When the Irish Ruled Hollywood

By Brownlow, Kevin | Post Script, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

When the Irish Ruled Hollywood


Brownlow, Kevin, Post Script


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. …

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