People who bemoan the state of Canadian film, when compared with the media juggernaut that is the American film industry, would do well to watch Popcorn With Maple Syrup: Film In
Canada From Eh To Zed, a clever and entertaining 2004 documentary that is still timely. It goes a long way to dispel what at times seems like an inherent Canadian sense of inferiority when it comes to the quality of our film heritage.
It was put together from an amazing collection of archival material and interviews by veteran Winnipeg-born director Peter Rowe. He’s most noted for his TV series Angry Planet, which portrays forces of nature such as hurricanes and wildfires worldwide, and is viewed in ten different international markets.
Rowe goes through the alphabet and highlights notable Canadian firsts in film, ranging from the Allan Brothers’ pioneering Ontario drive-in cinema, to award-winning Inuit director Zacharias Kunuk, of Atanarjuat, The Fast Runner fame.
Who knew, for instance, that the world’s first multiplex cinema was Ottawa’s Elgin Theatre? Or that the first international film celebrity was a Canadian?
She was Florence Lawrence, a Hamilton-born silent film actress who achieved fame as “The Biograph Girl” after her first movie role in 1906, and subsequently earned millions for the pioneering Biograph Studios film empire. Lawrence went on to star in more than 270 films, but committed suicide in 1938 at age 52.
Indeed, many of the giants of the American film studios got their start in Canada. Louis B. Mayer, the Russian-born film magnate who parlayed MGM Studios into the most successful and profitable film studio in the world, moved to Hollywood from Saint John, New Brunswick.
Jack Warner, the son of Russian-Jewish emigres, was born in London, Ontario, and went on to become the co-founder of Warner Brothers Films, where he helped to develop the technology for the first sound film, 1927’s The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson.
Mary Pickford, who achieved fame as “America’s Sweetheart” in the silents era, and who was one of the founders of United Artists, was actually born on University Avenue in Toronto. Her birthplace is now the site of the city’s Sick Childrens’ Hospital, and at 2nd ever Academy Awards in 1930 she became the first of three Canadian actresses in a row to win Best Actress Oscars. She was succeeded later that year by Montreal–born Norma Shearer, and in 1931 by Cobourg, Ontario–born Marie Dressler, a feat unparalleled to this day.
Other Canadian firsts include probably the film world’s first nude scene, as portrayed by Victoria–born Nell Shipman, in the 1919 silent Back To God’s Country, the most successful silent film in Canadian history.
Not to be neglected in Popcorn With Maple Syrup’s enumeration of Canadian distinctions is the development of IMAX. The spectacular large-screen technology was first demonstrated in Osaka, Japan at Expo ’70, and as of 2013 there were 837 IMAX cinemas in 52 countries worldwide.
Rowe’s film concludes with a segment edited by Whitehorse filmmaker and Yukon College communications director Michael Vernon. The Dawson film find was first unearthed in a filled-in swimming pool in Dawson City in 1978. It consisted of hundreds of cans of newsreels and feature films made from 1904 to 1920, which had been preserved in the permafrost conditions. The find included many previously-lost testaments to early film history, and is one of the most notable collections of its kind.
Popcorn With Maple Syrup is available on loan from the Yukon Film Society’s collection of more than 500 feature films and documentaries.