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Christmas Days at the Billwillers

Billwiller_1953

John Billwiller with his Junior Carpenter set, 1953. (Digital frame grab)

Christmas with the Billwillers (home movies from 1946-1953)

Via this post by guest blogger Chantaal Ryane of the Royal BC Museum, we can visit with the Billwiller family of Britannia Beach, BC, and enjoy a privileged view into several Christmases from 1946 to 1953. (And just look at all the toys that John got!)

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“The Great Toy Robbery” (NFB, 1963)

A much-loved NFB cartoon from my childhood, The Great Toy Robbery is fifty-five years old this year.  I remember watching for it in the Friday afternoon film shows at St. Joseph’s Elementary in Kelowna.  Unlike some Film Board films from that era, which can sometimes seem pretty creaky when viewed today, this one stands up wonderfully, as if it were made last year.

Some of the other NFB shorts I remember from those Friday shows include animations like Norman McLaren’s Neighbours (1952) and Rhythmetic (1956); documentaries like Arctic Outpost (1960) and The Water Dwellers (1963), which looked at daily life in isolated communities; and mini-dramas like The Chairmaker and the Boys (1959).  Of course, I was already a big fan of the Hollywood movies — John Wayne, sci-fi, and Disney — but the NFB films were different.  They opened doors onto many places, both far away and closer to home.

greattoyrobbery3

Scene from “The Great Toy Robbery” (NFB, 1963)

 

Valhalla Patrol (1959)

Here’s a seasonally-appropriate snowy adventure, filmed high in the West Kootenays!

In this clip from Valhalla Patrol, a 1959 BC Power Commission film, workers patrol an essential power line crossing the snow-covered mountains between Lower Arrow Lake and Slocan Lake. These excerpts show the crew traveling in a Sno-Cat over-snow vehicle from the 1,500-foot level to the 6,750-foot summit of the power line.

“The Best Surviving Copy”: Preserving BC’s Filmed History

This edited video clip from Out of the Shadows (BC Archives AAAA2523) shows how two separate video transfers have been combined to create the best possible version of the film’s opening sequence. At 0:27, the video transitions from the poorer, more complete VHS transfer to the better quality 1-inch master. At 1:43, a single word of the narration and its accompanying video, which were missing from the master, have been inserted from the VHS copy.

These comments are from my introductory talk at the National Canadian Film Day 150 screening at the Royal BC Museum, April 19, 2017.  The screening featured five documentaries from the BC Archives collection, made in the years 1941-1959.

In the world of motion picture preservation, major archives that labour to preserve and restore feature films usually work with the original 35 mm negatives; the results can be quite remarkable, and a pleasure to look at.  Institutions like the BC Archives, on the other hand, have a mandate to preserve what are sometimes called “ephemeral films” — documentaries, travelogues, TV news footage, and industrial, promotional, or educational films.  Far too often, the original 16 mm printing materials for these films no longer exist.  Many films about British Columbia survive today only as circulated released prints, which have been projected many times, and show obvious signs of wear and damage.

I’m reminded of “The Film Prayer”, which for many years used to show up on a card or sticker in every can of circulating film.

Many films that had cause to offer this prayer have ended up at the BC Archives, which has endeavored to preserve the best (sometimes the only) surviving copy.  The interesting and unique content of these films still captures our attention today, despite the limitations of the extant prints.

Valhalla Patrol: The uniform of the day.

This program features four BC films which have survived in this form.  These circulated prints were transferred to analog videotape in the 1980s, and the tape masters were recently digitized for better access.  The fifth film only ever existed as a spliced original picture reel, which was fully restored by the BC Archives for National Film Week in 1986. (It was digitized from a video master of the 1986 restoration.)

All of these films date from the 1940s and 1950s.  They are postcards from a long-lost world when some BC cities were ostentatiously British, or perhaps draped in film noir shadows; when narrators often spoke in “purple prose”; when men went everywhere dressed in plaid shirts (often topped with Cowichan sweaters); and when almost everybody wore a hat.  They offer a priceless look at how we saw ourselves, back in the middle of the 20th century.

Vancouver Island : British Columbia’s Island Playground
BC Government Travel Bureau, Photographic Branch, 1941-42
21 minutes, colour
The first colour-and-sound travelogue produced in-house by the BC government. The BC Archives holds the only known copy of  the 1941-42 version, donated in 1979 by a private citizen. The original reversal printing elements of this version were later re-cut to create the 1951 and 1956-57 versions, both of which bore the same title.
Digital frame grab from BC Archives AAAA3013.

Out of the Shadows
Lew Parry Film Productions, 1957, for the Salvation Army Harbour Light Corps
27 minutes, b&w
A poignant film about the daily life of a homeless alcoholic on the streets of Vancouver’s Skid Row, and his recovery through the aid of the Salvation Army.   To view more and read about the film, see my blog posts City of Shadows and A Path from the Shadows.
Digital frame grab from BC Archives AAAA2523.

Salmon for Food
Vancouver Motion Pictures Ltd., [ca. 1945], for BC Packers Ltd.
16 minutes, colour
A commercial short about the BC salmon industry, with unique glimpses of working conditions for female cannery workers.
Digital frame grab from BC Archives AAAA2669.


Valhalla
Patrol
BC Power Commission, Public Information Division, [ca. 1959]
14 minutes, colour
Electrical utility workers patrol an essential power line high in the snow-covered mountains between the Arrow Lakes and Slocan Lake in the West Kootenays. These edited excerpts show the workers traveling in a Sno-Cat over-snow vehicle to the 6,750-foot summit of the line.
Digital frame grab from BC Archives AAAA2987.

In the Daytime : [1986 restored version]
Stanley Fox & Peter Varley, 1949-50
22 minutes, b&w
An impressionistic documentary showing people on a summer day off in Vancouver, made by two talented amateurs on a budget of sixty dollars.  The sound editing and film lab work necessary for the 1986 restoration cost $2,500, funded through a grant from the BC Heritage Trust. (It would probably cost three or four times that today.) The museum’s Learning Pathway on amateur filmmaking includes an excerpt, showing activities in Stanley Park.
Photographic frame enlargement from BC Archives AAAA1518.

City of Shadows (Vancouver, 1957)

This video clip comprises excerpts from Out of the Shadows, produced for the Salvation Army in 1957 by Lew Parry Film Productions.  The film depicts the experiences of a homeless alcoholic on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, and his eventual reintegration into society through the services of the Harbour Light Corps.[1]

These excerpts, edited from the first half of the film, show the man’s day-to-day existence on the streets of Skid Row – loitering, panhandling, drinking non-potable alcohol, sleeping rough, and finally passing out in an alley.  The second half shows his growing awareness of his condition, his struggle to give up alcohol and regain his self-respect, his acceptance of help from the Harbour Light, and his newfound faith.

Out of the Shadows has several remarkable elements.

  • The unnamed central character is not played by an actor, but is an actual recovered alcoholic, re-enacting scenes from his own life.[2] Seen first in his new job as a commissionaire at Vancouver Airport, he then recalls his story in an extended flashback.[3]
  • The first-person narration, written by journalist Reginald M. Dagg and spoken by (uncredited) Vancouver actor Walter Marsh, is dramatic and compassionate, yet entirely believable as coming from the subject himself.
  • The film was shot on location in the streets of Vancouver, stressing the seamier aspect of the city.
  • The black-and-white cinematography, mainly using available light, emphasizes darkness and shadow. In one scene, a handheld camera is used to provide a subjective view of the protagonist’s staggering drunkenness.  Strangely, no cinematographer is named in the credits.

Many of the above elements – the use of flashbacks, first-person narration, location shooting, an urban setting, and of course black-and-white film – are also key characteristics of film noir, the cycle of darkly poetic crime dramas made in America during the 1940s and 1950s.[4]  Were producer Lew Parry, director Bert Pullinger, and writer Reg Dagg consciously influenced by film noir?  That might be overstating the case.  Nevertheless, it’s quite true that Out of the Shadows is markedly different from any other film that Parry produced.  His legacy as BC’s most prolific filmmaker rests on 30 years of sponsored industrial films – competently made, straightforward, and mostly impersonal.  And Bert Pullinger made so many films for the BC forest industry that Parry dubbed him “Cecil B. DeSawmille.”

Chilliwack Progress, 19 November 1958, p. 8

Chilliwack Progress, 19 November 1958, p. 8

Out of the Shadows probably owes much to another Vancouver film:  the CBC documentary Skidrow, directed by Allan King and written by Ben Maartman, which was broadcast nationally in early 1957.  It shares the setting of Shadows, and many of the same cinematic qualities – as well as its insight and compassion – and is one of the best Canadian films of its time.  But Skidrow is also unremittingly bleak, and its third-person narration allows us to stand outside the lives of its derelict subjects, who are portrayed as men utterly without hope.  The Salvation Army’s presence is presented as charitable and well-meaning, but largely ineffectual.

The subject matter was not a popular choice, either.  When Skidrow was submitted to the Prix Italia broadcast film competition, a small-minded editorial in the Vancouver Sun questioned whether “Canadian cultural interests require CBC to show this city to Europe as a collection of drunks sleeping in doorways.”[5]  However, the stark realities of life on the Downtown Eastside have often captured the attention of writers and artists.  Malcolm Lowry described the area memorably in a powerful poem, written just after the Second World War:

Beneath the Malebolge lies Hastings Street,
The province of the pimp upon his beat,
Where each in his little world of drugs or crime
Drifts hopelessly, or hopeful, begs a dime
Wherewith to purchase half a pint of piss –
Although he will be cheated, even in this. [6]

Shadows, on the other hand, offers the hope of recovery and self-redemption, and demonstrates through example that they are possible.  This important difference is no doubt due to the fact that the Salvation Army wanted to use the film as a promotional and fund-raising tool.  In place of the unwavering documentary eye of Skidrow and Lowry’s poem, Out of the Shadows maps a narrow path out of its urban Hell.  I follow that path in another post with a look at the film’s second half.

Shadows_still_1_edit

Out of the Shadows: “Yeah, this was me. I was this man. Empty. Bleary-eyed. I was a bum, a drunk.” (Digital frame grab from BC Archives V1987:18/004.01)

==============

[1]       The usage of “Downtown Eastside” to denote the blighted Vancouver neighbourhood centred on Main and Hastings seems to date from the early 1970s.  In earlier decades, the area was known as the city’s “Skid Road” or “Skid Row”.  The social problems connoted by that label began prior to Prohibition, and were exacerbated by the Great Depression, the Japanese-Canadian internment, and many other factors.  See “Downtown Eastside” and “Skid row: Vancouver” in Wikipedia; retrieved 8 January 2017.

[2]       [Newspaper reference from BC Filmography Project files.]

[3]      The opening sequence at the airport, which is badly damaged in the BC Archives’ print, has not been included in the video clip.

[4]      The heyday of film noir is generally seen as being bookended by John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958).

[5]       Vancouver Sun, 9 August 1957, p. 4.

[6]       Malcolm Lowry, “Christ Walks in This Infernal District Too,” Selected Poems of Malcolm Lowry, ed. Earle Birney, Pocket Poets no. 17 (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1962), p. 64.  “The Malebodge” is a reference to Dante’s Inferno, where it is the name given to the eighth and penultimate circle of Hell.

A Path from the Shadows (Vancouver, 1957)

My  blog post “City of Shadows” featured excerpts from the first part of Out of the Shadows, a film made for the Salvation Army in 1957 by Lew Parry Film Productions.  That section showed, with devastating frankness, the day-to-day experiences of a homeless alcoholic on Vancouver’s Skid Row.

My comments considered the film’s stylistic similarities to the film noir canon. I contrasted it with the other films made by BC producer Lew Parry, which were mainly industrial and promotional in character.  I also discussed a closely related film that was made a year earlier — Allan King’s CBC Vancouver documentary Skidrow.

This week I’m looking at the second part of Shadows, which depicts (with equal frankness) the protagonist’s eventual reintegration into society.  In this regard, it is quite different from the CBC film.

The previous clip from Shadows ended with the man passing out in an alley, where he is found by the police.  We pick up the story the next morning, in a continuing flashback: he wakes up in jail and discovers that he has lost more than he realized. As he says, “This time it was different.”  In ensuing scenes, we’re shown his growing awareness of his condition, his acceptance of help from the Harbour Light Corps, his efforts to regain his confidence and self-respect, and his newfound faith.

As its title indicates, Out of the Shadows offers the hope of recovery.  It does so in a non-judgmental way, offering understanding and compassion to the men of the Skid Road. The tone is not overtly “preachy”, and the steps our hero takes are practical ones, supported by his religious beliefs.

This part of the film has several memorable scenes.  The protagonist’s realization that he has “really hit bottom” is captured in eloquent close-ups.  His restless wandering on the city streets is depicted in a very evocative manner.  His two encounters with the pump organ, showing music as something that has left him, “along with everything else” — but which can ultimately be regained — provide a powerful metaphor for his condition.  The narrator’s simple statement, “And this was my room,” underscores a poignant scene handled with restraint.  The sudden appearance of “temptation” (a proffered drink of rubbing alcohol), and the decision to walk away from it, give the story its quiet climax.

I’ll just point out that the video clip presented here has been edited to condense this part of the film to a reasonable length.  In addition, the closing scene that frames the central flashback has been omitted.  However, a reference copy made from the (almost) complete surviving print can be viewed in the BC Archives reference room.

Out of the Shadows: “As I walked out of the shadows, the sun was warm and friendly on my back.” (Digital frame grab from BC Archives V1987:18/004.01)

Building a Cozy Home for Your Brood Hen (Saanich, 1930s)

The BC Archives holds several 16 mm films shot by the provincial Department of Agriculture in the the 1920s and 1930s. Among them is a reel of unedited footage on the activities of Boys’ and Girls’ Agricultural Clubs, mainly filmed on the Saanich Peninsula. In 2011, it was one of several short films transferred to video for better access, through generous funding from the Friends of the BC Archives.

Since the original footage is not edited into any structure, and lacks explanatory inter-titles, it appears to be from a film that the department shot but did not complete. One interesting section shows children at a rural school receiving packages of eggs for hatching, and a young girl preparing a brood box for a hen selected to do the job. This section exists in its raw form, with the individual shots out of sequence. Using a digital video file made from the VHS reference copy, I have trimmed and edited the shots into what I believe was its intended form.

 

A Boys’ and Girls’ Poultry Club at a rural school on the Saanich Peninsula, 1930s. (Digital frame grab from BC Archives V2012:01/001.02.)

 

A girl from a Boy’s and Girls’ Poultry Club moves her brood hen to new quarters; Saanich Peninsula, 1930s. (Digital frame grab from BC Archives V2012:01/001.02.)

Sunday Afternoon at the Film Society (Vancouver, 1940)

This home movie records a Sunday afternoon film screening at the Stanley Theatre on Granville Street in Vancouver on April 14, 1940.  The occasion was the ninth screening of the fourth season of the National Film Society of Canada, Vancouver Branch.  The footage was shot by Oscar C. Burritt and Milt Holden, two members of the society.

The Vancouver Branch of the NFSC, founded in 1936, provided Vancouverites with a precious window into non-mainstream cinema — classic silent movies, foreign films, and documentary and experimental works.  Shortly after the 1940 screening shown here, the society ceased operations for the duration of the Second World War.  In 1946, under the leadership of Dorothy Burritt (nee Fowler), Moira Armour, Vernon Van Sickle, and painter Jack Shadbolt, the screenings resumed and attracted a new generation of film lovers.  One of these was the 18-year-old Stanley Fox, whose fascination with film inspired him to make his own amateur films, and led him to a successful career in film and television.

In later years, the Vancouver Branch of the NFSC became The Vancouver Film Society, which operated until the mid-1970s.

Here’s a guide to the contents of this unusual film document:

0:07 – Brief shots of the program booklet for the screening.

0:20 – Exterior views of the Stanley Theatre and Granville Street as people arrive for the afternoon screening.

1:41 – The camera moves inside the theatre auditorium, and we see glimpses from two 1939 documentaries:

  • Finland Speaks, which depicts that country before and during the Russian invasion.
  • The Londoners, on the work of the London County Council, founded in 1886. This film was directed by John Taylor and produced by John Grierson for the Realist Film Unit and the London Commercial Gas Association.  By the time of this screening, documentary theorist Grierson had founded and was leading the National Film Board of Canada in its important wartime information work.

3:10 – Intermission.  Audience members move out into the lobby or out onto Granville Street for a chat and a smoke.

4:12 – Oscar C. Burritt, who shot most of this film, shows up in front of the camera — a balding genial individual who mugs for our benefit outside the theatre.

4:41 – Back in the theatre for the feature presentation:

  • Vi Tva (1939), a romantic drama from Sweden.

4:54 – The rather surprising title flashed on the screen briefly is Swedish for “The End”.

4:58 – The audience leaves the theatre and exits onto Granville Street in the late afternoon light, climbing into their cars or walking away.

This film is part of PR-1780, the Oscar and Dorothy Burritt fonds.  For more information about the Burritts, see my previous blog post Chinese opera scenes (Vancouver, 1944)

 

Dorothy Burritt and Moira Armour light up during intermission at the Stanley Theatre, April 14, 1940. (Digital frame grab from BC Archives V1989:05/002.02 item #2)

Film Society mavens Dorothy Fowler and Moira Armour light up in the Stanley Theatre lobby during intermission, April 14, 1940. Dorothy later married Oscar Burritt, an amateur filmmaker who later worked professionally for Vancouver Motion Pictures and CBC Television. (Digital frame grab from BC Archives V1989:05/002.02 item #2)