Canada’s film boss is dynamic, voluble, slightly incredible. Some people regard him as "one of the best shows on earth"
GIVEN a less scholarly background, John Grierson might have been a great success operating a one-man band. To this he would undoubtedly have added a three-ring circus and kept the whole thing going single-handed.
As it is, John Grierson is Commissioner of Canada’s National Film Board, a position he’s held for two years. Four months ago, the Film Board still on his back, he took over “one of Ottawa’s dangerous jobs”—the general-managership of the Wartime Information Board. It is unlikely that Ottawa will offer John Grierson any more jobs at the moment, but if it did, he’d probably take them on.
With all that he is one of the least haggard-
looking men in the capital city. He is also one of the most approachable.
“If anyone comes along with a good reason,” says a member of his staff in WIB, “Mr. Grierson will usually see them.”
He sees so many people both socially and on business that every fourth person in Ottawa seems to have met John Grierson. Of these people 99% under 40 become what is known as “Grierson converts.” His contemporaries fall into two groups —those who regard him as one of the best shows on earth, and those who’d be quite happy if they never saw him again. The latter includes all who want to run something that John Grierson feels he ought to run.
In appearance Grierson has been compared to Charlie Chaplin. This is partly because of a short-clipped mustache and a pair of blue eyes which are alternately comic and appealing, partly because he is a small, meagre-fleshed man.
Aside from that, his appearance is not impressive. His features are neatly chiselled but unremarkable. His hair is brown with a little grey in it. During business hours he wears a dark, pin-stripe suit with a slight wartime shine and goes in for bright blue ties that may be chosen to match his eyes. At home his favorite costume consists of a Siwash sweater, slacks and bedroom slippers.
Unlike Charlie Chaplin, John Grierson is no silent star. Most of his action is vocal and is performed in a pleasant voice of Scottish origin. He talks best from a modified Yogi position with his feet up and his knees under his chin. Visitors to his office are frequently startled to find the general manager of Wartime Information not in his chair, but perched on the top of his desk.
Settled in his favorite position John Grierson can talk indefinitely. His language ranges from a lusty “damn” to a scholarly “ad hoc.” His topics vary from how to grow good strawberries to how to educate good citizens. Three hours is said to be no more than a preliminary warmup for him and routine matters such as mealtime and bedtime are never allowed to break into a conversation.
What he enjoys most is for someone to start an argument. Lacking that, he’ll start one himself, making statements which he knows to be preposterous and then reproaching himself for talking like an idiot. The result is no one, probably not even Grierson, knows where Grierson ends and the ballyhoo begins.
On a first meeting the impression John Grierson makes is terrific, also on a second meeting and a third. “After that you begin to take John in your stride,” says one of his close co-workers.
That may be because, with few exceptions, the person he apparently likes best to hear talk is John Grierson. Or it may be because he is fundamentally a man of one idea, the idea of education through propaganda. “We have a need,” he believes, “for a vast new system of education by which people will be made aware of the needs of the state and of their duties as citizens.”
On the basis of that idea he turns out Government films. To that same idea he hopes to shape the policy of the Wartime Information Board. Whether or not he makes anything of WIB remains to be seen—and there is plenty of betting in Ottawa against him. But what he’s made of Canada’s film industry, first as organizer and during the last two years as Commissioner, is impressive. When he came out here from England in 1939 at the invitation of the Canadian Government it was with the hope that he could revive a dead horse— Government film making. Today the National Film Board is turning out films, many of which are of such calibre as to be acceptable in commercial theatres not only here but in the States. They are making documentary films which experts agree are among the best of their kind in any English-speaking country in the world.
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The type of film that John Grierson makes is his own invention and not one that is featured in lights. He employs no photogenic blondes in the making of them, seeks out no well-rounded plots. Nearest equivalent in Hollywood products is the “March of Time.” Unlike producers of the Time series, Grierson does not seek the sensational story, rather he avoids it. Instead of being répertoriai he is editorial.
Best known of his films are his twenty - minute documentaries of which the Film Board makes two a month. These come in two series. One is “The World in Action” which includes “Inside Fighting China,” “Churchill’s Island,” winner of a Hollywood Oscar in 1941, and “The Invasion of North Africa.” These are done with ready-made pictures gathered from all over the world— even from Germany by way of captured films. The Film Board’s part in them is a matter of cutting, editing and introducing sound. Besides being shown in Canadian theatres, this series is shown in Latin America, the British Dominions and in tí,000 theatres in the United States. “The World in Action” not only pays for itself but makes money.
The other big series, “Canada Carries On,” is mainly for home consumption and is released commercially in 900 Canadian picture houses to what the Film Board estimates as an audience of 2U> million people. “Inside Fighting Canada,” “Wings of Youth” and “The Battle of the Harvest” belong to this series. The object is to keep Canada informed of Canada’s war effort. To keep other nations informed of the same great fact the series is translated into twelve languages including Arabic, Greek and Turkish.
To the theatre-goer the chief criticism of these films is their frequent lack of smooth technique. This is partly due to a scarcity of good equipment, partly to a shortage of experienced film makers, but more than anything to John Grierson’s disbelief in the importance of fine finish.
He deplores what he calls “the spit and polish” of Hollywood productions. Warns his producers “not to let the corn begin to overshadow what is fundamental.” Implores his staff not to “pursue the comfort of technical excellence.”
The Film Board staff, incidentally, are known in Ottawa as Grierson’s Apostles. To the blue-suited civil service they appear disturbingly unorthodox and probably slightly mad. Their plaid shirts and slacks have become a legend. So have their cockeyed working hours by which they turn night into day. So has their devotion to John Grierson.
“I couldn’t work there,” somebody once remarked. “It would be like living with God.”
John Grierson’s system in gathering this staff was to pick young and intelligent men and women and tell them to go make films. He picked them young because “nobody over 35 is any good.” He picked them
green because there were few technical experts in Canada and he believes that, so far as possible, Canadian films should be made by Canadians. They came to him from newspapers, advertising agencies and out of college. Two years ago few of them had handled anything more complicated than an ordinary box camera. Today they’re making good films.
The man who taught them is John Grierson. He spent twelve years at film making in England, He began in 1927 as head of the film branches of the Empire Marketing Board. Eight years later he branched out with his own documentary and information organization called “Film Centre.”
Preacher and Teacher
THE qualities that make him a success lie much deeper than that. He was born in Scotland 44 years ago. Like most Scotsmen he is a preacher and a teacher at heart and had his fling at both careers. He renounced the ministry of his own accord but as a teacher he came to an untimely end.
“I was hired to teach ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ to a nightschool class of factory workers,” he recalls with amusement. “I began by asking them what their work was and how many hours a day they spent at it. It seemed unfair to burden the poor devils with such a difficult play so we discussed the pictures and the local music hall.” When the school inspector discovered what was going on, the career of Teacher Grierson ended.
As the son of a schoolmaster, Grierson was subject to more than an average amount of the formal education he has since thrown overboard. To relieve the tedium of minesweeping and sub-chasing during the last war, Able Seaman Grierson read philosophy. Following the war he took an M.A. at Glasgow. A lectureship at Durham University followed. Then a three-year travelling scholarship which brought him to America for the first time—to Columbia, Wisconsin, Chicago and other universities.
In Canada so much culture sits a little strangely but on John Grierson it is rarely resented. Legend has it that he couldn’t tell a Ukrainian workman he had egg on his shirt without quoting Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and Milton’s Areopagitica. Grierson denies that there’s any truth in this but members of the Film Board staff insist they’ve known him to lose his temper in Milton.
More frequent than his sorties into the classics is his use of “Griersonisms.” Of these, “pattern” is the favorite. “The pattern of men’s actions,” says John Grierson. And “the pattern of thought and feeling.” Occasionally he changes it to “blueprint.” From there he rushes on to demand “the boiling of a report,” to the insistence that “it’s work-power that counts.”
With John Grierson work and recreation are all of a piece. No one
has ever known him to take exercise. Since he has been in Ottawa he has had one vacation—two months in Florida on doctor’s orders. “It took me a whole month,” he says, “to learn how to take a holiday.”
Having learned how, he lost interest in it and spent the second month writing a book.
In Ottawa Grierson is famous for having no«sense of time or place. The one hour that registers in his mind is
“I refuse to get to the office before ten in the morning,” he says. “It’s not human.”
From then on, his appointments pile up like pancakes on a plate. Sometimes they’re in one of his two offices, more frequently at his flat on Ottawa’s Cooper Street. It is said that he would prefer to live in a hotel and that this flat is his one concession to domesticity.
To Mrs. Grierson the Cooper Street home must seem to have all the privacy of the Grand Central station. Her husband makes appointments at all hours of day and night and is frequently not there to keep them. Margaret Grierson’s job is to entertain the callers while they wait for her husband. No one has been heard to complain about that arrangement.
Words used to describe Margaret Grierson are “lovely,” “charming,” “serene,” “understanding.” It is a surprise to discover that she is also very young.
Her chief problem is to keep her husband fed. He has no interest in food. People have seen him eating at the Chateau, the Parliamentary restaurant and the Rideau Club but it is thought he does it only to be with his friends. When he sleeps is also a mystery. One of his colleagues claims to have seen him asleep on the train to Washington. Other people don’t believe it. The procedure when inviting John Grierson for the evening is to go to bed immediately after dinner, having set the alarm for
11 p.m. He can usually be counted on to arrive about 11.30.
Grierson and People
GRIERSON gets along well with all sorts of people. In both his jobs he is responsible to a Board of Governors and gives an account of his stewardship to each once a month.
“For two hours once a month,” he tells them, “it is your privilege to rake me over the coals.”
The Film Board, which he describes as a group of reasonable and intelligent men, so far has seen no need for this. Attacks on General Manager - Administrator Grierson have been largely on the matter of salaries paid to Wartime Information employees, and long-distance calls for the Film Board. Grierson regards these as minor criticisms that are the lot of every civil servant and he is undisturbed by them.
With his staff John Grierson doesn’t play the big boss. His theory is to give them a job to do, then go away and leave them to it.
“When they first come in,” he says, “they expect to be told what to do. When they find out nobody’s going to tell them, they get busy and work it out for themselves.”
The staff have their own ideas on the reason for his success. To them he is Inspiration spelled out in bright lights. His visits which are infrequent act on them like a well-placed battery on a race horse. “But if he stays away too long,” one of his camera girls admits, “we get awfully down.” Alost of them, particularly those on the Film Board, regard their work not as a career but as a mission and their task the spreading of the Grierson religion of Propaganda. To John Grierson all art is propaganda.
“El Greco’s paintings,” he explains, “were propaganda for the Catholic church. When a man has his portrait painted that’s propaganda—for himself.”
He believes the future of art in Canada is propaganda. He can see the Wartime Information Board employing artists “all for the glory of Canada.” Teaching, too, he believes, must follow the same pattern. “Much of what we now know as education will become what we now know as propaganda.”
People will be emancipated, he believes, not by an education that demands rational understanding— that is too difficult for the average person and takes too much time. What he hopes to give them through his films and information service is “a crystallization of their sentiments and loyalties in forms which are useful to the people and the State alike.”
Grierson and the State
BECAUSE of his insistence on the needs and services of the State, John Grierson more than once has been branded a Fascist. This amuses him. “It’s words such as ‘activist’ and ‘totalitarian’ that upset people,” he says. “When I see eyebrows begin to go up, I toss them in at every opportunity.”
Because of his lack of interest in big money, it is sometimes thought he aims at power.
John Grierson’s forecast for the future of Canada is “A moving toward each other of Socialism and Capitalism.”
What he wants for everyone is “a good lunch and opportunity.”
To the Beveridge Plan he says, “Good heavens no, a country with Canada’s riches can offer something better than that.”
What Canada needs, he insists, is a national consciousness—only he’s apt to say “what we need” because John Grierson, four years out from England, regards himself as a Canadian.
The way to bring this about, he believes, is for us Canadians to know more about Canada and our fellow Canadians. If we don’t learn it won’t be John Grierson’s fault. The 200 films he turns out each year are slanted to that end. “Canada Carries On” and “The World in Action” are his big guns but he doesn’t stop there. His camera men go to shipyards and war plants to give us such films as “Fighting Ships,” “Keep ’em Flying” and “Smoke and Steel.” They travel from coast to coast to show iis “Fur Country,” “Peace River,” “Quebec, Path of Conquest” and “Ukrainian Christmas Holiday.” These are 16 mm. films, too small
to be shown in regular theatres and made expressly for community distribution. They go to factories where they are shown through LaborManagement co-operation. They go to rural districts where they are shown in schools and halls. They are deposited in 30 widespread film libraries fbr anyone to borrow.
These films are what John Grierson calls “the shorthand of education” . . . “designed to wake the heart and the will” of the Canadian people. He calls himself, as creator of them, a Propagandist. If he ever sees himself as one of a long line of Scottish missionaries to Canada he doesn’t say so.