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No. 12

Western Settlement and Steam Movies

by Sam Kula


Trains, the dominant mode of transportation at the turn of the century, held an irresistible fascination for film-makers from the moment cinematograpry made its appearance. Second only to horse-drawn fire engines, perhaps, in their mass appeal -- the sheer visual sensation of power harnessed for communal ends -- trains featured prominently in the earliest non-fiction film presentations. All audiences, whether urban or rural, responded positively to images of the massive technology -- made to appear even more massive by carefully selected camera angles  -  that was unifying Canada as it opened up the last frontiers.

The immediate drawing power of the new medium of film, whether actuality or fiction, across international borders and with audiences that were largely illiterate, was not lost on those who had a message to convey. Foremost among these were the land agents of the Canadian government and the Canadian Pacific Railway, who saw in motion pictures a means of illustrating the riches of the "last frontier," western Canada, in a way that far surpassed the lantern slide shows they had been using.


An example of the handbills used to promote the British tour of James Freer in 1899

James Freer, who began shooting scenes of Manitoba farm life in 1897, and who was being sponsored on tours of Britain by William Van Horne as early as April 1898, was a pioneer in every sense of the word. None of his films appear to have survived, but his promotional literature indicates the eclectic nature of his offerings, part hard sell and part general-interest subjects to attract the audience. Entitled "Ten years in Manitoba -- 25,000 instantaneous photos upon half-a-mile of Edison films," a typical Freer "cinematograph lecture" included Arrival of CPR Express at Winnipeg, Harnessing the Virgin Prairie, Harvesting Scene with Trains Passing and Winnipeg Fire Boys on the Warpath. The first tour was evidently considered both a popular and a commercial success, though its immediate impact on emigration figures cannot be calculated. In 1901 Clifford Sifton, then minister of the Interior, agreed to sponsor a second one "under the auspices of the Canadian Government." This 1902 tour, using the same program of films, was less successful than the first, and neither the CPR nor the federal government was prepared to sponsor a third.

It may have been the quality of Freer's films or the fact that he was playing to much the same audiences the second time around that accounted for the failure. At any rate the CPR turned to a British producer, Charles Urban, commissioning him to do a set of films depicting Canadian life. What may well have been the deciding factor was that Urban, through his Charles Urban Trading Company, was in a position to guarantee distribution of the films throughout Britain as popular theatrical exhibitions. Since Britain was the prime target for immigrant land schemes, this assurance of exposure was an important inducement to abandon Canadian producers in favour of foreign ones, a situation that was to inhibit the development of a Canadian film industry for the next fifty years.

To carry out his commission, Urban set up the Bioscope Company of Canada and recruited a team of cameramen and technicians that included Joe Rosenthal, perhaps the most celebrated cameraman of his day after his exploits filming the Boer War. With the assistance of Kerr, the CPR's general passenger agent, and Armstrong, the line's colonization agent, the company was equipped with a flatcar pushed by an engine, and the production team set out in the early fall of 1902 on a route that would take it to every tourist spot and colonization area reachable by rail from Quebec to Victoria.

One member of the team, Clifford Denham, has reported that Bioscope received strict instructions to avoid snow scenes, but if that was the CPR's intention the company must have been trying to censor blizzards and blockages of the line rather than persuade potential immigrants that Canada had no winter. The Urban Catalog of 1904 in fact lists such titles as Montreal on Skates and Ice Yachting on the St. Lawrence, filmed by Joe Rosenthal. Urban's series of thirty-five films was called "Living Canada," and by all accounts was very well received in the intended market. The films were so successful, it seems, that they were also shown in eastern Canada as an inducement to travel west for pleasure or settlement. Alas, none of the Bioscope Company's initial efforts appear to have survived. Urban's success for the CPR led to other contracts in Canada, including one with British Columbia in 1908 for the purpose "of making known the advantages and resources of British Columbia to the outside world." According to reviewers of the day, the films were rather prosaic "industrials" that portrayed mining and lumbering operations, and they met with diminishing success.

The novelty value of moving images disappeared rapidly as more and more of the potential viewers in Europe and America came into regular contact with nickelodeons and the more opulent and permanent film theatres that replaced them. The rather primitive actualities used by the land agents could no longer hold an audience. Edwin S. Porter (Great Train Robbery) and his successors in the narrative tradition were enticing people with comedies and dramas that promised laughter and thrills -- in a word, entertainment. Whatever enlightenment they gave was decidedly secondary, although, as we are now aware, the instruction that occurred as a subtext in all these entertainments had a substantial, if immeasurable, social and political impact.

Once more displaying a willingness to exploit new developments in communications to achieve its objective, the CPR resumed its involvement with motion pictures in 1910. This time a series of dramas was to be commissioned, and the contract was awarded to the Edison Company of New York, a pioneer company and arguably the best equipped and financed to ensure worldwide distribution of finished films at that time. J.S. Dennis, head of the Canadian Pacific Irrigation and Colonization Company, a CPR subsidiary, supervised the contract.