Category Archives: Vancouver history

“Gateway to Asia” (NFB, 1945)

View Gateway to Asia on 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)

“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”.

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.

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)


Romaine Fielding seeks “a second Mary Pickford” (Vancouver, 1916)


Vancouver Daily World, Sept. 2, 1916, p. 14

In September 1916, Hollywood actor-writer-director Romaine Fielding (1867-1927) appeared in a short play at Vancouver’s Pantages Theatre (at 136 East Hastings). During his visit, he was also searching for a new actress—“a second Mary Pickford”—who would supposedly become his leading lady in a new film company. (He invoked Pickford’s name because she was a major movie star who was born in Canada.) With assistance from the theatre and the Vancouver Daily World, Fielding sponsored a contest to find the right woman. His criteria were very specific.

The young lady that I shall choose must be 21 years of age, five feet four or five inches, with large, expressive eyes, small mouth, perfect teeth, well shaped and her hair plentiful, natural wavy preferred. Small hands and feet are essential.”

The World noted that “Any girl who has the necessary equipment, whether she is experienced or not, has a chance to win this opportunity.”


Vancouver Daily World, Sept. 13, 1916, p. 5

Advertisements ran in the World for a week, and more than twenty young local women submitted their photos. Fielding reviewed the photos, interviewed the selected contestants, and chose seven finalists. He had Vancouver cinematographer A. D. “Cowboy” Kean come to the Pantages and film them onstage. On September 15, Kean gave Fielding a private preview of the movie.

“In it are many of the young ladies in the contest, and the camera caught them in various poses which were designed to show off their beauty. The reel shows Mr. Fielding giving his talk to the young ladies, and putting them through the various tests by which it is determined whether they will be likely subjects to work before the camera. A few of this bevy of western beauties show up exceptionally well, to the great satisfaction of Mr. Fielding and, no doubt, themselves.”

“After the film had been shown, Mr. Fielding took several of the young ladies over to the corner of Cordova and Main streets where, with the Bank of Montreal as a background, they were again caught by the camera in various poses. Groups were taken and then some of the more promising ones individually. They are seen laughing, winking and “making eyes” at the camera men, and altogether the picture should prove an attractive one. At any rate, the girls attracted a crowd which blocked traffic for many feet, for it is not often that so many real beauties are seen together.”

Kean’s film was screened the following week as part of the vaudeville program at the Pantages. According to E. C. Thomas, Vancouver reporter for the trade journal Moving Picture World:

“The candidates were shown singly or in pairs, laughing and then looking haughty (I think).”

I had originally thought that this contest was unique to Vancouver. Recently I learned that Fielding conducted the same contest at Pantages Theatres in Victoria, Calgary, Edmonton, and Winnipeg. Sadly, there is no record of the winning contestant’s name or image from Vancouver, or from any of the other cities. [1]



Vancouver Sun, Sept. 22, 1916, p. 3


Vancouver Daily World, Sept. 16, 1916, p. 3






















[1]       “Here, Girls, is Chance to be a ‘Movie Star’,” Vancouver Daily World, Sept. 2, 1916, p. 14; “Local Girls May Become Movie Stars,” Vancouver Daily World, Sept. 5, 1916, p. 12; “Number of Girls Enter Contest,” Vancouver Daily World, Sept. 11, 1916, p. 2; “Film of Local Beauties to Be Shown at Pantages Next Week,” Vancouver Daily World, Sept. 16, p. 3; “Pantages: Unequalled Vaudeville” [theatre ad], Vancouver Sun, Sept. 22, 1916, p. 3; [E. C. Thomas], “Laughing and Then Looking Haughty,” Moving Picture World, October 14, 1916, p. 283.