Obituary: Liam O'Leary

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Liam O'Leary, film historian and author, born Youghal County Cork 25 September 1910, died Dublin 15 December 1992.

I FIRST met Liam O'Leary in 1953, when he was working at the British Film Institute, writes Kevin Brownlow. I was a schoolboy, fascinated by the history of the cinema, who haunted the BFI when I should have been taking part in school sports. Liam recognised a fellow fanatic in embryo and became my cinematic university.

He told me about great directors I had never heard of - EA Dupont, Jacques Feyder, Arthur von Gerlach. He gave me a copy of his delightful book on film history, Invitation to the Film, which recaptured his enthusiasm at seeing the great silent films for the first time. When he became Acquisitions Officer for the National Film Archive, he invited me to see the films I had only been able to imagine. I remember seeing razor-sharp 35mm prints of forgotten French masterpieces at the archive's theatre in Great Russell Street, the impact of which I have never forgotten. And when the print was in too battered a condition to go through a projector, he would find a way of showing it, albeit on an ancient Editola with a distorted bull's-eye lens.

I was with him when he made the momentous discovery of a 1913 nickelodeon melodrama called Suspense. Such films were usually the most pedestrian of productions - long held shots, painted scenery, theatrical acting. This one was packed with innovation - bold close-ups, high angles, even triptychs - as the directors, Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley, did their best to outdo the master, DW Griffith.

His most valuable contribution, as far as I'm concerned, occurred in 1955. By now, I was an avid film collector, and had acquired a few reels of Abel Gance's 1927 masterpiece Napoleon on 9.5mm, a home- movie gauge. At last I had something to show Liam, and he was as impressed as I was. 'I wonder where Gance lives,' he said. The idea that Gance might still be alive had never occurred to me. After all, his film was nearly 30 years old. Not long afterwards, I met a film critic, Dr Francis Koval, who was a friend of Gance, and he lent me a photograph of my idol. I showed it to Liam. A few days later, by one of those coincidences that change one's life, Liam looked through his office door and saw a man who bore a startling resemblance to the great director.

He went out, and asked in his Irish-accented French if he was, indeed, Abel Gance. Gance, who was virtually forgotten in his own country, was startled and flattered to be recognised. He had flown to London to see if the new Cinerama was in any way similar to his Polyvision of Napoleon. (It was.) Afterwards, he had strolled down Shaftesbury Avenue and seen a sign saying British Film Institute, and wandered in. Liam was frantically busy, but he consulted the director of the institute, Denis Forman, and a small reception was organised at the National Film Theatre that afternoon, since Gance was flying back that night.

Liam then telephoned my mother, and asked if she could get me out of school. I was involved in a mock exam for German O-level, and my chances of getting away, under normal circumstances, were nil. But when the call came through from my mother, they assumed there had been a death in the family, and I was released. Sadly, Liam was too busy to attend the reception, but the contact he made for me with Gance began a friendship which lasted until Gance's death. It ensured that when it became possible to restore Napoleon that the work was done - in collaboration with the National Film Archive.

Liam had become a family friend (my father was also Irish) and I soon realised that he was not the sort of tunnel-vision fanatic that I was, interested only in film. His mind ranged over painting, literature, poetry, theatre, sculpture, and he tried valiantly to encourage me to broaden my range.

Partly thanks to him, I had become so passionate about French silent films that I tried to make one myself, based on a Guy de Maupassant story. He was remarkably good-natured, and allowed himself to be persuaded to play the old father (he wasn't much over 40) despite the fact that most of his role was performed in an artificially induced rainstorm.

When Liam took charge of the Archive Night programmes at the National Film Theatre, few of us realised how privileged we were - we were sometimes shown original tinted nitrate prints. So rare were these films that I can still remember the titles I was forced to miss. (They have haver been shown again.)

Liam held that the Irish had contributed in astonishing measure to the glories of old Hollywood. He would rattle off a list of picture people of Irish origin, and it covered practically everybody but the producers - and he could even claim a couple of those. And yet Ireland took not the slightest notice of the seventh art; far from boasting an industry, it lacked even an archive.

In 1966, he left the archive and returned to his native land. And how did Ireland put his remarkable talents to use? He was employed as Film Acceptance Viewer for Radio Telefis Eireann; checking prints before transmission 'to ensure that technical standards are maintained'. To anyone else, watching endless episodes of American police shows might have acted like an alcoholic's cure. But Liam poured his enthusiasm into his spare-time activity - making Ireland aware of its cinematic heritage. In 1976, he staged Cinema Ireland for the Dublin Arts Festival at Trinity College, a remarkable exhibition which proved that, despite everything, the Irish had made films in Ireland. It was no surprise to discover that Liam had made three of them. (His Portrait of Dublin was much admired by John Ford).

With his lack of respect for politicians, there was little chance that the exhibition would be opened by a Dignified Personage. Instead, with a typically inspired gesture, Liam invited Lennie Colling, the projectionist who worked in Dublin's first cinema, the Volta. I remember this old man telling us about the unusual manager he worked for all those years before - James Joyce.

That same year, Liam O'Leary decided that if those who governed Ireland would not establish an archive, he would do the job for them. Thank God he did. He went out into the countryside and tracked down anyone with any connection with the cinema and not only rescued precious relics but recorded the memories of these veterans. He called his foundation the Liam O'Leary Film Archives, and he kept in touch with other archives, and with his friends, through a regular newsletter. Thanks to his efforts, the Irish Film Institute was eventually set up, and recently his archive was given an official home.

He had achieved practically everything he had set out to achieve when he realised he had cancer, earlier this year, and was rushed into hospital. He was amazingly brave when he told me about it, but I could detect an undertone of panic. He still had so much to do; 1993 was the centenary of Rex Ingram. He had failed to persuade the government to honour Ingram with a stamp (he had hoped they would produce a series honouring three great Irish directors, Ingram, Herbert Brenon and Robert Flaherty) but they had agreed to mark Ingram's birthplace with a plaque.

Partly at his urging, David Gill and I had restored The Four Horsemen which we presented at the London Film Festival to a degree of enthusiasm which would have delighted him. After his operation he had gone to the Silent Film Festival held at Pordenone in Italy, but he was very frail and needed a wheelchair. He planned to celebrate Ingram's centenary with a showing in Dublin of The Four Horsemen restoration and a retrospective of his other films, and then he was going to devote himself solely to his magnum opus, Cinema Ireland, for which he had been researching most of his working life. Sadly, the cancer, which he thought he had defeated, recurred and he died just a couple of weeks short of the year that was to have meant so much to him.

Liam O'Leary had been a civil servant, an actor, a theatre and film director, the founder in 1934 of the Dublin Little Theatre Guild, Dublin's first theatre workshop, the founder of the Irish Film Society, a lecturer, a writer, and an archivist. Like anyone devoted to a cause, he could be difficult to deal with and he was short- tempered with bureaucracy. But if you shared his extravagant love for the cinema, you were welcome to whatever he had.

A book could be written by those he has helped over the years - invariably people who could not afford to travel to official archives, for official archives don't often put impecunious students up for the night. But while that book would be highly entertaining - for Liam had an uproarious sense of humour - the book that must be completed is Cinema Ireland. Irish films are now a force to be reckoned with, there is an Irish Film Institute and an Irish Film Archive, and a new generation of Irish film-makers and writers and historians. A large share of the credit for this can be attributed to Liam O'Leary.

(Photograph omitted)