Prepared for Daniel Francis and Encyclopedia of British Columbia — January, 2000.
[Published in 2000 by Harbour Publishing]
By MICHAEL WALSH
[PART 1: SILENT FORESTS — 1897 to 1928]
B.C.s first recorded cinematic enterprise was the exhibition of a U.S. prize-fight film in March, 1897, when Victorians packed the Trilby Music Hall on Broad Street to see Bob Fitzsimmons defeat Jim Corbett.
In October, 1902, Canada's first permanent movie house was opened by an itinerant showman, John Albert Schulberg, who settled in Vancouver to operate the Electric Theatre. Located at 38 Cordova Street, its premiere attraction was the Edison Company’s Mount Pelée in Eruption.
A novelty for audiences, film realized its first commercial value as a promotional medium. To sell its Canadian destinations, the Canadian Pacific Railway became an advertising movie pioneer. It was responsible for the first film shot in B.C. — views of the Rocky Mountains filmed from the front of a CPR locomotive by the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company's Billy Bitzer in 1899.
The railway also commissioned films featuring B.C. scenery from Charles Urban's British-based Warwick Trading Company (1901), and a series of short travel comedies from the U.S. Edison Manufacturing Co. (1910). A CPR-sponsored travelogue was the first colour film shot in B.C. (1911).
In 1908, the Urban company sent James Ferrens to shoot promotional films for B.C.’s provincial government, which was the first in Canada to involve itself directly in movie sponsorship. The government also took note of the film exhibition business. In 1913 it enacted the B.C. Motion Picture Act, and establishing a Board of Censorship of Theatres and Film. A former newspaperman, C.L. Gordon, served as its chief censor.
After 1918, there was a major migration of U.S. filmmakers from the East Coast to California, and this fed hopes in B.C. for a local production industry. In 1917, plans were developed (and abandoned) for commercial film studios in Victoria and Burnaby.
In 1920, following Ottawa's creation of the Exhibits and Publicity Bureau — the world's first government film unit — B.C. set up its own production agency, the B.C. Patriotic and Educational Picture Service (PEPS). Exhibitors protested when Victoria took the politically controversial step of imposing a quota, requiring cinemas to show 15 minutes of PEPS film every day. Although it existed in law until 1970, little funding and less enforcement effectively ended PEPS by 1925.
Coincidentally, the consolidation of Canada's exhibition business in U.S. hands also began in 1920. With the incorporation of Famous Players Canadian Corp. in January, U.S. industry mogul Adolf Zukor created a theatre chain to show the features made by his Famous Players (later Paramount Pictures) production company. In February, 1920, it acquired its first two B.C. cinemas and, by 1926, it had achieved complete market dominance.
The practice of U.S. producers shooting features on B.C. locations began with Universal Film’s The Conflict (1921). B.C.’s first production boom occurred in the East Kootenay when the Americans returned to make The Eternal Struggle, Hearts Aflame and Unseeing Eye (all 1923), The Alaskan (1924), The Winds of Change (1925) and The Flaming Forest (1926), movies that were assured of theatrical bookings.
There was no such assurance for Canadian producers, as the story of Manitoba-born Arthur David "Cowboy" Kean illustrates. The first British Columbian to be known as a filmmaker, he incorporated Kean's Canada Films in 1915 to produce newsreels but, when theatres refused to book them, he turned to industrial films.
In 1920, he became chief cameraman for PEPS. Returning to private production, he completed Policing the Plains (1927), a feature-length romance paying tribute to the North-West Mounted Police, but was unsuccessful in his efforts to have it distributed. In debt, Kean was forced to leave a film business that was institutionally inhospitable to Canadians.
The above is Part 2 of a eight-part restoration of an Encyclopedia of British Columbia entry written by Michael Walsh, originally published in 2000. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.
B.C. Filmmaking Industry — Part 1 [Introduction]; Part 3 [Quota Quickies]; Part 4 [Pre-TV]; Part 5 [TV to CFDC]; Part 6 [CFDC to BCFC]; Part 7 [Brollywood]; Part 8 [Bibliography].
TIMELINE: 1897-1928These are the significant events in the history of the B.C. film industry. For those who want to know more, I've included in square brackets at the end of each item a reference to my source for the information. The first one — [BC-1/1] — guides you to page one of Colin Browne’s Motion Picture Production In British Columbia: 1898-1940, published in 1979. All of the works I consulted in the preparation of this history are listed in Part 8 of the series, the Bibliography. Each has a reference code to identify it in the Timeline listings.
◼︎ 1897, March — Films are first exhibited in B.C. in Victoria's Trilby Music Hall. [BC-1/1]
◼︎ 1898, December 15 — John Albert Schulberg (a.k.a. Johnny Nash) arrives in Vancouver with a Kinetograph machine. He exhibits a "Spanish-American War" show on Cordova street near Cambie, and later travels the CPR towns route. [SP/7] [ES/15]
◼︎ 1899 — Billy Bitzer, 26, later to be D.W. Griffith's cameraman, shoots film from the front of a CPR locomotive, producing such items as Down Western Slope and Frazer (sic) Canyon. [BC-1/6]
◼︎ 1901 — Charles Urban's Warwick Trading Company of London sends Joseph Rosenthal and two assistants to shoot scenes for a Living Canada series of promotional films for the CPR. [BC-1/7]
◼︎ 1902, October — Schulberg's The Electric Theatre, Canada's first permanent movie house, opens at 38 Cordova Street in Vancouver. [TS/18-19] [ES/19] [RV/107] [CD/47]
◼︎ 1904 — Local 118 (stagehands) of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) is chartered in Vancouver. [HP/7]
◼︎ 1905 — J.R. Muir opens Royal Theatre, Vancouver. [SP/7]
◼︎ 1908, June — The B.C. government contracts with the Charles Urban Trading Company to produce promotional pictures, becoming Canada’s first province involved with film. [ES/36]
◼︎ 1908 — British cameraman James Ferens shoots Hastings Sawmill near Vancouver. [BC-1/9]
◼︎ 1909 — Stripping a Forest in Winter is the first industrial film produced in B.C. [SP/14]
◼︎ 1910, July to August — Under contract to the CPR, the Edison Manufacturing Co. sends director J. Searle Dawley, cameraman Henry Cronjager and six actors across Canada to produce a series of fictional shorts glorifying the romantic possibilities of the new land. [BC-1/8]
◼︎ 1910 — Thirteen of Dawley’s one-reel films premiere in New York, including The Ship's Husband, a comedy set aboard the Vancouver-to-Victoria ferry. [ES/45]
◼︎ 1911 — Canada - Nova Scotia to British Columbia, produced by Charles Urban, is the first colour film shot in B.C. (Kinemacolor). [BC-1/8]
◼︎ 1911 — Vancouver Moving Pictures Exhibitors Association formed. The Princess Theatre, a luxury venue built for movies, opens at 37 Hastings Street. [SP/8-9]
◼︎ 1911, September — The Coronation of George V, the first Kinemacolor film shown in Vancouver, plays at the Opera House. [BC-1/10]
◼︎ 1913 — Charles Urban's Natural Kinematograph Co. sends cinematographer H. Sintzenich to shoot Kinemacolor footage for the B.C. government. [BC-1/9]
◼︎ 1913, March — B.C. Attorney-General W.J. Bowser's Act to Regulate Theatres and Kinematographs passed. [COC/116]
◼︎ 1913, May 1 — B.C. Board of Censorship of Theatres and Film (under the Ministry of Agriculture) opens to administer the Moving Pictures Act of 1913. C.L. Gordon is chief censor [SP/10]
◼︎ 1914 — In the Land of the Head Hunters (a.k.a. War Canoe) is filmed on Vancouver Island by director Edward S. Curtiss with Kwakiutl co-operation. [HP/7] [ES/38]
◼︎ 1914 — Local 349 (projectionists) of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) chartered in Vancouver. [HP/7]
◼︎ 1915 — Kean's Canada Films, a newsreel series, is produced by A.D. "Cowboy" Kean of Vancouver. [HP/7]
◼︎ 1915 — The B.C. Moving Pictures Exhibitors Association's request for the right to appeal rulings of the provincial censor is refused. [SP/11]
◼︎ 1916 — A.D. Kean produces B.C. for the Empire, a documentary record of local battalions departing for the First World War. [SP/15]
◼︎ 1917 — Burnaby donates a 12-acre site to J. Arthur Nelson to build a studio. No films are produced. [SP/18]
◼︎ 1917, February 7 — New Yorker John Arthur Nelson incorporates Dominion Films Corporation. Victoria is asked to provide land for his proposed Maple Leaf City studio complex, but the deal collapses. [BC-1/20]; [SP/18]
◼︎ 1918 — Major U.S. motion picture producers leave Atlantic Coast for California. B.C. ambitions are fuelled by the geographic proximity. [SP/13]
◼︎ 1918, September 19 — Federal government sets up the Exhibits and Publicity Bureau under B.E. Norrish. It is the world's first government film unit. [BC-1/13]
◼︎ 1920 — John Oliver's government amends the Moving Picture Act to create the B.C. Patriotic and Educational Picture Service (PEPS). [BC-1/14] Its director is Vancouver dentist Dr. Albert Richard Baker [RW/V1#4:9]
◼︎ 1920 — J. Howard Boothe and Harry Rosenbaum incorporate Motion Skreenadz Ltd. to produce one-minute theatrical advertising trailers. [BC-2/11]
◼︎ 1920, January 23 — Adolph Zukor incorporates Famous Players Canadian Corp. Ltd. to operate theatres for his Famous Players (later Paramount Pictures) in Canada. [IB/Jan. 81]
◼︎ 1920, February 5 — Famous Players acquires its first 13 theatres, including The Dominion in Vancouver and The Dominion in Victoria. [IB/Jan. 81]
◼︎ 1920, April — B.C's government amends the Motion Picture Act to require 15 minutes of its PEPS films be shown in cinemas each day. [BC-1/14] The agency is headed by May Watkis, first woman to head such an agency in Canada. [CF/10]
◼︎ 1921 — The provincial government hires A.D. Kean to make promotional films. [SP/22] He is chief cameraman for PEPS, under the Attorney-General. [HP/7] Films are also purchased from Agnes E. Freeman (Freeman and Company), B.C.'s first female cinematographer, and Marvin H. Thoreau. [RW/V1#4:9]
◼︎ 1921-1926 — U.S. companies create first location filming boom in East Kootenay, shooting the feature films Conflict (1921), Hearts Aflame (1923), Unseeing Eyes (1923) and The Flaming Forest (1926) in and around Cranbrook, Fort Steele and Yahk. [HP/7] [BC-2/22]
◼︎ 1922, February — Paramount Pictures acquires the 50 theatres of Canadian-owned Allen Theatres Ltd. for $5 million. [SP/13]
◼︎ 1923 — The Exhibits and Publicity Bureau, the federal government’s film unit, becomes the Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau. British Columbian subjects are included in its Seeing Canada and Canadian News Pictorial releases. [BC-1/14]
◼︎ 1923 — Kodak introduces its 16mm CineKodak camera. [BC-1/17]
◼︎ 1927, October — Frederick M. Ryder proposes to build a Lion's Gate Studio Cinema Studio in Vancouver, but the project is abandoned. [SP/30-31] Nils Olaf Chrisander, head of Hollywood's National Cinema Studios Syndicate, is also involved. Land is purchased in West Vancouver, but the promoters are eventually sent to jail for bilking investors. [BC-1/20-21]
◼︎ 1927, November — James J. Wright and Major Bruce Carter purchase 925 acres near Victoria for Cinema City Canada. Though no studio is built, they later profit on the sale of the real estate. [SP/31]
◼︎ 1927, December — British Cinematograph Films Act creates film quota legislation for the United Kingdom. The Act generously defines Commonwealth-produced films as British. [BC-1/69]
◼︎ 1927, December 19 — Policing the Plains, A.D. "Cowboy" Kean's NWMP docudrama filmed on the Boyd ranch in Alberta and North Vancouver, begins a six-day run in Toronto's Royal Alexandra Theatre. [BC-1/22] Kean later goes to court over the refusal of exhibitors to screen his film. [HP/7] [RW/V2#1:11]
◼︎ 1928 — Roger Bourne and Charles Lambly open Vancouver Motion Pictures Ltd., B.C.'s first film processing lab. [BC-2/11]