Monday, August 08, 2011

The Very First Movie Star Was A Canadian


may irwin

The Canadian film scene is rife with stories of actors, writers and directors who, for one reason or another, go to Hollywood and become iconic Cinematic and television names.

We'd be here all day if I had to list them, and some say as much as 1/3 of what we see on our movie and TV screens is there because of someone who got their start in Canada.

The central premise to almost all those expatriate stories is that there's an industry in America willing to embrace and exploit their talents.

But what a lot of people don't know is that several Canadians were responsible for building that industry in the first place. And one of the first of these was May Irwin.

May was born in Whitby, Ontario in 1862 and at the age of 13 forced onto the stage by her recently widowed mother, to perform with her sister Flora. The girls could sing and the family desperately needed money.

They debuted in Buffalo, New York and were an immediate hit singing, "Sweet Genevieve". The girls quickly rose up the bill as they toured the Vaudeville circuit. By the time she was 16, May was appearing on Broadway and soon went solo becoming a much sought after musical comedy star on the Great White Way.

Boisterous and funny, May popularized several novelty songs such as "The Bully" and "Crappy Dan" and is credited with inventing "Thousand Island Dressing", a recipe she concocted in the pink granite vacation home she built on one of the "Thousand Islands" back in Ontario.

But her finest achievement was in giving credibility to a brand new invention called the motion picture.

may irwin 2

In 1896, May was starring in a Broadway show called "The Widow Jones" -- a farce in which she played a young woman attempting to evade unwanted suitors by posing as the widow of a man who turns out to be very much alive. It featured an onstage kiss between May and her co-star John Rice that always brought the house down.

In the audience one night, and just as excited by the moment as those around him, was a guy by the name of Thomas Edison, inventor of the motion picture camera.

Edison had been making short films in nearby New Jersey for some time, always employing amateurs because no self respecting theatre actor would be caught dead anywhere near his makeshift "Vitascope" studio.

The inventor pleaded with May and Rice to recreate the famous moment in front of his camera to help out the struggling industry. Aware of the damage they could be doing to their own careers, both actors turned him down flat.

But Edison persisted and on June 26, 1896, May and Rice played the kissing scene on the rooftop of a warehouse on 28th Street. The moment was captured on 50 feet of film because they only did one take.

Two weeks later, Edison plastered Manhattan with posters for "The Kiss" and the theatre community exploded in outrage. The Producer of "The Widow Jones", Charles Frohman, told the newspapers he would be replacing May Irwin despite the fact that he had commissioned the play specifically for her.

Both May and Rice found themselves ostracized within the Broadway community and discovered that they were suddenly unwelcome at restaurants and watering holes that had once reserved their prime tables for the two actors.

New York critics, meanwhile, went out of their way to condemn this demeaning of the New York Theatre, hoping to nip this upstart motion picture "fad" in the bud.

In the words of one, "It is an outrage to decency and good taste. Neither participant is physically attractive and the spectacle of their prolonged posturing on each other's lips was hard to bear. When only life-size on the theatre stage it is beastly. Magnified to gargantuan proportions on a white sheet, it is absolutely disgusting."

And then -- something happened…

Days after "The Kiss" began screening, May received a standing ovation on her first entrance. That had never happened before. But now it began to occur at every performance.

A week later, the New York Times reported hundreds of fans gathering nightly at the Stage Door to greet the actress as she exited the theatre.

The next day, May's producer turned up at Edison's office to ask if the posters for "The Kiss" could be altered to read, "Starring the distinguished actress, May Irwin, now appearing in the Charles Frohman Broadway comedy 'The Widow Jones'!".

50 feet of celluloid had transformed a Broadway actress into a popular sensation. And the movies had created their first star.

Despite her expanded fame, May felt she was too old to make films and instead parlayed her success into recording six of the songs she had made famous on stage with the help of another of Mr. Edison's inventions, the Gramaphone.

The 1898 Columbia Gramaphone Cylinder Catalogue notes that "Crappy Dan" was one of its best sellers.

In 1914, May was convinced by Paramount to do a film version of that year's Broadway hit "Mrs. Black is Back". The movie was apparently quite popular, but no copies are known to exist.

The 50 feet of celluloid that made a Canadian the world's first movie star, however, is now carefully preserved in The Smithsonian.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

GREAT POST... familiar w "The Kiss" but not backstory... kudos.