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The O'Kalem Collection: 1910-1915 directed by Sidney Olcott and Peter Flynn (review)
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In 1910, the Kalem film company sent a small group of filmmakers from New York City to scenic County Cork, Ireland, where they shot the emigrant drama The Lad From Old Ireland, reportedly both the first American fiction film made outside the Americas and the first fiction film made in Ireland. Over the next several summers, director and actor Sidney Olcott, along with scenarist and actor Gene Gauntier, led a varied group of crewmembers and performers back to Ireland, producing just under 30 films, and earning the nickname 'The O'Kalems'. The Irish film archive has gathered eight surviving films from these trips, most of which have damaged or missing footage, from archives and private collections around the world and they are now available on a two disk DVD set The O'Kalem Collection: 1910-1915, released by the Irish Film Institute and Biff Productions. Also included are a feature documentary about the making of the films, Blazing the Trail: The O'Kalems in Ireland (2011), and an image gallery. Made in the midst of the transition to features, the films include both one reel and multi-reel stories of emigration and Irish history based on original stories or adapted from familiar songs, poems and dramas. The O'Kalem Collection is of considerable interest to film scholars, not only from a variety of historical perspectives but also on the basis of the films' aesthetic merits.

Upon arriving in Ireland, the O'Kalems created a base in the O'Sullivan family hotel in Beaufort, Co. Kerry. They employed locals, including their hosts at the hotel, for small parts and extra work. Working without electricity and coping as best they could with an unpredictable climate and difficult driving conditions, they shot in and around Killarney, making good use of the area's scenic splendor, including the Gap of Dunloe, Muckross Lake and Abbey, and the Torc Waterfall. The scenery inspired Olcott to create some stunning deep-space compositions, as well as spectacular chase scenes staged across the hills and lakes of Killarney, in films such as Rory O'More (1911) and For Ireland's Sake (1914). After performing all day in varied conditions, Gauntier stayed up late writing scenes for the next day's shooting.

Kalem's Irish films extended the company's strategy of using location shooting to differentiate its products. Founded in 1907, Kalem initially specialized in Western romances shot in the wilds of Fort Lee New Jersey. Olcott and Gauntier, both former employees of Biograph, were an effective production team, contributing in particular his talent for shooting exteriors and her intrepid performance style to Kalem's production formula. In the winter of 1908, the two travelled to Florida to extend their season away from the cold New York winters, shooting Civil War stories and Southern costume dramas with swamps and southern scenery as their backdrop. In addition to Ireland, Olcott and Gauntier did location work for Kalem in England, Germany, Egypt and Palestine, bringing footage back to New York to finish the films. They returned to Ireland in 1911 and 1912, with an expanded crew, to make films that included the one-reelers Rory O'More and You Remember Ellen, as well as three-reel adaptations of Irish playwright Dion Boucicault's stage melodramas The Colleen Bawn and Arrah-na-Pogue. The two filmmakers left Kalem at the end of 1912 to form the Gene Gauntier Feature Players, and returned to Ireland in 1913 to make several three-reel dramas, including For Ireland's Sake and Come Back to Erin. Olcott and Gauntier dissolved their professional partnership after this trip. Olcott returned to Ireland for a final time in 1914 with a new featured performer, Valentine Grant, with whom, among other films, he made the three-reel drama Bold Emmett, Ireland's Martyr, which was distributed through Lubin. Olcott's further plans for film production in Ireland were prevented by the outbreak of the First World War.

The points of appeal of Ireland as a location for Kalem films were numerous. Olcott's mother was from Ireland, giving him a sense of a connection to the area that increased as he learned more of the country's history and...



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