Nova Scotia Archives

'The Way We Were': Nova Scotia in Film, 1917-1957

Ernest J. Dick, 'The Way We Were: Nova Scotia in Film, 1917-1957' (2010). Wherever possible in the text below, discussion of specific film footage available within the Virtual Cinema component of this website has been linked directly to that footage.

The Way We Were: Nova Scotia in Film, 1917-1957

The moving image ('film') has been both produced and viewed in Nova Scotia for over a century now. At first a novelty, the tool and toy of professionals, film production gradually became accessible to anyone who wanted to buy a film camera, and the 'movies' themselves became a staple of everyday life. Over the past century a body of amateur and professional film work has gradually accumulated, enough to collectively tell us much about 'the way we were' in Nova Scotia; and sometimes more than we might have been expecting.

The moving image tells us who, what, when and where was important to us; whether it was epic, tragic or simple; whether it was a visiting celebrity, a family birthday party, or an unexpected event. The moving image represents our accomplishments, our hopes, our memories, even our fears. Film is always an intentional recording medium, whether it is something being chemically altered by light and projected onto a screen; or a magnetic signal being recorded, decoded and viewed on a television monitor; or digital information stored elsewhere and downloaded to your hand-held device. The moving image always documents something of where the camera is pointed, and always with future use in mind. We were, and are, always expecting to look again at the moving images we create.

Film also captures more than the person pointing, positioning and operating the camera initially intended, or perhaps necessarily understood. Film captured the family cat wandering into the engagement scene during the filming of Evangeline at Chocolate Lake, Halifax, in 1913; the shy eloquence and confidence of your mother long before you were born; the dirty smoke of the Halifax waterfront during a time we always imagine as being environmentally cleaner than our own; the irrepressible energy and mischief of that crusty cantankerous uncle you knew only by reputation and from very stiff, unhappy still photos; the respected mayor of your hometown proudly brandishing the cigarette that now makes him look quite unsavoury; sailors unabashedly flirting with young girls at Point Pleasant Park....and the young girls just as unabashedly flirting right back; and much, much more. Everyone will have their own discoveries of 'the way we were' when looking carefully at moving-image records from the past century.

For the first six decades of the 20th century, the moving image was recorded by camera and viewed as film, with all of the qualities and limitations accruing to both the equipment and the medium. The great advantage of the camera is its transparent, unforgiving and passive documenting of what it sees. Lenses may limit and distort, but they cannot add anything that is not already in the camera's view. Film, in turn, captures footage that in today's digital age we might easily and quickly delete. Film also remains remarkably resilient over the decades, being more robust than paper in similar circumstances. As well, film resists being erased, manipulated, compressed, or 'photoshopped,' and thus becomes one of the most authentic media of the last century — as long as we pay attention to it.

Motion-picture cameras, almost from the beginning, were available in a variety of costs and sophistication, because manufacturing companies had already discovered amateurs' enthusiasm for the still camera. They understood immediately that the greatest profits were to be made from selling raw film and film processing; and thus marketed the cameras as cheaply as possible.

Until mid-century, filming and film processing were complicated, expensive activities which severely limited how and when they might be used. For example, 35-mm film, the professional standard for motion-picture production from 1909, was usually made of cellulose nitrate, an inherently dangerous and combustible substance. We have never had 35-mm film-processing capacity in Nova Scotia, and this lack of capacity complicated early filming activities here. Standardization of the 16-mm format dates from 1923, cutting costs in half and allowing still photographers, well-heeled amateurs, and other determined types to begin serious motion-picture filming. The 8-mm format dates from 1935, and from then on almost anyone could film whatever they chose, although World War II intervened and preoccupied us. We eventually developed our own film-processing facilities in the province, motivated and facilitated by the explosion of television after the late 1950s.

Lighting requirements also remained technically exacting until very recently, thereby limiting most film production in Nova Scotia to outdoors and what the camera could capture there. As a result, almost all the film included in the virtual cinema resource presented here was shot out-of-doors. Anything done inside had to be carefully organized and planned, though staged lighting provided more consistency than exterior filming usually offered. A result of all these technical limitations was that we were always restrained, careful and purposeful with what we filmed in the first half of the 20th century.

Sound to accompany film, which we now take for granted, was also cumbersome in the first half century of the moving image. Technically it was possible to marry recorded sound to film from the late 1920s — a full five decades after the advent of sound recording — but it was not easy or common. In particular, recording the sounds of the event or individual being filmed, and then integrating sound with film at the projection stage was difficult until the 1950s, when magnetic recording became popular. Consequently, almost all the footage presented in this exhibit is silent; music and narration were added later in studios for those productions being made for larger audiences. This leaves a great void for us today. Sound may be less obvious than the visual image, but it adds more information, telling us where we are, who we are looking at, and what to observe. Therefore, we have to watch the films of this period more carefully than we are accustomed to doing these days, in order to discern 'the way we were'.

Movie-cameras brought onsite to film celebrities or noteworthy scheduled events initiated the continuing tradition of creating abundant 'newsworthy' footage. Given the huge quantities of such films shot over the last century, curiously little survives — undoubtedly because most of these personalities and events rarely held our interest for long, and because no one systematically archived these films until late in the 20th century. However, such footage continues to be discovered in unlikely and unexpected locations. For example, the 1919 Canadian Universal Film Company newsreel footage of Alexander Graham Bell testing his hydrofoil at Baddeck was found in an abandoned swimming pool in Dawson City in 1978, during excavation for new construction. More footage like this is undoubtedly waiting to be found in unexpected locations everywhere.

The rarest and thus most precious moving images, are those which captured unplanned and unexpected events that become important over time. The 13 minutes shot by professional photographer Walter MacLaughlan the day after the 1917 Halifax Explosion, click to view film capturing wreckage, ruin and the overnight blizzard, are undoubtedly amongst the most important film footage held at the Nova Scotia Archives. Recent digitization of this film, allowing for speed correction but not attempting restoration, enables us to explore the footage exactly as it was shot and as it has aged over time, rather than presenting it as 'improved' and thereby distorted, albeit with the best of intentions. Similarly Wallace MacAskill, a professional photographer working in Nova Scotia from 1907 to 1948, captured newsreel footage in 1938 of the schooner Bluenose in the last Fishermen's International Race, click to view film while Lionel Shatford took his camera into the crowds during the 1945 V-E Day Riots in Halifax; click to view film both films are preserved at the Nova Scotia Archives.

Promotional film was created at first to encourage immigration and tourism, then to advertise industrial progress, and finally to sell anything and everything. Such films were rarely collected systematically, but because they were marketing tools, more copies were made, sent off in all directions, and sometimes inadvertently survived. Also, frequent government sponsorship of such filming often facilitated better stewardship. Consequently, the productions of the Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau, beginning in 1923 — predecessor to today's National Film Board — are a rich resource for looking in on our earlier selves.

The careful construction of their messages, and the relatively ambitious production budgets of these early promotional and industrial films allowed them to represent the 'wishful thinking' of their makers. They nonetheless offer inadvertent reminders of 'the way we were'. Footage panning from the Halifax Citadel and along the waterfront in Across Canada with Ford (1925) is the earliest such documentation we have. Later, tourist and industrial promotion films produced by the Nova Scotia Film Bureau often had cameras pointed at scenes or activities that the provincial government wanted the world to see. Looking at them again, 40 or 50 years later, frequently reveals poignant perspectives of 'the way we were' and the way we hoped to be.

We were also determined to tell our own stories in film; the Canadian Bioscope Company, formed in Halifax in 1912, was a bold and ambitious effort to do so. This venture combined American and local investment and talent to make Canada's first feature-length dramatic film, Evangeline, released in February 1914. It was based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's epic poem and invented story of the lovers Evangeline and Gabriel, tragically separated by the Deportation of the Acadians in 1755, spending the rest of the poem — and presumably the film — looking for each other. The Canadian Bioscope Company boasted that using actual locations where the events of Longfellow's poem had occurred leant the film great authenticity; and all descriptions of the finished product suggest that it was both a commercial and artistic success. Searching for the long-lost film, to determine for ourselves what it may have told us about 'the way we were', remains an ongoing quest of moving image archivists in Canada.

Actual viewings of and critical response to the film have been traced from New York City to Regina, providing tantalizing clues up to May 1914 — after which there is no further trace. Their success, however, allowed the company to make three more dramatic short films and three comedies; judging from surviving information, none seems to have had any pretence of telling us about ourselves. The company and all of its assets disappeared as World War I began. Still we keep looking, and one day several years ago a man named James Billman brought to the Nova Scotia Archives two still photos of film scenes shot in his parents' garden back in 1914. He distinctly remembered staying home from school that day; the family cat walking onto the scene; and then watching for that cat again while sitting on his father's lap in the theatre. Given the century mark that is now approaching, our hopes of ever finding this long-lost film treasure are dimming — but never dead.

Direct documentation of 'the way we were' with a motion-picture camera was first done in Nova Scotia by someone 'from away', namely Frederick William Wallace. Wallace was a Montreal writer and photographer who came to Digby in 1911 to cover a fishing-schooner sailing race in the Annapolis Basin. He realized that the Digby fleet represented the very last of sail-powered schooner fishing, and subsequently undertook seven voyages with them over the next five years. He recorded the vessels, the men and the work they did, using a still camera, sketch-books, his personal journals and, on the last voyage in 1916, a Williamson cine-camera. His film, Seamen Courageous, was shown to great acclaim in Digby and in New York, but then was apparently lost as it was being duplicated for distribution. Wallace's voyages informed his writing for the rest of his career, and his photographs are testimony to his watchful and careful eye in observing this changing way of life. Seaman Courageous anticipated Robert Flaherty's iconic Nanook of the North (1920) in representing Nova Scotia fishermen as brave and resourceful; and may actually have been more authentic and transparent than Flaherty's capturing of 'the way we were.' Where, for example, Flaherty asked the Inuit to kill a walrus without the aid of the rifles they were then using, Wallace instead refused the offer made by his fishermen friends to head out into rough seas and endanger themselves, simply to provide him with better footage.

Another 'come-from-away/here-to-stay' observer of the passing scene in Nova Scotia was Alexander Leighton, a summer resident from the age of eight. In 1927, at the age of 19, he filmed a canoe trip across south-western Nova Scotia. He later became an academic at Cornell, Harvard and Dalhousie Universities, specializing in psychiatry, anthropology and the behavioural sciences; he returned almost every summer to Smith's Cove and continued to film the life around him. One time it was a colony of beavers click to view film; on another occasion the traditional industries of Digby County; and in 1936, it was a porpoise hunt carried out by the Mi'kmaq Bear River First Nations' people click to view film. Leighton brought a discerning eye to 'the way we were' and his collection is a great strength within this virtual cinema.

With the advent of 16-mm film in the 1920s, a growing variety of people used the motion-picture camera to film friends and family, holidays, fishing trips, Christmas celebrations, or whatever struck their fancy. They visited Porter's Lake, Molega Lake, Guysborough, Cape Breton, the Gaspé, Bermuda, California, Europe, the world — and took their cameras with them. They had fun with their film equipment, showing off or playing jokes on each other, taking risks and revealing themselves in ways we never would today.

Harold Weir documented his trip to England in 1936 click to view film, including the funeral of King George V; his honeymoon to Cape Breton in 1938 click to view film; and much else over the years. Betty Lewis carefully filmed every home and business in Bridgetown in the late 1940s, with the local historical society now adding a sound track identifying some 700 separate scenes. Eugene Freeman meticulously filmed the activities of the Minas Basin Pulp and Paper Company at Hantsport and the arrival of the Robbins Brothers' Circus on the Halifax Commons in the 1930s; the Bengal Lancers and the building of his lodge in Queen's County in the 1940's; and continued on capturing the world around him through to the 1960s. Dozens of such 'amateur' collections wonderfully represent 'the way we were', and dozens of these collections probably remain here in the province, held privately but begging for preservation. If these film records are not soon made available to our archives for appropriate care, we will lose still more of this priceless opportunity to discover 'the way we were.'

At first glance, much of this footage looks sporadic, random, poorly-planned, maybe even accidental. Some photographers meticulously identified what they were filming, others did not. And sometimes, over the years, their amateur film stock has held its colour better than professional 35-mm film formats. Careful management and treatment today can call forth from this footage what its creators imagined they wanted to look at....over and over again. The results are sometimes naive and innocent, but all the more honest and transparent for that.

Many early photographers, both amateur and professional, were aspiring film-makers as well — especially as the cost of equipment decreased — and they took great care and considerable lengths in their film-making activities. Edward Bollinger, the eventual proprietor of the Camera Shop in Halifax, travelled to the Bear River Indian Carnival in 1934 and filmed the First Nations people participating in sports click to view film, as well as Natal Day Celebrations in Annapolis Royal. Allan Fraser, a Halifax Herald news photographer, compiled a 'Screen Scrapbook' click to view film in the 1930s that included a 'Woodland Dance directed by Madame Hylda', a demonstration of a deep-sea diving flotation suit, and much else that would intrigue today's most esoteric film theorist.

These film-makers carefully edited their productions, often adding intriguing inter-titles, showed them to each other and entered film-making contests. The Royal Visit of May 1939 saw them collaborating by positioning their cameras in strategic locations along the route and then collectively editing a colour film, as camera clubs across North America were then doing. Indeed, colour film was still rare but accessible for amateurs from the late 1930s, and was used for special occasions. click to view film

The stories told by those 'from away' perhaps tell us least about 'the way we were'— though we can't be certain, since these productions tend to be the most inaccessible. Footage commissioned by newsreel companies, for example, even when shot by local professionals such as Bollinger or Sam Short, ended up in newsreel vaults in the United States and has thus been lost to later generations. Curiously enough, the earliest example of a Nova Scotia story expropriated by others and filmed elsewhere, does survive. Acadian Elopement was filmed in New Hampshire in 1907 with a clumsy, cliché-ridden and confused assortment of misadventures for our eloping couple. It began the lengthy, stereotypical representation of Nova Scotia in film that tells us more about what the world expected to find here than anything about 'the way we [really] were.'

Evangeline was made into a motion picture many times. The 1909 Edison version advertised that it was shot in Nova Scotia, but no evidence of the film or reports of its production have ever confirmed this. The most famous version, starring Delores Del Rio in her first 'talkie' (1929), promised to bring the cast and crew to Nova Scotia, but they were instead diverted to Louisiana and the final product again tells us nothing of 'the way we were'.

Two of Frederick William Wallace's Nova Scotia novels — Blue Water (1914), based on a Bay of Fundy fishing village, and Captain Salvation (1925), beginning in Digby — became motion pictures. Blue Water might have told us something about ourselves. It was partially filmed on the New Brunswick side of the Bay of Fundy by Canadian 'wannabe' film mogul Ernest Shipman, using the Digby schooner Robert and Arthur, captain and crew. The film premiered to good reviews in 1924, but quickly ran afoul of distribution problems and was never seen again. Captain Salvation, a silent film from 1929, survives in the Warner Brothers' vaults, but apparently further distorted the novel's already fanciful tale of gambling, drunkenness and too many love interests.

Our biggest news story of the 20th century, the Moose River Mine Disaster in 1936, had few visuals for the cameras, because everything happened underground. It was heard around the world through radio, however, because J. Frank Willis commandeered the only telephone, imagined what was happening down below, and thereby invented instantaneous news reporting. Naturally the event became a motion picture, Draegerman Courage, released the following year and directed by Louis King. It has the doctor and mine-owner amongst the three men trapped underground, invents a love interest between the doctor's daughter and the head draegerman, and introduces much else to generate interest. It would be fun to see, but would likely tell us more about how the world imagined Nova Scotia.

The province attracted wide public interest during World War II because of its strategic role in the Allied offensive; both documentary and dramatic films were produced to tell these stories. One of our most important roles was to provide a staging point for convoys of men, munitions and supplies travelling the North Atlantic to support the war effort; corvettes were the principal escort ships for this essential service. Action Stations (1942), a National Film Board documentary, showed just such a corvette and its crew in action. Wartime security prevented filming anything that specifically identified people or locations, but curiously, K-225, the 1943 Hollywood-based drama starring Randolph Scott and Andy Devine, tells the same story — and shows us significantly more of 'the way we were', following a corvette being built in Pictou, recruitment activities on the Dalhousie campus, and actual scenes along the Halifax waterfront.

We were ambivalent about the next two Hollywood-style film-making projects in Nova Scotia. Johnny Belinda, the Prince Edward Island-based story of a deaf mute and her community, was filmed in Cape Breton, won an Oscar for Jayne Wyman's portrayal of the heroine, and prompted the newspaper headline, "Nova Scotia's First Oscar," in 1949. However, many were uncomfortable with the portrayal of the province as quaint and small-minded. Consequently, the British-produced 1957 film High Tide at Noon, set on an un-named Nova Scotia island and telling a story of rape and community narrowness, was filmed in the province but was refused the government support the film-makers were expecting.

Viewing 'the way we were' changed dramatically in the late 1950s. Television came into our homes rather than requiring us to go out, as the watching of movies normally does. The moving image then became a more intimate and personal experience, while at the same time becoming instantly more ubiquitous. Over half of all the residents of Halifax went out to see at least one movie a week before television arrived in December 1954. A few years later, 85% of homes had a TV set and we averaged over 4 hours a day sitting in front of it. Going out for sporting events, movies or whatever, declined quickly and significantly.

Nova Scotia was early to begin watching film, but late in exploring the new medium of television. Given our strategic location on the Atlantic shipping lanes and our proximity to the American market, film showings were being organized here as early as September 1896, mere months after the first film projections anywhere in the world. But our closeness to the United States, where television was born, was just beyond the reach of the new transmitters — unless you lived in Yarmouth on top of a hill — and we had little early exposure to the new medium. This allowed us to be inventive and distinctive in making our own moving images for television; Don Messer and His Islanders was our first success, and one that Upper Canada never did understand.

Revisiting 'the way we were' on film from 1917 to 1957 is only possible when the film has survived. It is estimated that 50% of all Hollywood-created feature productions from before 1950 have been lost, with even fewer Canadian productions surviving. For the silent-film era, 80-90% of all footage is gone. Less than 1% of non-commercial film has been systematically archived. Digitization provides us with wonderful access to all archival material, but is painstaking, cumbersome and resource-dependent; as a conduit to our past, it will never be comprehensive. The virtual cinema presented here is all the more intriguing and important for these limitations — what you will see on this website presents only a very small proportion of the universe of film created in this province over the first half of the 20th century. The footage is rare, increasingly at risk, and deserves to be scrutinized carefully.

The selection nevertheless allows us to view and explore 'the way we were' from the top down, and from the bottom up. It shows us at work and at play, performing and celebrating, prospering and surviving, on our best behaviour....and sometimes not. It shows us as others saw us and from our very own perspective. One way or another, it reveals 'the way we were' — enjoy!

Ernest J. Dick
Historian of Sound and the Moving Image