This amateur film documents the spectacular fire that destroyed the CPR’s Pier D in Vancouver Harbour on the afternoon of July 27, 1938. The video clip comprises edited excerpts from silent footage shot by Oscar C. Burritt (1908-1974). Oscar was then an amateur filmmaker. By 1943, he would be a professional, shooting and directing industrial films and NFB shorts for Leon Shelly at Vancouver Motion Pictures. Later he worked for CBC Television in Toronto.
In 1986, the BC Archives received a box of 16 mm film from the Burritt family. As a research associate, I was given the intriguing job of viewing, selecting and describing the films I thought they should keep. When I loaded this reel on the Zeiss film viewer and started looking at it, I saw right away that it was something special. I had recently seen professional footage of the same fire (Behind the Headlines ); Oscar’s footage seemed just as good. It was in sort of rough shape, from being spliced and projected over the years, and there were some obvious exposure issues. But Oscar’s coverage, composition and camera technique are very good indeed.
I’m a film editor at heart, and I enjoy working with archival footage. Some time ago I digitized the fire footage from a VHS copy and starting looking at it critically, in order to clean it up a bit. In the end, I didn’t have to do all that much. Working with the digital file, I edited out the flash frames and bad splices at the beginning of individual shots. I took out a few shots that were extremely short, and a few that were identical or repetitive. And I adjusted the exposure throughout, brightening or dimming shots that were too dark or too light. The shots remain in the same order that Oscar put them, but now we have a clearer view of what he was shooting.
00:09 We first glimpse the fire from the south-eastern shore of False Creek, several blocks north of Oscar’s home at 132 East 10th Avenue.
00:13 In the second shot, the Sun Tower can be seen in the distance, between the camera and the plume of smoke.
00:19 Suddenly we’re in a moving automobile as it rushes downtown over the second Cambie Street Bridge (replaced by the current bridge in 1985). The frenetic travelling shots of downtown buildings are quite exciting.
00:36 At the fire, Oscar establishes his location with a nice wide shot down Granville Street toward the CPR Station, followed by good shots of the billowing smoke.
00:49 We finally see the full extent of the fire in a very effective wide shot: smoke, flames, a fireboat. The camera pans right to show us the crowd of spectators that has gathered, standing on roofs and atop railcars in the CPR yards. There’s a brief shot of a steamship moving out of danger, followed by close and wide shots of the watching crowd.
01:14 From a medium wide shot of the fire, the camera tilts up and up to reveal the size of the smoke cloud. This is followed by more wide and medium wide shots from the same angle.
01:39 In a 25-second shot, we start at the end of the pier and pan left to view the fully engulfed structure, ending with a good very wide view that shows more spectators in the distances, watching a firefighting hose crew.
02:09 Oscar moves to a new vantage point which is lower and closer to the action. We see the spectators standing on the railcars, in the yards, and looking down from an overpass. Locomotives are in motion, and at 2:24 a group of men seem to be emptying a boxcar.
02:35 He moves again, and captures more scenes on the ground, including an effective pan of the action in the yards, and (at 2:58) a good shot of a firefighting team through the smoke.
It’s interesting to compare the Burritt footage with another semi-amateur film of the same vintage, also held by the BC Archives. It’s Alfred E. Booth’s Kodachrome footage of the same fire , posted on YouTube by my Vancouver colleague Christine Hagemoen. (Thanks, Christine!)
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Some of my previous blog posts and online articles have featured other amateur films made by Oscar Burritt or his wife, Dorothy (Fowler) Burritt:
- A Fan of the Chinese Opera
- Sunday Afternoon at the Film Society
- “Evangelists”: The Other Cinema of Dorothy and Oscar Burritt
 Behind the Headlines, an 11-minute promotional film, was made by Vancouver Motion Pictures in 1939 for the Vancouver Daily Province. It was produced by Leon Shelly and shot by Wally Hamilton, another important Vancouver film pioneer. The film is preserved by Library and Archives Canada.