Irish Film Institute -Excerpts of Lost 1920s Silent Film “The Callahans and the Murphys” discovered by IFI Irish Film Archive

Excerpts of Lost 1920s Silent Film “The Callahans and the Murphys” discovered by IFI Irish Film Archive

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March 15th, 2024: A member of the IFI Irish Film Archive has unearthed excerpts from an MGM movie that was previously considered lost. Reels from the 1927 silent comedy film The Callahans and the Murphys were recently uncovered by Archive Film Collections Officer Matthias Smith. While researching silent film, Matthias came across reels that had been stored in the IFI Irish Film Archives for more than two decades. Labelled An Irish Picnic, his interest was piqued and on viewing it, realised that they were in fact scenes from the previously thought destroyed MGM movie The Callahans and the Murphys, which was released in 1927, only to be pulled from screens due to a huge backlash from Irish diaspora communities and the Catholic Church. “It’s the sort of moment you dream about as an archivist” says Matthias Smith, “being able to bring a lost film back into the historical record and give a second life to these remarkable performances.”

The film was directed by George W. Hill and based on a novel by Kathleen Norris. It was the first MGM film to star Marie Dressler and Polly Moran and was released in cinemas in the US, UK, and Australia in 1927. The Callahans and the Murphys tells the story of two feuding Irish immigrant families living in a tenement. The movie sees Marie Dressler as Annie Callahan, the matriarch of a working-class Irish immigrant family, whose ‘frenemy’ relationship with neighbour Maggie Murphy (Polly Moran) is put to the test when one of Maggie’s sons falls in love with one of Annie’s daughters, and a child is conceived. The only other section of the film known to exist is another clip which is preserved in the Library of Congress.

Of the find, Kasandra O’Connell, Head of IFI Irish Film Archive added: As we debate the potential impact of AI technologies in the heritage community, the identification by one of our archivists of this historically controversial scene, believed lost for almost 100 years, proves the importance of human interaction with collections, and the irreplaceable value of expert knowledge and research in archives, libraries and museums”.

When the film was released, it caused outrage, with the Catholic Church calling for it to be banned, and the Irish diaspora picketing cinemas that screened it. The scene that caused the most consternation was set at a picnic on St Patrick’s Day, where the characters celebrate Ireland’s national holiday by dancing, drinking, and brawling. In response to the widespread anger, and sometimes violent, reaction the film provoked, MGM initially recut it and removed the objectionable picnic scene. However, when this failed to placate Irish groups in America, England, and Australia, MGM withdrew the film entirely and allegedly destroyed all the prints. The film appears to never have reached cinemas in Ireland.

What the uproar around The Callahans and the Murphys did prompt were movie studio consultations with leaders from the Irish American community, to address stereotypes and carefully consider how Irish characters were to be portrayed in future film projects. Such was the impact of the protests, increased pressure was laid at the door of the MPPDA, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, to adopt the ‘Don’ts’ and ‘Be Carefuls’ list, a set of guidelines of subjects to be managed with care or entirely avoided in movie production.
Don’ts included ‘pointed profanity,’ ‘ridicule of the clergy’ and ‘willful offense to any nation, race or creed.’ The ‘Don’ts’ were supplemented by the ‘Be Careful’s’ which included ‘sympathy for criminals,’ ‘excessive or lustful kissing’ and ‘the use of drugs’, amongst many more. In collaboration with officials of the Catholic Church, the ‘Do’s and Don’ts’ laid the groundwork for the implementation of the Motion Picture Production Code, better known as the Hays Code, in 1934. A strict set of conservative regulations for film production in Hollywood, the Hays Code was enforced right up to the late 1960s.

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