THE FARMER WHO MAKES MOVIES
Osmond Borradaile, the veteran Canadian cameraman who has won critical huzzas for Royal Journey, has gone back to his Chilliwack farm where he sometimes rises at 4.30 to milk the cows. And he has no intention of ever returning to the Hollywood rat race he once knew
THE MOST widely esteemed motion-picture photographer in Canada is a quiet but stubborn man with the sonorous name, Osmond Borradaile, who is not connected directly with the film industry at all. Borradaile is a hard-working dairy farmer living near Chilliwack, in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley, and his austere personal habits, which occasionally include rising at fourthirty in the morning to milk his cows, have little or nothing in common with the fabled Bohemian ways of show people.
Borradaile was chief cameraman in the making of Royal Journey, the most successful Canadian movie ever produced. The film, a documentary feature or super-travelogue, in excellent color, commemorated the visit paid to Canada and the United States last fall by Britain’s present Queen and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh. Critics and audiences on both sides of the Atlantic are still saluting the picture as perhaps the finest thing ever done by the National Film Board of Canada, a federal agency which has had its share of abuse in parliament since it was established in 1939.
Borradaile shared the praise from reviewers at home and in New York and London. Never having heard of him before, some Canadians surmised that the cameraman receiving international acclaim must he a newcomer to the business. The truth is that Borradaile is fifty-three years old and had been filming important movies and brushing elbows with celebrities all over the world for three decades before he finally realized a boyhood ambition by taking up the rural life in 1950. Farming is his main job now and he gets no regular salary from any source, but about twice a year he gives himself a brief leave of absence and makes a movie for NFB to help the family budget. Royal Journey, capping his career with a Canadian triumph in the land of his birth, happens to be one of those.
His other credits include such impressive films as Sanders of the River, Elephant Boy, The Overlanders, the Macomber Affair, Scott of the Antarctic, and Bonnie Prince Charlie. It was Borradaile who photographed sultry Marlene Dietrich’s original American screen test. She looked, he thought at the time, like “a cold lump of cheese.” Borradaile recorded the gross spectacle of Henry VIII’s mutton-tossing table manners while Charles Laughton was impersonating that earthy monarch. Cecil B. deMille, the brothers Alexander and Zoltán Korda of Hungary and Britain, and the late Robert J. Flaherty, “father of the documentary,” have relied as directors on his technical skill and camera-eye intuitions. Such past and present screen stars as Gloria Swanson, Fatty Arbuckle, Valentino, the senior Douglas Fairbanks, Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo, John Mills and Cary Grant have done their stuff in front of Borradaile’s lens.
Besides his ten years in Hollywood, a span which ended in 1929 when he moved to Paris for Paramount, Borradaile has fought in two wars and made movies in most of the countries of Europe, in Australia, Africa, India, the Holy Land and Syria, and in both the Arctic and Antarctic polar wildernesses. He has traveled by sea, air, rail, automobile, on horseback, on mountain pony, and once up the Congo in a dugout canoe. Today a trunk in the family living room at Chilliwack safeguards the pelts and snarling heads of two tigers, two panthers, and a leopard, all of which Borradaile killed.
“As far as I know,” one of his neighbors remarked recently, “Bordie is the only milk producer in western Canada who wears a Basque beret in the cow barn.”
In all other respects, though, the global-minded farmer dresses and comports himself like any average Fraser Valley granger. He wears the beret in memory of Paris and in homage to his wife, Christiane, a trim and animated Frenchwoman, but mainly because it’s the most comfortable headgear he owns. The Borradailes have three children, fifty-five head of Jersey cattle, a steadfast
Labrador dog named Blackie, and eighty fruitful acres divided into two adjoining properties in the shadow of Mount Cheam.
Borradaile says he has no intention of ever again working in Hollywood. Half jocularly, but half in earnest too, he often uses the phrase “den of vultures” in referring to the American movie capital, although some of his oldest and best friends are there and he has a high regard for Hollywood’s worthier talents. His future program is “to keep right on farming in British Columbia and not go broke doing it; to have the fun of watching my kids growing up in a healthful
environment; and, occasionally, to assist in the making of honest, unpretentious movies about life in Canada as it really is.”
Meanwhile, Borradaile is elated over the success of Royal Journey, a film which unlike most Film Board productions is expected to show a profit. The over-all cost was about $200,000.
“A phenomenon and a sensation!” cried Toronto’s Canadian Film Weekly. In New York, the hard-boiled Film Daily went even further: “One
of the notable documentary experiences the outstanding color film of the year.” Variety, the bible of the box
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SCENES FROM THE LIFE OF A MOVIE CAMERAMAN
Continued from page 15
office, bestowed upon it the bracing adjective “boff,” which means hit in the vigorous jargon of show business.
The assignment was a strenuous one for all concerned. Borradaile and his colleagues averaged only three or four hours’ sleep a night during the six weeks it lasted. Strain, haste, overwork, red tape and unforeseeable complications harried them from start to finish. Although they were preparing an official and permanent historical document, the NFB men were given no special privileges. They had to jockey for position everywhere with hundreds of newspaper and newsreel photographers. The “actors” couldn’t be rehearsed or moved around for the sake of an artistic or dramatic angle, and of course there were no chances for retakes.
At Calgary, Borradaile wanted to get some shots of the royal couple inside a tent full of Indians. He had to wriggle under the canvas like a small boy sneaking into a circus, and aim his camera between the legs of the redskins. As a result, his neck had a painful crick in it for three days.
In addition, the weather was a heartbreaker. Tom Daly, of the Film Board, says there were only five “reasonably I good” shooting days. In spite of these I and other difficulties, Royal Journey turned out to be an uncommonly interesting and cohesive film. The shots themselves and the. way they were edited together, Leslie McFarlane’s lively script and Lou Applebaum’s music managed to avoid most of the bombast and monotony usually considered inescapable in “patriotic” documentaries.
Borradaile’s appearance is deceptive because his ambling gait and measured speech and benign blue eyes seem to be those of a fellow who’d never quarrel with anyone. However, Borradaile considers himself “definitely a nasty bloke to work with, if things aren’t going the way I want ’em.” Years ago in Hollywood he severely beat up a prowler, who turned out to be a much-wanted criminal. The man was in such bad shape after Borradaile was through with him that the police, who had not yet identified the sufferer as an outlaw, took the cameraman down to the station house for ques| tioning. He might have spent the night in jail if the influential Cecil B. DeMille ! hadn’t got him out with an imperious telephone call to the desk sergeant. So awesome was DeMille’s name that the cops drove Borradaile to the studio instead of letting him take a taxi.
On another occasion, while he was j working for London Studios in the Thirties, Borradaile and director Zoltán Korda got into a coldly furious argument about the angle from which a certain shot should be taken. For a whole week the two men didn’t once speak directly to each other, but sent formal messages back and forth through their assistants.
As a camera craftsman Borradaile favors simplicity rather than complexity in planning a shot or sequence. “The camera,” he says, “should be as unobtrusive as your own eyes—and I twice as observant.”
It is his “camera eye” which seems I to distinguish Borradaile from the rank and file in his craft.
At Regina, for example, Borradaile was waiting for the ceremonies to begin when he saw a slightly disgruntled army private dutifully touching up the the shine on the boots of the navy guard of honor. Shots like this meant
that an anonymous Canadian public was starred almost to the same extent as the Princess who was soon to become Queen.
Like most old-timers in the technical end of film production, Borradaile takes a slightly sardonic view of the pretensions adopted by many stars. Sometimes he feels that actors are not much more than a necessary nuisance around the lot. “Most of them, sooner or later, fall for their own publicity,” he told me.
Borradaile can never take quite seriously the persistent “Ay vant to be alone” legend of aloofness that enshrouds Garbo. He believes the legend was invented for her by publicity men and that in time she came to believe it herself. He remembers a time when Garbo lived in Beverly Hills just below his own little house in Benedict Canyon, and she used to stride past his gate in tweeds with a smile and a hearty “Good mor-r-ning.” She was about as remote and mysterious as the average spaniel puppy, he recalls.
The elder Doug Fairbanks, Borradaile remembers with a chuckle, really was a pretty agile fellow and kept himself in good shape. “But he wasn’t quite the superman he seemed on the screen, even though he often tried to create that impression for the benefit of awestruck visitors on the set. He wore elevator shoes to increase his height, and ingenious little springboards were hidden at strategic points around the lot so Doug could step on them and appear to leap through the air in a manner denied to ordinary men.”
Borradaile’s decision to go into the movies is still a source of astonishment to his boyhood friends, in view of the fact that his first attendance at a movie ended in disaster. It was 1904 and he was six years old, living in Medicine Hat, Alta., where the family had moved from Winnipeg. Natural gas was used to operate the projector. Halfway through the showing of a primitive Happy Hooligan cartoon, the machine exploded. In the ensuing fire and panic young Osmond crashed through a window and landed, upside down, in a pail of garbage.
Just Itching for Africa
The lad’s father, George Borradaile, was one of the original members of the North West Mounted Police. After he died in Medicine Hat in 1907, the family moved to Victoria and later to California, where they settled in La Jolla. One summer day in 1913 a movie crew on location from Hollywood invaded the community. Fifteen-yearold Bordie got talking with the cameraman and was electrified to learn that the fellow had been to Africa and taken pictures of lions and elephants. This set fire to an ambition, long nourished by Borradaile, to see the jungles. Mapping his plans with care, he got a job in a tourist souvenir shop, learned how to develop and print snapshots, and coaxed a woman friend of the family to introduce him to a cameraman she knew who was making movies for a new director named DeMille. At sixteen, itching to be off at once on safari, Bordie triumphantly joined the staff of Jesse L. Lasky Productions —and was set to work swabbing the floor in the drying room.
A year later, after he had been promoted to chief mop boy, he interrupted his apprenticeship to enlist at Victoria and served in France with the Canadian Army in World War I. Then he went back to Hollywood in 1919 as assistant to a junior cameraman named Alfred Gilks, who had been his assistant before the war. In 1951, Gilks photographed everything but the
final ballet in MGM’s Oscar-winning musical, An American in Paris.
The way Borradaile remembers it, Hollywood in the Roaring Twenties was “both a town and a state of mind,” which can never quite be recreated.
In those silent days, few actors ever bothered to speak the dialogue which would appear later as printed subtitles on the screen. They would merely mutter any words that came into their heads while the camera was grinding. Once Borradaile worked on a picture which was shown, prior to its general release, to a group of deaf people at a charity preview. They were outraged. There was a big scene between the betrayed heroine and a saintly old missionary, and the deaf lip readers could see the man clearly articulating his intention to “go out and get stinking drunk tonight” at a moment when the ornate subtitle was saying, “Have courage, my child, and Providence will look after you.” The scene was reshot next morning.
Borradaile’s personal friends among the actors of the day included Lon Chaney Sr., the screen’s original master of grotesque make-up; Wallace Reid, famous star in the early Twenties and Warner Oland, who was featured for years as Charlie Chan, a clever Chinese detective.
Borradaile cherishes in retrospect the opportunities that came to him to absorb the cinematic philosophy of Robert Flaherty, the lusty and lovable creator of Nanook of the North, Moana, Man of Aran and other documentary masterworks. Flaherty, Michigan-born but Canadian by adoption, was fascinated by the timeless drama and poetry of man’s relationships with his environment. He taught Borradaile that one of the best ways to tell a story on film is to show it happening through the eyes of a child, but that the child himself must not be sentimentalized or caricatured.
Working for Korda, Flaherty took the Canadian to India with him in 1936 to make Elephant Boy, based on a story by Rudyard Kipling. It was Borradaile who discovered a brighteyed lad named Sabu, working in the stables of the Maharaja of Mysore, and recommended him to Flaherty for the title role in the picture. Sabu believed himself to have been born under a mystic conjunction of lucky stars, and he was not in the least surprised on being plucked from obscurity. With incredible rapidity the little Indian boy adapted himself to the life of a movie notable.
Borradaile shot the memorable scene showing Paul Robeson chanting his Canoe Song against an authentic backdrop of African jungles in Sanders of the River. But Robeson himself never went to Africa for the picture. Closeups of the giant Negro singer were taken in the Elstree studios near London and superimposed on genuine African footage shot earlier by Borradaile along the Congo. In this same tradition of more or less legitimate hocuspocus, Hollywood’s Gregory Peck and Joan Bennett never went to Africa for The Macomber Affair, and Britain’s John Mills never went farther south than Switzerland for the polar rigors of Scott of the Antarctic. Borradaile knows; he was there.
Probably helped by his years of aiming cameras, Borradaile found it fairly easy to master marksmanship with firearms and he became a successful big-game hunter in Africa and India. This accuracy also served him well during World War II, while he was on duty in British Army film units with the rank of captain. He worked at various times with the infantry and in ships, planes and tanks, and flew as a gunner in an old Maryland bomber.
During the war, Borradaile did a couple of quick movie jobs for the Canadian National Film Board before tackling other assignments in Britain and Australia. This experience pulled his mind back nostalgically toward his native country. Gradually the determination grew to buy a farm in Canada, preferably on the Pacific coast, while he was still husky enough to enjoy it, and to offer his family a taste of oldfashioned rustic serenity.
He selected Chilliwack because his wife had stayed there for eighteen months as a war guest and had fallen
i. luve with the verdant Fraser Valley. Using a good part of his savings of five thousand pounds Borradaile bought Cheam Farm, on the Trans-Canada Highway two miles east of the town.
In a letter to a friend he recently said he was “just a chambermaid to a bunch of prima donna cows.” He has two paid helpers, a foreman and a handyman. This means Farmer Borradaile doesn’t ordinarily have to get up until 7 a.m., which is practically high noon to conventional men of the soil. Every Sunday, though, when one of the helpers has the day off, the old
glamour-factory hand rolls out of bed at four-thirty to supervise the five o’clock milking.
Mrs. Borradaile was a gay and bilingual studio script girl named Christiane Lippens when Osmond married her in Paris in 1930, only six months after he had left Hollywood for Europe. She is a delightful woman who imparts a Gallic sparkle to their western Canadian household. The Borradailes have three polite but spirited children: Anita, fourteen; Lilia, eight; and George, three.
The farm, up to now, is just barely
breaking even. Borradaile figures he may clear a little in 1952 “unless the rising costs of feed, labor and equipment force me to sell my cows to the butchers.” Meanwhile he does an occasional camera job for NFB, which deems itself fortunate to have a craftsman of his standing available for special assignments. One of these was Canada’s Awakening North, for which he flew into the Arctic in 1950. Another, filmed in southern B. C., was Breakdown, a study of emotional illness and its treatment.
Although he enjoys his life on the farm and intends to stay there if he can make a go of it, Borradaile is always ready to whisk away for a spell —even to remote corners of the globe, if necessary—to make a movie that presents the kind of challenge he can’t resist.
He believes, as Flaherty believed, that the best films are usually those which tell real stories about real people doing real things in their natural surroundings.
“I am convinced,” he says, “that Canada is full of opportunities for such stories, and that they can be filmed by Canadians on budgets reasonable enough to let us gently thumb our noses at that rich Hollywood colossus to the south.” And Borradaile hopes that these pictures eventually will help Canada to disclose an honest self-portrait to the world. It will show a composite Canadian not quite resembling that large platinum-haired Mountie crouching beside a fallen grizzly, embracing a fiery halfbreed girl with one arm, trapping a beaver with the other, and bellowing Rose Marie in a trained baritone voice enormously magnified by electronicdevices.
“Hey, Dook! Look This Way!”
Borradaile already was pretty firm in these beliefs before the Film Board pulled him off his farm one day last fall as camera chief in the making of Royal Journey. That project gave him a stimulating ocean-to-ocean view of his native land, and today he is more certain than ever that dozens of fine movie subjects are going a-begging in Canada.
For a more personal reason, Borradaile is glad he had the experience of following Elizabeth and Philip across North America. It supplied him, as parent and raconteur, with a brandnew stock of anecdotes he can tell his family and friends in front of his hospitable Chilliwack fireplace. The one the children like best is his story of an incident in the Laurentians which revealed that Britain’s young Queen has a truly royal sense of humor—and that she is, moreover, a mimic of almost professional calibre.
In Washington the visitors from London had been exposed for the first time to the fantastic zest and informality of big-time American newsreel and Press photographers, who are awed by nobody and call everybody by the first name. A few days later in the lovely village of Ste. Agathe, north of Montreal, the future Queen strolled out of the lodge, holding her own little movie camera. She chatted with Borradaile for a moment, spotted her husband and an equerry standing at the other side of the courtyard, whipped the camera up to her eye, and shouted in a voice of stunning nasality and volume:
“Hey! You, there! Hey, Dook! Look this way a sec! Dat’s it! THANKS A LOT!”
Borradaile would have given almost, anything to get that incident into Royal Journey, but he says he just wasn’t born that lucky. ★