The O’Kalems

Trailer for Blazing the Trail

Blazing the Trail is the title of a new documentary about the New York film company Kalem in Ireland. Kalem was founded in 1907 by George Kleine, Samuel Long and Frank Marion (K-L-M, see?). One of the major American film producers of the silent period, one of their directors, Sidney Olcott, was of Irish descent, and he took a company of players to Ireland in 1910.

Basing themselves in Co. Kerry, the company shot fiction films with strong Irish themes and extensive use of Irish locations. Initially they made The Lad from Old Ireland (1910) [extant] plus a number of travel and scenic films. Such was the success of the fiction film that Olcott returned with a larger company the following year. Among the performers were Gene Gauntier (lead actress and scenarist), Robert Vignola, Jack P. McGowran and Alice Hollister. For this second phase they settled in the village of Beaufort and made the following fiction films (as well some non-fiction) (links are to their entries on the Irish Film & TV Research Online database):

It is generally argued that the object was to make films that would appeal to the Irish-American audience in America, though the films were just as much intended for the general audience. Nevertheless, they made for a distinctive body of work with strong themes of nation, history and landscape, earning them the nickname the O’Kalems. Olcott and Gauntier returned to Ireland in 1913 after leaving Kalem with the Gene Gauntier Feature Players, then Olcott came back again in 1914, hoping to set up a permament studio at Beaufort. The First World War intervened, and this enterprising chapter in Irish (or Irish-American) film history came to a close.

The Gene Gauntier Feature Players made this titles in Ireland:

Sidney Olcott made two further films in Ireland in 1914, released by Lubin:

The films and their story have long attracted interest, for their position in Irish film and for their romantic nationalism. The latest such is Blazing the Trail, written and directed by American academic Peter Flynn, an 86-minute documentary which takes its title from Gene Gauntier’s series of autobiographical articles written for Woman’s Home Companion in 1928/29. It has been produced in conjunction with the Irish Film Institute and is to be released on DVD this summer together with all extant Kalem Irish films. The film is screening tomorrow at the Boston Irish Film Festival (of which Flynn is co-founder and co-director) and recently opened the Killruddery Film Festival. The Boston website has background information on the film, a trailer (see above) and sample clips.

Kalem’s Rory O’More (1911), which tells of Irishman O’More at the time of the 1798 rebellion, pursued by British soldiers. From Irish Film & TV Research Online

Gene Gauntier’s series of autobiographical articles (or at least the first seven) is available from The Silent Bookshelf.

There is a website dedicated to Sidney Olcott – please note it is in French.

On silent film in Ireland generally, see Denis Condon’s Early Irish Cinema 1895-1921.