Silent Cinema was the earliest era of cinema, lasting approximately from 1895 – with early experimentations from French scientist, physiologist and chronophotographer Étienne-Jules Marey to Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope, from French artist and inventor Louis Le Prince to the Lumiere Brothers – to 1927 with the first ‘talkie’ film The Jazz Singer. Over its history, Irish born actresses were some of the most skilled thespians on the silent screen.
The term Silent Cinema is somewhat oxymoronic: a silent film is one with no synchronised sound or audible dialogue, but they were certainly not silent as they were often accompanied by live musical performances from orchestras. The term is a retronym – which Merriam-Webster defines as ‘a term (such as an analogue watch, film camera, or snail mail) that is newly created and adopted to distinguish the original or older version, form, or example of something (such as a product) from other, more recent versions, forms, or examples’ – and is used amongst film critics and scholars to differentiate between the early and modern era of cinema.
It was not until the later 1910s that filmmakers began to see cinema as a creative vehicle for storytelling. Film Movements still studied today, including Classical Hollywood, French Impressionism, Soviet Montage and German Expressionism, were developed with their unique style by their respective filmmakers, and modern cinematic techniques such as close-ups, panning shots, and continuity editing transformed cinema into the powerful storytelling device it is today.
As Silent Cinema had no audible dialogue and written explanations or conversations between characters were limited to title cards, the acting style of Silent Cinema actors and actresses feels more exaggerated than that of contemporary stars. Those in the early films relied heavily on body language and facial expression to portray their emotions, and it was not until the 1920s that stars began to act more naturalistically thanks to the development of different frames and the understanding that film was a different art to the theatre.
Early cinematic technology was unstable, particularly the highly flammable nitrate film used to capture motion pictures, and many executives in the business saw a lot of films as having no continuous financial value so hundreds of films were either lost or purposely destroyed: it is estimated that around 75% of all silent films are lost.
Cinema-lovers are fortunate to have a small selection of Silent Cinema available to them today, and some of these films are arguably more famous today than they were in the past. Examples include Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) and City Lights (1931), Buster Keaton’s The General (1926) and Sherlock Jr. (1924), the historical epics and dramas of Cecil B. DeMille and D. W. Griffith, including the infamous Birth of a Nation (1915), and the pioneering surreal, gothic horror work of German Expressionists, including Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), Robert Wiene’s now century-year-old The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920), and F. W. Murnau’s adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Nosfertu (1922).
Irish Women of the Silent Screen
Although most stars of Silent Cinema were American or European, the Irish also made their presence known, particularly their talented actresses.
Eileen Dennes (1898 – 1991)
Born Eileen Amhurst Cowen, Eileen Dennes was an Irish born actress (hailing from Dublin) who began her acting career on stage in the early 1910s. Wishing to further develop her career, Eileen moved to America in 1917. Whilst there she acquired work through Empire Al Star Film Co. and was quickly offered a role in The Unforeseen (1917), an adaptation of a 1903 play of the same name, directed by John B. O’Brien who would direct over 50 films during this era.
After The Unforeseen, Eileen made one more Hollywood film with her co-star Olive Tell before deciding to find work in England instead. She was offered a contract by British producer, director and screenwriter Cecil Hepworth, who was famous for filming the funeral of Queen Victoria and co-directing the earliest screen adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland in 1903. Her first role was a bit part in Sheba (1917) alongside Alma Taylor and Gerald Ames, and from there she progressed to starring roles in Once Aboard the Lugger (1920), Mr Justice Raffles (1921), The Pipes of Pan (1921), and Comin’ Thro the Rye (1923).
Eileen ended her contract with Hepworth after Comin’ Thro the Rye and moved on to work with Australian-born director and producer Fred LeRoy Granville in his romance film The Sins Ye Do in 1925. Her last role was as Lucy in The Squire of Long Hadley in 1925, directed by Sinclair Hill who would go on to be awarded an OBE for his services to cinema.
Moyna Macgill (1895 – 1975)
Born Charlotte Lillian McIldowie, Moyna was a Belfast-born stage, film and television star and is perhaps better known now for being the mother of Angela Lansbury. Her interest in acting was sparked by her father, a solicitor who was also the director of Belfast’s Grand Opera House.
Pioneering Silent Film director George Pearson spotted the young Moyna on the London Underground one day and was so impressed by her that he immediately cast her in several of his films, the first being horseracing story Garryowen in 1920. Having already made her stage debut at the Globe Theatre’s production of Love is a Cottage in 1918, Moyna’s talent became well-known amongst filmmakers.
She was persuaded to change her name to Moyna Macgill by Gerald du Maurier, a fellow actor and manager, and eventually became one of the leading actresses of her time. She starred alongside the likes of Basil Rathbone and John Gielgud (who dominated British stage beside Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson for most of the 20th century) in classics, comedies, and melodramas.
After divorcing her husband Reginald Denham – writer, theatre and film director, actor and film producer – Moyna married socialist politician Edgar Lansbury and put her career on hold to focus on her children Isolade (who later married Sir Peter Ustinov), Angela, and twins Edgar Jr. and Bruce, who all went on to have successful careers in the dramatic arts.
In 1935, her husband died of stomach cancer and Moyna began an ill-fated relationship with tyrannical Leckie Forbes, a former British Army Colonel. Just before The Blitz, Moyna was able to take her and her children to the US to escape him but as she did not have a work visa, she was unable to work on stage or in Silent Films and had to present dramatic readings at private schools to provide an income.
After joining a production of Noel Coward’s Tonight at 8.30 in 1942, Moyna moved her family to Hollywood where she starred in Talkies such as Frenchman’s Creek (1944) and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945). The remainder of her career was in television, notably in sci-fi productions The Twilight Zone (1959 – 1964) and My Favourite Martian (1963 – 1966).
Eileen Percy (1900 – 1973)
Also born in Belfast, Eileen Percy moved from Northern Ireland to Brooklyn, New York in 1903, back to Belfast for a time, and back to Brooklyn when she was nine years old, where she entered a convent. She is perhaps Ireland’s most prolific Silent Film stars, appearing in 68 films between 1917 and 1933.
Eileen was involved in the arts from a young age, acquiring work as an artist’s model aged eleven, and making her Broadway debut in Maurice Maeterlinck’s 1914 musical fairy-tale Blue Bird aged just fourteen. After years on stage and a small on-screen appearance in Allan Dwan’s melodrama Panthea (1917), Eileen starred alongside Golden Hollywood name-say Douglas Fairbanks in his 1917 comedy-western production Wild and Woolly. She became the leading lady in three more of his films that year. Eileen went on to star in several high-profile Hollywood films, including The Flirt (1922), Cobra (1925), and Yesterday’s Wife (1923).
Unfortunately, her career was cut short by the arrival of the Talkies at the end of the 1920s. Eileen was soft-spoken, and executives did not believe her voice had the required depth for a future in a sound film. Her last silent role was in Sam Wood’s 1928 comedy-drama Telling The World, and she made her sound film debut in Dancing Feet, also known as The Broadway Hoofer (1929), a musical starring comedic actress Louise Fazenda. Eileen found it difficult to find work, often appearing in uncredited roles, and starred in her final film in 1933, Gregory La Cava’s romantic-drama Bed of Roses.
Her acting career halted at 33, Eileen went on to become a staff correspondent for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a society columnist for Hearst’s Los Angeles Examiner.
Sara Allgood (1879 – 1950)
Born in Dublin to a Catholic mother and Protestant father, Sara Ellen Allgood was an Irish born, American actress. Sara grew up in a strict Protestant household, where her father attempted to stunt her creativity at every turn. Her mother, however, nurtured and encourage her daughter’s love of the arts.
When her father passed away Sara joined Inghinidhe na hÉireann (“Daughters of Ireland”), a group orchestrated to encourage young Irishwomen to embrace the Irish Arts in opposition to the increasing British influence in their country. She was taken under the wing of Maud Gonne, republican revolutionary, suffragette and actress, and William Fay, actor and theatre producer, and co-founder of the Abbey Theatre whilst at Inghinidhe na hÉireann.
Sara began her acting career on stage, starring in several productions including The King’s Threshold in 1903 and Spreading the News in 1904. The Abbey Theatre eventually branded her their star and cast her in most of their productions. Sara had a powerful voice and was able to project it with ease, and her sense of character was noted by poet W. B. Years who commented that she was “not only a great actress, but the rarest of all things, a woman comedian”.
Sara was cast as the lead in the play Peg o’ My Heart which toured Australia and New Zealand in 1916. Whilst on tour Sara fell in love with and married her leading man Gerald Henson, whom she starred alongside in her first and only silent film Just Peggy, shot in Sydney in 1918. Unfortunately, things took a turn for the worst for Sara. Whilst away from home Sara gave birth to a daughter who died one day later, and then Gerald was taken by the deadly flu outbreak of 1918 that November. She never remarried.
Sara went on to star in many early Talkies, including the first works of renowned filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. With over 50 films under her belt, Sara remains one of Ireland’s most beloved early silent cinema actresses.
Honourable Mentions of Silent Cinema:
- Amelia Summerville (1862 – 1943)
- An Irish born actress from County Kildare, Ireland, Amelia immigrated to Toronto, Canada as a child. Amelia starred in her first on-stage role aged seven and went on to appear in fourteen Broadway plays from 1885 – 1925. She starred in ten silent films, including How Could You, Caroline? (1918) and The Witness for the Defence (1919).
- Patsy O’Leary (1910 – unknown)
Born Patricia Day, Pasty O’Leary was born in County Cork, Ireland and went on to become a name-say in the Mack Sennett silent comedies of the 1920s and 1930s.
- Alice Russon (active 1904 – 1920)
An Irish born actress, singer, and dancer, Alice was the star of several British silent films and musical comedies, including After Many Days (1918) and All Men are Liars (1919).
- Fay Sargent (1890/1891 – 1967)
Born Mary Gertrude Hannah in Waterford, Ireland, Fay was an Irish born actress, singer, and journalist. She starred in one silent film in 1922, a comedy called Cruiskeen Lawn directed by John McDonagh, who had a passion for Irish stories.