A real murder in nineteenth century Ireland formed the basis for a novel, a play and this motion picture. It’s a darker, more twisted Cinderella variation with the poor girl marrying the rich boy but finding herself caught in a whirlwind of love, lust, ambition and greed. Prime melodrama, in other words.
Murder most Celtic
When a fifteen-year-old local beauty named Ellen Scanlan (nicknamed the Colleen Bawn or the fair girl) disappeared in 1819, she had been married for just six weeks. Another six weeks passed before her body was found. She had been murdered with a musket, tied to a stone and dumped in the river. Soon, Ellen’s tragic personal story became public knowledge: she had married a local gentleman named John Scanlan but he soon tired of her and arranged for his servant, Stephen Sullivan, to rid him of his bride.
Surprisingly enough, Scanlan’s social standing did not prevent him from standing trial. He was convicted of the murder and both he and Sullivan were hanged. Poor Ellen was laid to rest in a donated grave but the story of her tragic death spread all over the country, inspiring a novel and a play. Souvenir seekers slowly chipped away her headstone until nothing remained.
And this is where the O’Kalems enter the story. “O’Kalems” was the nickname given to the filming unit that the American Kalem studio sent to Ireland for location shooting. Director Sidney Olcott and screenwriter/actress Gene Gauntier were the key members of the crew and both were completely taken by the culture and people of Ireland.
The Kalem Irish pictures were successfully distributed in Britain and they were also a success back in the United States as Irish immigrants enjoyed being reminded of home and immigrants were a key demographic at the height of the nickelodeon era.
The O’Kalems were feeling ambitious and the oh-so Irish tale of The Colleen Bawn appealed to them. The result was a three reel picture (pretty long for American films of the period) and a whirlwind tour of the real-life locations of the Colleen Bawn. Or so they claimed. Check out these title cards:
The story opens with a dance. Eily O’Connor (Gauntier) is having a grand time tripping the light fantastic with Myles (Jack Clark, the future Mr. Gene Gauntier), a local poacher and moonshiner. Then Hardress Cregan (J.P. McGowan, aka Mr. Helen Holmes) shows up and Eily is completely taken with him. The pair are quickly married by a defrocked priest and their union is a fairly open secret in the village.
Hardress may be of the gentry but he hasn’t a bean and his house has a weighty mortgage. The only way out is to marry Anne Chute (Alice Hollister, married to George Hollister, the film’s cinematographer), a wealthy young woman who is in love with another man but not opposed to marrying Hardress.
Hardress tries to get the marriage certificate from Eily but she was advised by her priest, Father Tom (Arthur Donaldson), to keep it with her at all times. Given that Hardress attempts to snatch it away from her, it seems that this was good advice.
Danny Mann (Sidney Olcott) is Hardress’s hunchback servant and it seems to me that Igor would have been a more appropriate name but it’s not my movie. He lurches about mugging at the camera and trying to find ways to help his master. When he hears that Hardress wants to rid himself of Eily, Danny decides that a permanent solution is called for. He lures Eily to an island and dumps her in the water.
Alas, those Victorian coincidences kick in. The island is the location of Myles’s illicit still and he manages to shoot Danny and save Eily. Danny crawls away so that he can be available for an interminable death scene. Later, Hardress discovers Eily’s cloak and thinks she committed suicide, leaving him free to marry Anne. (He certainly seems broken up about his wife’s death, doesn’t he?)
Will he ever find out that Eily is alive? Can this couple ever find happiness? (Spoiler: He does and they do, which leads to an extremely unsatisfying ending.)
As always, screenwriter Gene Gauntier also proves to be a charming and likable leading lady. Her Colleen Bawn is not simpering or trite, she is a sweet young woman who cannot imagine the dark schemes that are being hatched against her. Jack Clark does well enough as her former love but he seems a bit conventionally handsome for what is really the character role of Myles, a poacher and bootlegger. J.P McGowan displays a well-turned calf but doesn’t leave much of an impression as the faithless husband.
The Golden Raspberry performance of this picture is that of Sidney Olcott. He mugs villainously in a manner that would embarrass Ford Sterling and generally makes an ass of himself. Where was the director to tell him to tone it down? Oh yeah…
On the plus side, the film looks great and the locations are really played for all they are worth. The costumes are a bit anachronistic for the first year of Queen Victoria’s life but I suppose we can just say that the latest fashions had not yet arrived in Ireland. The real explanation is that the O’Kalems used the same costumes over and over, no matter when the Irish story was set.
The Colleen Bawn’s sad story morphed and evolved over the years, a Hollywood ending slapped on almost a century before Hollywood became a film capital. The real Colleen Bawn was a poor girl who was victimized by a member of the gentry. John Scanlan is the complete villain of the tale and the fact that he was actually tried and hanged is a significant detail.
The Colleen Bawn’s death inspired Gerald Griffin to write The Collegians, which was published ten years after the death of Ellen Scanlan. In that version, it is the servant who is the villain and the husband is an unconscious accessory. The Colleen Bawn is murdered and her husband is tried and sentenced to a prison colony but dies from shame and guilt.
Dion Boucicault’s 1860 play entitled The Colleen Bawn was based on The Collegians and (spoilers) it further diluted the husband’s villainy by allowing the poor colleen to live and be reunited with her husband, who is awfully sorry and all that. The new happy ending proved to be a success and the play was a smash hit, though very little of the original tragedy of Ellen Scanlan remained. Further, the narrative is muddied by the contrivances and coincidences that often mar Victorian fiction.
The Kalem version of the story is a direct adaptation of the play and reportedly ended with a reunion of husband and wife. (The last scene of the film is missing. Check those attics!) This is a real shame as Gauntier, unsurprisingly, has much better chemistry with Clark than with McGowan. I kept expecting Hardress to step on a rake and break his crown or something so that Myles and the Colleen Bawn could get together.
I also don’t see why we should accept Hardress as our hero as he lost all of my sympathy the moment he tried to steal the marriage certificate from Eily. Had he succeeded, he could have left her high and dry. What if she had been pregnant? Didn’t Lowell Sherman get booed for something similar in Way Down East?
In many ways, The Colleen Bawn was filmed at exactly the right time. While directors like D.W. Griffith and John Collins would find success in resurrecting hoary Gilded Age plays, The Colleen Bawn is a particularly delicate work that would likely have withered under the harsh lights of the Jazz Age. All the melodrama and coincidences work (barely) in the more stagey and remote nickelodeon era but I am not sure I could have suspended my disbelief if it had been filmed with more sophisticated techniques.
The creaky seams of The Colleen Bawn show and Sidney Olcott’s performance is painful but the likable performance of Gene Gauntier and the Irish location shoot save the day. There are some striking moments thanks to cinematographer George Hollister and the O’Kalems generally make the most of their trip to Ireland. While the film does require a sympathetic viewer, it rewards patience.
Where can I see it?
The O’Kalem Collection was available on DVD but now seems to be out of print. The entire collection (including The Colleen Bawn) can currently be streamed legally and for free on the Irish Film Institute’s website.