Historicist: Early Cinema, Made in Canada

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Historicist: Early Cinema, Made in Canada

The ambitious but short-lived Conness-Till movie studio in Swansea.

Star Weekly (April 17, 1915)

Star Weekly (April 17, 1915).

“Will you move over, Miss So and So?” the director barked into a megaphone. “For God’s sake, look a little less wooden, Mr. Somebody,” he yelled next, as actors in evening dress and actresses in fancy gowns hastened to comply with his orders under the sweltering glare of arc-lights and broadsides. A Star Weekly reporter, visiting the Conness-Till Film Company’s sprawling facility in southwest Swansea in April 1915, was impressed by the ballroom set built and decorated for a scene in The Morland Mystery.

The realism of the recreation was only marred, the writer noted, by the two-dimensional scenery, which looked completely authentic from the perspective of the camera lens, but was revealed as unfinished as one moved about the studio, and the yellowish make-up—which created a better effect on film—but gave the performers a corpse-like glow in real life.

It was, to be sure, that reporter’s first visit to a movie set. But, impressed by the Conness-Till complex, the visitor came away touting the longterm potential for made-in-Toronto movies. The company’s high hopes of lucrative profits and nationalist aspirations for Canadian-made motion pictures proved short-lived, however. Fire destroyed the movie plant in late May 1915, just over a year after the company had been founded.

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In June 1914, for $100 a share you could buy into the movie business. A new outfit formed that April, the Conness-Till Film Company promised, as a local newspaper put it, “Canadian photo plays with distinctive Canadian settings and written by Canadians.” The idea was hatched by Edward H. Robins, a fairly prominent actor from Philadelphia who’d regularly visited Toronto with a variety of summer stock companies. James and Charles Beury, Philadelphia financiers, came aboard as the major investors, with smaller stakes owned by Toronto businessman Louis A. Till, Robins, and Luke Edwin Conness, who was involved in the New York theatre game and spent one year directing films for the Biograph Company.

(Right: Globe [June 16, 1914].)

The entrepreneurs believed that Canada was among the world’s leading importer of films, but that movies made in Canada would be attractive to cinema owners and distributors as a cheaper alternative to American products, which were subject to customs duties. They weren’t the first Canadian company making features films, and none of the competition had lasted long. But, given the exploding popularity of moving pictures, their optimism ran high. An advertisement for the sale of 100 shares of stock for $100 each in June 1914 bullishly predicted profits “might double and treble a man’s investment,” and estimated that “the lowest possible dividend should be about twenty-five per cent.”

Conness, the president and general manager, and Till, the secretary, publicly offered up the company’s motorcars to chauffeur anyone—prospective investors, curious residents—to the incomplete studio grounds in the Toronto suburb. Conness-Till leased the site of a former smelting and refinery operation, a 2.25-acre tract containing three existing buildings that could be repurposed, which were located near the Humber River—a potential haven for exterior shooting.

The neighbourhood of the Conness Till studio in Swansea  Detail from 1913 Fire Insurance Map from Goad's Atlas of the City of Toronto

The neighbourhood of the Conness-Till studio in Swansea. Detail from 1913 Fire Insurance Map from Goad’s Atlas of the City of Toronto.

Sentiment was not as enthusiastic in all quarters of the city. Citing sources in the investor community, Saturday Night advised readers, “Better keep your money.” The magazine expressed fear that Conness-Till couldn’t pay the expense of erecting and equipping a studio, let alone actor salaries and production costs. Furthermore, the magazine questioned the company’s industry experience, noting that no one they’d spoken to in the film industry had ever heard of the company’s principal backers.

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Responding to the criticism, Conness elaborated on the company’s business plan. He said that they’d hired a nationwide salesman already with an eye to reaching nearly a third of Canada’s 900 cinemas. Figuring on weekly actors salaries totalling no more than $700 per week, and a $500 to $700 expenditure to shoot a reel of film—with about three shot per week—Conness estimated the company’s weekly operating expenses at $2,500. He predicted the finished films, usually ranging in length from one to four reels, would command rental fees of $5 to $100, depending on the picture, for a two- or three-night stand per cinema. And, Conness stated proudly, keeping the developing, printing, and distributing of their motion pictures entirely in-house meant no commissions on profits paid to outsiders.

(Left: Saturday Night [July 25, 1914].)

“There is absolutely no doubt about the chances of our company,” Conness informed Saturday Night. “We know we will make good. We have a gold mine in the studio we have rented, we have experienced people to work for us, and we can make excellent pictures, both indoor and outdoor scenes, and we can sell our pictures 30 per cent lower than the American companies which have to pay a duty.”

Saturday Night‘s correspondent conceded that Conness was sincere in his ambitions, but the writer remained skeptical of the company’s prospects. He suggested Conness-Till had significantly underestimated operating expenses and overestimated the ease with which a small, independent production company would compete with the large, well-entrenched transnational firms that controlled film distribution in Canada. The writer didn’t think low prices alone would be enough to overcome individual theatres’ existing, sometimes exclusive, distribution contracts.

In the summer of 1914, Conness-Till launched a nationwide scriptwriting contest to publicize the firm’s intention, as one advertisement proclaimed, “of producing Canadian plays with distinctive Canadian settings and written by Canadians.” Offering prizes totalling $350 in gold for the three best scenarios, Conness-Till received 600 entries from amateur and professional writers from across the country. R.E. Coulson of Toronto was selected as the winner for her script, “The Trials of a Fat Lady.” Despite initial suggestions that one or more of the winning scenarios would be put into production, Coulson’s script never made it to the big screen. Conness-Till continued to accept unsolicited scripts for its whole year in business, promising to consider any submission no matter the source.

Star (August 27, 1914)

Star (August 27, 1914).

Meanwhile the business partners, who insisted that their films equal or surpass the quality produced in the United States, assembled an experienced crew. William (A.J.) Edwards, formerly of the Famous Players Company, would be the primary director. Lewis W. Physioc, late of the Pathé company, was hired as the technical director. Paul Bern, from New York, and a local, Archie McKishney, signed on as scenario writers.

Edward H. Robins, called by local reporters “one of the best known and handsomiest [sic] of America’s leading men,” headed the company of actors, and would star in all of their films. Clara Whipple, a “pretty little actress” from Missouri, was retained as the leading lady. The company was filled out with a mixture of local and American actors. As with scriptwriters, Conness-Till had an open door for aspiring Toronto actors, and gave anyone travelling out to Swansea the chance to interview with Conness or Edwards.

While work on the studio was completed, Conness-Till made a series of newsreel shorts. Edwards set up his camera at all sorts of public events—parades, sporting events, the beach, or the Exhibition midway. But he quickly found Torontonians, unaccustomed to encountering a film crew, had a tendency to walk across the frame, staring intently into the camera, and ruining hundreds of feet of film.

Through special arrangement with the federal government, Conness-Till cameramen captured the daily routine of Canadian troops stationed at the Exhibition Grounds, and at Valcartier, in Quebec, where Toronto soldiers were sent prior to their departure overseas. The subject matter proved very popular with audiences who were eager to connect with the Canadian efforts overseas—which local sons, husbands, and boyfriends would be soon joining. The company’s film of the Second Contingent marching through downtown in early March was so popular that it played five nights a week for a full month.

Even after the company moved on to features, Conness-Till continued making newsreels that, being produced quickly and at low cost, earned profits to be reinvested in more expensive features. Through 1915, Conness-Till cameramen revisited the soldiers at the Exhibition, recorded views of German prisoners interned at Stanley Barracks, and captured a full-day mock battle staged by local soldiers in the spring of 1915.

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By October 1914, the studio buildings’ renovations were complete. The 70-foot by 150-foot warehouse—built of a wood frame and covered with sheets of corrugated iron—had been converted into two large soundstages. The biggest expense was the installation of a specialized lighting system, consisting of 50 or more high-powered arc lamps as well as broadside lights, and which cost $300 per day to operate. The experienced electrician kept on staff was, the Star Weekly reported, kept busy “adjusting short circuits and blow-outs.”

(Right: Edward H. Robins from the Star [May 9, 1914].)

The remaining portions of the main building contained dressing rooms and a workshop where a team of carpenters built the sets required for every possible movie scenario. In the Property Room were stored costumes in styles from the fifteenth century to the present, and furniture and props in countless artistic styles. “Bric-a-brac and antiques galore,” a visitor from the Star Weekly reported. “Suits of armor and court regalia all mixed up together, while the luxurious club chair rubs shoulders with the ancient Flemish oak and Chippendale.”

The company built facilities for developing, fixing, washing, drying, and polishing celluloid film, and for transferring the motion pictures from negatives to a finished print ready for exhibition. Press hailed the movie plant as “second to none in Europe or the United States.” Depending on the source consulted, its construction cost either $50,000 or $7,000—since the company only had to renovate existing buildings.

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(Left: Portrait of Clara Whipple from the New York Star [November 14, 1908]. From Wikimedia Commons.)

But in late October 1914, just as things seemed to be getting underway at the studio, Conness-Till had a turn of terrible luck when the nearby Humber Beach Hotel burned down. Many of the company’s staff and players had taken residence in the brand-new three-storey hotel: Conness and his wife and child, the Physiocs, Edwards, Whipple, and Bern, who lived there with a bit player, Dorothy Millette, who would later figure in his curious death. Because the hotel lay outside Toronto city limits, there were no fire hydrants nearby, so when the fire brigade arrived, there wasn’t much to be done. However, in a moment of heroism, Whipple rushed back into the building, grabbed Millette’s jewelry case and tossed two steamer trunks full of costumes out the window. In the end, nothing remained of their hotel home but two brick chimneys.

The studio’s first feature was On the King’s Highway, a three-reeler about Mounties filmed that fall and released to local theatres in late January 1915. One review called it “very well-acted and well-photographed.” From that point, Conness-Till released a two- or three-reel feature every week—filming, editing, processing, and releasing each films in a matter of weeks.

The company’s advertising emphasized the company’s Canadian roots, prominently displaying the logo: a beaver on top of a maple leaf, and the “Made in Canada” slogan in banner text. “The picture was made right here,” read an ad for His Awakening, about an artist’s dreams about living in the time of the Pharoahs. “You will recognize the scenes, the streets, the people, and you can see this made-in-Toronto picture for the first time anywhere at the Photodrome.”

The managers, directors, and players of the Conness-Till company made numerous public appearances at local theatres, lending some prestige to a movie showing, and discussing the making of motion pictures for audiences. Robins wrote a weekly column for the Toronto Sunday World, in which he replied to reader inquiries about the movie industry, gave advice on how to write scenarios, and let readers know how they could get an audition at the movie studio.

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Nevertheless, in the early winter, a number of incidents undercut the studio’s efforts to project a sense of big-screen glamour. First, in early January 1915, Conness-Till was in court battling a disgruntled actor, William McNichol. Suing for arrears of wages, McNichol, who’d played a bit part as one of seven villagers in a film, alleged that he’d been paid only $13.50 for 17 days of work, rather than the $5 per day he felt fitting as “an essential member” of the cast. Taking the stand, Conness clarified that McNichol had been only a “super” (or extra) and of such superfluous importance that the company had already reshot scenes to remove him from the finished product. Conness produced paperwork signed by McNichol acknowledging he’d “received payment in full” for nine days’ work, and the case was dismissed.

(Right: Star [January 7, 1915].)

Then, that same month, Canadian Weekly and Jack Canuck published scandalous accounts of serious discontent on the Conness-Till lot. It was said that Whipple had been forced to work in a low-cut dress in near-freezing temperatures; the dressing rooms were of substandard quality; leads and extras alike had to pay for their own meals at the studio lunch counter; and actors hoping for pay cheques were twice informed they’d be delayed by a week. Hinting that the studio was being run on the cheap, these exposés prompted later aspersions that, anxious for faster financial returns, James Beury had ordered cost-cutting measures.

Conness-Till’s cinematic output was of the melodramatic variety. Motto on the Wall concerned an unhappy wife who gets into gambling and gives in to the adulterous advances of a young man who, in a sudden fit of conscience, reunites husband and wife for a happy ending. Such provocative plots risked running afoul of the provincial movie censors. With references to gambling, theft, dope, murder, and false imprisonment, To Err Is Human was nearly banned. The Morland Mystery was similarly criticized as having “no redeeming feature” due to its portrayal of adultery and murder. But generally, Conness-Till’s films were well received by audiences and critics.

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In the winter or spring of 1915, Conness-Till combined a variety of its factual military footage, including the mock battle, with dramatic content to create a three-reel feature, Canada in Peace and War. Feeding Torontonians’ desire for patriotic cinematic content, the movie was hailed by the Sunday World as the company’s “most interesting picture yet.” Canada in Peace and War helped make Whipple an idol of the Canadian troops. It wasn’t the first time Conness-Till mixed real-life footage with a fictional storyline. In early December, the company had enlisted the Parkdale Canoe Club and Balmy Beach to stage a rugby match before 2,000 spectators at Scarboro Beach for a feature in which Robins played a centre half-back.

(Left: Star Weekly [January 23, 1915].)

Eventually tensions mounted within the Conness-Till ownership group, and reached a boiling point in late April, at around the time they released The Faithful Servant, the last feature under the Conness-Till banner. Impatient with the return on his investment as the principal shareholder, James Beury bought out (or fired, depending on your perspective) Luke Conness and Louis Till. With Robins and King Street grocer J.A. Macdonald as partners, he renamed the firm the Beury Feature Film Company. In a reorganization of the studio, many of the staff were released, and Robins remained in Toronto to oversee day-to-day operations for the Philadelphia-based owner.

While a new feature wasn’t anticipated to be completed for eight weeks after the reorganization, Robins announced in his newspaper column that the company had “several enormous contracts under way.” Beury opened talks with novelist Ralph Connor about adapting The Prospector and other books to film.

The Beury company’s first project, however, was a boxing match between Jack Johnson and Jesse Willard in Havana. Sending a director, actor Fred Mace, and four cameramen to Cuba, the resulting film employed a variety of angles, close-ups at ringside, and panoramic views. Local sports figures watched a seven-reel version of the film, showing all 26 rounds in their entirety, at a private screening at the Swansea facility, though an edited version showing only the highlights was prepared for the public market.

In an attempt to circumvent the U.S. ban on importing films of prizefights, the Beury company devised a method of projecting the film across the Quebec-U.S. border while simultaneously recording it on the American side. No film reels actually crossed the border, but customs officials confiscated the movie anyway. Blocked from the most lucrative market, the Beury company shipped prints of the fight to meet demand in Europea, South America, Australia, and South Asia.

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In May, production started on Nicotine, the studio’s most ambitious movie yet. With a budget supplemented with funding from the Anti-Cigarette League of New York, and an anticipated eight weeks of shooting, the anti-smoking-themed film was slated to be at least six reels long. Well-known, high-priced actors were brought in from New York. And the studio carpenters began constructing a theatre building, a short distance from the main studio structures, which was to be set aflame for the film’s climax—as a lesson in the careless disposal of a cigarette. Four weeks into filming, one producer left for New York to cast 20 chorus girls to join the production. The Beury company was going all-in on the picture, resting the fate of the studio on its success or failure.

(Left: Star Weekly [January 23, 1915].)

On May 31, 1915, after the cast and crew had gone home, the night watchman was making his rounds at 6:20 p.m. when he saw smoke on the roof of the main studio building. “I got up there,” the watchman recounted, “but it was too much for me to handle with our own pump and 5,000-gallon tank.” He later suggested that the fire had been caused by a recently installed electric wire, stepping down 2,000 volts to 200, that had proven necessary because the studio used so much electricity.

The nightwatchman called the fire department in the city but, because there were few hydrants in Swansea, the firemen were almost as helpless as they’d been with the Humber Beach Hotel. They managed to couple together 2,500 feet (760 metres) of hose to reach a hydrant at the Bolt Works on Lake Shore Boulevard. But by the time they finished, over an hour had passed.

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Spectators from miles around, including a number of the actors and cast, assumed perches on the suburb’s hilly terrain to watch as the movie plant was reduced to embers. Every so often, when the flames reached reels of film, there were explosions. The heat was so intense that the surrounding brush and grass caught fire, as did the Indestructible Brick Company nearby. Luckily, however, there was no wind, and the flames didn’t spread to the wood-framed houses of Windermere Avenue.

(Right: Globe [June 1, 1915].)

The fire was devastating, destroying all the cameras, equipment, and costumes, as well as $6,000 worth of antique furniture the company had rented that very week. The total loss was estimated to be $75,000 or $100,000, with only a fraction—$12,000 or less—covered by insurance. All that remained on the studio lot was a small brick building, some distance from the others, which had been built as a fireproof vault for the company’s negatives and processed films, and which contained the Johnson-Willard fight. It’s unclear how many of the company’s other films were saved. When Peter Morris was researching the availability of early Canadian film prints in the 1970s for his book Embattled Shadows (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1978), he was unable to locate any Conness-Till titles.

Robins, who’d been among the crowd watching the fire, spoke with reporters in the immediate aftermath and outlined the implications: “This fire means the passing of the film-making business in Canada as far as we are concerned. If we ever start up again it will be in New York. It is too far from the [theatrical] centre here, and [customs] duty is too high.” Indeed, Beury, who rushed to Toronto after the fire, and his investors wound up operations rather than attempt to rebuild from the rubble, or even finish filming Nicotine.

Within weeks of the Swansea studio closing, Robins had returned to the stage, assembling a troupe to perform a repertoire of plays at the Royal Alexandra Theatre. Whipple went to Hollywood, remaining active in silent pictures until 1919. Physioc went to California as a cinematographer. Bern was the biggest success of the former Conness-Till staff. He rose through the Hollywood ranks to become Irving Thalberg’s right-hand man at MGM, and shepherding the early career of Jean Harlow, whom he later married.

Historian Paul S. Moore has argued that the Conness-Till/Beury company was long destined for bankruptcy, irrespective of the fire’s impact. In the face of increasing competition, the “Made in Canada” message wasn’t as novel as it appeared. During the First World War, other movie companies promoted their own Canadian and Toronto connections for publicity—such as a repertoire festival of Mary Pickford films at the Strand, during which each female cinema-goer received a pulp biography of the Toronto-born actress. And recognizing the demand from local audiences, major companies, like Pathé, adapted their newsreels to include additional Canadian content, or established their own Canadian newsreel divisions.

Moreover, the industry was shifting to a chain structure, in which the heavyweights of film distribution bought up local cinemas across the country, or locked them up in exclusive deals. Although Conness-Till/Beury company was a rarity—a small, independent production company that turned out a new film each week for three months—comparatively few theatres showed the films. The dozen or so films the studio released in 1914–1915, Moore writes in a contribution to Early Cinema and the ‘National’ (John Libbey Publishing, 2008), “hardly made a ripple in the ocean of film distribution and exhibition.”

Sources consulted: E.J. Fleming, Paul Bern (McFarland & Company, 2009); Robert W. Gutteridge, Magic Moments: First 20 Years of Moving Pictures in Toronto (1894-1914) (Gutteridge-Pratley Publications, 2000); Brenda McDermott, “Screening the War,” Master of Arts Thesis (York University, 2007); Paul S. Moore, “Nationalist Film-going without Canadian-made films?” in Abel, Bertellini, and King, eds., Early Cinema and the ‘National’ (John Libbey Publishing, 2008) [PDF]; Paul S. Moore, Now Playing: Early Moviegoing and the Regulation of Fun (SUNY Press, 2008); Paul S. Moore, “A Rendezvous for Particular People,” Ph.D. Dissertation (York University, 2004); Peter Morris, Embattled Shadows: A History of Canadian Cinema, 1895-1939 (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1978); and articles from The Billboard (November 14, 1914); the Globe (June 16, 1914; April 21, 1915; and June 1, 1915); the Globe and Mail (August 12, 1955); Saturday Night (July 25, 1914); the Star (August 27, October 13 & 30, and December 1, 1914; January 7, February 15, March 23 & 25, April 20, and June 1, 1915); Star Weekly (January 23, March 6, and April 17, 1915); Variety (July 3, and August 21, 1914; and June 4, 1915); the World (February 7 & 28, 1915; and May 20, 1916).

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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