Monday, January 9, 2012

Christmas Reading No. 2: Emerald Illusions

My non-fiction Christmas read was Emerald Illusions: The Irish in early American cinema by Gary D. Rhodes, published by Irish Academic Press. I got interested in silent film while studying Sligo in the civil war period noting the wealth of entertainment provided by the cinemas in Sligo at the time.

This book based on a doctoral thesis, provides the first major history of the Irish-themed film in early American cinema. It revises prevailing views in this area and particularly opposes the view that films with an Irish theme or filmed in Ireland were made primarily for an Irish American audience.

The book spends a lot of time examining the origins of these films in pre-cinema entertainments such as Irish-themed stage plays, vaudeville acts, and magic lantern slides, revealing their various influences on early American cinema.

It is very good on the prevalence of "stage-Irishness" in these but also on the various ways that was understood. The question of authenticity was very much to the fore even from the earlies days of film and this led some companies to film in Ireland (and elsewhere in Europe and in Egypt and Palestine) in order to be able to claim authenticity.

The book is an academic work with detailed footnotes and is only available in hardback at the moment.

The Kalem company came to Ireland (nicknamed the O'Kalems) in 1910 and subsequent years and filmed here, particularly around Killarney. Some of their films had historical themes. Other companies followed suit. Irish Film & TV Research Online has made available nine dramatized films (or the parts which remain) about the Irish made in Ireland and America by Sidney Olcott and others during 1910–15.

Watching these on the computer's tiny screen gives no feel for how they were actually received. In a large crowded cinema, on a big screen, with live musical accompaniment they must have made quite an impression. We are inclined to think of audiences at silent films thinking to themselves It will be much better when the talkies arrive!

The Irish Film Institute is responsible for preserving and making available Ireland's film heritage. It has recently made available on DVD The O'Kalem Collection 1910-1915 containing the surviving eight films made by that company and a documentary The O'Kalem's in Ireland.

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