Christmas 1913 saw cinema audiences treated for the first time to the screen adaptation of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. His 1843 novel was produced as a silent movie starring Seymour Hicks as the miserly businessman, Ebenezer Scrooge. But that’s just one of the films that was on offer to enthusiastic audiences that year which saw picture houses spread as rapidly here as elsewhere in the world – as Ruth Barton, head of film studies at Trinity College told us.
Christmas 1913 at the Pictures
by Ruth Barton
By 1913, going to the pictures was a popular leisure activity, particularly in the two main Irish cities of Dublin and Belfast.
For the last several years, eager entrepreneurs had put themselves to converting halls, shops and old warehouses into venues for this still-new public entertainment.
Not all were picture palaces – most were rickety, cheap conversions, reeking of damp and dirt and the stale remnants of drink and cigarettes, where patrons sat on wooden benches and luxury meant a kitchen chair. But some such as the Picture House on Dublin’s O’Connell Street and Belfast’s Royal Avenue Picture House were the height of sophistication. With its polished granite columns on the façade and marble walls and floors in the interior, and the promise of the latest in modern sanitation and ventilation, The Grafton Picture House in Dublin was a beacon to well-heeled shoppers.
Not for them the long running penny dreadfuls that packed in small boys (and occasionally their sisters) to the cheap seats of the working class halls. Instead, the middle classes were lured with the promise of tasteful adaptations of classic literature often starring well known stage actors, America’s Mrs Fiske, and the scandalous Sarah Bernhardt. Outside of the cities, travelling showmen added moving pictures to their repertoire, projecting grainy, flickering images onto the walls of their tents.
By Christmas 1913, Kingstown’s Pavilion Gardens was promising a changing programme of pictures for children: Babes in the Wood, Pinocchio, A Christmas Carol and Cinderella, for prices ranging from four pence to sixpence to a shilling, while in Dublin’s city centre the Rotunda was advertising the latest instalment in the thrilling serial Who Will Marry Mary? in which Mary receives a proposal from a sculptor, introducing ‘incidents of a highly amusing character’. And if that wasn’t enough, audiences were promised thrills of a ‘sensational type’ in The Master Crook, also showing at the Rotunda.
At Cavan’s Electric Picture Palace, the chief attraction was Detective Burns and the Swindlers followed by the thrilling and exotic The Rajah’s Casket. The Galway Town Hall was also offering the latest instalment of Who Will Marry Mary? to be followed by The False Friend, and the comedies, Billy’s First Quarrel and Two Lunatics.
If exhibitors might fear that their patrons would be distracted by Christmas shopping and other festivities, they were confident that on St Stephens Day, with the shops closed, and family and religious obligations over, people would be looking to get out of their homes. They must have been thrilled then to wake up to a day of blustery winds and drenching showers. The long list of outdoor activities was disregarded, and as the Sunday Independent reported ‘Folks are bent on going somewhere on bank holiday – they will not be denied their share of gaiety – and consequently the dreary and deserted streets had their contrast in the packed theatres and picture houses.’
But if there was one picture that suggested the loftiest kind of Christmas entertainment, it was the long running From Manger to Cross, a nativity drama directed by the famed Irish-Canadian Sidney Olcott, written by and starring Gene Gauntier. Yet this was the film that had set all Dublin alight with controversy. Outraged clerics, many of them of the Protestant faith, had filled the Mansion House as they fulminated on the impropriety of reproducing such images for profit. Grave injury to the spiritual life of the community, they warned, would be done by the showing of such a picture. What’s more, did this not illustrate the dangers of the cinematograph itself? It would, one incensed writer to the Irish Times averred, ‘act as a sort of drug on the national character....amusing us with the faintest mental exertion on our part.[…] with every fresh dose the effect of the drug becomes more fatal and the victim less capable to reacting to the realities of life.’
With the realities of life encroaching on all sides, the citizens of Dublin made their own decision. From Manger to Cross was the longest running film of 1913.