Category Archives: Social documentary

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.  

Nazi_gunman_float

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.

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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)

 

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)

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[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)