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Canadian Influences in Early Hollywood

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Ever pick up a dusty book or piece of antique that you thought to be unimportant, only to discover its inherent value? That’s how naughty history can be sometimes. There’s never a dull moment when one rediscovers pieces of history. I can just imagine how Italian humanists felt just before they nurtured the Renaissance in Europe when they rediscovered classical knowledge.

Canadians are not generally regarded as a people attached to their heritage, so the opportunity to dust off pieces of Canadian history is there for us to discover. Indeed, we have seen this with the Heritage Series vignettes aired on television, highlighting Canadian historical achievements and contributions.

I recently stumbled upon one of those lost relics of Canada I never knew existed; which surprised me since I do take an active interest in this country’s past. Reading about Canadian history has introduced me to the innovative spirit of Canadians through the years. In the realm of Hollywood, Canadians were rugged individualists who roamed the continent giving unique Canadian imprints to the North American film experience.

What was supposed to be a night researching Buster Keaton led to the discovery of several Canadian pioneers in early Hollywood. While going through the list of Canadian names on various web sites dedicated to the silent film era, the one thing that caught my attention was how this presence and influence seemed disproportionate to Canada’s tiny population, which grew from 7 million in 1910 to 10 million in 1930. It was like discovering a long lost relative.

Some quotes from The Grove Book of Hollywood anthology edited by Christopher Silvester helps to put things in historical perspective. Dancer and choreographer Agnes DeMille (niece of Cecil B. DeMille) once said “Hollywood was merely a country town, like many in the East, with palms instead of maples and chestnuts. The hills, though steep, were plain colored. The people were just ordinary.” She even described how there were still cowboys who, “kept largely to themselves.”

British actress Constance Collier added, “Hollywood was still a village, with farms that had not yet been built over, and the surly farmers were furious at the advent of the picture folk.” In a similar vein, screenwriter Lenore Coffee wrote “In 1919 Hollywood was a village. Hollywood Boulevard could have been any Main Street in America.”

With this, Hollywood was hardly a romantic and opulent place in its infancy. Such was the character of Hollywood in its formative years. There were no agents and it was normal for employees to offer their insights to the director. What Hollywood lacked in panache it made up in the family surroundings it fostered. In many ways, this unassuming and humble reality resonated well with a Canadian mindset.

And so it is with DeMille’s ,Collier’s, and Coffee’s Hollywood, Canadians were poised to leave their mark; earn their stars they did.

Notable figures during this time included the tragic lives of Marie Prévost and Florence Lawrence, ‘America’s First Movie Star.’ This period brought Canada’s only three female Academy Award Winners: Norma Shearer in 1930 and Marie Dressler in 1931. Mary Pickford — arguably the most famous person who ever lived — won this country’s first award in 1929. A powerful figure and co-founder of United Artists, Pickford was known as America’s sweetheart.

On the director’s chair, Canadian influence was felt through the slapstick director Mack Sennett, who introduced the Keystone Kops to film audiences, now regarded as an American institution. Sidney Olcott, among the first true great directors, was a founding member of what is known today as the Director’s Guild of America. In business, Jack Warner was the driving force behind his co-founding of Warner Brothers Studios. Other notable names include Raymond Massey, Nell Shipman (The Girl From God’s Country), Al Christie and Fay Wray, famous for her role as the blonde captive in King Kong.

With this list, it should not surprise anyone Canadians brought to Hollywood a distinctly Canadian flavor to film audiences everywhere. Ironically, while Hollywood is singled out by cultural protectionists for its threat to the Canadian identity, it is interesting to note that Canadians themselves had a role to play in this development, but that is another story altogether.

From the dusty streets of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Streets in the early 20th century to the modern glitz of 21st century Hollywood, Canadians have been an integral part of the process every step of the way. Dusting can be a rewarding and therapeutic exercise.

About Alessandro Nicolo