The first animated views were not interested in telling stories or informing audiences, but rather sought to provoke surprised reactions through the use of moving pictures. They operated on the principle of “attractions” passed on from fairground shows and vaudeville. Attractions are moments of pure spectacle that provoke curiosity, voyeurism, fascination and even horror. The very first film producers were often content to record circus or variety show numbers such as magic tricks, acrobatics, fairy plays and so forth.
Many films of the “cinema of attractions” variety are nevertheless a kind of historical document. From the moment the Cinématographe Lumière was invented, a variety of events were recorded, ranging from the everyday to the exotic: sports, unusual trades or rituals, spectacular landscapes, feasts and celebrations and so on. The boundary between attraction and document is not clearly demarcated, however. One of the first films shot in Quebec, Danse indienne ([Indian Dance], 1898), implicitly presented itself as an actual representation of a Native American ritual. However, it was entirely staged: the Kahnawake Mohawks’ performance was obviously interested in appealing to a taste for exoticism on the part of a foreigner – the camera operator.
The great traditions of documentary and news films nevertheless emerged from these initial views. It did not take long before producers became aware of the public’s fascination for news films (or those supposedly about news – “reenactments” were quite numerous at the time). Beginning in the early 1910s, several companies began producing weekly compilations of news images. Newsreels with the rooster logo of the French Pathé Company were particularly popular for many years. Always on the lookout for opportunities, Léo-Ernest Ouimet struck a deal with Pathé and launched the series British-Canadian Pathé News in the late 1910s. These newsreels were regularly shown in cinemas until television news supplanted them in the 1960s.A Big Visit
From cinema’s earliest days, newsreel producers showed a strong preference for ceremonial events, which were predictable and easy to shoot. Colonial rituals held in the Dominion of Canada were particularly popular with film companies. By 1901, the ceremonies surrounding the visit by the Duke of York (future King George V) were filmed by three different camera operators. The mix of military pageantry, prestigious personalities and jubilant crowds offered by these events was indeed ideal subject matter for animated views.
The various visits of the Governors General of Canada were also the subject of many films in the silent era. It is important to note, in this regard, that from 1867 to 1952 Governors General were chosen from among the British aristocracy – that is to say, none was from the territories they represented. In February 1902, a camera operator from the American Edison company filmed the arrival of Governor Lord Minto in Quebec City. Sitting in a boat with his wife, he was pulled along the St. Lawrence River by Quebec City citizens dressed in local costumes. The arrivals and departures of Lord Minto’s successors, the Earl Grey and the Duke of Connaught, were also widely covered by animated view camera operators.
Canada’s membership in the British Empire led it to enter the Boer War (1899-1902) in South Africa. The Boers were farmers of Dutch origin (known today as “Afrikaners”) living in Transvaal and the Orange Free State. They were resisting the British, who wanted to unite South Africa under their control (and perhaps also gain control of the gold and diamonds located in Boer territory). In October 1899, an Edison Company camera operator filmed the deployment of Canadian troops in Quebec City. These views were screened in particular at fund-raising evenings for financing the war effort in Canada.Local Actualities
The first French-Canadian filmmakers distanced themselves somewhat from these military and imperial subjects. Léo-Ernest Ouimet, who began producing local actualities in 1906, was praised by a La Presse newspaper journalist for his films on Quebec City’s three-hundredth anniversary celebrations in 1908: “Mr. Ouimet is the only one who chose to photograph the historic and French-Canadian side of these festivities, not giving more importance than necessary to the Prince of Wales” (August 11, 1908: 13). Ouimet’s films, along with those of his competitors – Lactance Giroux, Arthur Larente, etc. – were indeed mostly focused on celebrations and popular events. Among the films Ouimet shot was one about a snowshoeing event in February 1907 – a half-century before the celebrated 1958 film Les raquetteurs by Gilles Groulx and Michel Brault!
Ouimet’s actualities partially revealed his political allegiances. For instance, at his Ouimetoscope he screened films showing Joseph-Israel Tarte’s funeral (Tarte was a Liberal cabinet minister and newspaper proprietor) and Wilfrid Laurier’s speeches (unfortunately silent. . .).
The first actualities in Quebec also covered an abundance of religious subjects. There seems to be little doubt that film producers sought to appease religious authorities. In April 1898, the first cardinal from Quebec, Cardinal Taschereau, passed away. The itinerant camera operator Henry de Grandsaignes d’Hauterives soon added scenes of the funeral to his Historiographe show. In 1910, Catholics from around the world came to Montreal for a major Eucharistic Congress. Two foreign companies, Butcher and Gaumont, quickly dispatched camera operators to cover the celebrations, while two local teams produced films of the conference for Nickel theatres and the Ouimetoscope.
Among the memorable Ouimet productions (most of which, tragically, are lost today), is a view in eight tableaux showing the ruins of a fire that devastated Trois-Rivieres on June 22, 1908. Fire fighters and fires were among the most popular topics in the silent era! Animated views featuring Montreal fire fighters go back as far as winter 1898! One might say that Montreal fire chief Zéphirin Benoît was the first Quebec film star…First World War Films
Views showing the work and duties of Montreal fire fighters were regularly released until 1913. However, firemen were overshadowed (quite obviously) by Canadian soldiers who entered the war in August 1914. For many spectators, actualities showing the training, parades and deployment of Canadian soldiers represented the last chance to see a son, brother, friend or loved one leave for combat in Europe.
In the spring of 1917, soldiers were in turn overshadowed in the news by Marshal Joffre, who stopped in Montreal on May 13. The French marshal was returning from the United States, where he had negotiated the entrance of the United States into the war with President Woodrow Wilson. Throughout his visit to Montreal, which would take him from Jeanne Mance Park to Windsor Station, Joffre was followed by animated view camera operators.
Cameras were once again focused on Canadian soldiers at the end of the war. On May 19, 1919, camera operator John Dufresne of the Specialty Film Import shot the triumphant return of the 22nd regiment. A jubilant crowd at their arrival in Rimouski cheered the soldiers, cheers which were sustained throughout their journey to Quebec City and Montreal. This actuality was very successful in cinemas. For once, many Quebecers were able to recognize a familiar face on screen…Tragedies and ‘Sensational’ News Items
A number of and tragedies were also the subject of actualities in the silent era. At the end of the summer of 1913, many camera operators rushed to Sherbrooke, where the famous American fugitive K. Thaw was being temporarily detained after being caught on Canadian territory. The next winter, a local company filmed the funeral of Constable Honoré Bourdon, who was killed following a horse-carriage pursuit of the robbers of a butcher shop. This brutal murder, committed for just a few pieces of meat, deeply shocked many Montrealers.
The greatest maritime tragedy in Canadian history occurred a few months later in 1914. During the night of May 29, the transatlantic liner Empress of Ireland sank in just 14 minutes off the coast of Rimouski, Quebec after being rammed by the Norwegian coaler Storstad: 1,012 of 1,477 passengers and crew perished at sea. Hoping to film sensational images of the wreckage, all actuality producers in North America and Europe dispatched camera operators to Eastern Quebec. However, they found only coffins and funeral ceremonies.
The St. Lawrence River was the scene of another tragedy in 1916. The central span of the Quebec Bridge (which is still the largest “cantilever” bridge in the world) collapsed during construction work in September, causing 13 deaths. Ouimet filmed this tragic event and later claimed to have filmed the first collapse of the bridge in 1907 (there is not mention of this event in the press of the day, however).
The Quebec Bridge was finally officially inaugurated in 1919, during the Canadian tour of the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII). The visit coincided with the start of the Winnipeg General Strike, which greatly which greatly affected labor relations in Canada Canadian workers. Some thought the Prince’s visit had a unifying purpose, while others believed the visit was simply intended to honour Canadian combatants in the Great War. The visit of the Prince of Wales became once again the subject of numerous films, as this particular genre was as popular then as it had been in 1901 or 1908. Ouimet, who headed one of the largest film distribution companies in Canada, Specialty Film Import, was less reluctant this time, as opposed to 1908, to cover the visit of the Prince of Wales. His film, however, had to compete with many other actualities produced by rival producers during the visit, foremost among them those by Toronto’s Pathéscope Company. In December 1919, the King and Queen of England agreed to attend a screening of the Cinematograph Record of the Tour of Canada of the Prince of Wales, shown in a program especially for the occasion by the Canadian Pacific Railroad at Albert Hall in London.
Other visitors followed, but did not resemble royalty. After welcoming the Prince of Wales in 1919, Montreal received Samuel Gompers in 1920, president and founder of the American Federation of Labor, whose annual convention was held from June 7 to 21 at Théâtre St. Denis. The approximately 600 union delegates meeting in Montreal on this occasion represented more than four million workers. Actuality films included a parade of delegates and the meeting of Gompers and the mayor of Montreal, Médéric Martin.
Montreal’s mayor was once again in front of the camera in 1922, following a fire that destroyed City Hall on the night of March 3. Only the façade of the building, built in 1879, was spared. It was not rebuilt until 1926. The previous summer Fox News actualities had also shown the ravages of a fire that overwhelmed the town of Aylmer on August 10, 1921. About one hundred buildings were destroyed in the heart of a city desperately trying to recover economically. It also showed the camps where many of the 750 people who were left homeless stayed temporarily.