Entry for Masterworks 2001 by James Forrester for AV Preservation Trust of Canada web site (now defunct).
Reposted here with permission of the author, and the current rights holder for the AV Preservation Trust of Canada: Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television (Academy.ca).
The Loon’s Necklace was not a sponsored film. It was created by a group of filmmakers at Crawley Films during the 1940s, while they were working on “industrial documentaries.” Imperial Oil bought the Canadian rights, following its completion and recognition as “Film of the Year” at the inaugural Canadian Film Awards. The technical challenges involved in making this experimental short, given the limitations of 16 mm film effects, are hard to appreciate considering the effortlessness of today’s image manipulation software. Judith Crawley’s idea of using the West Coast First Nations ceremonial masks to illustrate the legend was inspired. In continuous distribution for fifty-five years, there were more than 4500 prints in circulation on its 30th anniversary, when it was restored by Rod Crawley. It may have been viewed by more people than any other Canadian film. It has been erroneously credited to the NFB, who rejected the completed film for distribution.
The Loon’s Necklace, 1948
(Le collier magique)
On April 27th, 1949, the inaugural Canadian Film Awards (predecessor of the Genies) took place at the Little Elgin Theatre in Ottawa. The CFAs were created by the Canadian Association for Adult Education and the organizers hoped that they would become the media counterpart to the Governor General’s literary awards. The Loon’s Necklace won the Film of the Year award which consisted of a Group of Seven painting valued at fifty dollars. The audience that night might have been surprised to find that this new award, recognizing a small independent film company would lead, in time, to Canada’s first feature length Academy Award being giving to Crawley Films in 1976 for the documentary The Man Who Skied Down Everest.
The inspiration for the film came when Judith Crawley noticed a mask hanging on the wall of A.Y. Jackson’s studio when her husband was shooting Canadian Landscape for the NFB in 1941. She later recalled, “I said to Budge, wouldn’t that be fabulous with transmitted light, because it was exciting just on the wall.” When the Crawleys returned to Ottawa Judy contacted the Dominion anthropologist, Dr. Marius Barbeau, who was an early supporter of the young filmmakers. He gave them access to the National Museum’s extensive collection of First Nation masks and his colleague Dr. J. Douglas Leechman, an anthropologist at the museum and collector of native legends provided the story. Dr. Leechman combined elements of three or four traditional Interior Salish stories to create the script. Judith selected the masks to be used in the production and Grant Crabtree, the cinematographer, began working on the calculations required to do the filming. At the end of WWII his brother Graham re-joined Crawley Films as art director and he provided the backgrounds for the film.
During the War, Crawley Films operated out of the third floor, billiard room of the Crawley family home at 540 The Driveway. In their spare time this small group of family and friends pitched in to try something different. Unlike the sponsored films they made for business, organizations like the Canadian Geographical Society and the NFB, this film was made on speculation. In 1946, the company outgrew the limited space and it relocated to a former church hall at 19 Fairmont Avenue. It was here that the sound stage was set up to shoot this landmark production.
“We tried everything that we could think of to make the masks move by mechanical means … all kinds of balls and joints to make them move, but nothing would substitute for the human neck”, remembers Judith. Anyone entering the studio could be pressed into service as an actor wearing one of the masks. After suffering under the lights while repeating a motion, over and over, with his head, one young truck driver stomped out exclaiming, “Who the hell cares how the loon got his necklace!”
It is difficult today with the effortlessness of image manipulation software to appreciate how difficult it was for Crawley Films to produce this eleven-minute experimental short with the 16mm technology at hand in 1940s Canada. To create the visual effects using the West Coast ceremonial masks, the film was shot, taken out of the camera, rewound in the darkroom frame by frame and then re-mounted in the camera. In some sequences, there are four or five exposures on one piece of film. Superimposition without the benefit of optical printing.
By the time shooting, processing, editing, and printing of the film was completed in October 1948, the company had approximately six thousand dollars tied up in the production. Judith arranged to screen the completed short for Ross McLean, the NFB Commissioner, who reacted negatively to the film by stating, “Well, it’s a nice little film, Judy, but I don’t see how we could use it.”
Naturally, Budge as producer of the film was anxious to recoup the company’s investment and he approached several commercial distributors without success. Following the public recognition the film received at the Canadian Film Awards, he contacted Gerry Moses at Imperial Oil about buying the film. (Budge had worked with Moses on a previous sponsored film called A Mile Below the Wheat.)
Gerry Moses stated in a Crawley Commentary (August 29th, 1949): “Early this year Imperial was impressed with the cultural value of The Loon’s Necklace, a 10-minute film based on a tale from early North American Indian folklore. Believing that the film should receive the widest distribution because of its unusual subject and artistic value, Imperial bought the Canadian rights, and presented them to the Canadian Association for Adult Education, along with a few prints.” In addition, the film was shown for 20 weeks accompanying a feature film at the International Cinema in Toronto, where an estimated 85,000 people saw it.
Imperial Oil paid Crawley Films five thousand dollars which covered most of the film’s initial costs, and then Budge was able to sell American rights to Encyclopaedia Britannica Films in Chicago. During a series of interviews in 1981, Budge enlarged on this more than satisfactory sale, “We still get royalties from E. B., and they’ve remained virtually unchanged in 32 years. American colleges and universities buy prints. A friend of mine went down to Chicago and he said to E. B. ‘What’s the most profitable venture you’ve ever been involved with?’ E. B. said, ‘You wouldn’t believe this, but it’s a Canadian short called The Loon’s Necklace. We’ve made a million and a half dollars on that little film. It just sells continuously.’”
In a 1979 interview, Graeme Fraser, VP of Crawley Films, reinforced Budge’s story about the timelessness of the production and the film’s ability to reach an audience well beyond its expected shelf life: “From what I read, it could be Canada’s best known motion picture of any kind. There are now 4500 prints in circulation, and they are out around the world. I don’t know of another Canadian film that is anywhere close to that. Thirty years later, we still sell 200 prints a year. It’s just a timeless picture and recently we finished refurbishing the sound and picture; so that once again we have inter-negatives from which we can make sharp, clear prints.”
It was another Crawley who did the restoration work on the film’s 30th anniversary, Budge and Judith’s son Rod Crawley.
This production made the transition to video formats and has now been continuously in distribution for fifty-five years. The Tsimshian Loon’s Necklace story was adapted and retold by William Toye and illustrated by Elizabeth Cleaver in a children’s book, published by Oxford University Press, and credit is given to the film on the back cover of the book. And in 2000, the National Arts Centre orchestra under conductor Boris Brott, with Tara-Louise Montour as narrator, performed a musical version of The Loon’s Necklace.
Addendum: In 2013 the University of Nebraska Press published Craig Mishler’s book The Blind Man and the Loon: The Story of a Tale, which examines the origin of the story and its introduction to a broad audience through the Crawley film.
Additional resources for, The Loon’s Necklace
Search results for The Loons Necklace at Library & Archives Canada : https://recherche-collection-search.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/Home/Search?q=the+loons+necklace&num=25&start=0&DataSource=Archives
THE LOON’S NECKLACE; NATIONAL & INTERNATIONAL AWARDS
1. Canadian Film Awards – 1949; “Canadian Film of the Year”
2. International Festival of Documentary Films, Edinburgh – 1949; Certificate of Participation
3. Venice Film festival – 1949; First Prize Silver Medal
4. International Cinema Festival, Gardone, Italy – 1949; The Ente del Gera Cup — First Prize for Colour Films.
5. Cleveland Film Festival – 1949; First Prize for Art and Music Films.
6. New Liberty Magazine Awards; Best Short Exhibited in Canada during 1950.
7. International Congress of Art Films, Brussels – 1950; Belgian Cinematheque Prize for the “Best Contribution in the Experimental Field”.
8. Scholastic Teachers Magazine, New York – 1950; Award of Merit. Chosen by National Board of Auwio-Visual Directors as “One of the Ten Best Educational Films of the Year”.
9. First International Art Films Festival, Woodstock, N.Y. – 1951; “Best North American Film”
10. International Film Festival, Salzburg, Austria – 1951; Certificate of Participation.
11. Illinois Institute of Technology 1952; Institute of Design Award for “Recognition for Standards of excellence best demonstrating intelligent audio-visual communication”.
12. International Exhibition of Short Films sponsored by Ministry of Education, Buenos Aires – 1958; Certificate of Participation.
13. XIth International Film Festival, Locarn, Switzerland – 1958; Diploma of Honour.
14. Canadian Library Association – 1960; Selected as one of the best Canadian films of the last fifteen years.
15. Victoria International Film Festival – 1962; First Award for Entertainment Films.