Canadian pioneers in early Hollywood

Motion pictures have been a part of the culture of Canada since the beginning. Hollywood and the development of its motion picture industry owes no small part of its success to a number of Canadians. At the beginning of the 1900s, young men and women, in many cases only boys and girls, were drawn from Canada to the US attracted to the motion picture industry.

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"Stardust and Shadows: Canadians in Early Hollywood," by Charles Foster

The success of the first motion picture shows spawned the massive 1905 construction of new nickelodeon movie theaters across North America. New production companies soon opened to compete with Thomas Edison's success in making movies. With the exception of the new Essanay Studios in Chicago, Illinois, the motion picture business in the U.S.A. was centered in and around New York City as a direct result of the location of Edison's laboratories in nearby West Orange, New Jersey. As a result, most of these Canadian pioneers began their careers in New York.

By mid-1908, motion pictures were emerging as a form of mass entertainment and at that time there were seven major motion picture companies producing silent movies, each usually twenty minutes in length. These founding studios were:

Around 1910, the East Coast movie makers began to take advantage of California winters and after Nestor Studios, run by Canadian Al Christie, built the first permanent movie studio in Hollywood a number of the movie companies expanded or relocated to the new Hollywood. At the same time, because there was no sound in movies, several French movie makers had their motion pictures distributed in America. These French studios, led by the giant Pathé as well as Gaumont Pictures and Georges Méliès, were the dominant force worldwide until 1914 when movie production in France virtually ended with the onset of World War I.

Among those Canadians who played an integral part of the building of Hollywood were:

In his book titled "Stardust and Shadows: Canadians in Early Hollywood," Charles Foster recounted his experiences meeting some of these Canadians while on leave from the Royal Air Force during World War II. Foster visited Hollywood where he was introduced to Canadian and silent movie director Sidney Olcott. Through Olcott he learned of Hollywood's Canadian community. Although total strangers, young Foster was welcomed with open arms. He was taken to Pickfair where he met "America's Sweetheart", Mary Pickford, followed by a tour of MGM Studios escorted by Louis B. Mayer personally. If that were not heady enough stuff for a wide-eyed young man, Norma Shearer served him tea and Mack Sennett personally took the time to drive him around to meet more of his compatriots and even had a party thrown in his honor. In attendance were Fay Wray and Jack Warner, who, despite having moved with their parents from Canada at a very young age, never lost their love for their birthplace and were a proud part of Hollywood's Canadian community. This social gathering of "Canucks" also included Walter Pidgeon, Deanna Durbin, Fifi D'Orsay, and others who worked in the movie business.

Several of these Canadian pioneers achieved enormous wealth and worldwide fame such as Louis B. Mayer and Mary Pickford who were, in their day, the most powerful personalities in Hollywood and two individuals who are unsurpassed in their contributions to the development of the motion picture industry. And these Canadians were good at their craft. Not only did Canadian female actresses dominate at the "Box Office" for most of the late 1920s and mid-1930s, the Academy Award for Best Actress was won by three Canadian woman three years in a row:

In his book, Charles Foster recounts the feelings and deep loyalty Louis B. Mayer had for his home town. Although he had become a naturalized American citizen, Mayer was known to hire Canadian compatriots on the spot, as Saint John, New Brunswick native Walter Pidgeon later recalled:

"Without another word he called his secretary, Ida Koverman. "Ida..." he said, "prepare a contract for this man from Saint John, he will tell you his name, and Ida, add another fifty dollars a week on the contract for a good Canadian. " We shook hands and just like that I was under contract to MGM. "You do act, don't you?" he asked. I nodded and left the room."

But, not all were happy stories. Florence Lawrence, the "first movie star" in Hollywood history, who appeared in more than 270 movies, committed suicide and for nearly fifty years was forgotten in an unmarked grave in the Hollywood Cemetery. Tragic too, is the story of the decline of silent movie star Marie Prevost who succumbed to severe alcoholism and malnutrition at the age of thirty-eight. Then, the beautiful Florence La Badie, purported mistress to President Woodrow Wilson and allegedly the mother of his child, who died in a car accident after her brakes had been tampered with. Notorious too, was Jack Pickford's alcohol and drug-filled womanizing existence. One of his wives, actress Olive Thomas, died of poisoning under very suspicious circumstances and his own life was cut short at age thirty-six from syphilis.

Today, many Canadians have found fame and fortune in Hollywood, but these pioneers who traveled south when Hollywood was still in its infancy made a lasting impact on the shape and future of the motion picture industry.

Reading: Stardust and Shadows: Canadians in Early Hollywood (2000) - Charles Foster - ISBN 1-55002-348-9


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