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Summer 1920: The Picture Service

A hundred years ago, one of Canada’s first government film agencies was enjoying the first summer of its short life.

The British Columbia Patriotic and Educational Picture Service (PEPS), created by the BC government in April 1920, began releasing films on BC subjects that June. These were mainly films about the province’s resources and industries, as well as “scenics” (travelogues) and occasional entertainment shorts. They were largely the work of Vancouver cinematographer A.D. “Cowboy” Kean (1882-1961), the first British Columbian to make a living as a filmmaker.

The PEPS films were sent out to exhibitors, free of charge, for screening in the province’s movie houses. But there was a catch. Under the legislation creating the PEPS, all licensed movie theatres in BC were required to include the PEPS-issued films in every screening, up to a maximum of 15 minutes per show. The mandatory screening provision was controversial; audiences supposedly complained about the government films, and exhibitors pushed back against the requirement.

Some of the early PEPS pictures seem to have had technical quality issues, and the trade journal Canadian Moving Picture Digest [20 Sept. 1920, p. 40] claimed: “The BC government continues to wish its educational film on the long-suffering public. The film is good in every detail except photography, subtitles and editing.”

As time went on, however, it sounds like the films got better and more interesting; they certainly met with more acceptance from audiences. Kean spent July and August travelling all over southern BC to shoot new material for PEPS releases. At the end of August, the Vancouver Sun reported the pending release of three new films.

Vancouver Sun, 30 Aug. 1920, p. 5
Sun, 22 Aug. 1920, p. 16. Note cinematographer A. D. Kean in the lower left photo, with camera and packhorse.

The first film listed by the Sun showed members of the BC Mountaineering Club camping and climbing in the newly-created Garibaldi Park above Howe Sound. Billed as Glorious Garibaldi Park, it premiered at Vancouver’s Colonial Theatre on August 30 with a “Northern” adventure feature, The Valley of Doubt.

Sun, 29 Aug. 1920, p. 22

The second film, known as The Land of Wonders Review and Stanley Park, featured local dancers rehearsing in Stanley Park for an upcoming performance there. The dance pageant was directed by Mlle. Violet Belates-Barbes, who ran a dance school in Vancouver’s West End. Kean’s film, showing the park and the dancers, opened at the Allen Theatre on August 30, billed with a feature film called The Cost. The short proved so popular that it played there for two full weeks, even after the feature was replaced. The theatre manager reported that audience members had actually applauded a scene in Land of Wonders Review.

Vancouver Daily World, 7 Sept. 1920, p. 7
Sun, 29 Aug. 1920, p. 13

The third film showed the latest convocation of the University of British Columbia, along with the scenery and construction in progress at the new UBC site.

As with most of the pictures produced by PEPS, unfortunately, these films no longer exist. The picture service, which soon become mired in a political controversy, suffered budget cutbacks in early 1922, and essentially ceased production by mid-1923. The films were cut, re-edited, re-purposed–and eventually lost or destroyed.

Kean had begun making films in 1914, and some of the his pre-1920 efforts were picked up by PEPS for wider release. One notable example is an excellent documentary on whaling; he initially produced it in 1916, then augmented it with newly-shot footage each year until 1919. It is preserved today, in its PEPS version, as Whaling: British Columbia’s Least Known and Most Romantic Industry.

A. D. Kean’s unique film on BC whaling, shot 1916-19, was distributed by PEPS in the 1920s.

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“Arrow Lakes, B.C.: Veteran Steamer Ends Record Service” — the sternwheeler S.S. Minto (1954)

View Eye Witness No. 63 on the NFB.ca site

Eye Witness No. 63 (National Film Board of Canada, 1954):  This newsreel begins with a four-minute story on the final voyage of the Arrow Lakes sternwheeler Minto.  She is shown stopping at Robson West, Renata, and Halcyon Hot Springs.

“To School by Boat” — Pender Harbour, B.C. (1958)

View Off to School on the NFB.ca site

Off to School (NFB, 1958):  In the first item of this news magazine film, children from isolated fishing hamlets on BC’s Sunshine Coast travel to school via the Romany Chal, a sea-going school bus.  The stops shown include Pender Harbour and Whiskey Slough.

“Gateway to Asia” (NFB, 1945)

View Gateway to Asia on NFB.ca site (10 minutes)

An interesting documentary snapshot of British Columbia at the end of World War II, Gateway to Asia also includes a segment on the wartime internment of Japanese-Canadians, and the confiscation of their property.  The contributions of other Asian-Canadian groups are also mentioned.  In addition, there is good archival footage of Vancouver, Victoria, and various critical B.C. industries.  The stentorian tones of narrator Lorne Greene (later Pa Cartwright on TV’s Bonanza) help put the message across.

“This short film highlights the province of British Columbia and its position after World War II. Located on the Pacific Coast, it is the gateway for those travelling to Asia and Russia and a vital link between the rest of Canada and its neighbours in the Far East. The film looks at British Columbia’s population, natural resources and industries along with some of its social issues.” (NFB online description)

“The Water Dwellers” (NFB, 1963)

Still image from The Water Dwellers. (NFB photo)

View The Water Dwellers on the NFB.ca site

The Water Dwellers is another National Film Board documentary that I recall somewhat fondly from my childhood.  I remember that it played as the short subject when my parents took my brothers and me to a show at the Kelowna Drive-in Theatre.  (We were in the back seat, in our pyjamas, with blankets and pillows, just in case the movie was too long for us.)  I think the feature presentation was either How the West Was Won (with Jimmy Stewart and Debbie Reynolds) or Billy Rose’s Jumbo (with Jimmy Durante).  In any case, I remember this NFB short more clearly than that night’s feature.

Directed by pioneer Canadian filmmaker Gordon Sparling, Dwellers is a profile of the floating community in and around Simoom Sound on Gilford Island in the Central Coast region of British Columbia.  Most of the local homes and businesses in this resource community are built on floats, so that they can be moved easily from one moorage to another, following the needs of the local forest industry.   The film shows children traveling to school by motorboat; the arrival of the mail plane and the weekly freightboat (the M.V. Alaska Prince); and sawmill and logging operations, run by one or two people, respectively.  The longest sequence follows a forest ranger on the BC Forest Service vessel Nesika as it patrols the area, and shows the critical work of forest fire prevention and control.

As a child, I was fascinated to learn that people lived and worked in a floating village, and that boats were their cars and trucks.  The Water Dwellers is one in a fascinating group of NFB shorts from the mid-20th-century.  These productions moved away from the depiction of cities to explore small towns, rural communities,  and isolated settlements all over B.C. — especially on the coast and in the North.   These films are valuable today because they record a way of life that was (and is) gradually disappearing.

“Banshees Over Canada” (NFB, 1945)

Banshees_sirenSirens wail to signal an air raid drill in Vancouver.


The most interesting part of this wartime NFB documentary starts at 11:52 in the above clip, and deals with air-raid and civil defence preparations in Canada, focusing on the example of Vancouver.  The Vancouver segment (about 6 minutes long) includes footage of blackout precautions, the local ARP headquarters, the role of air raid wardens, emergency planning, first aid classes, warning sirens, air raid and gas drills, fire-fighting exercises, and RCAF defence aircraft.

Here’s the NFB’s on-line catalogue description of Banshees: “This newsreel documentary made during WWII was used to illustrate Britain’s preparations for an air attack. Scenes depict destruction wrought by enemy planes, the efficiency of retaliation by the Royal Air Force and the precautions taken in Canada against possible air attack.”

The B.C. footage was filmed by Vancouver Motion Pictures, a locally-owned production company that shot or produced a number of NFB titles during the 1940s. The Vancouver crew included director Ed Taylor and cinematographer Oscar Burritt (1908-1974).  Keen enthusiasts for the art of cinema, Oscar and his wife Dorothy (Fowler) Burritt were very active in the Vancouver Film Society, and also made some creative and interesting amateur movies.  Oscar later worked for CBC Television in Toronto. The BC Archives at the Royal BC Museum has three collections that contain films by the Burritts.

Read more about Dorothy and Oscar Burritt and their films.

Frame grab from the NFB film, found on-line.

Vancouver fire-fighting drill scene from “Banshees Over Canada”.

“Eye Witness No. 54” (NFB, 1953)

National Film Board of Canada

This newsreel contains three vignettes covering various aspects of Canadian life.  The first and third items are about British Columbia, and here are the NFB descriptions:

Ball Stars Start Young [first item]: In Vancouver’s Little League, baseball players, diamond and equipment are junior size, but not the boys’ coaches or the eagerness of teams and fans.”

A Railroad Goes to Sea [starting at 6:56 in the above clip]: Swapping steel rails for ocean waves is routine for British Columbia’s Pacific Great Eastern Railway, travelling the forty-mile leg between Vancouver and Squamish by railway barge.”

NOTE:  The rail barge journey shown in the third item was replaced by a train trip in 1956, when the PGE completed its rail line from North Vancouver to Squamish.

“Herring Hunt” (NFB, 1953)

National Film Board of Canada

Directed by Julian Biggs from a script by Leslie McFarlane, Herring Hunt is a tight little documentary vignette about the daily routine of the BC herring fishery in the early 1950s.  It’s also notable as the moving image debut of Vancouver actor Bruno Gerussi; he plays Matt Johnson, an impetuous crewman on the herring boat at the story’s centre.  As most viewers will remember, Gerussi would later pursue another sea-going livelihood on television — as Nick Adonidas, skipper of the Persephone, in the long-running series The Beachcombers (CBC Vancouver, 1972-1990).

Gerussi apparently earned his role in Herring Hunt after being “discovered” by Leslie McFarlane in a 1952 production of A Streetcar Named Desire, staged by Vancouver’s Totem Theatre; he starred as Stanley Kowalski.  In his film debut, Gerussi seems to be recalling some of Stanley’s confrontational mannerisms.

Here’s the NFB description:  “This short sea-faring documentary follows the operations of a herring boat and her crew in the coastal waters of British Columbia. The Western Girl trawler, her skipper, and his men race to get their catch before the quota is taken and the fishing area closed. Teamwork is paramount in an enterprise that has a great element of risk; competition is keen and one man’s mistake may mean severe loss, so that a year of plenty may be followed by a year of famine.”

In the 26th Academy Awards, Herring Hunt was honoured with an Oscar® nomination in the category “Best Live Action Short Film, One-Reel”.

Bruno Gerussi (seated, left) as crewman Matt Johnson in Herring Hunt. (Frame enlargement from a 16 mm film print. BC Archives, 911410-0004, file 5.)

May 1, 1938: Vancouverites march for a better world

Shot by amateur filmmaker Oscar C. Burritt, this fascinating footage shows Vancouver citizens and organizations marching in a mass May Day parade through downtown Vancouver and the West End on May 1, 1938. An estimated 5,000 to 8,000 people participated in the parade, which marked International Workers’ Day.

The parade began at the Cambie Street Grounds (at Cambie and Dunsmuir) and followed the route Cambie – Hastings – Burrard – Georgia. Burritt seems to have shot his footage along West Georgia where it nears Coal Harbour and Stanley Park.

A variety of BC labour unions, political associations, ethnic and fraternal organizations, and other groups are represented, and can be identified by their signs and banners. Agitprop floats, displays, and signs reference current social conditions (including poverty, substandard housing, and high mortality in the forest industry). Some also reflect the current world situation, including the Spanish Civil War and the spread of Fascism in Europe. Of particular interest is a banner for the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion (Canadians fighting for the Republican cause in Spain), a float for the Communist Party of Canada, and a briefly-glimpsed depiction of Nazi repression.  


The parade ended at Lumberman’s Arch in Stanley Park, where an estimated 20,000 people gathered to hear speeches and songs. The marchers sang “Hold the Fort,” “The Red Flag,” and “The Internationale.”

Despite the marchers’ hopes for international solidarity and peace, the world situation continued to darken. Sixteen months later, Canada would be at war.

* * *

Additional information about the parade can be found in “Peaceable May Day Throngs Vaunt Solidarity of Workers,” Vancouver Daily Province, May 2, 1938, p. 6, and “Thousands in May Day March to Stanley Park,” Vancouver Sun, May 2, 1938, p. 20.

NOTE: The video clip presented here combines related footage from two different sources at the BC Archives/Royal BC Museum. [May Day parade, Vancouver] (V1990:06/001.01 item #3), Oscar Burritt’s edited version of the event, was loaned to the archives for copying by Douglas Wilson of Toronto in 1990. [Burritt miscellany, reel 2] (F1986:38/006.02), found in a collection donated by the Burritt family in 1986, includes what appear to out-takes of the event.

Snapshot 3 (02-05-2020 11-25 AM)