Hollywood’s Canada

by Joyce Nelson

from Jump Cut, no. 12/13, 1976, p. 69
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1976, 2004

Pierre Berton, Hollywood’s Canada: The Americanization of Our National Image (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 1975). 303 Pages. $13.95.

In Canada the name Pierre Berton is a household word. Indeed, he is almost a cultural institution: popular television personality, author of at least 21 books—most of them about Canadian historical subjects, the source, inspiration and advisor for the most popular television dramatic series in CBC history—“The National Dream,” an epic “ficumentary” of the politicians, intrigues, heroics, scandals and laborious toil involved in the laying of the great railway across this vast country.

This latest book by Mr. Berton has lots of interesting information about the nearly 600 films which Hollywood made about (or with passing reference to) Canada since 1907. It also has lots of interesting information about all the mis-information in those films—the completely distorted geography, the inaccurate costuming, the stupid and insulting stereotypes of French Canadians, Indians, Mounties, women, and a completely jumbled and/or totally wrong sense of Canadian historical events, mythology, landscape, frontier, character, even climate. Hollywood’s Canada is fascinating to read because it helps us understand some of the ways in which “classical narrative cinema” mystifies, obscures, engulfs and attempts to destroy the other in its ruthless expropriation of narrative modes. As well, the book is interesting evidence of the profound necessity and right of any culturally dominated people to take back their own fictions, to tell their own myths and histories, to excavate their buried ancestry, and to repossess their own imaginations.

Even so, I couldn't help feeling somewhat impatient with Berton’s book. I suppose I wanted him to be angrier, more militant, than he is. Perhaps I hoped that, for the purposes of this book, Pierre Berton would be the Frantz Fanon of Canada. The material he’s working with here is potentially a scandalous expose—the story of how the Hollywood empire virtually monopolized Canada’s motion picture industry after World War I, taking over production, distribution and exhibition to such an extent that this people has been literally denied its own film narrative tradition. The historical documentation of this ongoing scandal is being done by such Canadian writers as Peter Morris, but Berton—whose popularity is insured on the book marketplace—could have reached so many more people with this story, had he chosen to emphasize it. Instead, Berton devotes his lively writing style to an evocation of all these films and their inaccuracies. Rather than inform his readership about how Hollywood came to make all these films in the first place—a story as intriguing as the laying of a railway—Berton attempts to correct all the factual errors in Hollywood’s Canada.

Of course, through Berton’s lively style this material is funny and fun to read. Celluloid Canada is high lunacy for those who either know the reality or care to learn from Berton’s detailed corrections of the films. The recurring stereotypes include high-minded “get-your-man” Mounties, inaccurately costumed and thundering on their steeds across totally misplaced mountains; and the inevitable hot-blooded French Canadian-grizzled, touqued and lusting after any and all white women. There are also hostile Indian tribes patterned after some simplistic standard of redskin-signifiers appear in a forest primeval: a vast, hostile, isolating, un-urbanized landscape of perpetual snow, covering rich natural resources and uninhabited, except for a few prospectors (American), Mounties (Canadian), exiles (American) and primitives (Canadian).

The cumulative effect of all the inaccuracies and ridiculous distortions Berton cites in his humorous style could finally be, I suspect, a mild-mannered response in the reader: Dear old Hollywood, how could you be so wrong and make such silly movies! At times, however, a latent sense of rage does partially surface, especially when Berton attempts to right the damage done to groups of people:

Canadian Indians have been atrociously libeled by the American motion picture industry. The nation that suffered most at the hands of the screenwriters was the great Blackfoot Confederacy of the western foothills... Throughout the history of Canadian-subject films, the Blackfoot were shown as vicious savages... All of this is historical twaddle. The Plains Indians in general and the Blackfoot in particular did not torture white men or burn anybody at the stake. It was not part of their culture. Nor did they attack wagon trains, sack settlers’ cabins, or do battle with the mounted police. The Blackfoot, under their great chief, Crowfoot, were the most peaceful of all the Plains Indians.” (p. 104-5)

He is particularly informative about the historical differences between Canada’s frontier and that of the USA:

What Hollywood did for over half a century was to superimpose its vision of the old west, itself a mythological anachronism, onto the Canadian northwest. Hard-riding posses, men in cowboy outfits, necktie parties, covered wagons, painted injuns, boot hills, vigilantes, and even tin stars were moved across the border with scarcely a change in the plot except for the presence of the movie Mounties, who all too often acted like American town marshals. It didn't occur to Hollywood and it didn't occur to Canadian audiences, either, that the Canadian concept of order imposed from above clashed with the American idea of rough frontier justice administered at the grass roots level by the people’s choices. Nor did the moviemakers understand that in Canada the law arrived before the settlers did, in direct contrast to the American experience. Although Hollywood exaggerated American frontier violence, the western society south of the border was demonstrably less stable than its Canadian counterpart. Shootings on the Canadian frontier were almost unknown .... (T)here is a difference between the American and the Canadian approach to frontier problems.” (205-6)

At least one reviewer has faulted Berton’s book for “obsession with facts—the dreaded documentary tradition—that keeps us in the ghetto of provincial life.” Reading Hollywood’s Canada, with its insistence upon getting factual details right, correcting distortions, explaining such seemingly trivial details as the proper shape for Mounties’ hats, I was reminded of a somewhat similar impulse within the feminist movement. We also have the necessity for a clearing away of stereotypes and distortions, the writing of previously mute histories, alongside the creation of an oppressed people’s own fiction.

In this sense, Berton’s book is somewhat surprising for what it leaves unsaid. He argues that the films made about Canada by Hollywood

have given the world no real image of Canada at all, except that of a geographical absurdity—a vast, empty snow swept land of mountains and pine trees.”

But he never raises the question about who might profit from such an image. The portrait of Canada perpetrated by Hollywood is the perfect one to both justify and encourage continuing imperialist exploitation. Canada is a vast, un-urbanized landscape of perpetual snow which covers rich natural resources and is virtually uninhabited save for a few prospectors, Mounties, exiles and primitives. Nobody seems to have really settled “God’s Country,” so it’s there for the taking. (And by the way, as recently as 1971, over 90% of the industries in Canada were/are foreign owned.)

Buried beneath Berton’s lively text are more somber notes for the history of how Canada came to be the only country in the world which permits unimpeded entry of U.S. films (no quota) and unimpeded export of their revenues (no levy). That history is now being unearthed by scholars like Peter Morris, Piers Handling, Barbara Sears (who did the research for Hollywood’s Canada) and Peter Harcourt, among others. Like European countries during and after World War I, Canada and its nascent film industry suffered economically while Hollywood gained incomparably. Moguls like Adolph Zukor, William Fox and Marcus Lowe with the help of massive bank loans gained the advantage by either buying or destroying whatever they did not control. Of course the small independent producer, distributor, and exhibitor didn't have a chance in the face of such power.

And in terms of Canadian film history, Adolph Zukor gained control through his Famous Players Canadian Corporation. As Peter Morris writes:

Since he controlled a production company and a distribution company, films made by Zukor production companies would be released by Zukor distributors to Zukor theaters. This vertical nexus of producer-distributor-exhibitor created a model on which the international success of Hollywood was based. In Canada, Famous Players Canadian Corporation under its managing director N.L. Nathanson had first acquired the Allen theater chain and then embarked through the twenties on a major program of theater acquisition and building. By the late twenties, it controlled first-run theaters in all major cities.” (From a yet unpublished manuscript)

When Britain passed the Cinematograph Films Act in 1927, requiring that an increasing percentage of all films rented for exhibition in British theaters be of British origin, any films produced in the Empire qualified, provided that 75% of the salaries be paid to British subjects. According to Peter Morris’ research:

Hollywood producers would need to be sure that there were enough British or Empire films available in Britain in order to get their own films shown. An easy way of doing this was to back financially the establishment of a registered Canadian film company, import enough British-born Hollywood actors and technicians to satisfy the quota, produce a feature film as cheaply and quickly as possible and ship it off to London for showing....Many “quota quickies” were, of course, produced in Britain itself. Few were of good quality but they were produced by British companies and at least provided economic support for the industry and those who worked in it. The same was true in Australia. Only Canada allowed itself to be exploited without protest by Hollywood for the production of quota quickies.” (Peter Morris)

These quota quickies comprise part of the material for Berton’s book. The post-World War II years, when European film industries blossomed through a variety of restrictions on Hollywood’s lucrative impulses, were no more favorable to Canada, still victimized by Hollywood’s powerful lobby against government restriction. Berton provides some useful information about the “great Canadian Co-Operation Project”—a scandalous creation whose birth was by no means painful for its Hollywood parents and whose arrival successfully aborted the possibility of a Canadian film industry yet again. Obviously opposed to any thought of quotas or levies being instituted in Canada to contribute to the growth of a Canadian film industry, Hollywood’s lobbyists offered an ingenious alternative:

(R)ather than leave money in the country, why not attract more American dollars to the country in the form of tourist travel? What they promised to do was to increase Canadian publicity in the United States by means of the notion picture; and that was all they promised. They would make a special documentary explaining the dollar deficit. They would try to get more newsreel coverage. They would try to get more short subjects about Canada released in American theaters. They would look at NFB films to see if they were suitable for US release. They would make an effort to insert various Canadian references into Hollywood features.” (pp. 171-2)

Those Hollywood features containing inserts of various Canadian references are another part of Berton’s material. What the Canadian Co-Operation Project did was to effectively prevent a quota system, thwart the possibility of a truly Canadian motion picture industry arising during the postwar boom, and continue the drain of money out of the country and into the bank accounts of Hollywood movie companies.

Today, Canada is the top foreign market for Hollywood films. In fact, Canada is a prime example of how the Hollywood monopoly works beyond U.S. borders. Although the antitrust rulings in 1948 somewhat altered the distribution-exhibition system within the USA, they permitted monopoly practices to be carried on abroad. Sandra Gathercole, Chairperson of the Council of Canadian Filmmakers, has cogently summarized the current situation:

In Canada, the largest theater chain—Famous Players—is owned by the same parent corporation—Gulf & Western—as one of the major U.S. producers and distributors—Paramount Pictures .... Film exhibition throughout Canada is controlled by two major theater chains, Famous Players and Odeon. Together these two chains own or control 427 theater screens, which include virtually all of the prime urban locations. ... Famous and Odeon operate in a closed circuit “family compact” with the seven major Hollywood producer-distributors (Universal, Paramount, United Artists, 20th Century Fox, Columbia, Warner Brothers). Operating a functional monopoly, they divide the Canadian market tidily between them. Screen time is guaranteed to the Hollywood product by the chains. In return, they are guaranteed the “blockbuster” films like JAWS along with the less popular successful films which are “tied-on” to the big name products.... In other words, there is a quota—guaranteed screen time—for Hollywood films in the majority of theaters in Canada. It works well. The system is efficient, effective and profitable ... for the foreign corporations .... In the last four years, the revenues taken out of Canada by the seven major distributors have increased 98.9% to $54.4 million in 1974.” (Criteria, February, 1976, pg. 3)

Meanwhile, the average budget that a Canadian feature filmmaker can scrape together is about $500,000—or, as director Don Shebib (GOIN’ DOWN THE ROAD, RIP-OFF, BETWEEN FRIENDS, SECOND WIND) says, enough to hang yourself. And what is proving to be almost more difficult is for Canadian filmmakers to get their films screened at all in the U.S.-controlled theaters of Canada. In that sense, within the Image-Biz it’s still Hollywood’s Canada.