Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Film Studies

PLEASING THE CANADIANS: A National Flavour for Early Cinema, 1896-1914

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Film Studies

PLEASING THE CANADIANS: A National Flavour for Early Cinema, 1896-1914

Article excerpt

Resume : Certains historiens pretendent que les sentiments nationaux des Canadiens n'ont vraiment pris forme qu'au cours de la Premiere Guerre mondiale. Mais cette perspective neglige plusieurs changements urbains et industriels tres importants qui ont eu lieu entre 1895 et 1914. Tout comme il est inadequat de caracteriser cette epoque de simple « avant-guerre », on ne devrait pas non plus denigrer le cinema des premiers temps en Ontario en le considerant simplement « pre-national » ou « colonial ». Cet article examine le role de la musique, du bonimenteur et du public pour reveler que le visionnement de films a cette epoque avait deja une saveur bien canadienne.

English films in [Canada] are a hopeless drug on the market and cannot even please the Canadians.

Moving Picture World, 20 January 1912.

In Reflections of a Siamese Twin: Canada at the End of the Twentieth Century, John Ralston Saul sums up his notion of Canadian culture by stressing that "the whole cultural history of Canada can be traced through the growing pleasure taken by the population from living on both levels at once without regarding the complexity as a matter of waste or desperately searching for simplicity." Canadian culture, he concludes, could thus be defined as "a celebration of overlap."1

Moving Picture World's New York critic, quoted above, senses this complexity, but appears confused and frustrated by it. Canadians, the critic assumes, are predisposed, even addicted, to supposedly inferior British films. How then is the U.S. film industry to understand this strange audience? In what follows I trace two or three strands of this conundrum and examine how Toronto cinemagoers at the turn into the twentieth century performed this culture of overlap. Music and film lecturers, the management of theatres, and the growing cinema business itself, all figured in the emergence of an audience with the taste for a national flavour.


In addition to his "culture-as-overlap" thesis, which elevates principles of complexity and contradiction to prime characteristics of cultural maturity, Saul also takes up issues of historical periodization. Canadian democracy, he argues, began with events as early as the 184Os, and included, even then, a deeply ingrained sense of local and, at times, proto-national culture.2 Other historians have placed the birth of Canadian nationalism, with an attendant culture, later: at the time of Confederation, for example, or during the rapid shift to factorybased, mass-production capitalism during the 1880s and 1890s, or at the time of World War I. At least two Canadian historians-the conservative Jack Granatstein and the liberal Pierre Berton-treat the battle of Vimy Ridge as the defining moment in the formation of a Canadian national consciousness. I fight, therefore I am.3 be that as it may, indices of Canadian culture can certainly be found earlier than the war years.

In this discourse with the war as the central event, the momentous changes in the years 1896-1914 become simply "pre-war," by extension lacking the elements of a distinctively Canadian culture. Without degrading the sacrifice of those who fought in Europe, we might, using Saul's reasoning, be more inclined to look at the complexities of the period immediately preceding the war. Might we not, for instance, see Toronto cinema in the "pre-war" years as much more than a conduit for a monolithic imperial culture, whether American, British, or French? What's at stake is a new historiography of English-Canadian cinema-at least in its Toronto incarnation-during this crucial period.

In what follows, I have drawn on a range of primary and secondary materials focused almost exclusively on Toronto. Thus, I make no all-inclusive claims about nascent cultural inflections in other parts of the country. Nor do I wish to suggest, in some form of Toronto-centrism, that because a national feeling was developing in that city, the same thing was happening in the same way elsewhere in Canada. …

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