Emerald Illusions

Stereotypes abound, but this collection of early Irish-American films show the evolution of cinematic grammar

Some of the films on display in Emerald Illusions go so far back in time that they genuinely seem to come from another world. This is time travel without the DeLorean.

Four films have been curated in conjunction with Gary D Rhodes’ book, Emerald Illusions: The Irish in Early American Cinema. These are not Irish films but American films about the Irish. They draw on a hundred years of pre-cinematic entertainment: Irish themed stage plays, vaudeville acts and even magic lantern slides.

Shown as they are, with the eldest first, they show us something else; the establishment of workable cinematic grammar. As the evening draws on we get to see how something as strange as flickering light projected across a darkened room can gradually be shaped into a sophisticated narrative style, so that everything from jump-cuts, to flash-backs, to ‘screen-goes-wobbly’ dream-sequences become an effortless part of cinematic story-telling.

The first film, the oldest, comes with an essay for a title-card. This is necessary as Caught by the Wireless (1908) is almost unfathomable. It is so old that pioneering film director DW Griffith, its star, hasn’t yet picked up his megaphone. He plays ‘Paddy’, an Irishman forced to travel to America by a conniving landlord. He becomes a policeman and, when said landlord robs a rich man and absconds to America with his ill-gotten gains, Paddy is waiting to nab him. Thanks to the sci-fi magic of the new cable-gram.

For closure, Paddy’s family is on the same boat and they are joyfully reunited. This much is clear but there are another ten minutes of screen-time that are thrillingly opaque. They are full of weeping women gesticulating and bearded men pointing. The print is the colour of dried blood and pitted, popping and scarred. It is like peering into a murky fish-tank to watch the inhabitants continually banging tables and slamming doors in the coral castle.

The next film Bedelia and the Newlyweds from 1912 is altogether more comprehensible and presents us with the first Irish-themed film series. Bridget, an Irish cook, had been a popular comic character in the theatre for decades. Cinema took this stock figure and combined it with a popular song of the day and the ‘Bedelia’ film series was born.

The print shown tonight is the only playable version left in the world and is on loan from the Library of Congress! Bedelia, an Irish cook, is set to cook dinner for a pair of newlyweds. Unfortunately her policeman beau turns up (there’s a trend here) and the pair of them proceed to get drunk (and there’s another one).

Eventually Bedelia remembers her duties and sets about preparing a beautiful repast but as she is about to serve it she trips and spill it everywhere. I think Sesame Street could have trimmed the fat from that plot!

Cabman Kate (1915) sees another variant on the Bedelia figure. This time she’s a washerwoman, in a shawl and pinafore, and her best friend is a knicker-nibbling goat. A cabman cannot pay his laundry bill so feisty Kate commandeers his cab (first sighting of a shillelagh here) and rides about in it, looking to make some money.

What is interesting is the early twentieth century cinematic trend for ethnic mismatching. Throughout the twenties the Irish and the Jews were often pitched against each other as comic foils, as happens here with Kate and her customer. The film is little more than a Benny Hill chase sequence, but leads us into the last film Ham and Herring from 1927, the dying days of silent cinema (The Jazz Singer was released that same year).

Ham and Herring is an episode in the ‘Izzie and Lizze’ series. Izzie is a flashy Jewish boy and Lizzie a standard-issue feisty colleen. The film looks great as it has switched from autochromatic to panchromatic film stock and a whole world of silvery sophistication dances across the screen.

It’s an exercise in stereotypes. The teenager’s families are the sort of grotesques familiar from the A.A.P. ‘Popeye’ cartoons. Lizzie’s father is a side-burned ape while her mother is a keening harpy (albeit of the silent variety). Izzie’s father is a fast-talking nebbish (he gets most of the inter-title cards and all of the jokes) and his mother a sentimental giant.

In the course of the film the couple’s romance is discovered, which results in a fight. The families resolve their differences, which results in a fight and then decide to go camping. That also results in a fight.

For all the Vaudevillian slap-stick the young people represent a new America. They don’t fit into the comic cut-outs of their parent’s generation. They are just American.