Cinema’s novelty and extraordinary success contributed to profound transformations in Quebec society in the early twentieth century. Its influence on Quebecers of the time is undeniable: in just a few years, the last technological marvel of the nineteenth century turned into one of the major cultural practices of the new century. The emergence of this new medium, which was largely controlled abroad, was not without conflicts. Established institutions struggled to keep pace with these transformations. In Quebec, where the conservative clergy still exerted significant moral and political influence, conflicts affected both customs and the world of ideas alike.Commerce and Culture
The first film-related institutions were companies set up to exhibit cinema. From the outset, foreigners controlled animated views in Canada, especially French (Lumière and Historiographe), British ( Joseph Rosenthal and Guy Bradford ) and American ( Edison , American Mutoscope and Biograph) companies. The global film market was soon controlled by large monopolies from those countries where cinema was created and patented. Pathé and Edison dominated the global market before 1914. In the 1920s, the American Paramount Company assumed control of the Canadian market through the Famous Players chain.
However, in 1906 some Canadian film companies began to appear. These were primarily small companies that worked in exhibition (Vitoscope, National Biograph, etc.). Canadian entrepreneurs willing to engage in film production and distribution were rare indeed. In this regard, Léo-Ernest Ouimet was an exception. The first entrepreneur to take advantage of Canadian fiction filmmaking was American Frank Beresford, producer for the British-American Film Manufacturing Co.
Small companies quickly grew in numbers throughout Quebec and the rest of Canada. Already by around 1910, the film industry employed several hundred people (managers, tellers, musicians, projectionists, etc.) and generated significant economic activity. In 1913, Joseph Gauvreau, Montreal inspector of theatres and cinemas, estimated that 125,000 people per day were attending some 70 theatres in the city, some of which had up to six screenings per day. Thus, even though this emerging industry was still not completely institutionalized (this did not last long), it nonetheless occupied an important place in social life.
Through the appropriation of its venues, performers and especially audiences, the theatre was cinema’s first victim. Films were initially presented during theatre intermissions. However, after a few years cinema became more popular than theatre; it was not long before nickelodeons outnumbered traditional theatres. Still in the midst of becoming institutionalized, Quebec theatre in this way lost much of its audience and profits. Several of its artists and performers turned therefore to cinema, such as Georges Gauvreau , who after launching the Théâtre National in 1900 built the Nationoscope cinema in 1907.A Challenge to Legislators
In the political world, it was mainly at the municipal level, where movie theatres were managed, that cinema brought about changes. The first regulations to be enacted dealt with the hours and days of screenings. These regulations were prompted by conflicts between the cinema world and clerical authorities. In 1899, the bishop of Saint-Hyacinthe, Zéphirin Moreau, noted that views seemed to affect Sundays, “the day of rest sanctified by religion”, and also diminished enthusiasm among the faithful. As a result, he prohibited Sunday screenings in his city. Beginning in 1903, the archbishop of Montreal, Paul Bruchési, brought the fight to the provincial government. In 1907, after making an official decree prohibiting Catholics from attending “animated views” on Sundays, the archbishop pushed the province of Quebec to vote on a resolution to that effect. But Léo-Ernest Ouimet contested the resolution and in 1912 brought his case all the way to the Supreme Court, where it was struck down. Catholics regularly returned to this fight, never to win it.
Under pressure from the Catholic clergy, for whom cinema was a true “school of vice,” the provincial government adopted its first law in 1911 regulating children’s admittance into cinemas. Children fifteen years and younger (sixteen years in 1919) were from then on restricted from going to the cinema without adult accompaniment.
The conflict between clergy and exhibitors accelerated the movement towards the institutionalization of cinema, notably by encouraging Quebec theatre owners to form professional associations. These associations were specifically mandated to defend the interests of the industry among various levels of government. They were mainly concerned with permits, fees, censorship and regulations around the safety of theatres.
Beginning in 1908-09, most municipalities adopted regulations to ensure the safety of audiences during screenings of animated views and in particular to limit the dangers associated with nitrate film. Theatre owners were required to maintain projectors inside fire-proof booths. Theatre halls had to be designed for quick evacuation; in other words, they needed to include emergency exits, sufficiently wide aisles and folding seats fixed to the floor.
Unlike municipal governments, the federal government was slow to intervene in the world of cinema. The Canadian government did so primarily for the purposes of military and patriotic propaganda during the First World War. Thus, they established the Canadian War Record Office, whose mission was to support the war effort through various means, including newsreels filmed in Europe or in Canadian training camps.
After the war, the Canadian government established the Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau to promote the country through cinema. Consisting mainly of one- or two-reel films, Bureau productions were distributed worldwide. In Canada, Bureau productions were often screened in commercial theatres to complement the program. It was not until 1942 that a similar provincial agency appeared in Quebec, the Service de Ciné-Photographie, which mainly distributed films made by priests, such as Albert Tessier and Mauritius Proulx.
However, for a very long time the federal and provincial governments refused to intervene in the Canadian film industry. They mostly left the market open to foreign companies, especially American. Foreign companies largely determined what Canadian and Quebec citizens watched in theatres.Religion and Cinema
However, cinema’s emergence in Quebec destabilized religious institutions the most. The various religious groups in the province—foremost among them the Catholic Church of course—were therefore among the first to call for censorship from the different levels of government, as well as for the adoption of laws and regulations prohibiting Sunday screenings and limiting children’s access to movie theatres.
Religious groups moreover began to urge the faithful to avoid cinema, which these groups judged as immoral. In some cities and periods, campaigns denouncing cinema were particularly fierce. In Quebec City in 1916, the L’Action catholique newspaper and other organizations began an investigation of nickelodeons that the newspaper described as a fight against debauchery and scandal. It led to the arrest and conviction of several exhibitors. In many smaller cities priests and bishops declared cinema the cause of all evils and the main enemy of French-Canadian identity.
This struggle culminated in 1927 after the tragedy of the Laurier Palace cinema. The Archbishop of Montreal made clear that this terrible tragedy was God’s punishment of those engaging in entertainment on Sunday. A public inquiry was carried out under the direction of Judge Louis Boyer. In his report, he concluded that the fire was accidental and that cinema on Sunday was entirely acceptable as a popular entertainment. The clergy continued to exert pressure, however, and a law was soon enacted prohibiting children under sixteen years from attending commercial cinemas. This law was in force until the Quiet Revolution, when censorship laws were replaced by age ratings for different films.
The history of the Church and cinema in Quebec is not only one of conflicts. Already during the silent era, Catholics were appropriating cinema for their ends. Small businesses were launched to distribute films approved by the clergy – for example the company Le bon cinéma, operated in Beauce and Quebec City by Jean-Baptiste Paradis and his brother, Father Benjamin. However, the prevailing attitude of the Catholic Church towards cinema remained essentially an attitude of opposition until the Quiet Revolution in 1960. Even though the Quebec film industry survived this fight, several of its key players – such as Léo-Ernest Ouimet – were severely handicapped in their ability to carry out their businesses because of these constant battles.