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CANADIAN NEWSREELS: A Personal Reminiscence by Gordon Sparling

This article, and accompanying images (unless otherwise noted), are provided with permission of Brock Silversides, Director - Media Commons, University of Toronto Libraries.

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I never really worked directly in the newsreel side of film-making, so my knowledge of the Canadian newsreels has been picked up along the way.

The Ontario Government, as you may know, created the Ontario Motion Picture Bureau in 1917. In 1923 motion picture studio and laboratory in Trenton, it purchased an old, disused Ontario. I was still a student at the University of Toronto but obtained a job with the Bureau for the summer. I had high hopes that after graduation I would be able to go on the staff and make Canadian feature films.

Still image frame from the film, Carry On Sergeant! by Bruce Bairnsfather. (Library & Archives Canada: Gordon Sparling Collection IDC 42680).

In 1927 some wealthy businessmen formed a company to make a big Canadian feature Carry On Sergeant!, based on a story by Bruce Bairnsfather, the famous British cartoonist. They planned to use the newly refurbished facilities at Trenton. One day I showed Bairnsfather a semi-documentary forestry film which we were just finishing. The forester in it was an excellent natural actor. Bairnsfather was very excited about him. Could I get him? I did, and Bairnsfather then asked if I would like to be an assistant director on his feature. Carry On Sergeant! as you may know, had a very sad history and only a short run. But it did have a big influence on the path of my personal adventures!

In 1928 I joined the Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau here in Ottawa. It was located in an old brick building behind where the Supreme Court Building is now. Frank Badgley was in charge and because he had previously done professional acting in American films I thought his tutelage would be invaluable. But soon I found – as he put it – “there was only enough money to pay expenses, not enough to make good pictures.” But we did supply many news stories to a company in Montreal, Associated Screen News Ltd. (of which I’ll have more to say later). These items were mainly to do with the federal government and political affairs around the National Captial.

Suddenly I received a message from Sam Corso in New York (the art director on Carry On Sergeant!) stating that he could get me into Paramount’s Studio at Astoria! At that time Paramount was doing about a third of all its pictures at its eastern studio. The couple of years I spent there were a wonderful experience.

At that time, the local picture houses, across Canada formed a great part of people’s regular recreational life. A feature, a comedy ‘short’ and a newsreel made up the ever-popular program. But they had all been shipped up to the American-owned theatres by American producing companies. The Canadian government very kindly made an arrangement with the newsreel producers, Fox, Paramount, PathĂ©, etc., that if they included a Canadian story, they would not have to pay duty when importing their newsreels into Canada.

B.E. Norrish, Associated Screen News, 1925.

This of course was a godsend to the local cameramen scattered across the Dominion. An energetic operator and his camera were able to provide a somewhat meager livelihood from a story a week. An American company decided to organize this possible bonanza and opened a Canadian branch in Montreal called the Associated Screen News Ltd. In 1921 The Canadian Pacific Railway acquired this branch and put a young engineer, Bernard E. Norrish, in charge of it. I think their idea primarily was to make sure that the CPR and the areas it served were mentioned in as many newsreels as possible. The news of Canada showed a decided improvement in quantity and quality.

By 1930 much of the world was in the grip of a terrible depression. The Canadian government decided on a bold stroke to awaken public optimism and active confidence. A large advertising agency in Toronto was appointed to organize the great campaign. A major weapon was to be an inspirational short film Forward Canada. It so happened that a college companion of mine was on the organizing committee. He suggested that it should be directed by a Canadian and wired me to that effect. Could I get away for a couple of weeks? I could and did.

As the film neared completion, Mr. Norrish asked me if I would be willing to stay on and start a production department within Associated Screen News (ASN). This was just the sort of thing I dreamed of. So I said that I would on condition that I could make a series of entertainment shorts. He agreed. But he had a sentimental attachment for the original company name and did not want to change it. My department would be known as Associated Screen Studios, and the Canadian Cameo series was born.

J.W. Campbell of Associated Screens News, posing with a 35mm Akeley motion picture camera.

The four departments now forming ASN were the Newsreels; the production department (Associated Screen Studios); the Art department and the Stills department. The News department was headed by James W. Campbell. At its height, it had a staff of about nine excellent cameramen. I would like to pay tribute to Jimmy Campbell, a workaholic; he seemed to work about twenty hours a day, and he eventually organized a wonderful network of newsreel cameramen all across Canada. Quite often some had to be shipped out from ASN’s head office in Montreal to cover events adequately, but there were residential cameramen right across the country. ASN shipped the stories to New York, and Jimmy Campbell had the job of deciding which story would be most likely to appeal to Fox or Paramount or whoever. Even Gaumont in London was well served.

There were of course other small companies and individuals supplying the newsreels, but Associated Screen News was by far the largest Canadian supplier. The uncut negatives were edited and narrated in New York (or London) and inserted into the various trademarked reels and then returned to Canadian distributors two days later. The stories were not really “news” by the time they were seen in theatres but audiences did not object. (There was no competition from television in those days.)

Some very funny mistakes were made in the finished newsreels. I remember one instance when the distinguished narrator Lowell Thomas was talking about the discovery of radium ore up in Northern Saskatchewan and Alberta and the opening of a government-built refinery in Ontario. He said, “This radium ore is shipped to the courageous tiny community of Port Hope in the sub-Arctic for processing.” They made that kind of error quite often.

Associated Screen News cameraman, Roy Tash with camera.

In the early thirties Roy Tash, who I think was justly called the “Dean of the Newsreel Cameramen”, was for many years working out of the Montreal headquarters. We in the Production department could borrow cameramen if they were not busy on their own assignments. Tash once did a fine main-title background for me from the top of his newsreel truck with his sound man as the driver. There were two newsreel trucks always headquartered in Montreal, each manned with a sound crew and cameraman. They often travelled prodigious distances to get a good story. But further west of course, the ASN crews used their CPR passes to travel on the trains with their bulky gear.

Frank O’Byrne, working out of Toronto, eventually became manager of the busy office there. Ross Beesley made Vancouver his home and headquarters. Lucien Roy was well-known from Quebec to the west coast where he was killed in an air crash in 1942 while on assignment.

The big thing about the newsreels was their accuracy and their honesty and their thorough showing of what was going on. I felt that I wanted to build on that, and I began to produce pictures that were based on facts and newsreel, but tricked up a bit. I started developing a technique of rhythmic cutting and various techniques which would enhance the presentation. I called it the “Rhapsodic Technique”, and it caught on with audiences. (Rhapsody in Two Languages, made in 1934, and The Thousand Days, made in 1942, are good examples of films which used the Rhapsodic Technique).

In 1939 the National Film Board was established under the direction of the Englishman John Grierson. At first we did a lot of work for the Board. Gradually of course, it built up its own staff of writers, technicians, artists, cameramen and so forth. But then, the Second World War broke out. At military headquarters in London, the Canadian Army Film and Photo Unit had been established. It was headed by Major Jack McDougall who had been my assistant at ASN. Jack finally sent me a cable in 1943 and asked me to join him at the Canadian Army Film and Photo Unit as a producer. I had taken a Lieutenant’s military training course at the beginning of the war. I was still a young fellow (age 39) and was eager to go overseas. Norrish took the attitude that I was more useful to ASN at home. So I had to enlist discreetly. When Norrish found out, he was very upset. He thought I had put one over on him, but he did not try to stop me from going.

Major Gordon Sparling, Canadian Army Film & Photo Unit.

The Canadian Army Film and Photo Unit had a few experienced cameramen such as Alan Grayson and Alasdair Fraser, but newsreel-type cameramen had to be developed very fast. Fortunately there was a three-month camera course being offered by the British army at Pinewood Studios near London. So we trained about 60 men there, mostly sergeants and corporals who had some sort of camera background. That’s where many of our active cameramen came from.

Jack McDougall also started the Canadian Army Newsreel which, because it was only shown to military personnel, did not have to go through the same strict censorship that film shown to civilians did. But much of the newsreel film that was shown in Canada came from the Canadian Army Film and Photo Unit. There were 106 newsreels issued which are still in existence and still referred to today. And the Canadian Army Newsreel was never late in spite of buzz bombs and air raids. It started off as a monthly and then gradually became a weekly, and we never missed an issue even though we were depending on civilian labs in London. Fifty copies went out every week to Canadian troops on all the active fronts. That was a unique Canadian contribution during the war. The American Forces did not have their own newsreel, nor did the British.

The military headquarters of the film unit was on Wardour Street, London’s well-known film street; all the exhibitors and distributors were located there. We had a cutting room up on a top floor; it got bombed one night but, fortunately, none of our troops were killed. Six CWACS (the Canadian Women’s Army Corps) worked at the studio near Wimbledon, or Merton Park as the area was called. During wartime, the authorities removed the sign “Merton Park” to prevent enemy aircraft or invading troops from finding or bombing the studio. They just used the initials “MP Studios”.

Those poor CWACS had to do their exacting editorial work under difficult conditions especially during the buzz bomb episodes! The studio was located near a ridge of land where London itself was only a little higher. All the buzz-bombs (unmanned V-l flying bombs) coming across the city were affected by the proximity of higher ground. A great many of the buzz bombs dropped right there at Merton Park. As a result, the air-raid warnings were often going off every half hour. The CWACS would have to drop their scissors, their magnifying glasses and stop whatever work they were doing and rush down to the bomb shelters. That is a side of wartime movie-making that is not as well known as it should be!

There were no National Film Board people and no Canadian nonmilitary personnel involved with the Canadian Army Film and Photo Unit. Those soldier film-makers deserve a lot of credit and I don’t think that many people know about the historic work they did.

Six members of the Unit lost their lives in 1944 and 1945 while filming Canadian soldiers in action in Europe. We today salute those cinematic soldiers who made the supreme sacrifice for us: Sergeant Barney Barnett, killed in action, Rhine, 1945; Gunner Ralph Bush, killed in action, Italy, 1944; Sergeant James Campbell, killed in action, France, 1944; Private Lewis Currie, killed in action, France, 1944; Sergeant Lloyd Millon, missing in action, Holland, 1944; and Lieutenant Terence Rowe, killed in action, Anzio, 1944.

When the war ended, I returned to Canada and rejoined Associated Screen News, but the company was experiencing hard times. The CPR decided to divest itself of ASN. New people took over, and they were not interested in ASN except as a film lab. So I left in 1956 and joined the National Film Board, but I would no longer be familiar with the production of newsreels.

Gordon Sparling

Gordon Sparling was born in Toronto on August 13, 1900. A graduate of the University of Toronto, he landed a job with the Ontario Motion Picture Bureau in 1924. In 1927 production began on the Canadian Feature film Carry On Sergeant! where he was taken on as an assistant director.

In 1928 Sparling joined the Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau in Ottawa. In 1929 Sparling moved to New York to work at Paramount's Studio at Astoria where he stayed for a couple of years before venturing back to Canada to work at Associated Screen Studios.

At the outbreak of war, Sparling enlisted and in 1943 was invited to join the Canadian Army Film and Photo Unit in London where he produced the Canadian Army Newsreels. After the war, Sparling returned to Canada and rejoined Associated Screen News. He left ASN in 1956 and joined the National Film Board where he retired in 1966.

Gordon Sparling died in Toronto in February, 1994.

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