Retro Short: The Lad from Old Ireland (1910).
The first film shot on location in Ireland feels more like a beautiful postcard than a sweeping adventure.
Our first film looking at the cinema of Ireland is appropriately the first fiction movie to be filmed there. Directed by and starring the prolific Sidney Olcott, The Lad from Old Ireland (alternately A Lad from Old Ireland), the film gets every ounce of excitement out of its locations, despite featuring a fairly perfunctory story. It’s by no means a bad story, but you can see that the visuals of the film are firmly the focus.
The Lad from Old Ireland (1910)
Terry O’Connor (Sidney Olcott) is a peasant farmer, fed up with the hard scrabble life in his small village. He tells his sweetheart, Aileene (Gene Gauntier),of his plans to travel to America and make his fortune. The two are wed, and Terry boards a steamship for the land of opportunity.
At first he struggles, working menial construction jobs. His fortunes take a turn for the better when he gets into politics, quickly winning a lucrative position that introduces him to high society. He seems to have forgotten his homeland when a letter from Aileene, telling of the pending eviction from their family home, reminds him of why he came to the US in the first place.
Film was just leaving its infancy in the 1900’s and establishing its own artistic merits. The short, one reel films of the previous era had been little more than scenes from plays or vaudeville, or travelogues. That legacy is firmly represented in The Lad from Old Ireland.
Olcott’s film is clearly inspired by the popular travelogues of the late 1890’s. He composes beautiful travel scenes and pastoral shots, with numerous shots of steamship and locomotive travel. It’s a technical wonder of the time to have his characters acting out the story on an oceangoing vessel with the grandeur of a tossing waves dominating the shot.
The other source of inspiration, theater, is less impressive. The characters emote in broad pantomime, with high melodrama. Olcott is theatrical but effective as Terry; the rest of the cast varies from overwrought to hardly aware of their surroundings. One old woman stands and stares at the camera during the wedding scene, as if posing for a picture taking!
There are minimal intertitles used in the film. In fact, it seems the surviving copies of this film are all taken from a German version, with German language intertitles. Even so, the story is clearly meant to be interpreted from the pantomime acting and not lengthy text.
The real invention of the film is the marriage of the two genres. The static shots at medium distance that mimic a stage play would be dull, if not for Olcott’s eye for filling up the scene with natural beauty. Even his indoor sets are busy and intricate, giving relief to the eyes when our characters are just standing center stage and declaiming the narrative.
A few ingenious shots sneak their way into the film, such as when Terry imagines Aileene in front of him during his long journey home. It’s a rather inelegantly crafted double exposure, but in the film it jumps out as a breath of fresh air that the camera is being used as more than just a static recorder of surface events.
The Lad from Old Ireland is fairly effective even with its weaknesses. The story is a bit generic by today’s standards, but was lauded at the time for telling an immigrant story that didn’t lean on stereotypes. Olcott is charming, demonstrating why he starred in as many one-reelers as he did. The real power comes from the shot composition and beautiful locations, deftly chosen and seamlessly presented. It must have been a thrill for audiences to see a narrative drama that had all of the visual impact of a travelogue. Some of that same thrill is still evident, even a hundred years later.