The Callahans and the Murphys rediscovered

Published in Features, Issue 4 (July/August 2024), Volume 32

By Anna Rose Garvey

Above: Annie Callahan (Marie Dressler, top), matriarch of her family, who has a love–hate relationship with her neighbour, Maggie Murphy (Polly Moran, below). (IFI)

The role of an archivist can be varied and multidisciplinary. At times, a collection may provide new insights into old problems, if an archivist is ready to make the connection.

In 2023 a member of the IFI Irish Film Archive team made a unique discovery: excerpts from an MGM film believed to be lost. While working in the vaults, Archive Film Collections Officer Matthias Smith unearthed a reel, labelled ‘An Irish Picnic’, that had been in the IFI Irish Film Archive for over two decades.

Upon viewing the reel, Smith realised that it contained scenes from the 1927 MGM movie The Callahans and the Murphys. Directed by George W. Hill and based on a novel by Kathleen Norris, it was the first MGM film to star Marie Dressler and Polly Moran. According to Matthias Smith:

‘It’s the sort of moment you dream about as an archivist, being able to bring a lost film back into the historical record and give a second life to these remarkable performances’.

The film tells the story of two working-class Irish immigrant families living in a tenement. Marie Dressler stars as Annie Callahan, the matriarch of one family, whose love–hate relationship with neighbour Maggie Murphy (Polly Moran) becomes strained when one of Maggie’s sons falls in love with one of Annie’s daughters and a child is conceived. Today, The Callahans and the Murphys is considered a partially lost film. The only other section of the film known to exist is a clip of about 135 seconds preserved in the United States Library of Congress.

The scene shown in this excerpt is a St Patrick’s Day picnic, where the characters drink to excess, dance and end up fighting. When first released, the film caused such uproar among the Irish diaspora and the Catholic Church that it was pulled from screens and was believed to have been destroyed. A discussion between the Catholic Church and the film industry about what could and couldn’t be shown on screen began, prompting the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) to incorporate a set of guidelines on sensitive subjects. This list led to the development and implementation of the Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the ‘Hays Code’, in 1934. This set of conservative regulations for content self-censorship in Hollywood lasted until 1968.


1927 / 5 mins 23 secs

This 16mm roll of film has been scanned at high resolution, restored and is preserved in the IFI Irish Film Archive.

For a deeper dive into the collections on the IFI Archive Player visit

Anna Rose Garvey is Digital Platforms Assistant at the Irish Film Institute.


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