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Dreamland: A History of Early Canadian Movies 1895-1939 (1974)

| Documentary
The early history of Canadian film making before the establishment of the National Film Board of Canada.

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Gordon Sparling ...
Himself (Film director)
Nat Taylor ...
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This recounts the unrelenting struggle for Canadian filmmakers had before the establishment of the National Film Board to make any films. Considering their country's small population and the tremendous competition from the American film industry, this film celebrates the tenacity of those who dared to challenge the American oligopoly. Written by Kenneth Chisholm <kchishol@execulink.com>

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The sad story of the early Canadian film industry
5 June 1999 | by (Toronto, Canada) – See all my reviews

This NFB documentary contains an amazing wealth of film clips, both of Canadian films and of American films purporting to depict the Great White North. Pierre Berton, in his book "Hollywood's Canada: The Americanization of Our National Image", discussed US myth-making in regards to Canada, and many of the things the Laird of Kleinburg described are documented here: the sex-crazed French Canadians, the gun-slinging Mounties, the two kinds of accents we have (American and English).

This film confirms what Berton wrote about our previous willingness to ban or censor American films for showing the US flag too often. At the time of the Great War, we didn't bow quite as easily to US pressure as we do now.

We see the first Canadian film, "The Kiss" (1896), in its entirety. An appropriate subject for a passionate Northern breed. There are clips of the first filmed hockey game in 1903 and the Great Toronto Fire of 1904. (The typical '90's Torontonian has never heard of the Great Fire, even though it destroyed a sizeable area around Bay St. downtown, and was stopped at the site of the present Hockey Hall of Fame on Yonge St., if I remember correctly).

Lots and lots of rare clips: D.W. Griffith's "A Woman's Way" (1908), "Back to God's Country" (1919) with its skinny-dipping scene. The books of "Ralph Connor" used to make for popular films like "The Man From Glengarry" and "Sky Pilot". Some lost films are represented by stills, e.g. the first Canadian feature "Evangeline" (1913). The later silent era is represented by the all-Indian epic "The Silent Enemy" (1930) and Flaherty's "Nanook of the North", both shown this year at the Art Gallery of Ontario. We see some footage of proto-naturalist Grey Owl (Archie Belaney) as well.

A lot of time is devoted to "Carry On Sergeant" (1928) directed by the Englishman Bruce Bairnsfather, about Canadians fighting in the Great War. (Elwy Yost screened the film a number of years ago on his show "Saturday Night at the Movies".) Also well-covered is the American-financed docudrama about the Newfoundland fishery, "The Viking" (1931). (It has imported US leads unfortunately, but the extras are local.) The scenes of fishermen crossing ice floes are quite spectacular, and a little reminiscent of "Nanook" in his natural snowbound settings.

In spite of its quality, "Carry On Sergeant" performed disastrously at the box office. Other attempts to create a homegrown cinema were also unsuccessful. The coercive American domination of theatres and distribution in Canada made it risky for exhibitors to screen Canadian films. It was virtually impossible for us to see movies about ourselves.

Interviewed is director Gordon Sparling, who made the film, "Rhapsody in Two Languages", about Montreal nightlife in 1934. He tells the story of how a prominent exhibitor in Montreal wouldn't show a film about his own city. Instead the exhibitor ran a film about the nightlife in Chicago! From the clips we see, Montreal really was the Canadian capital of glamour and sophistication in the '30's, with floor shows which evoke Ziegfeld or the Folies Bergère but on a more modest Canadian scale.

Sparling had earlier made shorts which did see theatrical distribution here. One of these features the American radio star, Baby Rose Marie. You would know her as Sally Rogers from "The Dick Van Dyke Show" of the 1960's.

Great Britain introduced a quota system in the '30's to encourage film production there and elsewhere in the Commonwealth. Hollywood circumvented the quota system by setting up a studio in Victoria, B.C. where they turned out a series of appalling "quota quickies". These are vilified in Pierre Berton's book too. Britain wisely reacted by excluding Commonwealth films from the quota count. Hollywood closed its shop in Victoria. The examples are dreadful, less than B grade, although one does feature a young Rita Hayworth. The scripts for productions of this sort were "Canadianized" in the sense that the word "New York" was crossed out and "Vancouver" written in.

If there is a villain in this melodrama, it appears to have been the federal government. An anti-trust suit was brought against the dominant and American-controlled Famous Players theatre chain, but it was not pursued strongly enough. Even though we had anti-combines legislation on the books, and Famous Players constituted a monopoly restricting access to the marketplace by any locally made product, the theatre chain was let off the hook. We have all been the worse off for it ever since.


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