GENERAL ARTICLES

Hollywood, Quebec

HUGH KEMP May 15 1947
GENERAL ARTICLES

Hollywood, Quebec

HUGH KEMP May 15 1947

Hollywood, Quebec

This Quebec film is good enough to compete with Hollywood—it may mean a new Canadian industry

HUGH KEMP

SOME TIME this spring Canadian movie-goers will see a film entitled “Whispering City,” in which Hollywood’s suave Hungarian actor, Paul Lukas, will attempt to force Hollywood’s intense young Austrian actor, Helmut Dantine, into the murder of Hollywood’s Mary Anderson. These dark proceedings will take place along the ancient brooding streets of Quebec City, where Mr. Lukas and Mr. Dantine will be represented as French Canadians.

About the same time that this film is being shown to English-speaking Canadians, film-goers in France, Swizterland, and perhaps South America, will be witnessing the identical happenings in the identical rooms and streets, except that instead of Mr. Lukas they will see the Quebec actor Jaques Auger; in place of Helmut Dantine, Paul Dupuis, another Canadian, and Miss Nicole Germain (Miss French-Canadian Radio, 1946) in the part of Mary Anderson. And the dialogue will be French.

If these audiences attend in large enough numbers, and react well enough, a current Canadian argument will be settled favorably. The argument: whether or not it is commercially feasible to make feature-length motion pictures in Canada. For the Lukas - Dantine - Anderson picture, “Whispering City,” is a Canadian production, as is its French equivalent, “La Forteresse.” Both were made last summer, by Quebec Productions, in a studio at St. Hyacinthe, Que.

“Whispering City,” made at a cost of $600,000 of one man’s money, was one of three films made in Canada during the past two years. The other two were “Le Père Chopin,” made by Renaissance Films, Montreal, at a cost of $242,000, and “Bush Pilot,” made by Dominion Productions, Toronto, for approximately $165,000.

The making of these films touched off a barrage of comment from the press and technical journals, notable mainly for extreme positions. A Montreal Sunday supplement hailed this activity as a new gold rush, pictured talent and investors fighting to get in on the ground floor of a new industry. A conservative business journal set out to prove that it was all quite impossible; that the figures foredoomed every such effort to total failure.

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most costly and the most professional of the recent Canadian films, is an ideal test case. It is also the most interesting, having started out as a thematic story “illustrating the difference in ideologies between Quebec and the rest of the continent,” and ended up as a suspense melodrama. Everything zany associated with the legend of picturemaking happened to this film; all the improbable characters turned up in the Little Hollywood of St. Hyacinthe; and all of the problems peculiar to the independent company passed across the producer’s desk.

Many Shirts Were Lost

Quebec Productions is, in essence, two men, Quebec financier René Germain, who footed the $600,000 bill out of his own pocket, and Paul L’Anglais, the executive producer. L’Anglais is a 40-year-old French Canadian, well known in Montreal, Toronto and New York advertising circles as a producer of French radio broadcasts. He got into movies from radio, via television. Anticipating television as an advancement on radio, he began a study of production techniques in that medium; discovered that much telecasting would be done through 16 millimetre library films, as broadcasting is done today by means of recordings. A study of the 16-mm. film business led him to the production of 35-millimetre theatre-size films, and ultimately to “Whispering City.”

L’Anglais’ entire backing came from Montreal financier René Germain, a quiet-spoken greying man in his midfifties, who had neither knowledge of nor interest in the motion picture

business. He put more than half a million at L’Anglais’ disposal largely because of faith in the younger man’s ability.

Both Paul L’Anglais and René Germain are race-conscious, and one of the expressed aims of Quebec Productions is to represent French Canada to the rest of the world. But they are businessmen first and French Canadians second. They regard pictures as “manufactured goods” rather than as art.

The financial chapter of the history of motion-picture making in Canada is gloomy reading in red. Since the early days of silent pictures more than a score of films have been made here, backed by Canadian capital and produced by Canadians. Most of them have lost their backers’ shirts. One called “Policing the Plains” made so little money that not even the theatre ushers could be paid. Another, “Carry on Sergeant,” made just after the last war, lost approximately half a million dollars.

But according to Financier Germain and L’Anglais, who did their own research in New' York and Hollywood, things have changed in the past few years. They found the market for films in world theatres is greater than the present production of established studios. They found, too, that Canada’s name stands high with movie-goers in western Europe, South America, and the British Empire. They came to believe the Canadian label might be a good passport into many countries where the United States is now not so sympathetically regarded . Chief exception to this is the United States itself where “Whispering City” will not be identified as a Canadian film.

In New York and Hollywood the Quebec Productions executives were warned away from the low-budget

quickie idea which has attracted other independent producers. Pictures which are cheap generally look cheap; suffer from bad camera work, fuzzy sound and cheap-looking sets. Such pictures, quite independent of story, direction or acting, are generally unacceptable to audiences, and for that reason are poison to the theatre owners. To get a good-looking picture good money has to be spent on technicians and equipment. The $600,000 budget was based on that kind of thinking.

The personal adventure of Paul L’Anglais during the ^m^g of the picture were varied and amusing to the spectator. In the first place he bought a story that never quite managed to exist.

“This Can Be Fun’

It was a synopsis called “Rendezvous at the Chateau Frontenac,” owned by a Montreal promoter. • Several writers in New York were hired to work on the screen play. They got nowhere. L’Anglais flew to New York and fired them. A director and writers in Hollywood were then hired to do the job. They worked for several months. They got nowhere. L’Anglais flew down to Hollywood for a personal checkup, discovered the situation and threw the story out the window. This process went through about $20,000, but the Canadians wrote it off to experience and went after another story.

L’Anglais then sat down in a Hollywood agent’s office and read through story after story for 15 days. Here he came up against the conventional Hollywood viewpoint on Canadian stories—to be acceptable to world audiences they must be based on the red coats of the Mounties, the beavers and their gnawing enterprises, or lumberjacks, tramping through the streets of Montreal with snowshoes on their backs, singing “Alouette.”

The Quebec producer did not want one of these tired themes, but he was prevailed upon to play it safe for his first film by buying a proven kind of story. He ended up with a murder mystery entitled “Whispering City,” with a New York background. He hoped he could switch it to a Quebec City background.

More Hollywood writers were hired to do a screen play.

Having arranged a studio and purchased a story, L’Anglais set about staffing his company. This is a big trick, for in addition to the actors, writers and various directors, a picture like “Whispering City” calls for a closely knit production team of more than a hundred people, including camera, lighting and sound crews, carpenters, plasterers and make-up people.

How to get them? The only way Ls to put yourself in the hands of a Hollywood agent and this can be fun.

There are quite a number of agents who just lie in wait for the nice young men who come down from strange places with their pockets full of money, and the ambition to make a movie. They sell them stories, actors, directors, cameramen, relatives and relatives of the relatives, and then collect 10% of the gross in salaries. Usually the agent expects only one . picture from the promoter, which is known as nice work while you can get it.

L’Anglais got agent Paul Kohner— formerly production assistant to Carl Laemmle—and Kohner did a satisfactory job of talent placing, considering the difficulty of persuading good talent to leave Hollywood for the wilds of Canada. But good money bought good people, notably Paul Lukas as the lead actor and Guy Roe as camera director. Kohner also placed Helmut Dantine, which took some persuading. Mary

Anderson jumped at the chance for her first lead after the part was turned down by Anna bella and Michele Morgan.

The French casting was done by L’Anglais himself in Montreal, and the only import was Paul Dupuis, a French-Canadian actor who had recently made good in England in a film called “Johnnj' Frenchman.” As well as appointing Canadian talent to the French picture, Quebec Productions hired Canadian assistants for the chief Hollywood technicians, with a view to training these people to take over the key jobs in later pictures.

Before leaving for Hollywood to check on his screen play and cast the English picture, L’Anglais had made arrangements for studio space and rental of equipment—or thought he had. He arrived home to find that the space had been cancelled, and that there was nothing else available. About a week after he had given up hope an acquaintance mentioned that the Naval Training Centre at St. Hyacinthe had been bought up by a friend of his, and was available for occupancy. Quebec Productions had it the same day.

Ten days before the scheduled starting date the camera crew was still in Hollywood, unable to get transportation; the French star, Paul Dupuis, was in London without a plane passage; the screen play was in completely impossible shape; the art director was insistent that the sets could not possibly be completed in time to start shooting; and the production manager was still trying to round up essential equipment in Hollywood, New York, Rochester, Toronto and Montreal. In spite of all this the production started just about on time.

The studio turned out to be a pretty efficient film factory. On the outside it was still a grey wartime temporary building but inside the ex-drill hall it was a world transformed. When the red light over the door wasn’t on you entered through two large soundproof doors, walked past some cliffs and several trees, passed through three sides of a shabby composer’s apartment, stumbled over two brass beds, found your way through some desks and two walls of a dusty old newspaper office, carefully avoided the electrician’s black cables which snaked everywhere, and finally came to three sides of a swank little Quebec City apartment.

If you were lucky you found Mary Anderson on a couch in the apartment, being stared at by 40 men, a camera, and at least 50 spotlights, ready to play a scene with Helmut Dantine. A microphone swung back and forth over her head to catch her merest whisper.

When the scene was finished and okayed Dantine and Anderson went to their dressing rooms, and were replaced before the cameras by Paul Dupuis and Nicole Germain who repeated the action but spoke in French.

The company shot about three minutes of finished film a day. This is considered pretty good in Hollywood.

One problem carried through the entire making of the picture: the screen play. No one person ever quite knew what the story was all about. Even when the picture was finished the producer admitted that he didn’t know for sure what was in the can.

Canadians Were Happier

The version that came to Canada as a shooting script had been done by the Russian director of the picture and the Parisian assistant director. It contained such lines as “There, I have done your villain’s work,” spoken by Dantine to Lukas. The end of the picture was only vaguely suspected.

A Canadian writer was hired to put

the dialogue in speaking shape. This writer lasted six weeks, and was replaced by a $750-a-week woman from New York. She found the ending to the picture a few weeks before the final scene was due to be photographed.

The Hollywoodians brought quite a bit of color to the manufacturing town of St. Hyacinthe, 30 miles southeast of Montreal, which was recovering from a wartime invasion of 4,000 sailors and Wrens. They stayed at a hotel named, symbolically, “The Grand,” and rushed through the streets in magnificent sports coats. Biggest thrill for the bobby soxers was the sight of Helmut Dantine, in full make-up, eating lunch in a small side-street, restaurant. When asked for an autograph he automatically signed five, remarking, “In Hollywood you have to trade; two of mine for one of Bergman’s.”

League of Many Nations

The film makers formed quite an international set. The producer, George Marton, was a Hungarian who had been head of a large literary agency in Europe before the war. Director Fedor Ozep was a Russian, noted for his pictures in German and French. The assistant director was Parisian. The unit manager was Swiss. The cutter had spent a good many years prior to the war in Japan teaching the Japs American picture methods. Dantine was Austrian. Mary Anderson was an Alabama girl who had been brought out of a football stand in the south to try for the role of Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind.”

On the set and off there were constant rumblings among the American personalities, some of whom thought they saw their careers threatened by the picture. Helmut Dantine, young and intensely ambitious (he was the injured Nazi flier in Mrs. Miniver), argued for improvements in the script.

Paul Lukas, veteran of many fine plays and films, shrugged his shoulders: “1 am an actor. 1 will act and 1 will take my money and I will go home.” When not acting he pounded the local tennis champions into the courts. To Mary Anderson (she was the girl who jumped overboard in “Lifeboat”) the picture was quite all right: “You wait and see . . . this isn’t a bad little picture at all.”

The Canadians playing in the French version were generally happier. For them it was an opportunity, the beginning of a new industry. All of them came from French radio where wages are not high. Only Paul Dupuis, the romantic lead, had played in a featurelength film before. The French actors worked together, had fun, and made a picture.

The Canadian technicians were hopeful. Most of them had learned their trades during the war at the National Film Board or in the services. Now they wanted jobs in the picture business; figured they might get them if films such as this were successful. A typical technician was Dick Jarvis, lanky westerner who started with the Film Board near the beginning of the war, and then went overseas with the RCAF Film Unit. He went into Quebec Productions as an assistant to the cutter; ended up doing the final cutting on the film and directing some scenes.

By the first of this year the film was finished, except for editing, scoring, and some title shots, and everybody had their money. Everybody, that is, except Quebec Productions, and all they had was over half a million dollars worth of celluloid, and absolutely no guarantee that it would be bought by the theatres.

The simple fact is that you can’t get a guarantee of purchase unless you have a long history of successful picturemaking. The Quebec venture was a pure gamble from the beginning.

Ten years ago L’Anglais would have lost Mr. Germain’s shirt on this film, because in those days Hollywood had virtually complete control over what pictures would lx: shown in the major theatre chains of the world. Hollywood dominated most of the chains, and was in a perfect position to break the independents, fj^hich it usually did, having no kind fi'—^?y interest in building up its opposition.

But since that time there has been a new deal. It started when the American trust busters went to work on the “block booking” of pictures. In the days of block booking producers said to the distribution chains: “You can

have this superterrific picture with all our stars providing you also take these seven others which vary from mediocre to absolute rot.” *

In that way Hollywood kept the theatres filled with their own produce. Since the trust-bust action the producers have had to sell their pictures one at a time, and the distributors have proven pretty choosy. Thus, the door was opened a few inches for the independent, on the condition, of course, that he was able to make good enough pictures.

Prior to this time the independent’s only hope was to sell his picture to the independent theatres, of which there are quite a number. L’Anglais surveyed the independent market, dismissed it, and went ahead on the gamble that he could make a good enough picture to interest one of the big chains.

Into this jigsaw puzzle enters another factor, the stalwart figure of J. Arthur Rank, the British film tycoon who took up where the American courts left off on the reduction of Hollywood as world film capital.

The story of Mr. Rank, which is too long to be told here to those who don’t already know it, is one of the business epics of our time. Driving through the opening that the courts had breached in Hollywood’s world monopoly, the FlourandFilm King of Britain bought up interests in theatre chains in all the important countries of the world, including America. Mr. Rank, who now has 60 theatres in Canada, is building a chain of 54 additional houses which will be completed by 1950. He also has an exchange agreement with Russia.

The reason Rank looms so large in the thinking of Canadian producers is his method of operation. His policy is based on fathering, rather than assaulting, independent production companies

Evidence of his attitude toward the independents is the fact that he bought and equipped Queensway Studios, near Toronto, which he rents to independent companies. He makes no guarantee of accepting the finished picture for distribution—didn’t accept the featurelength picture made there recently—but his distribution organization looms on the horizon of every Canadian film planner’s thinking like the grand prize in the Irish Sweepstake.

Two Pictures in One

Early in 1947 the two versions of “Whispering City” were ready for screening, and L’Anglais went out after a buyer. First stop: J. Arthur Rank. Mr. Rank’s American representatives were interested and came in force to a showing. These men, most of them distributors, came with very real reservations in their minds. Their experience with recently made Cana-

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dian films had not been good, but they were prepared to try to make the best of it. Not even theatre owners like to see $600,000 of someone else’s money go down the drain.

They were greatly relieved by what they saw. Their worst fear, that of technical ineptness, was dispelled. The camera work was excellent; the sound clear and good. From the acting standpoint it was a Paul Lukas picture. He cost plenty and the investment paid off. He made some implausible things quite acceptable by sheer virtuosity. The exterior of Quebec was authentic and interesting, even if the character was missing, and Director Ozep had captured some of the old-world atmosphere of Quebec. Helmut Dantine was properly intense and distraught, and Mary Anderson was all right as the American girl.

The Canadian talent came in for commendation too, particularly in the French version. Paul Dupuis and Nicole Germain outshone their Hollywood opposites. The French version had a unity that was lacking in the English, and was accordingly a better picture. Considering that it cost only an additional 25% on top of the cost of the English picture, it looked like a revelation of Quebec’s greatest aaset in the film business—fluency in two languages.

The final verdict of the exhibitors was that if “Whispering City” was not

a great motion picture, it was at1 ^ professional “suspense” picture, y°u could be fitted into schedules. E^11* the English and the French versit11"0 were recommended for acceptance 'KRank. Quebec Productions wtv0 assured of world distribution {?> “Whispering City.” In summary, Hi* company has made a picture and it’s still in business, and that’s pretty good going for a Canadian independent.

Quebec Productions’ plans call for three pictures a year. L’Anglais hopes to return to the idea of doing stories with a Canadian theme, and preferably with a Quebec theme.

In future productions me percentage of Canadians employed will be higher, though for the key technical jobs, and at least the lead role, Americans and perhaps Britishers will be called in. L’Anglais and his advisers still consider that there is no Canadian actor strong enough to carry a picture, but in this field, too, they will try to increase the percentage of Canadians. This will also have the effect of cutting costs. The three leads for “Whispering City” cost well over $100,000.

Whether or not the present activities will add up to a permanent film industry for Canada is still anybody’s guess. But we are not alone in trying. Similar efforts are now going forward in India, Mexico, Australia and several other countries. Some observers go so far as to picture this as a world-wide revolt against Hollywood, -fc