early 20th century, Terry must have been an inspiration.

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