Reaching for the stars

Aspirations exceed accomplishments

Published: Apr 29 2015, 01:01:am

Saturday, May 2, 1970
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF CHESTER-ANGUS RAMSGOOD. Music by Terry Frewer, Bob Buckley. Written, edited, photographed and directed by David Curnick. Running time: 61 minutes.
THERE'S REALLY ONLY ONE word of advice for young Canadians considering a career in the feature-film industry: DON'T.
    Canada has few businesses in which it is more difficult to find work, gain experience or achieve recognition. And even if Canadians do attempt to make their own movies, they will immediately run headlong into an even more formidable obstacle — the closed circuit of distribution and exhibition.
    No national enterprise is more completely dominated by foreign owners, none more dedicated to making profits for alien artists, than the movie business.
    Founding a feature-film industry in this country will take more than mere talent, creative energy and enthusiasm. It will take dedication, stick-to-itiveness and a touch of that particular brand of insanity that never knows when to quit.
    David Curnick, 25, and Donald Wilson, also 25, are a pair of Vancouverites who think they have what it  takes. They've already learned filmmaking's First Law — the only way to make movies is to make movies — and last Sunday, [April 26, 1970] they premiered their first big-screen feature film at the Varsity Theatre.
    Made on a rock-bottom budget of $17,000, The Life and Times of Chester-Angus Ramsgood is a 16-millimetre colour comedy. It was, according to its makers, not designed as an artistic statement but as a commercial commodity.
    Curnick and Wilson want to sell their current film and plow back the profits into a new effort, a full-scale 35-millimetre production. Their aim, according to Wilson, is to become professional filmmakers in the feature-film industry.
    They are battling long odds. To realize just how long, all you have to do is take a close look at a pair of recent "success" stories — the 1969 film Easy Rider and 1970's Flick.
    Easy Rider, winner of the Best New Directer award at last year's Cannes Festival, has been widely hailed as a revolutionary departure in movie-making, the product of gifted amateurs working independently of the old, dead-handed Hollywood establishment.
    It's an inspiring story. Sadly, there's hardly a grain of truth in it. A Columbia Pictures release, Easy Rider was executive produced by Bert Schneider. The Schneiders, one of Columbia's founding families, have been involved in the business of film production since the mid-1920s.
    Dennis Hopper, the picture's 34-year-old director, has spent the last 15 years of his life in front of the camera. His co-star, Peter Fonda, grew up seeing his family name in lights.
    With its Terry Southern script and rock-star-studded score, Easy Rider crept rather smugly into the theatres. It had it both ways.
     On one hand, it won praise as its director's "first" film. On the other, it won play dates due to its slick, commercial appeal.
    Canada, unfortunately, has no established system in which young hopefuls can learn this very complex craft. There are few experienced hands willing to guide their efforts and, when necessary, correct their mistakes.
    Instead, we produce films like Flick [released in the U.S. as Dr. Frankenstein on Campus]. Underwritten in part by the federal government's Canadian Film Development Corporation, Flick is a Toronto-based retelling of the Frankenstein tale.
    The first all-Canadian effort to be made with CFDC funds, Flick benefits from massive pre-production publicity. Again, this is the story of a film that has everything going for it.
    Made at a cost of $235,000, Flick was produced by William Marshall, 30, and directed by Gilbert Taylor, 31, both Toronto ad men. Like locals Curnlck and Wilson, the Toronto pair candidly admit that their first film was designed as a money-maker, and that it is intended as a launching pad for further productions.
    Their executive producer was John F. Bassett, eldest heir to an entertainment and communications empire that includes a Toronto daily newspaper (The Telegram), a TV station (CFTO, the CTV network's Toronto flagship), Maple Leaf Gardens and the Toronto Argonauts football franchise.
    Scripted by former film critic and CBC freelancer David Cobb, the film stars veteran Canadian actors Robin Ward and Austin Willis. And yet, even with all these advantages, Telegram movie critic Clyde Gilmour was hard pressed to find anything good to say about his own boss's film.
    The Life and Times of Chester-Angus Ramsgood is neither an Easy Rider nor a Flick. Put into perspective, the fact that it was made at all is something of an achievement.    
    Curnick, who takes credit for the film's script, editing, direction and a portion of the photography, is a University of B.C. Education graduate and a former school teacher. Wilson, his producer, majored in English.
    Together they mustered all the resources necessary to put a film before their camera, including a cast that grew to 38 — many drawn from UBC's Music Society — a technical crew of eight, and the funds to pay for equipment, film stock, printing and processing.
    Their film centres on Chester-Angus Ramsgood (Robert Matson), a rangy lad with a severe case of affection for one Mary McPhee (Mary-Beth McGuffin), only daughter of an ultra-Scots Vancouver family.
    It's a relationship that remains lukewarm until the evening that Chester-Angus is overcome with sudden passion, and invades her room. Before the couple can manage anything rash, Mary's family — father, mother, two brothers and an aunt — arrive on the scene. Mother is irate, and Chester-Angus is banished forever.
    Moved by the depth of his anguish, his roommates Ray (played by Curnick), Morris (Ed Astley) and a cousin from the East (Judy Sommer) devise a plan. The trio will kidnap Mary's youngest brother, Roland (Michael Storgeoff), and arrange for Chester-Angus to rescue the wee laddie.
    The hero of their little melodrama, Chester-Angus will thus be restored to the good graces of clan McPhee, where he can resume his courtship of the winsome Mary.
    The course of comic crime can never run smoothly, and the film's highlight is a long crosstown chase, with the kidnappers in hot pursuit of their own stolen getaway car.
    In the production of his film Curnick has worn many hats. Unfortunately, the rapid switching from one to another prevents him from managing a really good fit for any of them. Like the Torontonians who made Flick, he prepared his script out of the desire to make a movie, rather than using the motion-picture medium as a vehicle for a specific, strongly-felt story.
    His screenplay consists of a simple idea, embellished and blown up to feature length. It advances in a series of semi-independent vignettes that involve its hero more as a concession to continuity than any development of the character.
    Ideally, the skits should form a pattern, contribute to the hero's story and give the film a forward momentum. Because most of them remain isolated, the audience learns very little about Ramsgood, his character, his friends or his circumstances.
    As a director, Curnick neglects to answer three vital questions: Who is Chester-Angus? What's he doing here, and why is he doing it?
    While filmgoers are struggling to fill in the potholes in his plot, they could just miss the best part of the picture — its cinematography. Curnick's best hat is the one he wore behind the camera.
    Much thought is apparent in his picture's photographic set-ups, and his obvious care in this department contributes to the feeling that this is a professional effort. Even the slickest camerawork can't make up for the shortcomings of his cast, though.
    Except for McGuffin, who radiates pure enjoyment from the screen, most of his performers look as if they would rather be someplace else. Many are posing rather than acting, and the effect is not so much comic as catatonic.
    In the final analysis, The Life and Times of Chester-Angus Ramsgood is no worse than many other items that have made it into commercial release. All that remains is for Curnick and Wilson to find the right buyer.
     They are starting out in a tough, inbred business, one in which the best success stories are usually six parts myth to four parts publicity. Even so, big breaks sometimes happen.

     Last month [April, 1970] it happened for Toronto's Gordon Sheppard. The 33-year-old sold his first feature film script [Eliza's Horoscope] to Warner Brothers, and has been assigned the job of producing and directing the project.

     Sheppard has been slogging away at it for more than ten years. His documentary film credits include The Most (1963), an award-winning profile of Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner, Mr. Pearson (1964), the controversial "banned" profile of our last prime minister, and various CBC-TV assignments.
    "There's nothing unusual about my story," Sheppard said recently. "Just day-to-day slogging. I would never advise anyone to do this without determination and money.
    "I've borrowed money, put up everything I have to raise funds," he said. And yet, "I'm not in films to make money,  but I want to make money to make films.
     "There are lots of easier ways to make money.  If I put the same energy and brains into the stock market or into industry as I have into film, I would get rich a lot faster."
    Making movies in Canada can be a heart-breaking business. Amazingly, young talents such as Sheppard, Curnick and Wilson would rather be in it than any other. "I'm fascinated by film," says Sheppard, "because it's the moving finger writing; it is the great art form of our time."

The above is a restored version of a Vancouver Express review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1970. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Forty-five years on, the American-made Easy Rider is regarded by many American critics as one of the great films of the sound era. The Canadian-made Dr. Frankenstein on Campus is remembered by cult film buffs and marginal-movie mavens. Despite a (limited) theatrical release in 1971, The Life and Times of Chester-Angus Ramsgood is mostly forgotten. In her groundbreaking A Handbook of Canadian Film (1973), cultural historian Eleanor Beattie noted that David Curnick and Donald Wilson were among our "emerging filmmakers" based on their "comedy of youth and manners" (p. 205). In 2003, critic Gerald Pratley listed their picture in his A Century of Canadian Cinema anthology, judging the "minor sex comedy" to be "passable" (p. 125). What happened to the men in the years following their first collaboration is less well recorded. The generally reliable Internet Movie Database (IMDb) credits them with writing the story that was the basis for director Tom Drake's 1976 feature The Keeper. I know that's true because I interviewed The Keeper's star, Christopher Lee, in October, 1975, during its production. The IMDb also credits Curnick with directing two verifiable National Film Board of Canada short subjects: Summer Center (1973) and The Dig (1989). Therafter, the record becomes murky.
     The popular culture assures us that all things are to be found on the Internet, and the attractive young hacker who can retrieve obscure bits of personal information with a few keystrokes is a familiar character on countless TV shows. In reality, the Internet can offer up some pretty spectacular misinformation, as I discovered while doing a little superficial research on the actor Klinton Spilsbury.
I'm being extra cautious here because, in the attempt to bring Curnick's story up to date, I made a shocking discovery. In his 2005 book Pink Blood: Homophobic Violence in Canada, academic researcher Douglas Victor Janoff describes "the frenzied killing of David Curnick." According to Janoff, "In 1994, the fifty-year-old gay high school teacher was found dead in his Vancouver apartment, stabbed 146 times with his own kitchen knife. . . Curnick had had hundreds of sexual encounters and even secretly videotaped some of them" (p. 73). Nowhere in Janoff's account, or in other online references to the murder, was there any mention of the dead man having made motion pictures professionally. The stabbing victim's age (50) was about right for the David Curnick (25) that I interviewed in late April,1970. Janoff's information was also consistent with reports published at the time in Vancouver's daily newspapers. On February 11, 1994, The Province's Greg Middleton noted that "Curnick was found stabbed to death in his Ontario Street home Jan. 31," adding such details as "He had a passion for Robin Hood, collected films about the character and had a room devoted to the hero of Sherwood Forest." None of the newspaper items on the police investigation mentioned murder-victim Curnick being involved in the film industry. So, we are left with the question: one or two David Curnicks? It's a mystery that I've not been able to resolve in time for this posting.