Entertainment Movies

Tuesday 16 January 2018

The dawn of the talkie movie era in Ireland

John Daly

When a group of ordinary Killarney people gathered together in the summer of 1933 with the unusual idea of making a movie, it is unlikely they could have imagined the level of success their amateur efforts would achieve.

Filmed in and around the famous Kerry tourist town over the next two years, The Dawn went on to become the first full-length indigenous Irish sound feature film.

A tale set around the romance and tragedy of the War of Independence, it was made with an all-amateur cast of 250 locals, who worked for free on Sundays and holidays to create one of Ireland's most remarkable cinematic achievements.

Produced, directed and scripted by Tom Cooper, a Killarney garage and cinema owner, The Dawn was first shown in Dublin cinemas in 1936 and was immediately hailed by audiences and critics alike.

The film was released across the UK, where, despite possible sensitivity to its political theme, it played to packed houses with one British newspaper praising "the clever combination of scenery and amateur acting that produces surprising results given its financial restraints". Screenings in New York and Boston proved similarly popular.

The Dawn is currently being restored and remastered by the Irish Film Institute, with the support of the Cooper family.

"Next year will mark the 80th anniversary of the original idea of The Dawn and we would love to see the film being available for today's cinema-going public," says Michelle Cooper-Galvin, granddaughter of Tom Cooper.

And there's also talk that the film might be remade. The whisper in Killarney is that Kerry movie star Michael Fassbender, star of Prometheus and Shame, might be involved in a remake of The Dawn.

Fassbender's representatives at London's Troika Talent Agency said "there is no truth in this rumour -- at the moment".

"As far as we know there is nothing concrete about any remake of The Dawn," says Michelle, "However, given that Michael Fassbender is himself from Killarney and indeed bears a slight resemblance to my grandfather, it would certainly be very interesting if any new project around The Dawn was to emerge in the future."

The Cooper family still own the cinema begun by their famous ancestor, and recently discovered the original script of The Dawn while renovating part of the premises.

"We found the script at the bottom of a cardboard box written on an old school copybook. It also contained instructions written by my grandfather on camera positioning for shooting some scenes, as well as mathematical calculations of the amount of film required," she added.

Glass-plate images taken by Tom Cooper while working on the film were also found, and are hoped to become part of the Kerry historical archive at Killarney House.

Tom Cooper's son, John, recalled some years ago how the project galvanised Killarney people back in 1933. "Everybody associated with the film was an ordinary working person. They freely gave their time to help in a common cause. Nobody had any interest in making money out of the project," he said.

Born in 1900, Tom Cooper would likely have developed an interest in film as a youngster by watching the production company, Kalem Film Company of America, make a number of silent short films in the Beaufort area around the turn of the century. These 15-minute melodramas were produced for 'flicker houses' on the boardwalks of Coney Island and Brighton, and provided much distraction for the locals of Killarney during their making.

Led by director Sidney Olcott and his leading lady Gene Gauntier, the Kalem Company came to Ireland every summer from 1910 to 1914, making over 30 films. Though they also shot features in England and Germany, their Irish-made films proved so popular the company were dubbed 'The O'Kalems' in Hollywood. Olcott liked Beaufort so much he considered constructing permanent studios there -- an idea doomed by the arrival of World War One.

The 1930s would have made a poor environment for budding Irish film-makers, with the global fallout from the Great Depression and the harsh aftermath of the War of Independence making a period more of survival than creative expression. In Kerry, particularly, it was a time when many homes had no electricity and small towns were decimated by emigration.

Though Hollywood may have been 6,000 miles away, Tom Cooper fashioned his movie-making plan that many must have deemed mad.

"People were very willing to help each other in those days. All the actors and workers took flasks of tea and sandwiches to the filming -- it was a wonderful distraction from the routine of their everyday lives."

Despite his keen interest in cinema, Cooper had no knowledge of the technical aspects of film-making or experience in production, direction or distribution.

"My father was determined to make a talking picture, and put his money where his mouth was by buying a camera capable of doing that," his son John recalled.

"He bought the camera in London for £500, a sum that would have bought a large family home in the centre of Killarney town back in those days."

Indo Review

Promoted Links

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Promoted Links

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment