Extensive newsreel collection now available on YouTube reveals glimpses of city's past.
Before videographers, there were newsreel photographers. Carting their boxy cameras around, they roved the city, covering the top events of the day, racing to disasters, and hunting for oddball human interest stories that would amuse audiences. In their heyday, services like The March of Time, Movietone News, and Pathé News brought the richness of the world to neighbourhood movie theatres.
Last week, British Pathé announced it had uploaded its entire film collection to its YouTube channel. Shot between 1896 and 1976, the 85,000 clips cover a huge range of material dealing with everything from the World Wars to clubs dedicated to waistcoats. Now that they’re easily accessible, you can count on hours of time being gloriously wasted, especially by history buffs.
Given the vast amount of material needed to fill newsreels each week and our city’s ties to the British Empire, it’s not surprising the collection boasts a few Toronto-centric items. Type “Toronto” into the search field and you’ll find royal visits, salutes to home-grown Nobel Prize winners, parades in old Chinatown, entertainment for patients in iron lungs, and beauty parlours for dogs. (Some of the related descriptions are quite amusingly matter-of-fact: footage of Nathan Phillips Square from 1969, for example, is called “two semi-circular office blocks with waterfall in front.”)
Here are just a few of the clips that caught our eye.
The Prince of Wales in Canada (1919)
While this film covers the future King Edward VIII’s cross-Canada visit in August 1919, the last four minutes (starting at the 10:30 mark) highlight his stop in Toronto. The Prince attended the Canadian National Exhibition on August 25 and told a luncheon crowd that he was delighted to visit the city he’d heard such good things about from Canadian soldiers. “It seemed to me that a lot of them came from this great city, and I know no finer soldiers or better friends.” He promised that he would do his best “to be worthy of Canada’s friendship and of Canada’s trust.”
Other stops shown in the clip include Queen’s Park (“the Parliament Buildings”) and the Royal Canadian Yacht Club.
The Super Test (1924)
At first glance, it might seem as if this footage of motorcycles failing to conquer a steep incline is the 1920s equivalent of a “fail” video. But there was good reason for all the fumbling—the cyclists were dealing with slippery conditions on a 70-per-cent grade.
These early motorsport enthusiasts had gathered at the ravine by Bloor and Parliament streets on April 19, 1924, for the Toronto Motorcycle Club’s annual “hill climb.” That day, Canadian motorcycle champion Morris “Steamer” Moffatt avenged his loss of the previous year, powering up the hill in nine seconds flat. “American riders present claim the hill used is unequalled for this purpose,” observed the Globe. “The course was well roped off and the police gave splendid protection to both spectators and riders. Not an accident marred the day.”
We can only imagine the kind of complaints that would be generated if someone tried to recreate the event today.
Hooray—We Can Win Something! (1926)
The caption writer was on the ball when it came to this story about the April 29, 1926, home opener for the Toronto Maple Leafs baseball squad. The game marked the opening of Maple Leaf Stadium, which took only five months to build. Fans witnessed an exciting last-minute comeback by the home team against the Reading Keystones. Down 5-0 going into the bottom of the ninth inning, and just as patrons were starting to leave, the Leafs suddenly tied the game. Victory came in the bottom of the tenth, when Del Capes’s bunt allowed Herman Layne to run into home.
The 1926 Maple Leafs captured the International League title with 109 wins, then defeated the Louisville Colonels in the Junior World Series. The team actually included more future hockey hall of famers (Lionel Conacher and Babe Dye, though the latter was traded soon after opening day) than baseball stars (New York Giants pitching great Carl Hubbell).
Let’s All Be Young for a Few Moments! (1931)
Some things in Toronto never change. Arguments over the waterfront. Debates over another downtown subway line. Upside-down clowns at the Santa Claus Parade.
The 1931 edition of the holiday staple, held on November 14 that year, was loaded with bizarre floats and balloons that seemed poised to attack onlookers. Among the cartoon celebrities that took part in the procession were Felix the Cat and Mickey Mouse. The Star also mentioned the presence of “Woofus the Tiger,” but we have no clue who he was. Blackface radio stars Amos ‘n’ Andy were also represented.
Santa’s ride that year began at Geary and Bartlett, then headed down Hallam, Ossington, Bloor, Queen’s Park, and University, before arriving at Toyland at Eaton’s Queen Street. He was scheduled to greet kids at the store from 2 to 4 that afternoon.
The Miss Toronto beauty contest ran from 1926 until 1992, shortly after city council voted to ban the City Hall portion of the event. The year 1939 marked the third year the contest was sponsored by the Amateur Police Athletics Association, which made it part of its annual Police Games at the CNE grounds. During the late 1930s, “real girls” were encouraged to enter, and all makeup other than lipstick was forbidden.
Nan Morris, who won the title on July 8, 1939, fit the bill. A Star headline described her as neither “jitterbug” nor “glamour girl.” Initially, she claimed she was single, but a front-page story a few days later revealed she had been married to her childhood sweetheart for three years. Even though married women were allowed to participate, Morris assumed public knowledge of her status would hurt her chances.
No scandal ensued. “I wondered how long it would be before you chaps would be catching up with me,” her husband Jack joked to the Star. “As long as you don’t start calling me ‘Mr. Toronto,’ though, I don’t mind.” He admitted that he didn’t know she’d entered the contest but said, “I’m mighty glad she won. Those judges and I both know how to pick them.”
By the way—the man draping Nan Morris with her sash? Mayor Ralph Day.
Ice Hockey (1948)
Given the eternal disappointment Toronto hockey fans have grown accustomed to, it’s refreshing to find footage that proves our team was once a contender. As the 1947-48 NHL season wound down, the Maple Leafs had their eye on both first place in the league and the Stanley Cup: they won both.
The game shown here was played in front of 13,874 fans at Maple Leaf Gardens on February 28, 1948. Sportswriters praised both teams for their wide-open, end-to-end play. The game also featured the unusual sight of Leafs centre Syl Apps, known for being a gentlemanly player who served as Ontario Athletic Commissioner on the side, flattening Chicago Black Hawks defenceman Ralph Nattrass. The Globe and Mail’s Jim Vipond dubbed Apps the “undefeated wrestling champion of the NHL.”
The corniest and most tortured headline—inspired by the play of Black Hawks goalie Emile “The Cat” Francis—came courtesy of the Star: “MUCH ADO-ING ABOUT PUCK WHICH ‘THE CAT’ HAS ‘MOUSED!’”
Additional material from Baseball’s Back in Town by Louis Cauz (Toronto: Controlled Media Corporation, 1977); the April 18, 1924 edition of the Globe; the March 1, 1948 edition of the Globe and Mail; and the August 25, 1919, November 14, 1931, July 10, 1939, July 11, 1939, and March 1, 1948 editions of the Toronto Star.