February 10, 2011

A Riot Over a Film! – 1920

A very popular Irish song called Kathleen Mavourneen was made into a silent film. It starred Theda Bara, a hugely popular star. (Apparently she was as big as Charlie Chaplin at the time, although I've never heard of her.) Whether the film was good or not we don't know (apparently this film is “lost”—no copies known to exist anywhere), but we do know that the reception of the film was terrible.

First, people were used to seeing Theda Bara as a vamp, a beautiful and sexy woman who destroys men for fun. Her title role in Kathleen Mavourneen was a sweet little Irish girl—and apparently that was hard for many people to swallow when she was close to 40 years old and had played tons of vampish roles.

Sadly, another reason that some people didn't accept Theda Bara as the star was that she was Jewish. Apparently some Irish Catholics were upset that a Jewish actress would play an Irish Catholic role.

I know. Sad. But true.

Another complaint was that the film portrayed Irish poverty. Sources from today say that the Irish critics were being ridiculous because castles and the middle class had also been depicted, and because other silent films with actress Mary Pickford had also shown Irish poverty. (Pickford was Canadian with English and Irish ancestry, but she was called “America's Sweetheart.”)

At any rate, during the showings of Kathleen Mavourneen, people rolled stink bombs down theater aisles, protests and riots broke out, a few people were injured, and theaters incurred thousands of dollars worth of damage. A censored version was made with material cut according to the demands of two Catholic priests—but the new, censored version still caused riots. Eventually the film was pulled.

Theaters lost money, big time. The film company lost extensive amounts of money. And Theda Bara's career was pretty much over.

Protest. Censorship. Art. Bigotry.

This tale from the past seems wholly horrible, and we could shrug it off thinking that was the “bad old days.” But there are movies made today that seem objectionable to certain groups, and we still struggle with the ethical questions that this story raises. Is Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ anti-Semitic? (In other words, does it encourage bigotry to Jews?) Do the Harry Potter movies encourage witchcraft—and is that a problem? Do filmmakers have a responsibility to de-glamorize smoking? Or to discourage violence? Should art that couples together religious icons and bathroom appliances be put on display? What should people who object to movies, books, or art pieces do to voice their objections? Is there ever a good reason to censor these things?

Many of those questions are difficult to answer, but some answers are simple. Obviously, there is never a good reason for rioting and violence. And bigotry is just plain old bad. Period.


  1. Very Interesting!!!!
    I checked and Netflix has one film by her at this link:

    It's called "A Fool There Was". I have about 200 films on my queue, but I added this one anyway!
    Thanks so much for the information!

  2. Wow, you have a ginormous queue! I hope you like the Theda Bara film!