As a Canadian, I thought I would take the Golden Age of Hollywood Quest as an opportunity to write about some great Canadian feature films of the era in question (1927-1959).

But ... there really aren't any.

Now, there's a statement to make a proud Canuck's maple syrup laden blood boil. But it's quite literally true1, for a couple of different reasons, as we shall see.

Prior to the era in question a few features were made in Canada, starting with 1914's Evangeline2. But Canadian writers, directors, and stars such as Mary Pickford were being lured south to Hollywood, leaving little native talent, and thus few quality films were made.

In 1927, as our story opens, the British Parliament introduces the "Cinematograph Act." Said Act was designed to break the stranglehold that the United States and Germany held on film production. At the time, less than 5% of movies shown in Britain had a British origin. The "Cinematograph Act" set specific quotas for exhibition of British movies, starting at a 5% minimum annually in 1928 and growing to a 20% minimum annually over time. The unintended effect of this legislation was to encourage many low-quality, rapidly made productions. These were known as “quota quickies.” Initially, any film made in the British Commonwealth was considered compliant. This fact was not unnoticed by Hollywood, which opened branch studios and shot a number of "quota quickies" in Canada for export to England. Numerous B-movie scripts about the splendor of the North and the valour of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were made.

Among the rough gems of this period is Convicted, made in British Columbia in just 2 weeks. Based on the short story "Face Work" by Cornell Woolrich, it starred a young Rita Hayworth as "Jerry Wheeler." Jerry was a rhumba dancer (a stripper in the short story3) who turns to detective work to save her younger brother, who has been framed for murder.

By 1938 the British parliament had gotten wise to the branch studio scam. They amended the Act to exclude Commonwealth films from consideration. The branch studios closed down and with them almost all serious attempts at feature length film making in Canada.

But all was not lost. Canada’s filmmakers had already begun to turn to the documentary, a style of film left fallow by Hollywood. 1939's The Royal Visit about King George VI and Queen Elizabeth's tour of Canada was one such film. Also in 1939 the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) was established. Through the NFB among other sources, Canada's strong heritage in documentary film continues to this day.

Then came WWII, and in the war time (1939-1945 in Canada) the NFB made 500 documentary movies and newsreels. The NFB won the 1942 Academy Award for Best Documentary for the 1941 newsreel Churchill’s Island.

After WWII, the Canadian federal government finance committee was headed by Canada's uber-mandarin C.D. Howe. Ol' C.D. was quite worried about the imbalance of trade between Canada and the United States. They needed to sacrifice some of Canada's less important industries, in exchange for concessions in other areas. Canada's nascent film industry was an obvious choice. Howe's boss William Lyon Mackenzie King's government struck a deal with the Motion Picture Export Association of America (MPEAA). In exchange for strict quotas on Canadian film, more Hollywood films would be shot on location in Canada, Canada would get more exposure in other American films, and American movie houses would show Canadian travelogues. This deal became enshrined in law in 1948 as the Canadian Cooperation Project (CCP).

Only 13 Hollywood films shot in Canada during the first 7 years of the deal. Those included Otto Preminger's The 13th Letter and River of No Return, Alfred Hitchcock's lightly regarded I Confess, and William Wellman’s film about Igor Gouzenko, The Iron Curtain. No english-language Canadian feature films were made during the time of the CCP, although some french-language productions did happen. Meanwhile Canada turned its attention to the growing television industry.

A few independent Canadian studios did flourish during the CCP, by concentrating on newsreels, documentaries, and industrial (sponsored) films. Ottawa's Crawley films was one example of such success.

In 1958, the Progressive Conservative government of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker eliminated the CCP and Canadian film was free to find its own way. The collapse of the Hollywood Studio System and rise of independent filming opened the door to new ideas. But this later history of Canadian film passes beyond the scope of this writeup, so we'll end this part of our tale here.

  1. At least, not in English. I plead ignorance of early French-Canadian film, and would be happy to take corrections.
  2. One of several films so titled according to imdb, all apparently based on the Longfellow poem.
  3. Shades of Stripperella....

Sources:

  • http://www.mala.bc.ca/~soules/mTheory/vol3/cashman/cooperation.htm
  • http://www.yorku.ca/ycom/gazette/past/archive/2001/042501/current.htm
  • http://www.ottawalife.com/article.asp?articleid=120
  • http://www.thrillingdetective.com/eyes/wheeler.html
  • http://www.nfb.ca/search/index.html?query=Churchill%92s+Island

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