[an error occurred while processing this directive] FactsCanada.ca -- Friday Feature 2001-12Fr -- A Short History of the Canadian Film Industry
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A Short History of the Canadian Film Industry.

May 4, 2001.

You have to read on a bit to understand the subject matter of this month's Friday Feature, but if you are looking for a hint, try thinking of Hollywood.


A Short History of the Canadian Film Industry
By John MacDonald (john@factscanada.ca)

Here's a little Hollywood trivia for you. Have a look at the movie titles I have selected below and see if you can figure out what they have in common. These movies range from 1933 to 2000:

"The Decline of the American Empire"
"The Blues Brothers"
"Phantom of the Opera" (1943)
"Sea of Love"
"Forbidden Planet"
"Cider House Rules"
"Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" (the trilogy)
"Andromeda Strain"
"The Blackboard Jungle"
"Mars Attacks"
"Planes, Trains and Automobiles"
"2001: A Space Odyssey"
"Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom"
"Back to the Future" (the trilogy)
"LA Story"
"Replacement Killers"
"Judgment at Nuremberg"
"Ordinary People"
"King Kong" (1933)
"Star Trek, the Motion Picture" and six succeeding sequels
"Buffy the Vampire Slayer"
"The Big Heat"
"It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World"
"Twilight Zone, the Movie"

What these have in common is that they all feature Canadian talent -- either the screenwriter, the director, the producer, or an actor or actress was a born Canadian. This list represents only those Canadians working in the motion picture industry. Imagine how many more are working right in front of your eyes, or behind the scenes, in television productions.

Why has Canada's film industry been so quiet when compared to that of the United States, or even other nations that churn out movies at incredible rates? Countries like Russia (and the Soviet Union before it), China, India, Great Britain, France, Spain and Australia are all known for having bigger budgets, larger citizen support, and a richer history. Why is that? Why is it that a large percentage of Canadians are glued to their television sets each winter and spring to watch the Golden Globe Awards and the Academy Awards, while hardly anyone watches the Genie Awards (which just happen to be our country's equivalent honour to the film industry and its players)? We have to go way back to find these answers, so let's start at the beginning.

Although Canada is the world's second largest country in terms of geography, the United Kingdom (which is just half the size of the Yukon Territory) has almost twice our population. We are also one of the richest nations in terms of per capita income, but our sparsely-populated land has not exactly been a haven for the motion picture industry. In fact, we have been referred to as producing one of the least significant outputs among the developed nations! One important reason is our close proximity to the United Sates, which has a population about nine times ours. This has exerted a marked influence on all aspects of our Canadian culture and economy, including the motion picture industry.

Our dependance on American "backing dollars" (or capital) and American products has inhibited the development of our film industry almost from the start. Canada decided early on to concentrate on documentary production and almost abandon its potential film market to the exporters, distributors and exhibitors from the United States and, to a lesser extent, Great Britain. This is one of the reasons Hollywood was such an attraction in the early years to those Canadians wishing to "make it big" down south. (In fact, as early as 1900, the Canadian Pacific Railway set up a film unit to produce "shorts" aimed at encouraging immigration.) Commercial motion picture production was slow to emerge as a result, and it was not until 1914 (during the silent film era) that Canada's first feature film, "Evangeline" (based on the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem of the same name), was brought to the "big screen". Feature film production continued with the occasional release through the 1920s, but our vulnerable local industry suffered a major setback during the switch to sound (the "talkies"). In the early 1930s the success of "The Viking", a romantic drama about seal hunting in Newfoundland, turned out to be an isolated triumph for our production companies. Although this movie enjoys an amazing amount of praise, video rentals, and is rated 8.4 out of 10 at the Internet Movie Database Web site, the dominance of Hollywood continued uncontested.

In 1939 the appointment of John Grierson (from the British documentary movement), as the Canadian Film Commissioner and head of the newly-established National Film Board (NFB) of Canada, provided a tremendous driving force to establish Canada as one of the world's leading producers of documentary films. During World War Two the NFB produced two notable documentary propaganda film series in "Canada Carries On" and "The World in Action", while also providing numerous military training films, cartoons, and educational, industrial and agricultural "shorts". It was a hugely productive and exuberant period that saw the development of such talented filmmakers as Raymond Spottiswoode ("High Over the Borders" [1942]), Stuart Legg ("Has Anybody Here Seen Canada? A History of Canadian Movies 1939-1953"), George Dunning (born in Toronto, Ontario, director of many animated features as well as the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine"), and Norman McLaren (who was associated with more than 100 films from the 1930s until his death in Montreal, Quebec, in 1987).

After the war ended in 1945, the excellence of the NFB's productions continued despite the departure of John Grierson. However, feature films were still only being produced sporadically -- the few that were released were rarely shown outside of Canada and were poorly attended by Canadians due mostly to competition from American and British films and stars. Talented young directors like Norman Jewison ("In the Heat of the Night", "Fiddler on the Roof", "Moonstruck"), Arthur Hiller ("Man of La Mancha", "The In-Laws", "Outrageous Fortune"), Silvio Narrizano ("Georgy Girl", "Choices"), and Sidney Furie ("The Ipcress File", "Lady Sings the Blues", "Superman IV") were driven away to other countries due to apathy at home. One film did, however, enjoy a degree of success beyond our own borders, although a Canadian/American co-production: "The Luck of Ginger Coffey" released in 1964 by Irvin Kershner.

In a belated but much-welcomed effort to challenge the predominance of foreign-made feature films, the Canadian Film Development Corporation was established by an act of Parliament in 1967. Its intent was to promote feature productions and encourage film makers through investments, grants and loans. By 1970, the annual production of feature films had risen to more than two dozen compared to only three in 1960. Still, despite the talents of such directors as Paul Almond ("Final Assignment", "Captive Hearts"), Claude Jutra (mostly French-titled movies), Williams Fruet ("Cries in the Night", "Bedroom Eyes"), and Eric Till (known for his direction of television series including "The Streets of San Francisco", "Fraggle Rock" and "The Hitchhiker", along with television movies like "Getting Married in Buffalo Jump"), the Canadian feature film industry in the 1970s was generally portrayed as mediocre. The only film that had won a measure of success was Ted Kotcheff's "The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz" in 1974.

Canadian film during the 1980s and 1990s finally broke through its historic stagnation. David Cronenberg's horror pictures and Denys Arcand's art-house hits "The Decline of the American Empire" and "Jesus of Montreal" became increasingly marketable to international audiences. Unfortunately, much of this success occurred in small doses and beyond the commercial mainstream, meaning the all-important final result of the equation, money, was still absent from any of these realized successes. Female film makers such as Lea Pool (French-titled films), Cynthia Scott ("Canada Vignettes: Holidays" and "Canada Vignettes: The Thirties"), Gail Singer ("You Can't Beat a Woman!" and "Destiny in Space"), and Patricia Rozema (the television series on classical music called "Yo-Yo Ma Inspired by Bach" and the one-hour production of "Bach Cello Suite #6: Six Gestures"), achieved considerable distinction during this period of growth. Immigrant film makers such as Atom Egoyan from Egypt ("Exotica" and "The Sweet Hereafter") and Deepa Mehta from India (with her "Fire", "Earth" and "Water" series of productions) also added their own cultural influences to Canadian productions. Canada also established itself at this time in the field of avant-garde productions from such artists as Guy Maddin (now over 16 movie credits including last year's highly acclaimed "The Heart of the World), Michael Snow (with over 20 film credits between 1956 and the 2001 release of "Corpus Callosum"), and Jean Pierre Lefebvre (with almost three dozen writer or director credits since 1967). These factors, along with the generous support of the NFB and provincial governments, had created a new vitality previously lacking in Canadian film.

In recent years Canada has contributed to the industry in many other ways including regional film festivals, of which Toronto's annual gala is among the largest and best organized and attended in the world. Vancouver and other areas of British Columbia continue to attract the attention of Hollywood as a venue for the production of American film and television, which benefit from lower costs, the abundance of local talent that emerges every year, and new panoramic scenery that can double for almost any place on Earth. Yes, Canada may have finally turned the corner in competing with its foreign competitors, albeit nearly a century late. We have some catching up to do, but by all indications we are headed in the right direction.

As a bonus, here is a little bit of movie trivia. Born Lois Hooker in Toronto on Valentine's day 1927, she changed her name to Lois Maxwell and went on to star in over 30 films, including 14 from the James Bond series. Who was she? None other than the original Moneypenny, playing opposite Sean Connery and Roger Moore. Also, did you know that Jay Silverheels (born Harold Smith at the Six Nations Indian Reserve in Ontario), the man who played Tonto, the Lone Ranger's partner, was a Canadian? Finally, Jack L. Warner (born Jack Eichelbaum in London, Ontario) and his three brothers Harry, Albert and Sam, formed Warner Brothers Studios. It's amazing! The more I research, the more Canadian connections I dig up.



On Sunday I profile speed-skater Gaetan Boucher, list a whole bunch of people also born during the week, tell you something about an unlucky artist, dispell a myth about the four-minute mile, and profile Virginiatown, Ontario.


I hope you enjoyed the read. Please visit today's resources (linked to below) to find pictures of Canadian performers, including Lois.



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