Thursday 25 December 2014

The divas and the dress code: How Hollywood came to Cork

Outrageous demands by Hollywood stars are commonplace nowadays, but created quite a stir in the early days of the Cork Film Festival. In 1957, when her film A King in New York was screened, actress Dawn Addams, whose mother was born in the city, created a storm by demanding a bath of cold Jersey milk as part of her daily beauty treatment.

Douglas Vance, the famous manager of The Metropole Hotel refused the request because "the people of Cork are finding it hard to makes ends meet".

Like many an inspired idea, the notion that Cork could host its own film festival fell mostly on deaf ears back in the grim days of the 1950s. Compared to next week's 57th festival, where sold-out screenings will be the norm, life on Leeside during that era was a very different world.

When a small group of visionaries gathered to weigh the odds of getting such a dream off the ground, they encountered two implacable obstacles: could Cork seriously compete with the cultural firepower of Cannes, Berlin and Venice, and would the absence of an airport limit the chances of attracting the big stars?

Into this yawning chasm of uncertainty jumped Dermot Breen, manager of The Palace cinema and ultimate godfather of the fledgling venture.

Convincing the city fathers that the idea was culturally worthwhile and then persuading the International Producer's Association to grant Cork official status as a festival venue, he was never less than certain of his goal: "Cannes is commercial and Venice is semi-commercial," he declared.

"Cork will have a prestige festival, and we will have practically no opposition."

In 1955 it was a grey time in Cork.

Almost a third of the houses in the city were over 100 years old, and emigration on The Innisfallen boat from Penrose Quay was a weekly fixture.

Despite the austerity, Corkonians did enjoy a vibrant cinema scene. The city boasted nine cinemas in 1955 with the Savoy on Patrick Street one of the largest auditoriums in Europe. Going to 'the flicks' four times a week was not uncommon.

The early festivals were very formal occasions, with frocks for the ladies and black ties for the men. "We don't wish to be classified as long-haired cranks of the cinema," said Dermot Breen, laying out his stall.

Against the odds, the stars did come with Gregory Peck, James Mason, Vittorio De Sica, John Huston and Walt Disney all regular visitors, beside Irish acting luminaries of the day such as Noel Purcell and Milo O'Shea.

"It was a time of incredible glamour," former festival chairman Charlie Hennessy recalled of his teenage days as a volunteer. 'There were limousines, masses of gardaí on duty, hordes of photographers, and thousands of people -- all waiting hours for a glimpse of the stars as they made their way across the red carpet.

"Ireland had never experienced anything like such glamour, and the event was enormous right from the start."

'I was never quite sure why the task fell to me, but on a number of occasions I was detailed to keep certain stars out of the pubs -- or, at the very least, to try and keep them sober until screenings."

In terms of sheer consumption, Charlie found his greatest challenge in watching over one Jan Baalsrud, a Norwegian war hero whose epic mountain escape from the Germans was celebrated in Nine Lives, which received its premiere in Cork: "Baalsrud was one of the best drinkers I ever met and a terrible man to keep up with," he recalled.

"The best I could do was call the festival office every few hours to give them geographical co-ordinates of where the hell we were," the exasperated minder recalled.

Irish Independent

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