He was the tall, ambitious son of a general-store owner in Saint John, N.B., and he began his working life selling stocks and bonds. But by the 1940s Walter Pidgeon had parlayed his courtly manner and statuesque good looks into Hollywood fame. Although the rich-voiced star of Mrs. Miniver and Madame Curie later said that he harbored no spe-
cial affection for Canada, he may have been one of the first expatriate film artists to benefit from Hollywood’s Canadian network. At the height of his career, Pidgeon made an appointment to discuss his salary with Louis B. Mayer, the imperious president of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM).
Mayer too had grown up in Saint John, where his father had been a junk dealer. Pidgeon and Mayer reportedly avoided discussing the actor’s pay and reminisced about Saint John instead. Finally,
Pidgeon said, “Louis, I’m going to leave this in your hands. As a home-town boy, I know you’ll do right by me.”
Later, the actor confided to friends that his new salary was almost double what he had expected.
Raw: Like Pidgeon, hundreds of Canadians have made a pilgrimage to Hollywood.
The domestic movie industry has simply never been able to compete with the opportunities south of the border. A few of the migrants have become icons of the world’s movie houses—and sometimes the creators of those icons.
Among them: Mary Pickford, Glenn Ford, Raymond Burr and, more recently, Donald Sutherland, Geneviève Bujold, Helen Shaver, Norman Jewison and Michael J. Fox. Their talents provided raw material for Tinseltown’s fantasy factory. But Canada’s talent has left no discernible mark on Hollywood. And while the film world’s Canadian Mafia is now large and wellorganized, it is still submerged in a gargantuan industry that pays little attention to the northern contingent.
Even before the advent of movies, Canadian entertainers—aspiring actors, singers and dancers—thronged to the U.S. stage. As a result, when the movie business began—first in New York, later in California—Canada lacked the talent to fuel its own nascent film industry. One of the first Canadian expatriates was May Irwin, born May Campbell in Whitby, Ont., in June, 1862. A Broadway star in the 1890s, she appeared in one of the first films to be denounced as immoral by the clergy. Called The Kiss, it was just that: a oneminute close-up of a man and woman
locked in what, 91 years later, now seems a decidely chaste embrace.
Some of them renounced everything to fulfil larger-than-life fantasies—but achieved only modest success. In 1924, when he was in his early 30s, Douglas Dumbrille sold his southern Ontario onion farm and headed for Los Angeles. But while he subsequently appeared in more than 200 movies, Dumbrille never won more than supporting roles. About the same time, movie fever drove fellow Ontarian Jack Chisholm to abandon his job as a chemical engineer. But Chisholm became only a footnote in film: a stunt man who doubled for Gary Cooper in Lives of a Bengal Lancer and the offscreen gofer who exercised the horse used by Rudolph Valentino in 1921’s The Sheik.
During the motion picture industry’s early decades, a few Canadians were among the brightest stars. In the 1920s and 1930s Mary Pickford of Toronto and Marie Dressier of Cobourg, Ont., became sweethearts of the screen. Montreal’s Norma Shearer was one of Hollywood’s most popular actresses in
the 1930s and wed MGM producer Irving Thalberg. And in the 1940s a choirgirl from Vancouver, Peggy Yvonne Middleton—she later changed her name to Yvonne De Carlo—became famous as an exotic temptress of film.
Gossip: Her first starring role, in Salome, Where She Danced, involved what may have been the cinema’s first romantic scene between two Canadian stars. One of her character’s several lovers was played by Calgary-born Rod Cameron. A star in his own right, Cameron, who started his career as a stunt double and graduated to playing leads in cowboy pictures, even inspired a Rod Cameron comic book. His career in decline, he made the gossip columns in 1960 when he divorced his wife so that he could marry his mother-in-law.
De Carlo, still working at age 64, returns to Vancouver from time to time, most recently last December to film American Gothic, a horror movie costarring Rod Steiger. “I always get a limousine,” the actress told Maclean's, “take a look around and go to see where I fell oif my bicycle and scraped my elbow and had to go to the doctor to get the stones taken out.”
Fame: Other Canadians carved more peripheral niches for themselves in film history. Alberta-born Fay Wray is remembered as the monstrous gorilla’s
lover in King Kong (1933). And Harry Smith, a Mohawk Indian from the Six Nations Indian Reserve in Brantford, Ont.—better known by his acting name, Jay Silverheels—became the first North American native to have a star named after him in Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, along Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street. An accomplished athlete who first visited Los Angeles to play lacrosse, Smith appeared in Broken Arrow (as Gerónimo) and in Walk the Proud Land. He is best known, of course, as Tonto in all 221 episodes of The Lone Ranger. But in 1957 Silverheels complained to Maclean's reporter June Callwood that the character of Tonto—whose dialogue included pidgin-English phrases like “Situation plenty bad”—was an insult to Indians.
Some Canadians be-
came the creative and technical magicians of the industry. Among the first were Richmond, Que.-born Mack Sennett (the Keystone Cops series) and Nell Shipman, born in Victoria in 1893, who became one of the first female film-makers with 1915’s God’s Country and the Woman. The first woman to establish her own production company, Shipman remained loyal to Canada, directing and starring in Back to God’s Country (1919), which was shot on location at Lesser Slave Lake in northern Alberta. Later came Montreal native Mark Robson ( Valley of the Dolls), Edmonton-born Arthur Hiller (Hospital)—and, more recently, Torontonian Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters) and Jamie Cameron (The Terminator, Alien) from Kapuskasing, Ont.
Behind the scenes, a legion of unsung Canadians have played their parts as technical virtuosos. Still in his teens, Winnipeg-born Osmond Borradaile moved to California in 1914. Starting as a film laboratory cleaner, Borradaile became one of Hollywood’s leading on-location cinematographers. He often worked in conditions of great hard-
ship—in polar snows while shooting Scott of the Antarctic and in the fetid Congo jungle to make Sanders of the River. Now 88 and living in Vancouver, Borradaile recalls, “I became known as the crazy Canuck.”
Hooked: Borradaile claims credit for discovering Sabu Dastagir, the East Indian child-actor known simply as Sabu, who made his debut as the star of The Elephant Boy (1937). Said Borradaile: “I happened to go down to the Maharajah’s elephant stables to see which elephants were available, and I saw a young fellow with a beautiful little physique and personality. I asked him to ^ work with us and he almost exploded: he’d never spoken to a i European before.”
One of Borradaile’s fellow cinematographers was Leonard (Len) Roos, the charismatic good-looking son of a Galt, Ont., travelling salesman. Roos got hooked on the
camera’s sorcery while running photo booths at carnivals prior to and during the First World War. An inveterate hustler, Roos once sold a phoney photo story about the first female moviecamera operator to the magazine Photoplay, getting his wife to pose as the fictitious “camera maid.”
A pioneer of Canadian cinema, Roos
left Canada in 1924 to become both a respected cinematographer and, by 1930, an inventor of sound equipment. “Len and his brother, Charlie, were on the edge of a new technology,” said Len’s granddaughter Barbara Boyden, a Toronto director-producer now completing a film about the two brothers. “But they remained like a couple of carnies. Everybody in the business was— and still is to some extent.” Drive: Perhaps even more than others drawn by Hollywood, Canadians remain carnies. Because the nation’s movie industry is smaller and weaker than that of most filmproducing countries, many Canadian talents have to become itinerant creators of entertainment. Until they can flourish at home, they will continue to help drive another country’s dream machine.
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