Down the Rabbit Hole in Search of a Few Frames of Irish American History

One moment I am sprawled on a couch in my New Jersey home, lost in another classic old movie. The next, I am falling through the floorboards and tumbling like Alice into the wondrous unknown, only to land in a bunkerlike government structure built into the side of a Virginia mountain.

Yes, I had gone down a rabbit hole, down into the black-hole past. As I plummeted, I learned about “lost” movies, an unlikely box office star, a secure facility where national memories are stored — and a silent film whose comic Irish stereotypes once caused uproars in theaters.

Follow me down, why don’t you?

My descent began as I watched “Dinner at Eight,” a 1933 classic featuring several early MGM luminaries, including Marie Dressler, a stout actor in her early 60s whose impeccable timing and weary resilience had made her the biggest star in Hollywood. Depression-era audiences adored her, sensing that she, too, knew hard times. And she did.

Wanting to know more about Dressler, I opened my laptop and down the hole I went. I learned that Dressler’s success had come after decades of triumph and travail. By 1927 she was nearly broke and considering a housekeeping job when a dear friend, the celebrated screenwriter Frances Marion, offered Dressler a lead role in her next picture: “The Callahans and the Murphys,” a silent comedy so controversial, I read, that it was yanked from circulation and is now considered lost.

Wait. What?

I am a first-generation Irish American who is fairly steeped in the reflections of me and mine in popular culture — from the simian Irish caricatures of Thomas Nast to Christopher’s nightmare in “The Sopranos” that hell is an Irish bar called the Emerald Piper. But my ignorance of “The Callahans and the Murphys” sent me deeper into the well of curiosity.

The plot, I learned from news accounts and MGM records, centered on two tenement Irish families in a place called Goat Alley, where, a title card explained, “a courteous gentleman always takes off his hat before striking a lady.” Mrs. Callahan (Dressler) and Mrs. Murphy (Polly Moran) are quarreling friends with large, commingling broods; the Callahans’ daughter is dating Murphy’s bootlegger son. There are fleas and chamber pots and thumbed noses and a St. Patrick’s Day picnic that — hold on to your shillelagh! — devolves into a drunken brawl.

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