A comprehensive return to the early days of the Canadian film industry and the Associated Screen News studio in Montreal. An exclusive program of 13 films including 10 new restorations.
In a letter dated October 28th, 1982, addressed to collector Jean-Bélanger, director Gordon Sparling expresses his concerns regarding the lack of willingness to preserve Canadian film heritage: “It was only a couple of decades ago since nobody seemed to give a damn about preserving our motion picture history. For a long time I was one of the very few small voices crying in a very large wilderness. You were one of the pioneers who not only said ‘save our old pictures’ but did something about it.” [i]
At the time, Bélanger held what was probably the largest private film collection in Canada. Beyond its sheer breadth, this collection stood out for its variety: while most film collectors of the era were only interested in fiction and feature films, Bélanger had amassed thousands of government-sponsored, industrial and commercial films, travelogues, newsreels, amateur films, home movies and professional short films produced for exhibition in the home. We can assume that if Bélanger, who financed his activities solely through his salary as a policeman, could afford so many reels, it is because they were viewed as scrap or junk at the moment of their acquisition.
The story of Bélanger’s collection is a perfect example of the fate imparted on so-called “useful” or “ephemeral” films despite their central, yet often neglected place in the history of Canadian cinema. Amongst the reels salvaged by Bélanger, we find many titles produced by Sparling’s long-time employer: Associated Screen News. Founded during the summer of 1920 through the initiative of the Canadian Pacific Railway—then the largest private corporation in the country—, Associated Screen News had two main goals. It was first created to produce visual documents meant to incite colonization by British and Northern European immigrants of Canadian territories formerly held by the Métis and First Nations. Associated Screen News was also required to promote the prime holiday destinations throughout the country (Quebec City, Montreal, Banff, Victoria…) where the Canadian Pacific Railway owned prestigious hotels, as well as the fleet of ocean liners operated by the company.
The Canadian Pacific’s significant financial resources allowed Associated Screen News to quickly acquire key material resources and assemble a large team. Initially housed in the Albee building located behind the Imperial cinema, the company erected a massive building in the mid-1920s, which is still standing nearly a century later at the corner of Décarie and de Maisonneuve West boulevards. It contained the company’s studio, workshops, laboratory and offices. Eight camera operators equipped with Bell & Howell 2709 cameras—the same model used by most Hollywood studios at the time—were already in its employ throughout Canada by the mid-1920s. When the film industry switched to sound at the turn of the 1930s, more than a hundred people were working within Associated Screen News’ Montreal premises.
The team led by B.E. Norrish would go on to produce many films for the Canadian Pacific through the decades, but also promotional, industrial and sponsored films for various Canadian businesses, as well as newsreels segments and short film series for theatrical exhibition, including the Kinogram Travelogues, Camera Ramblesand Canadian Cameos. In 1931, Associated Screen News geared up for sound, expanded its building, and built the most advanced film studio in the country. The latter would notably be used by British director Michael Powell in 1941 to shoot scenes for 49th Parallel, a fiction feature film co-written by his collaborator Emeric Pressburger.
Film production represented but a fraction of Associated Screen News’ revenues, however. Keen on widening the demand for useful and non-theatrical films, the company also held a subsidiary, Benograph, dedicated to the sale of film projectors and non-theatrical film rentals. Most equipment and films intended for parallel circuits used the 16mm format, but a certain number of Associated Screen News productions were also printed on 35mm safety stock for non-theatrical screenings.
Associated Screen News’ most important, steadiest source of income seems to have been its lab, however, which most US majors used to produce the Canadian release prints of their productions. During the silent era, distributors could also have their films’ intertitles translated there. In its promotional material, Associated Screen News made sure to remind them that:
The experience of years of Canadian film distribution has shown the commercialnecessity of supplying feature pictures to be circulated in French-Canadian territorieswith bilingual titles.Foreign producers have often been betrayed into humorous but expensive errors byemploying translators to put their titles into Parisian French. The French-Canadians issome centuries away from France and has evolved a language and idiom of his own.Successful motion picture titles for Lower Canada must be written in that idiom. [ii]
Interestingly enough, during the decades following the end of Associated Screen News’ activities in 1957, the studios and lab built during the 1920s and 30s would be used by Bellevue Pathé to dub numerous films and television shows.
The variety of services on offer and the breadth of its technical means only partly accounts for the success of Associated Screen News, which would miraculously survive for four decades as a filmmaking outfit in mid-twentieth century Canada. The first reason for this success resides in the quality and talent of the company’s personnel. In this regard, the Canadian Pacific made a key decision in 1920 when it hired Bernard E. Norrish, who would lead Associated Screen News until his retirement in 1953. Norrish was then one of the few Canadians with a deep knowledge of world cinema, having had the opportunity to head the Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau, founded in 1918, during its first two years of activities.
Norrish built a team made up of several talented creators and technicians. For a few years during the 1920s, the most prominent person in the team was none other than Terry Ramsaye, who had worked with Charlie Chaplin at Mutual during the 1910s and published one of the very first histories of cinema in the early 1920s (released in instalments in Photoplay, then compiled in a single volume entitledA Million and One Nightsin 1926). Ramsaye is credited with editing and penning the subtitles for several Associated Screen News productions. In the credits of many films, his name appears on the same card as the title, a testimony to the importance of these functions, then seen as just as important as those of a director.
Associated Screen News would need a few years to replace Ramsaye following his departure in the late 1920s. Norrish would score big in 1931, however, by hiring Gordon Sparling. Although he was merely 30 at the time, the latter had nearly a decade of experience in the world of cinema, having previously made films for the Ontario Motion Picture Bureau and the Canadian Forestry Association, assisted Bruce Bairnsfather—whose work he would soon harshly criticize—on the shoot of Carry on, Sergeant! in 1928, and then spent some time in Paramount’s New York studios at the turn of the 1930s. Sparling, who would remain in the employ of Associated Screen News until its demise in 1957 (save for the three years where he directed the film services for the Canadian Army during World War II), injected some much needed creativity and imagination into the often mundane subjects he was assigned. One of his masterpieces, Rhapsody in Two Languages(1934), transforms what was supposed to be a mere travelogue meant to entice American viewers to come and sample Montreal’s night life into a glorious city symphony making full use of the potential of cinematography, editing, and the soundtrack. Sparling’s considerable talent allowed many of Associated Screen News’s productions to have respectable commercial careers in Canadian, but also American commercial film theatres.
Many of the other film artisans hired by Norrish also went on to spend many years at the employ of Associated Screen News, and consequently had a significant impact on the company’s output. Maurice Metzger, who had previously collaborated in 1902 and 1903 with Brits Joe Rosenthal et F. Guy Bradford on the Living Canadaseries sponsored by the Canadian Pacific, played a central role in the lab and sound department’s activities for many decades. Music, which was given center stage in several of Associated Screen News’ films from the early 1930s onward, was regularly recorded by some of the country’s most prominent composers and performers, such as Howard Fogg and Lucio Agostini (also known as Alys Robi’s conductor). A forgotten pioneer of Canadian cinema, Margot Blaisdell, was responsible for many of the company’s screenplays. As for the essential task of cinematography, it was generally entrusted to the group of talented operators at the employ of the company, which included John M. Alexander, Roy Tash (who was the official cameraman of the Dionne twins in the 1930s), Alfred Jacquemin, Lucien Roy and Frank O’Byrne. Starting in the early 1930s, these operators scattered across Canada made full use of Associated Screen News’ fleet of trucks equipped for location sound recording.
The National Film Board of Canada and the Service de ciné-photographie de la province de Québec, founded respectively in 1939 and 1941, eventually recognized the worth of Associated Screen News’ personnel and entrusted the production of many governmental productions to the company in the 1940s and 50s. The great stability of the team assembled by Ben Norrish had a perverse effect however, as it made it hard for Associated Screen News to follow the new trends in actuality and documentary filmmaking in the late 1950s. The company did shoot short films and series for television broadcast, but never embraced the shift toward portable 16mm equipment associated with direct cinema. Queried in 2010 about his relation to Associated Screen News during his formative years, Michel Brault declared that it had been simply inexistant [iii].
After having produced some of Canada’s most interesting films during the silent era and the first decades of sound cinema, Associated Screen News ceased its activities in 1957, four years after Ben Norrish’s retirement and the sale of the Canadian Pacific Railway majority stake to Paul Nathanson, son of the founder of Famous Players Canadian and Odeon Theatres of Canada. Associated Screen News’ legacy would be scattered and largely forgotten during the following decades, despite some rare retrospectives organized throughout the years. Library and Archives Canada does preserve some material documenting the history of Associated Screen News donated by Bellevue-Pathé and Astral Média, Associated Screen News’ corporate successors, but their collection is fragmentary, and no complete filmography of the company has been compiled as of today.
This disappearance also stems from the company responsible for creating Associated Screen News. In 2010, a group of researchers at the University of Montreal, wishing to digitize and make available some of the company’s titles on the internet, asked the Canadian Pacific Railway to sign release forms authorizing this use. The corporation’s representatives took some time to study the issue, but eventually declined. They were worried that granting rights to material they did not own could leave the Canadian Pacific exposed to lawsuits. The daughter and heir of the film collector Bélanger, Carolle Bélanger, also met considerable challenges when she tried to send some of the reels accumulated by her father to film archives. Nobody returned her calls and she was eventually forced to sell her father collection’s piecemeal on eBay and in collectors conventions. History repeated itself as collectors had to step in one more time to salvage our orphaned film heritage.
Peter Morris, Embattled Shadows: A History of Canadian Cinema 1895-1939 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1978).
Film database of the Canadian Educational, Sponsored, and Industrial Film Project, Concordia University, www.screenculture.org/cesif/