How they’re making a hero of Pierre Radisson

BARBARA MOON January 19 1957

How they’re making a hero of Pierre Radisson

BARBARA MOON January 19 1957

How they’re making a hero of Pierre Radisson


Once upon a time Walt Disney, a cartoonistturned-impresario, buffed up a tarnished early-nineteenth-century U.S. hero named Davy Crockett, televised him—and turned him into a kindergarten cult. The cult spread across the undefended frontier into Canada, where it prompted dismay among patriotic adults. The people who write letters to newspapers wrote letters demanding an embargo on the import of foreign history. One of them reported that her kid had been so thoroughly brain-washed by American TV that he’d said, one day, “The British? They’re the Bad Guys, aren’t they?” Scores of editorial writers opined that Canada had far better homegrown heroes than Crockett — David Thompson, say, or Samuel de Champlain or Adam Dollard or those two colorful scamps, Radisson and Groseilliers, known to schoolchildren as Radishes and Gooseberries. The president of the CPR, N. R. Crump, was so wrathy he got off the rails during a speech in Edmonton and proposed his own candidate: an obscure, hard-drinking halfbreed half-pint named Jerry Potts, who had been a scout for the North West Mounted Police. The Crockett craze was deplored in home-and-school meetings, the annual convention of the Canadian Humanities Association and parliament.

The Crockett invasion took place in 1955. The Canadian counterattack starts in three weeks on all fronts.

On Friday, Feb. 8, from five to five-thirty, English-speaking small fry across Canada will see episode 1 of a thirty-nine-part filmed TV series on the life and times of Pierre Esprit Radisson (1637-1710). The previous Sunday, Feb. 3, from five-thirty to six, little Canadiens will have seen the same thing in French. Fifteen weekly installments are scheduled for this season; the remaining twenty-four will be run off next season, if the first serving is greeted with satisfactory squeals. The CBC as a custodian of Canadian culture is making the series and footing the bill, and it is by far its most ambitious attempt to date to meet U. S. television on its own ground.


Here’s the Radia


Radisson was chosen chiefly because he lent himself to bilingual treatment. He was a seventeenth-century French adventurer from T hree Rivers, Que., who was captured by the Iroquois in his teens, stumbled on a land route to Hudson Bay and a lot of beaver in his twenties, sold out his secret to the English in his thirties (thereby prompting the formation of the Hudson’s Bay Company), spied on the English for the French in his forties and died broke in London in his seventies. He is therefore being billed as “the first Canadian,” which, the CBC hopes, has a more resounding ring than Crockett’s tag, “king of the wild frontier.” That’s not all. Two years ago Crockett’s exploits were being daily and continuously celebrated by Wurlitzer, on radio and in a multitude of childish drones. The Ballad of Davy Crockett topped the Canadian hit parade for six weeks in a row and sold 200,000 discs. Now a Canadian rebuttal has been prepared. Its chorus goes this way:


i'll be seeing on Canadian TV


Radisson. Radisson,

Canada’s courageous pioneer!

Radisson, Radisson,

Lord of the Wilderness,

The man who knew no fear.

It was created by the series’ free-lance author, John Lucarotti. in collaboration with a Toronto Symphony Orchestra trumpeter named Johnny Cowell, who is also responsible for Walk Hand in Hand with Me. a recent hit.

The CBC itself, of course, will not dabble in what Disney calls “exploitation” and Lucarotti calls the "T-shirt bit”; in fact it hasn’t even looked for a sponsor for the show since getting committed to a sponsor beforehand might possibly impair something CBC officials call “the series’ integrity." They have, however, left Lucarotti a free commercial hand; he's using it, gleefully, to beat the drums. “Why not?” he asks reasonably. The Radisson song has been recorded for Lucarotti, Cowell and the Spiral label by Wally Koster, a star of TV's Cross-Canada Hit Parade, and sheet music is being produced by a music house operated by Denny Vaughan, a popular singer. The TV Radisson won't sing the words but he'll probably hum the tune over the titles.

Another old score is to be evened. In 1955 in one three-month period I 50,000 pairs of denim Crockett pants and 250,000 coonskin Crockett caps were sold in nine Canadian provinces (the cult didn't catch on in Quebec). Crockettry, in fact, ranged from plastic ice-cream cones to ladies’ panties. In a more dignified way, Radisson's getting the same treatment.

By the end of last November Macpherson-Menzies, Toronto toy wholesalers, were hard at work, as Lucarotti’s agents, licensing manufacturers to make a line of Radisson merchandise. They'd already told Lucarotti his share of the proceeds would probably run to fifty thousand dollars. “Radisson’ll be the biggest thing to hit the Canadian toy industry—ever,” they promised. They and the toy makers stand to make somewhat more than Lucarotti.

There’s a Radisson doll, modeled from a snapshot of Jacques Godin, the actor who's playing Radisson. There's a Radisson rifle, a knife, a belt, a music box, a suit of buckskins and a T-shirt. There’s a Radisson game, on the snakes-and-ladders principle, with tiny canoes for counters, setbacks like “fighting Iroquois” and alternative routes from Three Rivers to Hudson Bay. These should all be ready for delivery by the end of February.

And then there’s the hat. It's the fur toque, skewered at the back with a white feather, that is Radisson's headgear throughout the series except w-hen he's adopted by the Iroquois, who don’t wear hats.

Here Canadian caution has proved downright canny. When the Crockett craze expired in the fall of 1955 the bottom dropped out of a cheap-fur market in which, as one New York wholesaler had put it, “anything with hair on it moves.” At least twenty-five Canadian firms were caught with a surfeit of coonskin caps, worth perhaps a nickel apiece. Now’ they’re cutting them into Radisson hats as fast as they can. All they have to do is lop off' the tails, add white feathers, and start filling orders for the end of February.

Radisson was the brain child of Monica Clare. CBC’s national organizer of children’s programs. She wanted to do a series on him, she says, as far back as 1954.

Last May, w'hcn a trans-Canada TV network was in sight, she judged the time right. Thus Mrs. Clare, whose office docs not command a TV budget, advanced on Montreal to talk the regional television director into financing the series. It turned out that the French network supervisor of children's programs was also interested in Radiscontinued on page 46 son. Mrs. Clare said she had a writer in mind: John Lucarotti, an enthusiastic young Englishman who had already done a radio series on Robin Hood for her. French network officials said they had an actor in mind: Jacques Godin, twenty-six, a pock-marked, lantern-jawed commerce student who was a pillar of the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde in Montreal. The meeting broke up in such enthusiasm that a volatile supervisor of film productions began improvising paper arrows and launching them at his colleagues.

“He's back!" cried the Indian — as a train tooted

The French network agreed to hand over $3,500 from its budget for each French installment—a sunny guess that the series could be made at the par figure for many half-hour filmed shows. The English regional office in Montreal has a smaller budget and couldn’t match this, so Mrs. Clare wangled a special appropriation from national headquarters for the English version. With a modest over-all budget of $7,000 per episode the CBC agreed to buy from Lucarotti, at three hundred dollars per half-hour script, the right to perform his material once on each station in the CBC network, including any station that might be added in the next three years, provided the series were launched on it within 120 days of its opening. All other rights are Lucarotti’s by a contract that his lawyer describes drily as “very favorable for my client at this time.”

Lucarotti, who is an ex-naval officer, a former ad copywriter, a limited company (John Lucarotti Scripts Ltd.) and an ardent naturalized Canadian, withdrew to a boathouse in Bracebridge, Ont., at the beginning of the summer and began turning out a script every five days.

Meanwhile Pierre Gauvreau, a topflight non-objective painter who was a former producer of a well-known French network children’s show, Pépinot et Capucine, was picked to direct the series. René Caron, a successful French freelance announcer and actor, was cast as Radisson’s rollicking brother-at-arms and in-law, Groseilliers. Bilingual bit players were rounded up and asked if they could swim. To a man they said they could. Technical crews and facili-

ties were hired front a Montreal company, Omega Productions Inc.; a location for outdoor sequences was chosen on lie Perrot, an island sprinkled with summer colonies, twenty-five miles southwest of downtown Montreal in the St. Lawrence River at the mouth of the Ottawa. The remote site could be reached by barge and there was a motel on the mainland.

Shooting started on Aug. 20 as soon as Godin, the star, was through at Stratford where he played the part of the French herald Montjoy in Henry V. It was announced that the series would be unveiled on Oct. 20.

Six weeks later the $7,00()-per-episode budget had been revised upward to $15,000, or $600,000 for thirty-nine, and the target date was adjusted to mid-December; the pitfalls of an unfamiliar project were beginning to be evident.

It had turned out, for instance, that though all the bit players hired to portray Indians had sworn they could swim, half of them crossed themselves and clutched their scapular medals every time they pushed off from shore. The canoes were so skittish one actor swore his canoe overturned every time the make-up girl failed to part his wig right down the middle.

Then there were mosquitoes, which sweat and body make-up brought in swarms. In episodes 1 and 2 (“Captured” and “Escape”) most of the extras were playing Iroquois and hence were exiguously clad in breechclouts. The mosquitoes made repeated flank attacks and shooting had to be held up at regular intervals while the Indians lined up and a make-up girl sprayed them with bug repellent.

Ile Perrot proved an indifferent choice of location on other scores besides its fauna. Shipping in the St. Lawrence repeatedly swamped canoes. Planes’ from nearby Dorval airport showed uncanny timing in circling at crucial moments and spoiling sound takes. Other sound takes were spoiled by train whistles. On one occasion, when Radisson was returning from Lake Winnipeg, an Indian burst into Groseillier’s tent shouting, “He’s back! He’s back!” The sequence would have been fine if the Huron’s words hadn’t been punctuated by diesel toots that made it sound as though Radisson had just come in on the 6.10 special.

The biggest obstacle on location, though, was the weather. Between Aug. 20 and Sept. 30 rain prevented shooting on twenty-three days.

Scenes like Radisson’s interview with the French governor of Three Rivers and later with the Dutch governor of Fort Orange could fortunately be shot in the studio, a big brick hall on Montreal’s Cote des Neiges. When Gauvreau, the producer, found his English wasn’t good enough to coach his actors, he appointed a sound man unofficial director of English dialogue. The actors,, all good mimics, were soon pronouncing governor "guv'nor.” The sound man was a Cockney.

By mid-November only five episodes had been completely filmed. The actors were averaging ten hours’ work a day six days a week at $60 a day and $5 an hour overtime; they had codified their assorted redskin roles into seven primary facial expressions. Godin, the star, had bought a new pastel Lincoln and a camel’s-hair coat, and had taken to smoking cigars. Lucarotti, the writer, had bought himself a black 1956 MG sports car with wire wheels (which he christened L’Esprit) and a striped touring cap.

The actors were still working on location, whenever weather permitted, shooting episodes 10, 1 1 and 12 wherein Radisson journeys overland to Hudson Bay. Cold had become a problem. While cameramen, bundled in parkas, coddled their cameras with electric heating pads, the Indians, stripped to the waist, stuffed hot rocks into their trousers for warmth and tried to look impassive.

Around this time Guy Leduc, an assistant director, said plaintively, “It is not that we are behind; it is that they have scheduled too soon.”

The cost of the series was now being quoted as $25,000 per episode or $800,000 to a million if thirty-nine were completed; the definite target date was January 1957, and National Film Board employees, who incline to deal loftily with the CBC on account of their own longer experience of making films for TV, were snickering, “They ought to cancel Wayne and Shuster and replace it with a series on the filming of Radisson.”

Each day’s work log recorded a series of petty mishaps . . . repairs to leaky canoes . . . camera frozen . . . plane overhead . . . change of wet buckskins for dry . . . But these were incidents common to shooting on location anywhere with any film company, and the Radisson company was standing up to its collective duress with as much eclat as any more seasoned film troupe. On a typical day in mid-November the group turned out for breakfast at five-thirty, spent an hour and a half being made up and were on location at seven-fifty. The temperature was twenty, with winds up to forty miles an hour promised. Only Gauvreau, the director, bare-headed and clad in the thinnest of parkas, seemed not to notice the bitter cold. As an artist he is of the non-objective school, but as a producer he stresses realism. In episode 1, when Radisson was tortured by Iroquois, only his contorted face was to be shown. But Gauvreau insisted on a piece of raw pork tied to the actor’s waist so that when a red-hot poker was touched to it there would be a suitable sizzle and curl of smoke.

With an hour’s break for lunch the company worked till four-thirty, shooting canoe sequences on an open stretch of river in the morning, and in the afternoon the scenes recording Radisson’s and Groseilliers’ first glimpse of Hudson Bay.

The actors got back to Montreal, in a

chartered bus, by about eight-thirty, after a fifteen-hour day.

By the first week in December it was announced that the series would absolutely start on Feb. 8. With snow on the ground the company was starting on its schedule of winter outdoor scenes. In between, in the studio on Cote des Neiges, they would be shooting the part of episode 10 where Radisson, on his way to England to interest Charles II in the Canadian fur trade, gets captured by the Dutch.

Lucarotti moved to Montreal from

Bracebridge at this time, and settled down to writing episodes 18 to 39 for next season's series, with occasional side visits to the set. “I’m hovering like an anxious mother,” he confessed recently, half laughing. “But 1 want it to be good so badly.”

Back in Toronto Monica Clare addressed a home-and-school meeting about Radisson. “Who is he?” asked one matron. "It's already started, hasn’t it?” said another. She’d recently seen part of a revival on television of an old Hollywood film about Radisson called Hudson’s

Bay and starring Paul Muni.

Mrs. Clare told her crisply that this Radisson was entirely different.

Fernand Doré, the dapper young French network supervisor of children’s TV programs, explained recently just how Radisson is different. “I don't think an adventure story need so many bangbang." he said. "For me there should be much more nuances. Our production will surely be much more in this school.”

He paused a moment before adding, "It will develop a Canadian style—our way of doing Davy Crockett.” ★