For King and country

Exploiting Canada's service tradition

Published: Nov 11 2015, 01:01:am

Thursday, June 23, 1983.
CARRY ON SERGEANT! (1928). A silent film with musical accompaniment by pianist Fred Bass. Original score by Ernest Dainty. Written, co-edited and directed by Bruce Bairnsfather. Running time: 98 minutes. Original running time: 117 minutes.
NATIONAL FILM DAY IS A celebration with a difference. Unlike such artificially joyous events as B.C. Day and Thanksgiving, it invites active participation, offering Canadians the opportunity to sample a tangible heritage, to enjoy the present moment and, perhaps, to ponder past folly.
    NFD-83 is Saturday [June 25, 1983]. In Vancouver, it will be marked by a day of free films at the Robson Square Cinema. On view will be a pair of features — an epic of the late silent era called Carry On Sergeant! and L'Homme a Tout Faire (The Handyman), a gentle 1980 comedy from Quebec, seen here briefly in the year of its release.
    Not seen previously in B.C. is Carry On Sergeant!, a great historic folly due to make its public premiere here Saturday at 2 p.m. A silent First World War opus, it is fascinating both for what it tells us about the attitudes of its day and the way in which movies have traditionally come to be made in this country.
    A remarkably class-conscious drama, the film introduces us to beefy Bob MacKay (Hugh Buckler) and his comic sidekick Syd Small (Jimmy Savo). Together, they are firemen in the locomotive works owned by the aristocratic James Cameron (William T. Stewart).
     As written and directed by Britsh cartoonist Bruce Bairnsfather, Carry On Sergeant! is a Kiplingesque paean to the dogged, and indeed dog-like, working man who sees his duty and does it. Two separate plots unfold.
    One involves MacKay, who marries Ruth (Nancy Ann Hargreaves), the girl "from the 5 and 10," before marching off to war. In France, the grimly heroic MacKay rises to sergeant and becomes a love object for a predatory saloon girl named Marthe (Louise Cardi).
    The second plot involves Cameron, whose son Donald (Niles Welch) returns from a pre-war European holiday with a trio of house guests. Barbara Sinclair (Brenda Bond) and her brother Leonard (Monroe Owsley) are wealthy young Americans.
    Ralph Moran (Lewis Dayton), their moustachioed travelling companion, is the rather obvious villain. Why else would he slip away from their tour of the locomotive plant to take pictures of the secret plans for a new munitions works?
    When war comes, son of privilege Donald Cameron will answer the call to the colours in an officer's uniform.  
    The making of Carry On Sergeant! followed a pattern that should by now be familiar to students of the Canadian feature film industry. First, a government, resenting the success of American images on Canadian movie screens, decides that Canada should have its own movies.
    Knowing nothing about the picture business, the Ontario government of the day sent a representative to New York to find some experts. What he found, of course, were a pair of experts in the art of fleecing an obvious sheep.
    British-born entrepreneurs B.T. Cranfield and Col. W. F. Clarke arrived in Toronto in May, 1926. In what B.C. film historian Colin Browne calls "the recent tradition of great Canadian producers," Cranfield and Clarke "put themselves on hefty wages right off."
    Their story is told in minute detail by Peter Morris in his 1978 book Embattled Shadows: The History of Canadian Cinema 1895-1939. To make their Canadian-themed epic, Cranfield and Clarke hired a big name from Britain: Bairnsfather, "a guy who'd never made a film in his life." The picture cost an estimated $500,000 — $150,000 of that budget being spent almost immediately on salaries for the promoters, cast and crew.
    When the film failed commercially, a hatful of handy excuses were offered to the out-of-pocket investors. "American interests" were said to have denied the picture proper distribution. The coming of sound — dismissed as a fad the year the film went into production — was blamed for destroying the market.
    Critics of the picture were obviously unpatriotic saboteurs. Unsophisticated members of the public who objected to its notorious estaminet scene (in which a morose Sgt. MacKay finally "succumbs to the wiles" of the persistent Marthe) — well, they were at fault.
    For an assortment of reasons, Carry On Sergeant! never made it to B.C. during its brief original release. For its local premiere Saturday, NFD organizers have engaged veteran pit pianist Fred Bass to provide a stirring accompaniment, an addition that should give the occasion the proper period touch.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1983. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Despite recent Prime Minister Stephen Harper's enthusiasm for the idea of Canada as a "warrior nation," there is little in our nation's popular culture to support that notion. Canadians as a whole prefer to think of our role as that of peace-keeper, and the absence of war movies from our domestic cinema suggests a healthy non-belligerence in the national character. Over the years, we've allowed Hollywood filmmakers to remember our history for us — one fascinating example being 1968's The Devil's Brigade — with all the consequences involved in such outsourcing. So, a fair-minded visitor to Reeling Back might ask, should we consider Carry On Sergeant! a valuable bit of lost Canadiana?
     The answer is a highly qualified "yes." Its real value lies in the story of its making. As I said in the above review, the idea for the movie originated with a provincial government more interested in creating jobs than culture, and with men whose attitudes remained colonial. Canada's participation in the First World War was automatic, triggered by Britain's declaration of war on August 4, 1914. (Though officially a self-governing dominion within the British Empire, Canada had no control over its foreign affairs until 1926.) An unmitigated disaster from beginning to end, the war was "remembered," but hardly celebrated. Tellingly, the Ontario bureaucrats went outside of Canada in search of the "talent" to produce their Canadian war story. Despite big paydays for the imported cast and production staff, its Canadian investors lost everything. The final film — written and directed by a Brit — was widely considered an insult to the men of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. As is often the case, the real lessons contained in its failure went unlearned, or, perhaps we should say unremembered. As a result, Carry On Sergeant!-like disasters are a depressingly frequent part of Canada's cinematic history. Lest we forget.