Historicist: Now That April's Here

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Historicist: Now That April’s Here

An "over-praised and over-attacked" movie filmed in Toronto in 1958.

Star (June 16, 1958)

Star (June 16, 1958)

Klieg lights filled the sky above Yonge and Bloor on the evening of June 19, 1958, as the stars of Now That April’s Here, a new film shot in Toronto with an entirely Canadian cast and crew, arrived at the Towne Cinema in a convoy of luxury convertibles. Dressed in black ties and lush gowns for the film’s world premiere, the actors and actresses made their way past a crowd gathered on the sidewalk to be greeted by television cameramen, photographers, and radio interviewers. Nearby, a military band played. The only thing missing at the invitation-only event was a red carpet, but it was a good imitation of a glittering Hollywood gala.

In the theatre lobby, scriptwriter Norman Klenman and director William Davidson—the film’s producers—floated from conversation to conversation, accepting congratulations from guests ranging from Mayor Nathan Phillips, various city councillors, and provincial cabinet minister Thomas R. Connell, to Glenn Gould, Lorne Greene, and Wayne and Shuster. “Hah!” Klenman laughed when someone asked whether he was excited. Holding out his hand, he added, “Look at it, steady as a rock.”

Optimism ran high that, if successful, Now That April’s Here would be—as Davidson put it to a reporter—”the forerunner of a totally Canadian feature film industry, independent of the government agencies, the National Film Board and the CBC.” The plaudits for the ambitious, much-hyped film, however, didn’t last much beyond opening night. High expectations went unfulfilled for critics and audience alike. Now That April’s Here flopped, leading outspoken arts critic Nathan Cohen, looking back on it a half decade later, to damn the movie as setting “the Canadian film industry back, I estimate conservatively, a decade.”

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Toronto-born William Davidson and Vancouver-born Norman Klenman were working for the National Film Board in Montreal during the 1950s, but bristled at the bureaucracy’s strictures. With desks near each other, their friendship grew over their common desire to make dramatic motion pictures with mass appeal. “We were the angry young men, we were the ones who were fighting the NFB at every turn, demanding that new directions be taken, that new opportunities be given,” Klenman, who’d already written six television plays for the BBC, told Take 1‘s Peter Morris decades later.

(Right: Globe and Mail [January 11, 1958].)

When they were stymied, Klenman and Davidson jumped ship to CBC television. But when they got to Toronto in 1955, however, they found that as a result of controversy when Sydney Newman had similarly left the NFB to oversee drama for the CBC, the public broadcaster had an informal policy of not immediately hiring former NFBers. The pair freelanced for a while, recording numerous interviews for the CBC’s Graphic series, then formed Klenman-Davidson Productions in the summer of 1956. When ideas they pitched to the CBC were rejected—including a mini-series based on works of Canadian literature—they paid the bills by accepting industrial films and advertisements, but their longer term vision was always to make feature films.

Searching for subject matter, the pair read nearly 250 Canadian-penned novels in the summer of 1957. Feeling that Canadian literature presented an untapped resource for features, they hoped to find a “strong, emotionally moving” piece. But, with foresight, they also wanted the Canadian author utilized to hold a significant international reputation, so that the resulting movie would appeal to international audiences.

In Now That April’s Here (1936), a collection of Morley Callaghan short stories originally published in the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, and other magazines in the 1930s, Davidson told society columnist Lotta Dempsey in 1958, they found “exactly what we hoped for. It was very exciting.” Klenman and Davidson bought the rights to the book—which had gone out of print and wasn’t even available in the city libraries at the time—for $5,000.

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Planning an anthology film like Quartet (1948), the filmmakers selected four of Callaghan’s stories—though, oddly, not the one that gave the book, and the movie its name. The stories Klenman chose to adapt in his script were: “Silk Stockings,” about a shy teenager buying a gift out of love for his landlady’s daughter only to be disappointed in his affections; “Rocking Chair,” about a widower rebuffing his late wife’s friendship out of loyalty; “The Rejected One,” about a humble shop girl being insulted and scorned over supper by her rich boyfriend’s family; and “A Sick Call,” about young woman returning to Catholicism on her sickbed over the objections of her Protestant husband, who fears religion will come between them during a priest’s visit. “Basically,” Klenman and Davidson told Ronald Johnson in early 1958, “these stories are love stories, aspects of the same theme, tests of love, relationships between men and women. They are sensitive, tender stories, calling on mood and atmosphere and strong characterization.”

In adapting the stories for his script—a copy of which is in the Toronto Reference Library’s collections—Klenman updated them to a contemporary Toronto setting. The locale, he and Davidson planned, would be the link between the disparate tales. “Toronto,” Klenman proudly asserted to a newspaper columnist, “is a vibrant, living place. Although one with a rather terrible reputation in the past, people all over the world are now interested in it.” He and Davidson hoped to capture “the attitude, the mood, the heart and soul of what Toronto life was,” as Klenman later put it to Morris.

As they were laying their plans, Klenman and Davidson felt encouraged by news. In late 1957, Sidney J. Furie had just finished filming a movie in Toronto. They were further heartened by Nat Taylor, the owner of a chain of movie theatres, who hoped to help stimulate a homegrown movie industry. Taylor’s words of encouragement offered the promise—if not yet a signed contract—of distribution channels for their finished film.

Where Furie filmed A Dangerous Age (1957) in semi-secrecy—anxious that he might fail in his ambition—Davidson and Klenman opted to seek as much publicity as possible, as often as possible. And the film and entertainment writers from the local dailies responded, covering every stage of production from casting and visits to the set, through to editing and the lavish premiere.

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Klenman and Davidson, both still in their early 30s, announced their production of Now That April’s Here on January 10, telling the local press that they’d secured $75,000 for the production, and that their Toronto-filmed movie would feature only Canadian talent, in front of and behind the camera. (Furie, by contrast, had hired American actors. And Julian Roffman and Ralph Foster of Meridian Films had enlisted American technical expertise for The Bloody Brood [1959].)

(Left: Globe and Mail [February 1, 1958].)

Early February brought the announcement that after 250 auditions, the first six leading roles had been cast for Now That April’s Here. Desirous of developing “as many new Canadian film personalities as possible, relying as little as we can on those already developed at Stratford and by the CBC and NFB,” as they told one newspaper, the producers cast mostly unknowns.

For the “Silk Stockings” segment, 21-year-old Judy Welch, a Miss Toronto pageant winner turned model, was paired with 18-year-old Don Borisenko. Born in Toronto to Russian immigrants, Borisenko quit school two years earlier, and had worked since as an office clerk, truck driver, commercial artist, and door-to-door salesman while studying method acting at night. Flat broke, he was living at a Spadina Avenue mission when he got the part in Now That April’s Here. “I had $10,” he said in a Globe and Mail profile that May. “I thought I would pay 60 cents to sleep at the mission and save the rest. Great idea! My $9.40 was stolen while I was asleep.” Similarly, Nancy Lou Gill, the 20-year-old from Brampton cast opposite Tony Grey (of a noted theatre family) in “The Rejected One” had thus far only appeared in summer stock theatre.

The veteran actors among the first six cast were Walter Massey, of the Masseys and a working actor in New York City, and Anne Collings, a young English actress who’d arrived in Canada a year earlier, but who’d already appeared in British films. They starred in the “A Sick Call” segment. Established stage and television actors John Drainie and Katherine Blake were added to the cast in mid-February, playing the widower and his late wife’s best friend, respectively, in the “Rocking Chair” vignette. Finally, in late May, Raymond Massey, Hollywood star and Walter’s relation, was tapped to provide voiceover narration, introducing the city at the opening credits and bridging the segments together.

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Globe and Mail entertainment columnist Ronald Johnson was there, in the early morning of February 6, as filming began on Now That April’s Here with Gill and Grey strolling along a road in High Park, while Davidson, Klenman, and a small crew clung to a hillside above, capturing the couple’s movements on film.

(Right: Globe and Mail [February 8, 1958].)

Without utilizing any studio facilities at all, over the next four weeks, the crew shot at various locations around Toronto, including Rosedale, parks, a lingerie shop at Yonge and St. Clair, and night scenes along Yonge Street, St. Basil’s Roman Catholic Church on the St. Michael’s College campus, and elsewhere. Some critics questioned, however, how exteriors shot in the middle of snowy winter would fit together in a film with April in the title.

The location shooting garnered a good deal of excitement among locals. Callaghan’s wife, Loretto, remembered hearing from the postman that a filming was taking place down the way from their Rosedale house, and she rushed down to the Glen Road Bridge to watch. That autograph seekers descended on the set to meet Borisenko, then an unknown making his acting debut, buoyed Klenman and Davidson’s optimism that Now That April’s Here would be a hit with the teenagers. They felt the comely model-turned-actress Welch, and Borisenko, who they likened to “Canada’s James Dean,” would appeal to the younger crowd.

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Torontonians were generally cooperative with the novelty of a film production, though there were some trying moments. Once when the crew was working late into the evening at a Woburn Avenue house, with a generator truck rumbling away on the street, a neighbour called the police to complain about the disturbance. “It was a good excuse,” the good-natured filmmakers later suggested, “for knocking off early, anyway.”

(Left: Globe and Mail [June 14, 1958].)

When Star entertainment writer Jack Karr visited the Woburn Avenue house in early March, he saw some of the challenges of not using studio sets—where walls can easily be moved, and lighting hung from the ceiling. The house was cluttered with cables and light stands, which in the crowded confines pushed the temperature into the 30s. In a front bedroom, Collings lay in bed waiting for filming to begin. Director Davidson, squatting on the floor behind the camera with its operator William Gimmi, decided the patient wasn’t high enough for his desired shot. Collings hopped out of bed, an extra mattress was added, and the bed was redressed. Adjustment after adjustment was made in the tight confines of the bedroom, in the service of capturing a two-minute scene.

In just over 20 working days, in early March Klenman and Davidson finished shooting the four segments, and announced hopes that, after editing, a final print would be ready for distribution by the end of April.

When Now That April’s Here was first screened for a small audience of Klenman’s family and friends, as well as Callaghan, the reception was positive. But, when it was next shown, to secure a distribution arrangement with Nat Taylor’s International Film Distributors—as recounted by Morris—the company’s booker turned and said to Taylor: “Man, where did you get that shit?” Nevertheless, Taylor signed on for the worldwide distribution rights, and announced in late April that an extravagant premiere was planned for late June.

With high expectations of Now That April’s Here success, the producers pulled out all the promotional stops. A party was held in Morley Callaghan’s honour at a posh Rosedale residence in the run-up to the premiere. In addition to the filmmakers, the attendees included Taylor, Maclean’s editor Ralph Allen, author Malcolm Lowry, and television comedians Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster.

Publicity for the actors and actresses of Now That April's Here Star (February 7, 1958)

Publicity for the actors and actresses of Now That April’s Here Star (February 7, 1958).

The stars of the film made copious publicity appearances, including a whirlwind tour of seven Toronto area shopping plazas in mid-June. Judy Welch, who Johnson dubbed “the film’s hardest working publicist,” swung by the Globe and Mail offices to visit the entertainment columnist. Quality Records even planned to release a soundtrack album of the film score composed by John Bath.

If Now That April’s Here succeeded, then Davidson and Klenman promised more big screen adaptations of Canadian literature, like Callaghan’s The Loved and the Lost (1951), Mordecai Richler’s Son of a Smaller Hero (1955), and Ernest Buckler’s The Mountain and the Valley (1954). The filmmakers and critics alike were optimistic that, at last, Canada would have a homegrown feature film industry.

The stakes were high leading up to the premiere, columnist Ron Johnson assessed. “A great deal is riding on the shoulders of this film,” he wrote. “Not only is the young Klenman-Davidson firm dependent to a large extent upon it for further films, but should it be a dismal flop financially…it will give a sharp kick to the ambitions of the fledgling Canadian film industry.”

Globe and Mail (June 20, 1958)

Globe and Mail (June 20, 1958).

The capacity audience at the Towne Cinema on June 19 heartily applauded every one of the title credit cards as the 85-minute black and white began. “When the film was over their reactions were somewhat indecisive, there was a feeling of rumbles and mumbling,” Davidson recalled for Morris.

If the audience’s reaction was lukewarm, the critics’ reviews were dispiriting, though they clearly wanted to like it. Johnson took Now That April’s Here as “solid indication that Canada has the facilities, and, even more important, the people capable of turning out a highly competent feature motion picture with taste, sensitivity and commercial appeal.”

That Johnson called the camera work “uniformly competent,” the movie’s technical aspects as having “a high level of proficiency,” and its score as “highly professional” give an idea of the Globe and Mail critic’s faint praise. He praised Davidson’s handling of the large cast and his “acute awareness of their limitations and their potentials and has kept each neatly within the framework of both his or her own talent and the role of the character.” But he also critiqued the director’s use of long-range shots. And he felt that the dialogue in Klenman’s script, which relied closely on the decades-old source material, “sometimes has a stilted, stiffened air to it.”

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(Left: Globe and Mail [June 18, 1958].)

“Let’s conceded right off the bat that they have neither tried for, nor come up with, an epic,” Karr wrote in his Star review. “Working with a modest budget, they have produced a modest picture. Some of it is lamentably rough. In both its direction and some of its acting, it is badly in need of seasoning. Yet there are a sufficient number of rewarding moments in it, I suggest, to make it of special interest hereabouts.” However, Karr also argued that in their enthusiasm to capture Toronto on celluloid, the producers had “in fact, managed to choose an extra-ordinary number of ungainly locales.” Variety was most devastating, calling the movie “amateurish.”

Having built up impossible-to-meet expectations for the film, Toronto critics proved all-too-willing to tear it down. One critic, with the perspective of a few years passed, assessed that Now That April’s Here had been “over-praised and over-attacked” on its release. Indeed, critic Gerald Pratley gave a much more positive review decades later. “These are lovely and telling vignettes,” he writes in A Century of Canadian Cinema (Lynx Images, 2003), “all of which deal quietly with love, loneliness and seemingly timid characters who have never come to terms with life.”

After a two week engagement in Toronto, and a brief stint on Hamilton screens, Now That April’s Here disappeared from cinema screens. Occasionally seen on local television, Now That April’s Here was eventually included in a series of author readings and screenings of film adaptations of their literary works at the Festival of Festivals in 1984.

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According to conventional wisdom Now That April’s Here “was a box-office flop of the first magnitude,” as Johnson put it. At the time, there were critiques that, other than the premiere, Taylor hadn’t given the movie enough of a marketing push because, in the theatre owner’s opinion, it wasn’t commercial enough. But, looking back in 2002, Klenman went further, suggesting to Morris that “they were cheated at the box office.” When Klenman’s mother-in-law tried to buy a ticket one evening, he recounted, she found both the early and late showings sold out. But, when the scriptwriter called the box office, he was informed that they’d only sold a few hundred tickets all day.

(Right: Star [June 20, 1958].)

Despite the failure of Now That April’s Here, Taylor called Klenman and Davidson to his office and urged them to get to work on a follow-up project which would appeal to the then-current craze for sensationalized teenage delinquent movies—just as Furie was attempting with his A Cool Sound From Hell (1959), and Roffman and Foster’s The Bloody Brood (1959).

By September, Klenman had a script, and by mid-October Davidson had cameras rolling on The Ivy League Killers. The plot concerned a young woman (played by reigning Miss Argonaut Barb Bricker) who becomes infatuated with the leader of a motorcycle gang (played by Don Borisenko), which prompts her vengeful boyfriend to frame the gang for a violent robbery.

When Taylor’s promised funding didn’t come through, Klenman and Davidson were left shopping an unfinished film around to New York distributors. None of the American companies were willing to advance any funds, however. And they only managed to complete the picture by scrapping together money from private investors. The meager budget meant low production values, and once again a focus on location shooting over studio work, with a particular focus on the Scarborough Bluffs. Completed in 1959, The Ivy League Killers was sold to American television, but wasn’t seen in Canada until 1964, when it was screened under a new name, The Fast Ones, as part of a double bill at Toronto theatres. Theorizing that theatres must have a “shortage of product” if they were reduced to screening The Fast Ones, Globe and Mail critic Frank Morriss was vicious. “Its best selling point is that it lasts an hour,” he chastised, “although this seems too long when viewers have to watch the inept direction of a poor script, and bad acting by performers who are generally much more competent.”

The lack of financial return from either Now That April’s Here and The Ivy League Killers spelled the end for Klenman-Davidson Productions. Klenman tried his hand writing for an American late-night television talk show, and for Hollywood-based television and movie projects. Davidson returned to the television industry, focused on children’s entertainment, but it would be nearly 20 years before he directed another feature film.

Sources consulted: Gary A. Boire, Morley Callaghan: Literary Anarchist (ECW Press, 1994); Paul Corupe, “Taking off the mask,” in Take 1 (December 2003/March 2004); Peter Morris, “Before the beginning: William Davidson’s and Norman Klenman’s Now That April’s Here,” Take 1 (July-August 2002); Morris, “English-Canadian films of the 1950s,” Take 1 (July-August 2002); Gerald Pratley, A Century of Canadian Cinema (Lynx Images, 2003); Wyndham Wise, ed., Take One’s Essential Guide to Canadian Film (University of Toronto Press, 2001); and articles from the Globe and Mail (January 11, February 1, 7, 8, 20 & 27, March 7, 8 & 10, April 25, May 10, 17, 23 & 29, June 2, 12, 13, 14, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20 & 21, September 17, and October 16, 1958; December 11, 1964; May 10, 1965; April 26, and August 9, 1968; and September 4, 1984); Star (February 7, March 6, April 11, May 26 & 29, and June 13, 16, 18 & 20, 1958; January 2 & 24, and August 12, 1959; January 14, 1961; February 24, 1962; November 28, 1964; August 10, 1968; and July 5, 1986).

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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