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Dublin: 7 °C Tuesday 19 November, 2019
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He was Ireland's most prolific filmmaker, directing 60 movies... but have you ever heard of William Desmond Taylor?

Born in Carlow, the filmmaker worked with the biggest stars of Hollywood’s ‘Golden Age’. His murder in 1922 made headlines all over the world, and remains unsolved to this day.

ASK AN AVID Irish film fan (someone who considers they  really ‘know their stuff’) and they might put forward, say, Neil Jordan as the Irish film-maker with most credits to his name. Maybe Jim Sheridan. Perhaps John Ford — but he was second generation, so does he really count?

William Desmond Taylor is not a name likely to spring to many lips — despite the fact that he’s by far the most prolific Irish director of all time, completing over sixty movies during the ‘Golden Era’ of film. What’s more, he built up that impressive filmography in just the space of eight years, making the first adaptations of the likes of Tom Sawyer and Anne of Green Gables during his brief career behind the camera in the 1910s and 1920s.

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The poster for the 1920 version of Anne of Green Gables

Taylor’s remarkable life is the focus of a festival in his native Carlow this weekend. Alongside talk of his accomplishments, in the course of the event you can expect plenty of chatter and speculation too about the manner of the director’s death: Taylor’s murder in February 1922 was a huge international scandal, dominating the headlines of the time and generating hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles over the next decade or so.

Taylorfest

Marc-Ivan O’Gorman — a filmmaker and Carlow native himself — is the man behind this year’s second annual ‘Taylorfest’. He says that when he first came across the director’s story, he was “stunned” that he had never heard of him before.

“Well he didn’t work in Ireland, so maybe that’s one of the reasons he’s not that known”, O Gorman says, speculating that the director’s work may have been overlooked here as he was part of the diaspora. “But that’s like dismissing James Joyce because he wrote Ulysses abroad.”

“Another reason is that he worked in the silent era, and there hasn’t been so much interest among people in general in that time — that’s changing a bit now, so hopefully there might be more of a renewed interest.”

Christened as “William Deane Tanner”, Taylor was born into a British Army household in 1872 — and sailed for America at the age of just 18. He set up a business and married in New York, before upping sticks (leaving his wife and child behind on the east coast) and departing for Hollywood. By 1912, he had changed his name, and was working full time in the nascent movie industry. Making a living first as an actor (he had also treaded the boards during his time in New York), Taylor soon switched to directing, making his debut with The Awakening in 1914.

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Filmmakers worked fast in those days, and over the following eight years (bar a brief stint in the Canadian Army during World War I) Taylor plied his trade in comedies, dramas, romances and westerns; directing major names of the time like Mary Pickford, Wallace Reid and Mary Miles Minter, who became his protégée and starred in Paramount’s 1919 version of Anne of Green Gables.

Taylor was also a three-term president of the Screen Directors Guild and had become Head of Production at Paramount by the time of his death in 1922.

The unsolved mystery…

Found with a gunshot wound to his back at his bungalow in downtown LA, the director’s murder was mired from the start in intrigue: more than a dozen suspects were named by police and the media (including Minter, and Taylor’s former valet Edward Sands) but the mystery has never been solved.

“At this stage it’s very unlikely it will be,” O’Gorman says. “Down through the years there’s been plenty of instances of important documents in the case going missing”.

“The LAPD and the district attorney’s office were notoriously corrupt were very compliant at the time with big business pressuring authorities to cover up potentially damaging cases.

“Mary Miles Minter was a startlet whose career he was guiding. She had a history of having relationships with her directors, so there was conjecture that she was besotted with him, and that she went to his place with a gun and said ‘I’m going to kill myself if you don’t run away with me’ and that the gun went off by accident.

“Sands [the valet] had always seemed a bit unhinged, and Mabel Normand [another actress, the last person to see him alive] was known to be a drug addict. Taylor was quite anti-drugs and had made some public statements against drug dealers at the time, so there’s speculation that elements of the criminal underworld may have been involved.”

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This weekend’s festival only touches on matters surrounding the murder however: otherwise, there are film screenings, photo exhibitions and theatre performances celebrating Taylor’s life and career. A bar on Dublin Street has even been turned into a 1920s-era speakeasy and is serving as the event’s HQ.

Future plans

If all goes to plan this year, it’s possible the festival could be expanded and some events held in Dublin in September 2014.

O’Gorman says that people’s interest in Taylor tends to be sparked by the sensational tale of his murder — and that they come along to ‘Taylorfest’ to find out more.

“It’s funny — you tell people what happened, and they disappear off and spend six hours on the internet, coming back with a list of leads and suspects.”

So if you’re not busy for the rest of the day, here is a good place to start.

Read: The nine best Twitter suggestions for an Irish James Bond film >

Read: Villagers and Bowie on Mercury Music Prize list >


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