Hard as it may be to believe, the original “Hollywood North” was located on Vancouver Island. And like most of the Canadian film booms that followed, Canadians had little to do with it.
Oh, we had made films long before Hollywood discovered us. And many of them were quite successful.
The first Canadian film was shot in the fall of 1897, by a Manitoba farmer named James Freer. Freer basically chronicled life on the Prairies, drawing crowds with catchy titles like “Six Binders at Work in a Hundred Acre Wheatfield”.
The Canadian Pacific Railroad liked what he did so much they sent him on a European tour to show his movies. Not wanting to be left out of the limelight, the Government stepped up to sponsor a second tour in 1902, believing it would encourage immigration.
By then Freer was toting around a feature length collection of shorts entitled “Ten Years in Manitoba” –- or – what we would refer to today as “What a weekend in Winnipeg feels like”.
Things in the Great White North really got cooking in 1919, however, when a promoter named Ernie Shipman talked a bunch of Calgary Cattlemen into financing a romance entitled “Back to God’s Country” starring his wife.
It won worldwide distribution and returned a 300% profit to its investors, largely due to the fact that some of Mrs. Shipman’s scenes were performed in the nude.
But Hollywood still ruled. And while Canadians seemed okay with that, a lot of European countries weren’t and threw up trade barriers to protect their own burgeoning film studios.
Among these was Great Britain, which passed a law requiring 15% of the films shown on their screens to be “of British or Commonwealth origin”.
Worried about losing market share, Hollywood suddenly noticed that the USA shared a long undefended border with one member of said Commonwealth and rapidly launched a genre known as “The Quota Quickies”.
These were basically B-movies that could’ve easily been lensed on the backlot at Universal. But instead they were transported to Toronto, Montreal and Calgary where they could be quickly shot with virtual unknowns and sent back to Hollywood for editing.
The most successful of these ventures, however, was established in Victoria, BC by a producer named Ken Bishop, who would shoot a total of 14 films on Vancouver Island between 1932 and 1937.
The last of these was a ripping yarn entitled “Death Goes North” featuring one of the biggest stars of the time – Rin Tin Tin Jr.
“Rinty”, as he was known to his friends, was certifiable Hollywood royalty, son of the far more famous Rin Tin Tin, who had received the most votes for the first Academy Award for Best Actor in 1929. But at the last minute, the Academy decided it might be better for the industry if a human received the prize, so it went to Emil Jannings instead.
Kinda gives you a new perspective on Award shows, doesn’t it…
Anyway, although most people didn’t think Rin Tin Tin Jr. was as talented as his dad, he could still draw a crowd and the movie was a huge hit.
It might’ve also been the film that made the British rethink their quota system. For following its release they changed their quota law to exclude movies made in Canada.
And just like that -- an industry about to take root immediately withered. Eager to assure Canadians that while there was no longer a reason to shoot here Hollywood had not abandoned us, producer Lewis Selznick promised, “If Canadian stories are worth making into films, American companies will be sent into Canada to make them.”
A sentiment that still resonates today –- and won Ben Affleck an Oscar…
But for those who would like to relive a moment of Canadian Hollywood history –- on Saturday night, the Victoria “Free-B Film Festival” will be screening “Death Goes North” at the Broadmead Village Shopping Centre –- which now stands on the site where the film was originally shot.
And as is fitting for any B movie, it’s part of a bill that includes cartoons and a chapter of the Republic Serial “Canadian Mounties vs Atomic Invaders”.
We just don’t make ‘em like we used to, do we?