Blazing The Trail: The O’Kalems in Ireland

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How It’s New York: Screened as part of  Doc NYC 2011 at the IFC Center, Peter Flynn’s Blazing the Trail documents the story of the Kalem Company, a New York-based film studio, during the early 1900s.

How It’s Irish:  The Kalem Company traveled to Queenstown, County Cork, in 1910 to make the first fiction film set in Ireland.  It was the first ever to be filmed on location outside of the U.S.  They fell in love with the country and its people, returning to visit many times.  Eventually– they became knowsn as the O’Kalems.

  
New Blogger Annie D. reviews this fascinating bit of film and Irish history, directed by Peter Flynn.  The first films made in Ireland speak eloquently of times gone by, even without sound.

A little-known fact is that the first fiction film to be made in Ireland, A Lad from Old Ireland, was written, produced and shot by the Kalem Company, a group of New York-based filmmakers who, in 1910, travelled east, to Queenstown (now Cobh), Co Cork, while the rest of the industry was headed west, to Hollywood.



A Lad from Old Ireland is the tale of a young, impoverished Irish man who emigrates to the U.S. and finds success in New York, eventually returning to rescue his sweetheart and her family from eviction. We will probably never know how the story ended since, sadly, the last of the reel was so badly deteriorated that it cannot be viewed. Similarly, 90% of silent films have not survived the years; however, thanks to writer and director Peter Flynn’s documentary Blazing the Trail, based on the memoirs of Kalem’s leading lady and principal screenwriter, Gene Gauntier, we can at least come to understand the challenges these filmmakers faced, and appreciate what remains of their legacy to us.
Flynn effectively meshes a combination of talking head interviews with film historians, rare footage and archive photographs, accompanied by an assortment of old Irish ballads. The lilting of “Toora Loora Loora” and “The Wearing of the Green” lend a nostalgic note that, rather than being corny, evokes a sense of history.

Blazing the Trail highlights some interesting challenges faced by the Kalems. For example, since their films were made on location without electricity, indoor cottage scenes were made within partially-walled structures to allow the natural light to enter.  This  meant that sometimes, the effects of the Atlantic breezes could be seen in the fluttering of the mantle lace or the table cloth. 
 Also notable is the obstacle faced by the Kalems in the making of Ben Hur. Permission to make the film had not been granted by the author’s estate prior to production.  The Supreme Court ruled against it, setting a precedent for copyright infringement; however, the 15-minute movie went ahead and became a box office hit.
At a time when the Irish were caricatured on stage and in film in the U.S., the Kalem Company wanted to portray the real Irish story, that of emigration, love and rebellion. They did so by going to Ireland to experience it for themselves. As I absorbed the grainy images, I tried to glimpse the life my forebears had lived. 

Apparently, Peter Flynn was of the same mind. Referring to his grandparents during the Q&A that followed, he commented that, “Silent film was a way for me to understand them and their generation.”  

It is an effort that comes across on screen.

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If you missed the screening don’t despair– you can purchase the DVD, which includes commentary.  And find out more on the Blazing the Trail website.


BLAZING THE TRAIL: THE O’KALEMS IN IRELAND | TRAILER from PETER FLYNN on Vimeo.

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Copyright 2011 New York Irish Arts