Thursday, October 6, 2016

A Canadian's Perspective: A Visit from Paddy Nolan-Hall

Today we discuss an aspect of the inclusiveness of the classic film fan community which sometimes amazes me in the face of—what all classic film fans know—is an art and culture that was often very skewed in the diversity it embraced.  Racial and ethnic stereotypes are at the forefront of this skewed diversity, obviously, but consider another facet of the Hollywood film industry:  a fair number of actors were Canadian.  However, we never hear of a “Canadian Colony” in Hollywood the same way we hear of the “English Colony” actors, or the large number of refugees from Europe during the war who made up a community in Hollywood. 

Is it because of the seamless way Canadians have always integrated with the U.S., or is it because of a way Americans have of taking Canadians for granted, considering them cousins—and as such, we don’t think about them very much unless they’re coming for Thanksgiving.  Oh, which Thanksgiving?  October or November?  Eh, skip it.

By the way, Happy Thanksgiving this coming Monday to our Canadian cousins. What time is dinner, and should I bring anything?

This post, after I get done yapping, will eventually be turned over to our friend and colleague, Patricia Nolan–Hall, aka, Caftan Woman, who blogs on classic films at her excellent site: Caftan Woman.   Also a member of the Classic Movie Blog Association, she recently swept the annual CMBA awards in the following categories: BEST FILM REVIEW: DRAMA - Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936); BEST CLASSIC MOVIE ARTICLE - Hal Roach and the "Lot" of Fun; BEST PROFILE OF A CLASSIC MOVIE PERFORMER OR FILMMAKER - Harry Carey and Harry Carey, Jr.

Her knowledge of classic films is extensive, and she is a perceptive and articulate writer; and as she happens also to be Canadian, we are fortunate to have her take on the issues discussed here.  This is the tenth installment of our year-long series on the current state of the classic film fan.

What does a Canadian classic film fan think of old Hollywood’s U.S.-centric popular culture?  The settings of most of the films is in U.S.—either a big city, or “Anytown, U.S.A.”  What is there for a Canadian fan to identify with in Hollywood’s “dream factory” movies?

Also, sometimes in a classic film with an American actor playing in an English setting, he is, as a matter of convenience to the story, portrayed as a Canadian – as if to give him a pass for being there – such as Humphrey Bogart’s character in The African Queen.  That character was originally written as Cockney English in the book.  Canada has a – “close enough” stamp on it for old Hollywood, which cracks me up, but I have to wonder if to a Canadian this seems absurd.

When Canada actually is the setting and focus of a Hollywood-made movie, what does a Canadian classic film fan think about it?   What are some classic Canadian films would they like to introduce to movie fans in the U.S.?

With our shared cultural and movie heritage, not only with Canadian actors and filmmakers, but also with Mexican as well—Hollywood benefited from a large number of actors originally from Mexico--maybe we should not call them American films, but North American films?

And so, I leave the lectern and invite Paddy to step up to the mic to give us her take on the matter.  My SpellCheck insists on changing her Canadian spelling, but I won’t let it. 


Paddy Nolan-Hall:

Sitting in my grade school classroom with the map of Canada on one wall and a larger map of Nova Scotia on another, I felt that I resided in the centre of the universe.  The books I read, the television and movies I enjoyed let me know that there were other places and other people out there in the wide world.  I never felt apart from that other world, only excited that it was all there for me to enjoy.

Focusing on film, we all can relate to that marvelous experience of attending the cinema, getting our treats, settling in our seat and joyously anticipating the lights going down.  A Saturday matinee western or Bowery Boys or Beach Party flick, a rare trip to an evening viewing of the latest Disney release.  Movies on television, even when my small town only properly received one channel - musicals with wonderful songs and appealing characters, dramas with adults behaving mysteriously.  I would soak it all in not really comprehending the timeline; that some of these movies were created decades before I was born.  It was enough that the movie was there and I was on the other side of the screen.

The year I turned 11 (1968) our family moved to Freeport in Grand Bahama for my dad's business.  It was eye-opening to have more than one TV channel and so much content that an entire magazine was needed to let you know what was going on instead of half a page in the local paper.  I was not only bombarded with movies, but with the experience of leaving the centre of the universe and being identified by that universe and meeting those people from those other places.  My time in Freeport introduced me to the world and a grudging look at my place in it, plus my first Charlie Chan movie.

Learning and deciding what it meant to be a Canadian led to a fresh look at some of my favourite Hollywood movies.  While often avoiding what may seem like bragging, we are always pleased to be acknowledged by our louder cousins south of the border, even if it can seem rather far out.  Randolph Scott as a Canadian Naval Officer in Corvette K-225?  Well, they gave him a Scottish name.  Bogie's Charlie Allnut is a Canuck?  I can't say it doesn't totally work, but he still sounds like Bogie.  Eddie Robinson as a Quebec police inspector in A Bullet for Joey?  Little Caesar?!  The Happy Time at least cast French actors as the French-Canadian family in the story, and who doesn't enjoy watching Charles Boyer, Louis Jourdan and Marcel Dalio?  Kudos to Jeanette Nolan for her decent Quebecois accent.  Canadian characters on film are a mixed lot.

We are always pleased to point out with pride the Canadian born stars of the silver screen from Fay Wray to Walter Huston to Raymond Massey to Alexis Smith.  Was there a Canadian colony like the British one in Hollywood in the classic era?  It does not appear to be so.  Did Andy Hardy's sister Marian played by Cecilia Parker and Andy Hardy's girlfriend Polly played by Ann Rutherford compare their Fort William, Ontario, and Vancouver, British Columbia, upbringings? 

Did Lucile Watson (Watch on the Rhine) and Maude Eburne (Ruggles of Red Gap) trade maple syrup recipes?  Did George Cleveland (TV’s Lassie) from New Brunswick and Joe Sawyer (TV’s The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin) from Ontario greet each other with a secret handshake?  I understand many Canadian actors working in the States get together for hockey games and to remind themselves of their roots.  In that earlier time it was simply a question of going where you could work.  Nowadays there seems to be a certain appreciation for our country and our culture of self-deprecating humour.  Our sense of self is truly wrapped up in our humour which borrows from our British founders and our American neighbours.  We've taken the best from both and made it our own.

Canada's National Film Board has created may Academy Award winning shorts and is a great resource for chronicling the growth of our country.  Box office films have been harder to come by, but the industry is experiencing a burst of creativity and recognition.  We have never minded coming from behind.  Here is a cross-section of Canadian films through the years which will tell you something about this vast land mass with a sparse population:  1949’s Beyond Dull Care, 1941’s Neighbour, 1970’s Goin' down the Road, 1971’s Mon Oncle Antoine, 1972’s The Rowdyman, 1975’s Lies My Father Told Me, 1977’s Outrageous!,  1977’s Who Has Seen the Wind, 1982’s The Grey Fox, 1985’s My American Cousin, 1992’s The Boys of St. Vincent's, 2002’s Men with Brooms, 2008’s Passchendaele and 2010’s Barney's Version.

During my teen years the film fans of Southern Ontario and Western New York were truly blessed with TVOntario's (our provinces PBS, if you will) Saturday Night at the Movies produced by Rise Shulman and hosted by Elwy Yost.  Every Saturday night a double bill of uncut classic Hollywood films with an education component hosted by former teacher Elwy.  Hollywood notables including actors and those behind the scenes were interviewed by the enthusiastic Elwy for our edification and entertainment.  Single-handedly Elwy Yost created generations of classic film fans.  Upon his death, Mr. Yost trended on Twitter with the heartfelt appreciation of thousands for making being a movie buff "okay".

Canadians and Americans share a continent and enjoyment of much of the same entertainment.  The difference is that we know when the music or entertainers are from the States, but you don't always know when it comes from Canada.  A lot of us share the same experience of the four seasons and relatives who ended up on the other side of the border.  The experience of characters in classic films is not foreign to us (well, maybe those Southern states, but the food looks good and we get used to the accent).  Hey, if you guys hadn't gotten all cranky and had a revolution we might be one big country.  I don't think that would be much fun though, do you?  The differences between our two countries may be the gentlest example of diversity on the planet.

Speaking of diversity, my daughter Janet is a filmmaker in her final year in Sheridan College's Bachelor of Animation Program.  Her peers include students from all over the world, from varied backgrounds and ethnicities.  How do classic films fit into their lives and careers?

Along with a history of animation course taught by Kaj Pindal, Janet relates that all of her professors use classic films as a way to teach aspects of cinematography and storyboarding.  These were the films that inspired the teachers in their youth and they want to share it with their students.  Some of the titles used include Lean's Oliver Twist and Lawrence of Arabia, Ford's The Searchers and How Green Was My Valley, a lot of Hitchcock and the films of Jacques Tati.  Students are encouraged to watch silent film comedies for the facial expressions.

The majority of the students were not previously exposed to classic film and their expectation was that they would be old-fashioned and unrelatable.  They were surprised and open to experience the older films.  Janet feels that the students who are the most serious about learning and growing in their art will continue to watch classic films.  I am optimistic about the future place of classic film and the expansion of classic film fans.

My sincere thanks to Paddy for helping out on this installment of the series.  Please have a look at her Caftan Woman blog for more great thoughts and great writing on classic films

Past posts in this series here:

Part 1 of the year-long series on the current state of the classic film buff is here: A Classic Film Manifesto. 

Part 2 is here: Cliff Aliperti’s new book on Helen Twelvetrees.

Part 3 is here: An interview with Kay Noske of Movie Star Makeover.

Part 4 is here: Evolution of the Classic Film Fan.

Part 5 is here: Gathering of the Clan at Classic Film Festivals.

Part 6 is here: John Greco’s new book of film criticism: Lessons in the Dark.

Part 7 is here: Tiffany Vazquez, new TCM host.

Part 8 is here:  Planet of the Apes at the Cineplex.

Part 9 is here:  Aurora & Classic Movies and More Interview.


The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on, and on Amazon and iTunes.

Also in paperback and eBook from Amazon.


John/24Frames said...

Another great addition to this series. Paddy, thanks for sharing your background, and its’s great that your daughter is becoming a filmmaker. Please keep us informed of her work. 'Mon Oncle Antoine' is a wonderful film. I was introduced to it by Sam Juliano of Wonders in the Dark and am forever grateful. I highly recommend it to everyone. I have only seen three other films on your list but they are all wonderful films (The Grey Fox, The Boys of St. Vincent and My American Cousin).

Rich said...

Between Paddy and Kristina from Speakeasy, I certainly feel like I know more about the not-so-secret history of Canadian Hollywood, which is kinda nice. As a result of my years of film blogging, Walter Huston has become one of my favorite classic actors, and thanks to you, Jacqueline, I know of and appreciate Alexis Smith, so that's two examples right there. But hey, no mention of SCTV?

Silver Screenings said...

Patricia, I laughed at your Canadian "secret handshake" comment!

Yes, we Canucks are very proud of our countrymen who make it in Hollywood, and you've cleverly given us an impressive list of those who have. I also appreciated hearing about your daughter's classic film experiences at Sheridan. Watching silent films would be an excellent way to study facial expressions.

This is a wonderful tribute to Canadian filmmakers. :)

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks, John. Paddy's list of films gives us all something to shoot for.

Rich, I loved SCTV, they were tops.

Ruth, I'm glad you liked Paddy's take on your countrymen who've been among Hollywood's best. She has a great turn of phrase, doesn't she?

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