Printer Friendly

When the Irish ruled Hollywood.

Looking at American films of the past 20 years, it is impossible to ignore the Irish presence--actors such as Colin Farrell, Liam Neeson, Pierce Brosnan, Jonathan Rhys-Meyer, directors like Nell Jordan, Jim Sheridan, Pat O'Connor. They are part of a tradition which has continued virtually unnoticed for over a century.

Having celebrated its 60th anniversary John Ford's The Quiet Man (1952) is still drawing tourists to its location, Cong, Co Mayo. But the cottage of John Wayne has virtually disappeared, since tourists keep taking souvenirs from its structure. (Something of the same celebrity is accorded to the 1956 Moby Dick, partly shot in Youghal, Co Cork.)

It has been generally thought, thanks to all the plays, films and books on the subject, that Hollywood was created entirely by Jews. It is true that a surprising number of producers and studio heads were Jewish. But it would be no exaggeration to say that if, in silent-era Hollywood, the Jews ran the business, the Irish made the pictures. Here is an ironic situation, since for most of the 20th century, Ireland itself had no film industry to speak of.

Whether it was due to their instinct for storytelling and performance, or to an aptitude for humour, Irish-Americans dominated Hollywood in the first thirty years. Think of Mack Sennett, Mary Pickford, Colleen Moore, William S. Hart. There were many directors and even producers of Irish descent--Thomas Ince, Hal Roach, Pat Powers--and Walt Disney whose family came from Co Kilkemny. They were remarkably colourful people who made enormous contributions to an art and an industry.

But in the early 20th century, there was nothing distinctive about being Irish. They were among the largest ethnic groups in America, due to the famine in the mid-nineenth century, and the fact that, until recently, Ireland was a great country to emigrate from. When the Irish arrived, they sometimes changed their names to make themselves a little less uncommon--Meehan became Meighan, (as in the case of actor Thomas Meighan) Brennan became Brenon, (as in the case of director Herbert Brenon).

The Irish Catholics were initially despised. They were poor. They built shanty towns in Central Park (vividly illustrated in 1925 in Lights of Old Broadway), they formed criminal gangs (as in Regeneration in 1915) and when threatened with the draft in the Civil War, they rioted and burned 37 acres of New York. Eventually, they took political power, and one of their number became President of the United States. The experience of the Irish Protestant immigrants was very different--no less than thirteen of them became President.

The Jews were attracted to motion pictures because there was no history of anti-Semitism, it was slightly rebellious, since no orthodox Jew would be associated with images, moving or otherwise, and it was linked to industries they were familiar with, like clothing and advertising. The Talmadge girls, Norma and Constance, got the mixture absolutely right: they were half Irish and half Jewish.

The Irish were drawn to motion pictures as they had been drawn to the theatre. One of the early examples of the fascination with Irish history and legend were the expeditions of the Kalem company in 1910, 1911, and 1912 to Killarney, where, under the direction of Sidney Olcott, they made such films as Rory O'More (1911) and The Shaughraun (1912).

Producers had little part in the creative process at this stage of the business. They hired directors, but left them to get on with it. Thomas Ince, a famous early producer, changed all that. He had been a director. Now he ran a studio, he supervised the writers, marked their scripts "SHOOT AS WRITTEN," and established the methods and some of the subjects adopted years later by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

The majority of films before World War One were one and two-reelers lasting fifteen minutes to half an hour. In 1913, George Loane Tucker formed a group with King Baggot and Herbert Brenon, all of them Irishmen, to make a film of feature length--90 minutes--on the sensational subject of prostitution. It was called Traffic in Souls (1913), and it was written by Walter McNamara, from Lismore, Co Waterford.

McNamara used this tremendous commercial success to finance an even more risky subject, Ireland a Nation (1914), a film which caused riots in New York. This film was being carried to England aboard the RMS Lusitania when she was sunk off Kinsale by a German U-boat in 1915.

Herbert Brenon, born in Dun Laoghaire, directed the celebrated Australian swimming star Annette Kellerman in two pictures for Fox. A Daughter of the Gods (1916) * was made on location in Jamaica, and Brenon was able to use vast numbers of local people as extras. His problems with producer William Fox led to hilarious accounts of his behaviour, including his being banned from the premiere but turning up behind false whiskers. This adverse publicity, however, did not prevent the British inviting him to cross the Atlantic to make an epic for the war effort. Although he wrote Kathleen Mavourneen in 1913, he never directed a film with an Irish theme.

During World War One, the American film industry supported the Allies against the Germans. Cecil B De Mille made a version of the story of Joan of Arc, Joan the Woman (1916), as propaganda for the Allies, and in the title role was the great opera star Geraldine Farrar, daughter of Irish-born baseball coach Sid Farrar. She was a curious choice, for she had had a much-publicised affair with the son of the Kaiser, and gossip linked her with the Kaiser himself.

The brutality with which the Dublin Post Office rising was suppressed by the British at Easter, 1916, outraged many Irish-Americans, many of whose relatives were fighting for the Allies. But Sir Roger Casement had involved the Germans in gun-running to Ireland, for which he was hanged. (D W Griffith made a film inspired by his case.). The surrender of Patrick Pearse was received by General Lowe and his ADC--his own son--who became the film star John Loder. One of Michael Collins' runners during the Rising was a boy called George Brendan Nolan, who fled the country and ended up a star in Hollywood, acting as George Brent with such luminaries as Greta Garbo.

Having crippled the European industries, the war gave the American film industry world dominance. What helped to achieve this were the films of Mary Pickford, a Canadian of Irish origin. For a while, there was no one more famous or better loved on the planet - and her pictures were shown in every part of that planet. They were usually directed by Irishmen, James Kirkwood, Allan Dwan, William Desmond Taylor or Marshall Neilan.

James Kirkwood defected to a rival, Mary Miles Minter, whose real name was Reilly. She was involved in one of the biggest scandals ever to hit Hollywood, the murder of William Desmond Taylor.

Mack Sennett (Michael Sinnott) was another Canadian whose family came from Ireland. He was responsible for Keystone Comedies--and the Keystone Cops--and he produced the films of comedienne Mabel Normand, whose family originated from Galway. She directed Charlie Chaplin in some of his first short comedies, and her relationship with Sennett is celebrated in the musical Mack and Mabel, which premiered on Broadway in 1974. Normand was implicated in no less than two major scandals.

Hollywood had been acquiring a bad reputation because the yellow press, introduced by newspaper chief William Randolph Hearst, reported every film industry peccadillo. A series of scandals threatened to alienate the all-important family audience. These scandals involved employees of Paramount Pictures, several of whom were, by coincidence, of Irish origin.

Any small town has its share of petty crime, but Hollywood attracted crooks from all over the country. If arrested in Los Angeles, prostitutes would describe themselves as "movie extras," while the press made blackmailers and pickpockets more romantic by describing them as "movie sheiks." Hollywood's wild parties were a staple but largely fictitious feature of newspaper stories until the death of a girl at a party given by movie comic Roscoe Arbuckle in San Francisco. The picture business used Arbuckle as a scapegoat and even though he survived three trials, and was given an unprecedented apology, his career was finished.

This catastrophe was hardly over when leading film star Wallace Reid died of drugs in 1923. The headlines terrified Hollywood producers, some of whom had caused Reid's addiction by putting him on morphia after he was injured on location. They brought in a "Movie Czar," Will Hays. No sooner had he started trying to make sense of the situation than the murder was announced of William Desmond Taylor, an urbane Anglo-Irishman from Cappoquin, Co Waterford, who, as head of the Directors Guild, was often asked to represent the respectable side of Hollywood. The murder is still unsolved, after ninety years.

Cowboy films were tremendously popular all over the world, and among the western heroes was a heroine, Texas Guinan, (Irish), who went on to become the notorious Queen of the Night Clubs on Broadway during Prohibition, with the celebrated catchphrase "Hello, suckers!"

Unlike most of the cowboy stars, Harry Carey was from New York, and had no experience on the range. But he was fascinated by the west and he linked up with another second-generation Irishman, John Ford, to make a series of what they described as "plain westerns." John Ford rose to become perhaps America's greatest director and he paid endless homage to his Irish roots. His cousin, Sean Thornton, the name of the character played by John Wayne in The Quiet Man, fought against the British in the Troubles. (There exists from the 1960s a very funny attempt by a BBC interviewer to draw out from Ford his observations on the American Indian, when all Ford wants to do is to berate the Englishman about the Black and Tans.)

It is curious that Ford should have set himself up as a one-man Irish Tourist Board, because so many of his director colleagues in the 20s and early 30s were Irish or part--Irish Raoul Walsh, Marshall Neilan, William K. Howard, Allan Dwan, Joseph Henabery, William Beaudine, Leo McCarey, William Wellman, Clarence Brown. Leading men in the silent and early talkie period also tended to be Irish--Thomas Meighan, the Moore brothers, Tom, Matt and Owen, Eugene O'Brien, George O'Brien--the son of Chief Dan O'Brien of the San Francisco Police--Pat O'Brien, J Warren Kerrigan.... The top male star at the box office in 1919 was (Irish) Charles Ray; he would crash in 1923 after an ambitious project about the Mayflower sank with all hands. And perhaps the strangest actor of the entire period was (Irish) Julian Eltinge, who specialised in playing women. He was primarily a stage star and was so successful he had a theatre named after him.

Even some of the child actors were Irish--Jackie Coogan, Junior Coghlan, Spec O'Donnell (nicknamed for his freckles, who often played Jewish boys), and "Baby Peggy" Montgomery (now Diana Cary). Coogan played an Irish kid working with a Jewish peddler in The Rag Man (1925).

It sometimes seems as though the two most powerful ghettoes--Irish and Jewish--had been dragged from New York to California. The Irish worked happily with the Jews, but not without the occasional punch on the nose. When Louis B. Mayer, the Jewish vice president of Metro-Goldwyn, opened the studio, in the middle of his lengthy speech, Marshall Neilan called out "Okay, gang. Back to work." And back to work they went. Neilan once quipped, "An empty taxicab drew up and Louis B. Mayer got out." Dublin-born director Rex Ingram's dislike of Mayer was one of the main reasons he pioneered runaway production and set up a studio in the South of France. He consistently refused to have Mayer's name on his films.

Rex Ingram's name was Hitchcock, but as he told the young (half-Irish) Alfred "You'd better change it--you'll never get anywhere with a name like that." Ingram was, unusually for the picture business. A brilliant artist and sculptor and writer, he soared into the stratosphere with a magnificent film entitled The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921). He is mentioned by James Joyce in Finnegan's Wake as "Rex Ingram, pageant master.'" Adapted by (Irish) June Mathis from a novel by Vicente Blasco Ibanez and photographed by (Irish) John Seitz it featured (Irish) Alice Terry and brought to stardom the young (Italian) Rudolph Valentino. Ingram quickly lost Valentino to the Lasky company, but he replaced him with a Mexican Catholic extra, Ramon Novarro, who proved almost as successful and was chosen by Louis B Mayer to play the Jewish prince, Ben-Hur. Ingram wanted more than anything to direct Ben-Hut (1925), but Mayer's revenge was to deny it to him.

Ingram admired authenticity in film production, and he was close friends with the greatest practitioner of this art, Erich von Stroheim. Accustomed to playing evil Huns in wartime propaganda films, Stroheim was known as the "Man you Love to Hate." He was accepted as an Austrian cavalry officer who brought the secrets of European aristocracy to Hollywood. Germany and Austria used to send emissaries to discuss military matters. After his death, he was unmasked as the son of a Jewish hatmaker from Gleiwitz. This should have given him at least sympathy for the Jewish producers. But he was incredibly extravagant and thus they were his enemies. He practised as a Catholic and sought the company of Irishmen. Even his writer Benjamin Glazer, thought to be a Viennese Jew, turned out to be a Belfast Jew. And while Jewish producers like Mayer and Irving Thalberg savaged his films or fired him from directing them, the Irish ones, Pat Powers or Joseph Kennedy (the President's father), gave him all the money he needed--and then fired him.

The growing power of the Irish was demonstrated in 1927, when MGM released a comedy called The Callahans and the Murphys. "There were three sides to this battle,' said a subtitle 'Jews, Irish and innocent bystanders.' But Callahans made fun of the Irish and the Irish were now in a position to fight back. MGM were obliged to withdraw the picture. The Colleen Moore picture Smiling Irish Eyes (1929) was banned in Ireland following a disturbance "because the ethnic characterisations were so stereotypically insulting."

Many audiences relished the fairy-tale romances of Colleen Moore (nee Kathleen Morrison), one of the top female box office stars and an inspiration to (Irish) F. Scott Fitzgerald. But while her films were funny and she herself was enchanting, there was little of the fairytale romance about her marriage to her producer, (Irish) John McCormick. Her friend, the (Irish) writer Adela Rogers St. Johns, fashioned the marital drama into a powerful early talkie, What Price Hollywood? (1932), which influenced A Star is Born.

Warner Bros. had Lubitsch pictures which brought prestige but no profit, and Rin-Tin-Tin films, which brought profit but no prestige. They needed an edge. Sam Warner discovered the way to get it when he saw some short films that employed the Vitaphone system of synchronised sound recorded on disc. He proposed creating a partnership with the the general manager of Western Electric, which owned Vitaphone; the manager, accepted partly because, as an anti-Semite who disliked doing business with the Jews, he mistook Sam for an Irishman and admired his non-Jewish wife, actress Lina Basquette. Six months later appeared Don Juan (1926), with John Barrymore, but despite its success, the Warners thought it "a flash in the pan."

When sound experiments began, Eddie Cantor made a De Forest Phonofilm in 1922 pretending to be Thomas Meighan while telling Jewish jokes. Fox Movietone filmed the great Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, who enchanted audiences with his eccentric humour.

Talking pictures brought a new generation of Irish-American players into pictures--James Cagney, Pat O'Brien, Barbara Stanwyck, Spencer Tracy--and they often played Irish-Americans. Irish actresses like Maureen O'Sullivan from Roscommon, Maureen O'Hara (Fitzsimon) from Dublin and Greer Garson, from Co. Down became important Hollywood stars. And in the 1940s appeared that extraordinary talent, Gene Kelly.

The Irish did not draw attention to being Irish; in this way they were similar to the Jewish producers, who put precious few films about the Jews into production. Irish subjects were made in slightly greater numbers--Irish Luck, shot in Ireland in 1925, Parnell (1937), with Clark Gable as the great politician brought down by an affair, Beloved Enemy, a Goldwyn film of 1936 based on Michael Collins' career, and Captain Fury (1939), in which an exiled Irish patriot (portrayed by Brian Aherne) leads an uprising in 19th century Australia--but there were no outstandingly realistic films on the subject. The few good ones are pure fantasy. Yet the only Irish film anyone remembers is The Quiet Man.

The turmoil in Central Europe brought refugees from Hitler to Hollywood and the balance changed. Nevertheless, the Irish have remained in our memories and affections, whether it be through the work of Gregory Peck, a cousin of Thomas Ashe, one of the 1916 rebels, Peter O'Toole, immortalising another Irishman, Lawrence of Arabia, or Richard Harris, the only Irishman to have played that scourge of the Irish, Cromwell. Great directors like John Huston made some of the best talkies.

Hollywood was plunged into conflict when (Irish) Senator McCarthy inspired a search for Reds under beds, aided by hardline anti-communists such as James Kevin McGuinness, Adolphe Menjou (who had an Irish mother), Clarence Brown (ditto) and Leo McCarey.

Eventually, a film industry was created in Ireland and a number of first-class directors appeared, some of whom went to the United States. By that time, the Irish were cherished by the Americans, and yet their true contribution to the culture of the United States--and the world has still to penetrate from us film historians to the general public. Perhaps we should inform them that one of the MGM lions used for the trademark came from Dublin zoo.

Caption: Herbert Brenon made some of the most memorable Hollywood films: Peter Pan (1924), Beau Geste (1926) and the lost Great Gatsby (1926).

Caption: Marshall Neilan (left) directs and appears in his own film, Daddy-Long-Legs (1919). Mary Pickford is pictured in the center, with Mahlon Hamilton on the right. (Courtesy) of the Kevin Brownlow Collection).

Caption: Penrod (1922) represents a key example of the influence of Irish-America in Hollywood, having been directed by Marshall Neilan and Frank O'Connor, and featuring such actors of Irish descent as Claire McDowell, John Harron, Jackie Condon, Charles Meakin, and Noah Beery, Jr. (Courtesy of the Kevin Brownlow Collection)

Caption: Lewis Milestone's film The Racket (1928) with Irish-American Thomas Meighan as Captain McQuigg (left) talking to Louis Wolheim as Nick Scarsi. (Courtesy of the Kevin Brownlow Collection)

Caption: Actors Charlie Murray, Mickey Bennett, and Kate Price in The Cohens and the Kellys (1926). (Courtesy of the Kevin Brownlow Collection)

Caption: Thomas Meighan (center) in Victor Heerman's film Irish Luck (1925), which was shot on location in Ireland.

* A 20-minute fragment of Daughter of the Gods has been discovered in Australia. Link: http://bernews.com/2010/12/videoneptunes-daughter-resurfaces

----------

Please note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.
COPYRIGHT 2013 Post Script, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2013 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Brownlow, Kevin
Publication:Post Script
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2013
Words:3184
Previous Article:Irish-American film audiences, 1915-1930.
Next Article:Anthony Slide interviewed.
Topics:

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters