The “Talkies” Come to Ottawa

26 December 1928

Imagine the excitement, anticipation and even trepidation that came with the arrival of talking movies—the “talkies”—in the late 1920s. For a generation, silent movies had ruled the cinemas of the world.  Audiences delighted in the romance of Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik (1921), the swashbuckling adventures of Douglas Fairbanks in The Black Pirate (1926), and the antics of Clara Bow, the girl with “IT” (1927). Language was no obstacle; film was universal. Foreign movies, like the German-made Nosferatu (1922), the horror classic that introduced the vampire to the silver screen, and the Russian-made revolutionary thriller Battleship Potemkin (1925) gained large audiences in North America.

Talkies, Regent Theatre, NWcorner Bk&Spks,TopleyLACPA-028126
Interior of the Regent Theatre located at the north-west corner of Bank and Sparks Streets, Ottawa, 1918, Topley Studios/Library and Archives Canada, PA-028126. The Regent became the first Ottawa cinema to show a “talking” film, 26 December 1928.

But for the first time, movie goers, who hitherto had to use their imaginations, were going to be able to hear their idols speak. Yikes! In 1928, the Ottawa Journal described the terror this engendered among the acting fraternity. All of a sudden, actors were rushing off to take elocution lessons. The newspaper opined, “To hear a Spanish beauty speaking in the accent of the East Side or a New England fisherman declaiming in the broken English of a Polish-American might be entertaining but it would not be art.” Many of the great matinee idols of the silent era were not to make the transition.

The first public exhibition of a synchronized film sound track took place at the Paris Exhibition in 1900 using a system pioneered by Henri Loiret and Clément-Maurice Gratioulet called Photo-Cinéma-Théatre. The sound was recorded on a cylinder that was played in sync with the film. But the technology was unreliable. Things didn’t really improve until after World War I when Theodore Case, Earl Sponable, Charles Hoxie and Lee De Forest perfected the optical sound-on film method of synchronizing sound with action.  Three commercial variants of this technique emerged: Photofilm, PhotoPhone and Movietone. Another method of synchronizing a sound track to film involved sound on a disc that was played in synch with the film. Photokinema developed by Orlando Kellum and Vitaphone by Warner Brothers used this technique.

Talkies, Regent ad, TOC 28-12-28
“Where the Screen Speaks,” The Regent Theatre’s advertisement for the official premiere of the talkies that appeared in both the Ottawa Citizen and the Ottawa Journal, 28 December, 1928.

The Jazz Singer (1927) starring Al Jolson is usually credited with being the first feature-length talking film. It used the Vitaphone system. However, the movie was really a hybrid creation; it was a silent movie with four singing and talking scenes. Jolson apparently says a mere 354 words during the film, including the prophetic “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” The previous year, Don Juan, starring John Barrymore and Mary Astor, had been released with a synchronized Vitaphone music track and special effects, but without dialogue. In 1928, Fox Movietone began producing weekly news reports and short one-reel “talkies” using the more reliable sound-on film method for distribution in movie theatres that quickly dominated the talking film market.

There was an immediate rush by cinemas across North America to buy the expensive equipment needed to play the new “talkies.” There were concerns, however. Would audiences accept this costly film innovation?  Many directors deplored the advent of sound, complaining that a focus on dialogue would detract from the aesthetic that they were trying to create.  Mary Pickford reportedly said “adding sound to film was like putting lip rouge on Venus de Milo.” Her career was to founder after talkies became established.

The word “talkie” didn’t go down well with some either. Pedants sought expert academic advice for a new name for the invention. Suggestions included the “Audien,” the “Cinelog,” and the “Phonocinema,” which, according to the Ottawa Citizen, would probably become the “Phocin.” The last alternative would have been particularly unfortunate if pronounced with a hard “c.” Thankfully, none of these possibilities took.

Ottawa was one of the first cities in Canada after Toronto to start playing “talkies.” The Regent Theatre located on the north-west corner of Bank and Sparks Street, where the Bank of Canada Museum is today, debuted Fox Movietone productions on Boxing Day, 26 December 1928. The first showing was a by-invitation-only, private event.

The program started at 11pm with Fox Movietone news, featuring the signing of the Kellogg-Briand Treaty four months earlier in Paris. Signatories to the treaty, which was negotiated by Frank Kellogg, U.S. Secretary of State and Aristide Briand, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, renounced war as a means of resolving international disputes. The Ottawa Citizen commented that one could hear the “buzz of subdued sound and then M. Briand arises to speak…” In a succeeding scene, the U.S. Ambassador to France introduces Mr Kellogg who also says a few words of greeting. The Citizen journalist enthused that “every word, every syllable, he utters is distinctly heard.” (Here is a link to that early newsreel footage: Signing of the Kellogg-Briand Treaty.) A second news story showed the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VIII) opening a new dock in Bristol and giving a short speech, followed by an outdoor political rally in Britain with David Lloyd George, former Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Party, speaking in the rain.

After the newsreel came a short film called “The Hut,” which was set in Siberia, starring the Russian soprano, Miss Nina Tarasova, backed by the Russian Cathedral Choir. Again the Citizen’s journalist was captivated with the quality of the sound which he thought was better than hearing music on “a phonograph, radio, or telephone,” and was “free of mechanical interference.” This was followed by an “all talkie,” ten-minute comedy called The Family Picnic. Directed and written by Harry Delf, this Fox film starred Raymond McKee as the husband and Kathleen Key as the wife. Again, the journalist was impressed with the sound fidelity, especially the reproduction of the actors’ voices, street sounds, and even the approaching sound of a train.

Talkies, Street Angel
Film poster for the “Street Angel,” 1928 by Fox Films, IMDb.

The pièce de résistance of the evening was the 1928 Fox movie Street Angel, starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, directed by Frank Borzage. The film is the story of a Neapolitan street waif with a past (Gaynor), who flees to the circus where she falls in love with a starving artist (Farrell). Although there was no dialogue, the 110-piece Roxy Theatre Grand Orchestra of New York provided the musical accompaniment. The film won Photo Magazine’s bronze medal for the best picture of 1928. Janet Gaynor won the very first “Oscar” for best supporting actress in 1929 for her role. The Citizen said that the movie ranked with “the best of all time.” Watch the Street Angel.

For the excited Ottawa citizens invited to this late-night inauguration of talking films, it was worth the bleary eyes they had the next morning. “The Canadian Capital joined movie fandom the world over in applauding this audio-scenic innovation,” wrote the Ottawa Journal. Ray Tubman, the manager of the Regent Theatre, was roundly congratulated by his many friends.

After its special showing on Boxing Day, 1928, a “preview” opened the following night, again at 11pm, with the formal opening the day after that (Saturday). The huge crowds of eager spectators were urged to go to the matinee and early evening performances to help ensure that they could obtain seats. The Journal wrote: “Never in the history of the motion picture has any new development been introduced which has caused such a furore as this new marvel.”

Ottawa companies wanted to be associated with the launch of talkies to the nation’s capital. Stanley Lewis, the future mayor of Ottawa from 1936-48 and the owner of an electrical store, advertised that the Regent Theatre had entrusted the installation of the Movietone equipment to his firm—“Enough Said” read the ad. Merchants on Sparks Street, including Orme’s, Lindsay’s, the Metropolitan Stores and John Raper Piano Co. Ltd—the Home of the Othophonic Victrola—advertised for sale records of the music from The Street Angel. The hit theme song Angela Mia could be purchased for 50 cents on the Domino label with The Rose You Gave To Me on the reverse side. Even the shoe company Gale & Co. got in on the action by advertising Cordovan leather shoes “as New and Distinctive as the Movietone.”

The arrival of the talkies to Ottawa was a huge success, as it was everywhere in North America. Within a few scant years, the great silent film industry fell, well, silent.

Sources:

Naqi, Sheza, 2012, The End of an Era: From Silent Film to Talkies, ETEC540: Text, Technologies — Community Weblog, 28 October, https://blogs.ubc.ca/etec540sept12/2012/10/28/the-end-of-an-era-from-silent-film-to-talkies/.

Ottawa Citizen, 1928. “Talking Movies Make Debut For Ottawa People,” 27 December.

——————, 1928. “Gaynor-Farrell In ‘Street Angel,’” 29 December.

——————, 1928. “Movietone Makes Its Ottawa Debut At The Regent,” 29 December.

Ottawa Journal, 1928. “The Changing Movies,” 31 August.

——————-, 1928. “Premier Showing Of Talking Film A Notable Event,” 27 December.

——————-, 1928. “The Talking Movies,” 29 December.

——————-, 1928. “First Movietone Show Here Starts Today at The Regent,” 29 December.

——————-, 1928. “Regent Theatre,” 31 December.

Rosenberg, Jennifer, 2017. “The Jazz Singer, The First Feature-Length Talkie,” ThoughtCo., https://www.thoughtco.com/the-jazz-singer-1779241.

The Russell Theatre

15 October 1897

On the site of the National Arts Centre (NAC) there once stood an earlier playhouse called The Russell Theatre with its front entrance on Queen Street. On hundred years ago, it was the centre of arts and culture in Ottawa just as the NAC is today. The three-storey structure, which cost $100,000 to build, was owned by The Russell Company, the proprietor of the adjacent Russell House Hotel, which was itself the city’s leading hotel prior to the building of the Château Laurier. Work on the site began at the end of March 1897 when labourers tore down the old “Leader Hotel,” also known as the “Walsh building,” on Queen Street. The Russell Company, seeking the finest that money could buy, hired the New York theatrical architectural firm of J. B. McElfatrick and Son that had built theatres across the United States. Michigan native Fuller Claflin was the on-site architect. The general contractor for the project was Mr “Ed” C. Horne of New York, with whom Claflin had worked on many similar assignments. Imported talent, mostly from the United States, also made the stage decorations, the tile mosaics, the papier maché work, as well as the ornamental paintings and frescos. Even the masons and bricklayers employed on the job came principally from New York. Dr W. A. Drowne, who had been the manager of the Plattsburgh theatre in Plattsburgh, New York, was hired to manage the new Russell Theatre.

Russell Theatre cross sectio 2-10-97
Cross section of The Russell Theatre, The Evening Journal, 2 October 1897.

The theatre, which was built in the Italian renaissance style, was a marvel of late nineteenth century technology, and was judged second to none among North American theatres. It seated roughly 1,500 patrons on three floors and in ten boxes. On the balcony, there was a large room where light refreshments were served during intermissions and after performances. A ladies’ parlour (a.k.a. bathroom) was to be found on the first floor, with the gentlemen’s toilets on the balcony level. In the gallery, there was a smoking lounge for gentlemen. The steam-heated building was equipped with the latest stage apparatus and a modern electrical lighting system, with the wires carefully run through brass tubing to deter fires. In the case of fire, it had a fire pump with ten water outlets each equipped with fire hoses distributed throughout the building. The ground floor was laid in concrete, and the stairwells were separated from the auditorium by brick walls. The proscenium opening was protected by an asbestos curtain. Asbestos was also used in the plaster to retard burning. In an act of hubris suitable for a Greek tragedy, The Evening Journal said the theatre was “practically fireproof.”

On 15 October 1897, the Russell Theatre officially opened its door to the general public. Seats for the premiere had been auctioned off a few days earlier, with the proceeds in excess of the established ticket prices donated to the Prescott and Russell Fire Relief Fund. Roughly $200 were raised to help victims of a massive bush fire that had earlier destroyed three villages in eastern Ontario—Casselman, South Indian and Cheney’s—killing at least six people and leaving hundreds homeless.

Russell Theatre, Kismet 16-Oct-97
Advertisement for Kismet, the Premiere Production at The Russell Theatre, The Evening Journal, 15 October, 1897.

The gala opening featured Kismet or Two Tangled Turks, a comic opera in two acts by the German-born Broadway composer Gustave Kirker, with the libretto by Richard F. Carroll. Unfortunately, the play “was not altogether a success” opined The Evening Journal. The performance lacked “snap and vim” and was judged “dull” for long periods. The problem seemed to lie more with the play than with the theatrical company. The newspaper said that Miss Minerva Dorr, who played the role of the Sultan (sic) of Turkey, had a commanding presence and an exquisite voice while Mr John Saunders was very humorous as the Grand Vizier.  The dancers “of the Odalisques” were also judged to be quite pleasing. In general, the theatrical company was considered to have been good, but would have done better with a better play.

If the play was lacklustre, the theatre wowed Ottawa’s elite. Prior to the beginning of the performance, coloured lights played over the stage curtain that was painted with a scene of the loops of the Selkirk River of Manitoba. Being the première, people turned out in their finest with the newspaper giving a detailed account of the outfits of prominent Ottawa women. A Miss Davis wore “a dainty dress of dresden muslin-de-soie over cream silk, the trimming of cream lace and nile green satin ribbons forming a bolero and full front bodice. Diamond and pearl ornaments.”

It seems the Journal’s judgement of the Russell’s first theatrical production was an accurate assessment of the theatre’s first seasons—second-rate. In a letter to the editor, a theatre-goer in 1899 moaned that the Russell Theatre had claimed that it had been unable to book first-rate theatrical companies since they had already been contracted to play in Toronto and Montreal. He thought that while the excuse might have been a fiction, the result was “painful.” Another angry theatre patron complained that if Ottawa had to put up with second-rate attractions, at least the prices charged shouldn’t be higher than those charged in Montreal.

Fire put an end to the complaints. On 9 April 1901, roughly two hours after the last patrons had left a production of The Belle of New York, a musical comedy written by Hugh Morton with music again by Gustave Kirker, a fire broke out behind the Russell’s stage. Despite the asbestos curtain and other fire retarding measures, the theatre was quickly gutted, its wooden interior fixtures burning like tinder. The alarm was raised by the theatre’s caretaker who had an apartment close to the stage. He had just fallen asleep when he was woken by a loud rushing sound, with his room filling with smoke. Almost naked, he rushed out of the theatre to the nearby police station to bring help. Dr Drowne, the Russell’s manager, and Mrs Drowne who also lived in the theatre, barely escaped with their lives. They fled with only the clothes on their backs. All their possessions, valued at $2,000, were lost.

By the time Fire Chief Provost and his men got to the Russell Theatre, flames were already shooting through the roof. But firefighters were able to bring the blaze under control by plying water streams onto the structure from the Free Press Building at the corner of Queen and Elgin Streets. While the theatre was a write-off, the firemen were able to save surrounding buildings, including the Russell House Hotel. Aiding them was the weather—wet with the wind blowing away from the hotel.

The cause of the blaze was never ascertained. The caretaker thought it started in the furnace room. Others believed it had been caused by a wayward cigarette dropped by one of the players. However, Dr Drowne disagreed, saying he was very strict with smoking around the stage. Also, he had passed through the theatre after The Belle of New York troupe had left, and had checked on every room before retiring for the night.

The next day, Ottawa residents woke up to the realization that only by chance had a great tragedy been avoided. Had the fire broken out just two hours earlier, many men, women and children might have been trampled in a rush for the doors. Despite the considerable fire precautions taken in its construction, the consensus was that the theatre had not been safe due to insufficient exits, especially from the dress circle and balcony levels. Many considered the theatre to have been a “death trap.”

Speculation also began on whether the theatre would be rebuilt. The initial assessment was not favourable. Fire losses were estimated at $100,000, with insurance covering only $63,000. Also, the theatre had not been profitable; no dividends had been paid since the day it was opened. But at a meeting of directors four days after the fire, management announced that an arrangement had been reached to rebuild the Russell Theatre between the owners of the theatre and the Ambrose J. Small Company of Toronto, a theatre management company that had leased the Russell. Apparently, the Ambrose J. Small Company had already booked engagements for two-thirds of the coming season.

As an aside, many years later in 1919, Ambrose J. Small, who was a major Canadian theatre mogul who owned or operated theatres in several Ontario cities, was to disappear under circumstances worthy of a paperback thriller. After receiving $1.7 million from the sale of his theatre operations, it was alleged that he was murdered by his wife and her lover, with his body incinerated in the furnace of the Grand Opera Theatre in London, Ontario. The allegations were never proven. At one point, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, was approached for assistance in solving the case. While interested, Sir Arthur declined to help. Never solved, the police closed the case in 1960.

Russell Theatre interior, 1928 Mikan 7821743 government
Interior of the new Russell Theatre before its demolition in 1928, Library and Archives Canada, Mikan 7821743.

The new Russell Theatre reopened on 7 October 1901, almost four years to the day after its first debut. Although rebuilt along similar lines to the original theatre and finished as before in old gold, ivory and red, with shades of blue under the galleries, there were significant differences. Capacity has increased to 1,900 seats from 1,500, with 590 on the ground floor, 500 in the balcony, 700 in the gallery, with the remainder accommodated in twelve boxes. There were other differences too. Most importantly, there were a lot more exits, including four on the gallery and three on the balcony. Frederick Challener, a distinguished Canadian artist, had also been commissioned to paint three murals on the ceiling, depicting the “Triumph of Drama,” “Love” and “Hate.”

Russell Theatre ceiling 1928, Mikan 4821747 Government
Ceiling of the new Russell Theatre showing “The Triumph of Drama” by Frederick Challener, RCA, 1928, Library and Archives Caanda, Mikan 4821747.

The re-opening play was a production of Dolly Varden, a comic opera by the Broadway composer Julian Edwards based on the character Dolly Varden from the Charles Dickens’ book Barnaby Rudge. Miss Lulu Glaser played the lead role. This debut fared better than the first. The Journal’s review described the production as “bright and clever entertainment, while Miss Glaser was “vivacious and dainty.” Unlike Kismet in 1897, Dolly Varden had the necessary “vim.” The newspaper was particularly impressed by a chorus by the entire company performed a cappella. The costumes were also deemed to have been gorgeous.

During that first week, Dolly Varden played for two nights. This was followed by two nights of vaudeville by Shea’s Vaudeville from the Garden Theatre in Buffalo. The week was rounded out by a performance by Louis Morrison in The New Faust on the Friday, followed by Madame Modjeska and Louis James in productions of Mary Stuart and Henry VIII on the Saturday.

The curtain fell for the last time at the Russell Theatre on 14 April 1928. The theatre, along with the now empty Russell House Hotel and other properties on the Russell Block bordered by Sparks, Queen and Elgin Streets and the Canal had been acquired by the Federal District Commission (FDC). All were slated for demolition as part of the Commission’s plan to beautify Ottawa. On that last night, The Dumbells performed in “Bubbling Over,” a series of eleven comedic and musical acts, to a capacity crowd. Led by Captain Merton Plunkett, the troupe was a prominent and extremely popular Canadian vaudeville group that had been formed during World War I by members of Canada’s Third Division. The company took their name from the dumbbell emblem of the Third Division.  At the end of their performance, Captain Plunkett told the audience that it was fitting that a strictly Canadian company should be the last to appear at the Russell.

As The Dumbells were loading their props and other equipment onto a horse-drawn cart after their show, the derelict Russell House Hotel caught fire. Although firemen were able to save the adjacent Russell Theatre from the flames, nothing could save it from the FDC. Three months later, it was demolished. Fortunately, on hearing of the existence of the beautiful ceiling murals by Frederick Challener, Canada’s National Gallery asked that they be saved. The murals now reside at the Gallery. In 1985, the Gallery also obtained Challener’s preliminary scale model of the main mural, Triumph of Drama. See Maquette of Triumph of Drama. 

Sources:

Alberti, Louis-Gèrard, 2015. “The Russell Theatre,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/russell-theatre-emc/.

Bordman, Gerald with Norton, Richard, 2010. American Musical Theatre, A Chronicle, 4th Edition, Oxford University Press: Oxford, New York.

Evening Journal (The), 1897. “Ottawa’s New Theatre,” 30 March.

—————————, 1897. “Down Comes The Wall,” 30 March.

—————————, 1897. “The Russell House Company,” 7 June.

————————–, 1897. “Opera House Decorations,” 14 July.

————————–, 1897. “At Work On The Scenery,” 18 August.

————————–, 1897. “With The Labor Men,” 21 August.

————————-, 1897. “An Up To Date Theatre,” 2 October.

————————-, 1897. “The Russell Offer,” 9 October.

————————-, 1897. “$200 For Fire Sufferers.”

————————-, 1897. “Up Goes The Curtain,” 16 October.

————————-, 1899. “The Russell Theatre,” 18 September.

————————-, 1899. “The Russell Theatre,” 23 September.

————————-, 1901. “The Theatre Fire,” 9 April.

————————-, 1901. “Russell Theatre A Ruin Today,” 9 April.

————————-, 1901. “Opposed To Rebuilding,” 9 April.

————————-, 1901. “Did Not Pay,” 10 April.

————————-, 1901. “Music And Her Devotees,” 13 April.

————————-, 1901. “Theatre To Be Rebuilt,” 13 April.

————————-, 1901. “Russell Will Open Oct. 7,” 25 September.

————————-, 1901. “The Theatre Is Completed,” 4 October.

————————-, 1901. “At The Theatre, Opening Of The Russell,” 8 October.

————————-, 1928. “Dumbells’ Review ‘Bubbling Over,’ A Delight In Music And Comedy,” 10 April.

————————-, 1928. “Five Firemen Hurt When Russell Block Is Prey To Flames,” 16 April.

————————-, 1928, “To Salvage Murals, Russell Theatre,” 22 June.

————————-, 1928. “Strip The Russell, Movable Objects,” 6 July.

Moogk, Edward and Kellman, Helmut, 2014, “The Dumbells,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/the-dumbells-emc/.

NGC Magazine, 2013. “Artists, Architects and Artisans Photo Gallery, 5 November, http://www.ngcmagazine.ca/exhibitions/artists-architects-and-artisans-photo-gallery/Maquette-for-the-Triumph-of-the-Drama-Russell-Theatre-Ottawa.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 1901. “Theatre To Be Rebuilt, “13 April.

————————-, 1901. “The Russell Theatre, A Suggestion,” 12 April.

Captains of the Clouds

16 July 1941

It was mid-summer 1941. Britain, Canada and the rest of the Commonwealth had been at war with Nazi Germany for almost two years. Although the Royal Air Force had fought off the German Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain, the war news was grim. That June, German forces had launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. By mid-July, Russian forces, their officer corps decimated by Stalin’s purges, were in rapid retreat falling back towards Kiev and Moscow.

On the other side of the globe, shooting of a very different sort got underway in Canada. A crew from Warner Brothers, the motion picture studio, arrived in Ottawa, their six-week mission to film Captains of the Clouds, the first ever Hollywood movie shot entirely in Canada. The movie was the story of brash, Canadian bush pilots joining the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) after hearing Churchill’s historic “We shall fight them on the beaches” speech following Dunkirk. Deemed too old for combat missions, they become instructors, but later are called upon to ferry bombers to Britain. Clink here for a link to the cinema trailer for Captain of the Clouds, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L1NG0os_-3o.

The BCATP was the largest-ever aircraft instructional programme, training Canadian, British, Australia, New Zealand servicemen as well as men from other Commonwealth and foreign countries, including the United States. From when it commenced operations in early 1940 until it was wound down in late 1944, the Plan trained 131,553 pilots and crewmen, over half of whom (72,835) were Canadian. Costing $2.2 billion of which Canada paid $1.6 billion (equivalent to about $25 billion in today’s money), the Plan was Canada’s single-most important contribution to the Allied war effort. Recall also that Canada’s population at the time was only 12 million, a third of what it is currently.

The movie, which was directed by Michael Curtiz, starred James Cagney who was at the peak of his skills and at the height of his popularity. It was Cagney’s first movie to be filmed in Technicolor. Co-starring were Dennis Morgan, Alan Hale Senior, and George Tobias as his bush pilot pals, and Brenda Marshall as the love interest. The movie was filmed in co-operation with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). Air Marshal “Billy” Bishop played a cameo role as himself in a graduation, or “wings,” ceremony. Bishop was an ace Canadian pilot from the First World War, and a recipient of the Victory Cross. In 1941, he was the Director of the RCAF and in charge of recruitment. Hundreds of RCAF servicemen and women also appeared in the film as bit players and extras. Much of the movie was filmed at Uplands Airport (now the Macdonald-Cartier International Airport) in Ottawa, with the bush scenes filmed in the North Bay area at Trout Lake and Jumping Caribou Lake. Flying scenes were also filmed at air stations located in Trenton, Dartmouth, Jarvis and Mountain View.

Cagney arrived in Ottawa dressed in a white suit in the wee hours of the Sunday morning before the beginning of the shoot, scheduled for Wednesday, 16 July 1941 at Uplands Airport, site of the No. 2 Service Flying Training School. He arrived by train from his Martha’s Vineyard farm, and stayed in a suite on the second floor of the Château Laurier Hotel, accompanied by his brother William who was a producer on the movie. Initially reluctant to star in the movie, Carney apparently made his participation contingent on Warner Brothers hiring his brother. Despite the early hour of his arrival, there was a crowd of female fans and a large press contingent there to greet him in the lobby. The Ottawa Evening Citizen reported that Cagney was not the “tough guy of the screen” but rather a “mild spoken, quiet, mannerly, young fellow.”

The first scene filmed on the Wednesday morning was the “wings” ceremony starring Air Marshall Billy Bishop, along with Wing Commander, W.R. MacBrien, the chief instructor at Uplands, Group Captain W.A. Curtis, the airport’s commanding officer, and Flight Lieutenants Harry Wood and Paul Rodier. Behind the scenes, the Warner film technicians wore sky-blue overalls to identify themselves as the film crew so they wouldn’t be confused with possible “fifth columnists” and saboteurs. Although Bishop performed well—Cagney called him “a natural”— the shoot was a nightmare requiring many takes owing in part to bad weather, malfunctioning equipment and the need to coordinate the ground action with complex aerial manoeuvres. It was well worth the effort, however. The scene of the airmen receiving their wings set against the backdrop of bright yellow Harvard trainers and camouflaged bombers with the service flags of Canada, Britain and Australia flying overhead provided a stirring spectacle, especially when you remember that these weren’t actors but real, wartime servicemen who would shortly be thrown into combat.

Generally speaking, the film was difficult to make from other perspectives. The American movie crew was unused to filming in wartime conditions. America was still a neutral country when Captains was made, five months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Ottawa was choc-a-block full of servicemen and women. Consequently, living space was at a premium. While Cagney and the other stars were put up at the Château Laurier, the rest of the crew slept in the barracks at the Uplands flight school, eating service food. They were also far from the amenities of Ottawa. Reportedly, the crew almost struck over unsatisfactory conditions. Working in the bush also proved challenging. Cagney, who did some of his own stunts, suffered a concussion that delayed filming for several days as he recovered. As well, Sol Polito, the cinematographer, who initially had trouble getting into Canada owing to his Italian birth, reportedly suffered a heart attack while the film was being made.

Cagney, the other stars, and the Warner Brothers’ crew stayed in Ottawa for ten days. For Ottawa residents, the filming provided a much needed morale boost and a distraction from wartime privations and worries. The Hollywood stars were mobbed in the streets and at their hotel. On one occasion, Alan Hale had to take refuge in a shop when spotted on Sparks Street by admirers. Dennis Morgan, described by a journalist as having “the shoulders of a football player, voice of an opera star, and the face of a matinee idol,” received hundreds of letters, many of the “mash” variety, from adoring female Ottawa fans. Small boys staked out the hotel in wait for their heroes. Four enterprising young teenagers, brothers Frankie and Buddy Russell and their two friends Jim McNally and Bob Vaive managed to evade security and knocked on Cagney’s hotel room door. Cagney cheerfully signed autographs for them.

The most serious occurrence took place on the Thursday night, the day after the initial shoot at Uplands Airport. Cagney and the other stars had agreed to perform for service people, wives and sweethearts at the Rockcliffe air station. When the news got out, more than a thousand fans stormed the Château Laurier to catch a glimpse of the stars as they left for their performance. Cagney was tackled by near hysterical girls who grabbed his arms, clutched at his clothing and ruffled his hair. Alan Hale and Dennis Morgan also had a difficult time getting through the crowds. It was only with the help of a security team of soldiers who held back the straining fans that filled the hotel’s rotunda that the celebrities were able to get to their automobile. The Citizen described the spectacle as resembling “a mob scene from one of the bigger Hollywood epics.” The stars were good natured about it, but arrived a half hour late for their performance.

For the servicemen, it was worth the wait. With Cagney acting as the impromptu master of ceremonies, the Warner Brothers’ gang put on a lively vaudeville show, complete with dancers and singers.  Dennis Morgan sang “Annie Laurie,” accompanied by Miss Jean McGuire of Ottawa on the piano, followed by an encore of “A Little Bit of Heaven.” George Tobias and Alan Hale told jokes. Apparently, Hale had the audience rolling in the aisles with laughter. At the end of the evening, the stars acknowledged the Dominion’s war effort saying “For what you people are doing, we salute you.”

During their stay in Ottawa, the stars and members of the Warner Brothers technical crew also played two ball games with servicemen. The Hollywood stars lost the first softball game 8-6 at Rockcliffe air station. Claiming they knew nothing about softball, the Hollywood stars asked for a rematch hardball game. This second game was played at Landsdowne Park in front of 2,000 Ottawa fans; tickets were 25 cents each, with the proceeds going to the Red Cross, the RCAF Benevolent Fund and towards the construction of a sports field at No. 2 Flying School at Uplands. For the Hollywood visitors, James Cagney played catcher, Dennis Morgan played first base, and George Tobias pitched. Other members of the Warner Brothers technical and engineering team rounded out the team. Alan Hale was umpire. Hale said “I asked to be umpire because I am prejudiced. I want to see the air force win.” Ottawa Mayor Stanley Lewis threw the first pitch. The visitors won the five-inning game by a close 5-4 score. The winning pitcher was Dick Emmons, the Warner Brothers’ grip who relieved Tobias after the first inning. Douglas Heiman was the losing RCAF pitcher. Cagney played one inning, while Hale refereed for two. Dennis Morgan played the entire game.

After ten days of shooting, the Hollywood stars and the rest of the Warner team left Ottawa to go to their next film location at North Bay. Several hundred fans were at the Château to see their idols leave. As a birthday gift for Cagney, who turned 42 while in Ottawa, the “Upland boys” presented him with a silver identification tag engraved with his name and movie rank. It read “Flying Officer James Cagney, Captain of the Clouds, 1941.”

Capts of the Clouds, 12-2-42
Advertisement for the World Premiere of “Captains of the Clouds,” The Capitol Theatre, Ottawa, 12 February 1942, The Evening Citizen.

The movie was released on 12 February 1942, with premieres in Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver, New York, London, and Cairo. The Ottawa premiere was held in the Capitol Theatre located at the corner of Bank and Queen Streets. The cinema was filled to capacity. Among the official attendees was Lieutenant General Andrew McNaughton who commanded the Canadian Corps. Before the movie started, RCAF service men and a trumpet and drum band from Uplands paraded to the cinema. On the Capitol stage, the band of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police played a programme of patriotic, marching tunes. The Capitol’s management bought Victory bonds with the proceeds of the first week’s shows.

The same night, two hundred RCAF airmen attended the New York premiere at the Strand Theatre. The airmen were feted on their 36-hour stay in New York at the Waldorf hotel. For the showing of the film, each airman was escorted by a John Powers model. Also in attendance was Leighton McCarthy, the Canadian Minister to the United States.

While the aerial shots were applauded and the film garnered two Academy Award nominations, one for best colour cinematography, and the other for colour interior decoration, film critics gave the movie mixed reviews. The New York Times described the first half as a “routine, he-man fable,” but said the documentary-like, second half took on “some consequence.” The Times critic added that “he had the odd feeling throughout the second half of the film that a company of Hollywood actors, fugitive from a previous picture, had got loose amid the serious activities and flashing planes of the R.C.A.F.”  Unsurprisingly, the movie was a big hit with Ottawa fans. The Citizen called it “breathtaking in its loveliness.” The paper gushed “There can be no doubt that “Captains of the Clouds” is without prejudice in any way, the finest aviation picture ever produced.”

Released only weeks after the United States’ entry into the war, Captains of the Clouds was a propaganda success for the RCAF. It also earned its place in cinematographic history as a forerunner of later combat movies. One modern critic called the film the Top Gun of its age. While IMDb gives Captains of the Clouds a middling 6.5 rating, it’s worth seeing if for no other reason than the spectacular aerial shots and the glimpses of Uplands Airport and downtown Ottawa as they were seventy-five years ago.

Sources:

Arnold, Jeremy, 2016. “Captains of the Clouds,” Turner Classic Films, http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/78131%7C0/Captains-of-the-Clouds.html.

Evening Citizen (The), 1941. “Jimmy Cagney Arrives To Play Lead in Film,” 14 July.

————————-, 1941. Four Ottawa Boys ‘Blitz’ Jim Cagney For Autograph,” 15 July.

————————-, 1941. “Canadian Flying Ace Takes Speaking Role In Picture Filmed At Upland Airport,” 16 July.

————————-, 1941. “Movie Stars Will Entertain Airmen At Party Tonight,” 17 July.

————————-, 1941. “Soldiers Battle Crowd And Rescue Movie Stars, 18 July.

————————-, 1941. “Film Stars Due To Play Airmen,” 21 July.

————————-, 1941. “Fun Is Promised Tonight In Special Softball Game,” 23 July.

————————-, 1941. “Film Stars Turn Back Airmen In Benefit Softball Game,” 24 July.

————————-, 1942. “Captains of the Clouds Rated No. 1 Flying Film,” 13 February.

————————-, 1942. “Canadian Airmen Royally Feted on Manhattan Visit, 13 February.

Hatch, F.J., 1983. Aerodrome of Democracy: Canada and the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, 1939-1945, Department of National Defence, Directorate of History, Monograph Series No. 1, http://www.cmp-cpm.forces.gc.ca/dhh-dhp/his/docs/aerodrome_e.pdf.

IMDb, 2016. Captains of the Clouds, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0034578/.

New York, Times (The), 1942. “Captains of the Clouds, Heroic Film About The Royal Canadian Air Force and Starring James Cagney, Arrives At The Strand,” 13 February.

Taylor, Chris, 2016. “Inflight Movie: Captains of the Clouds (1942),” Taylor Empire Airways, http://taylorempireairways.com/2009/08/in-flight-movie-captains-of-the-clouds-1942/.

Youtube, 2011. Captain of the Clouds, trailer, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L1NG0os_-3o.

The Capitol

30 April 1970

Thursday, 30 April 1970 marked the end of an era for cinema and theatre fans in Ottawa. That evening, the historic Capitol Theatre held its last official performance—a screening of the movie Mash, the Oscar-winning, black comedy set in a Korean War field hospital, starring Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould. Earlier that day, a small advertisement appeared in the entertainment section of the Ottawa Citizen inviting people to come to the performance and join the staff of the Capitol in bidding farewell to the theatre. Beyond that, there was little fanfare to mark the theatre’s passing. The Capitol’s manager, Jack Critchley, is reported to have said: “you don’t celebrate something like this.” As cinema patrons filed out after the last show that evening, the only sign that something out of the ordinary had occurred was the presence of television cameras recording the event for posterity. Despite widespread protests, the Capitol, considered one of the most beautiful movie palaces in Canada, had a date with the wrecking ball. As a last hurrah, a special fund-raising event was held the following evening at the historic theatre to benefit the Canadian Save the Children Fund. With CBC host Alex Trebek acting as master of ceremonies, supporters watched the silent movie Pollyanna, starring Mary Pickford. At the end of the show, they sang Auld Lang Syne as the curtain dropped for the very last time.

The Capitol, Corner of Bank St and Queen St. 1920-1970
The Capitol, Corner of Bank St and Queen St.                                      

According to Paul Terrien of the Ottawa newspaper Le Droit, the Capitol was a casualty of its own grandeur.  The massive 2,530-seat theatre was simply no longer economic to run, either as a cinema or as a theatre. It was a victim of the television age; people were not going to the cinema as frequently, or in the numbers they used to. Competition from smaller, multiplex cinemas that were cheaper to operate had also taken its toll. Most nights, there was only a thin sprinkling of viewers in the Capitol’s cavernous auditorium.

While built for cinema and vaudeville shows, the Capitol had also become the centre of Ottawa’s theatrical and musical life, hosting on its large stage the great performers of the age, including Nelson Eddy, Nat King Cole, and Glenn Gould. The New York Metropolitan Opera played there, as did the Royal Philharmonic and Toronto Symphony Orchestras. The Who, Jimi Hendrix, and Ravi Shankar all had gigs at the Capitol. But the opening of the National Arts Centre in 1967, which provided a modern venue for such performances, was the last straw for the grand, but venerable, Capitol. Despite being an Ottawa landmark for fifty years, there was little heritage supporters could do to save the building; Ontario’s Heritage Act only came into force in 1975, five years after the Capitol was reduced to but a memory.

The Capitol had been built for Loew’s Theatres, a chain of upscale movie palaces owned by Marcus Loew, an American pioneer in the movie industry, who got his start owning penny arcades and nickelodeons. Scottish-born architect Thomas W. Lamb was the building’s architect. Lamb was the twentieth century’s foremost designer of cinemas and theatres, building landmark structures in major cities across North America, including New York, Boston, and San Francisco. He was the architect of Toronto’s Pantages Theatre, now known as the Ed Mirvish Theatre. Ground for the Capitol was broken in 1919.  Located at the corner of Queen and Bank Streets, the theatre was completed the following year at a cost of close to $1 million (equivalent to roughly $11 million in today’s dollars). The theatre’s concert pipe organ alone cost $40,000.

The Capitol, interior, circa 1943
The Capitol, interior, circa 1943, Chris Lund, Archives and Library Canada, PA-110976

The building was an architectural jewel, beautifully decorated in the neoclassical Adam style. The rectangular building boasted three Palladian windows on the Bank Street side of the building, set above a central door and marquee. Theatre goers entered through heavy oak doors into a magnificent lobby that was lined with columns and large mirrors, and illuminated by crystal wall sconces. Ticket booths were finished in bronze and ivory. Geometric patterns decorated the ceiling of the foyer, lit by a large central chandelier. Ahead was a grand marble staircase that led up to the mezzanine level and, during the Capitol’s early years, a ballroom. To the right and left of the staircase were entrances to the orchestra. On the mezzanine level, there were a writing room, a ladies’ room furnished in mahogany with blue upholstery, and a smoking room decorated in “Pompeian green.” Comfortable leather chairs and couches beckoned the weary. Tapestries, murals and niches adorned the walls, while underfoot was an old rose carpet. The auditorium boasted an ornate proscenium arch that surrounded the stage. To ensure the comfort of its guests, large blowers circulated fresh air at all times via under-seat ducts.

The gala opening of the Capitol was held on 8 November 1920. Marcus Loew, accompanied by more than a dozen screen and theatre stars, came for the big event, arriving in Ottawa just before noon by a special train from New York. Newspaper accounts enthused that it was the greatest number of screen and theatre stars ever assembled in North America. At Union Station, they were met by an official delegation of Rotary and Kiwanis Club officials, thousands of fans, and the band of the Governor General’s Foot Guards. Among the arriving stars was Grace Valentine, a “Broadway success,” who had just starred in the New York stage comedy The Cave Girl. She had also performed in the 1917 silent movie Babbling Tongues. The first female western star, Mary “Texas” Guinan was also there. She had played the role of The Tigress, a gun-toting heroine who could outmatch any man, in the 1918 movie The Gun Woman. Tall and blond, she later became known as the wisecracking “Queen of the Night Clubs,” rubbing shoulders with gangsters in New York speakeasies—a symbol of the Roaring Twenties. Another well recognized actress was Vivian Martin, at the time, a rival of Mary Pickford. Martin was the star of the 1919 movies, The Third Kiss, The Innocent Adventuress, and Louisiana.

“Texas” Guinan, circa 1920
“Texas” Guinan, circa 1920, Scandalous Women Blogspot

Led by three soldiers carrying the British, American, and French flags, followed by the scarlet-clad Foot Guards and mounted police, Loew and the film stars were brought by limousine from the train station to the city hall for a civic reception. With Mayor Fisher out of the city, the celebrities met other members of the city’s Board of Control. The parade then wound its way through Ottawa, passing in front of the new Capitol Theatre, before visiting Parliament Hill, entering through the west gate. There had been a rumour that they were to meet Acting Premier Sir James Lougheed, but this was later denied. Loew and the stars then attended a lunch held in their honour at the Château Laurier Hotel, hosted by the Rotary Club. Two cameramen took motion pictures to record the proceedings.

The doors of the new theatre opened at 1pm that afternoon. It was standing room only to greet the arrival of the stars. The cost of a ticket was fifteen cents (taxes included) for a balcony seat at the afternoon performance; a seat in the loge or in one of the boxes went for thirty-five cents. Prices went up to as much as fifty-five cents for the evening performance. Novel features of the theatre including no reserve seating, and continual screenings of a feature picture, alternating with a vaudeville show, through the day. That first week, theatregoers were treated to D.W. Griffith’s 1920 movie The Love Flower, starring Carol Dempster, Richard Barthelmess and George McQuarrie. It was a suspense story of a detective who falls in love with the daughter of a murderer on a tropical island. The vaudeville production headlined “a girly whirly” act called Choir Up, a musical comedy that was billed as a “tuneful tonic for tiny troubles.”

That night, following the formal opening of the Capitol, the fun really got started. The actors, led by “Texas” Guinan, certain city councillors, and friends whooped it up at city hall. There was plenty of booze despite Prohibition being in full swing. Afterwards came the political fallout, with complaints about the appropriateness of the reception accorded by city officials to the celebrities. Alderman McKinley proposed a motion of censure against the city’s Board of Control, arguing that when the mayor was away, the city had been “buncoed and stampeded into a civic reception.”  When Lower Town’s fun-loving and appropriately-named alderman Napoléon Champagne, a past and future mayor of Ottawa, was taken to task for participating in the revelries, the unmarried Champagne, argued that as he was above suspicion, he had only been at the party to look after the other controllers, and had “warned some of the ladies that all the other controllers were married and that if they wanted to say any sweet things they should say them to him.” He had attended to be the “moral watchdog,” and “had kept the married men from entanglements.”  After Champagne’s assurances that the controllers had conducted themselves respectfully, McKinley withdrew his motion.

In 1924, Marcus Loew sold his Canadian theatres. Ottawa’s Capitol was purchased by the Keith-Albee-Orpheum (KAO) theatre chain, with the Capitol renamed “Keith’s Vaudeville.” In the late 1920s, the Capitol’s name changed again to RKO Capitol, following the merger of KAO and the Film Booking Offices of America (FBO) in 1928. The following year, RKO’s Canadian operations merged with the Famous Players’ group, and the theatre’s name reverted back to the Capitol, and remained that way until the theatre’s demise in 1970 to make way for an office building.

Sources:

Capitol Cinema (Ottawa), 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capitol_Cinema_%28Ottawa%29.

Griffth, D. W., 1920. The Love Flower, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5nPofsDGwjY.

Miguelez, Alain, 2004, A Theatre Near You: 150 Years of Going to the Show in Ottawa-Gatineau, Penumbra Press.

The Citizen, 1920. Film Stare Are Here For Opening Loew’s Theater,” 8 November.

———————.“Girl Act Heads The Performance,” 8 November.

———————. “Notable Cast Seen in Loew’s Feature,” 8 November.

———————. “‘Love Flower’ Latest Griffith Production,” 8 November.

———————. “New Loew Theater Is One Of Canada’s Finest Play Houses,” 8 November.

———————. “Council Talks OF The Reception To Marcus Loew, Etc.” 16 November.

The Ottawa Journal, 1970, “CSCF Benefit: Mary Pickford Returning to Ottawa—On Film,” 25 April.

———————–, 1970. “Children Will Benefit As Capitol’s Era Ends, 1 May.

Mahon, Elizabeth, M. 2011. “Texan Guinan – Queen of the Night Clubs,” Scandalous Women, http://scandalouswoman.blogspot.ca/2011/09/texas-guinan-queen-of-night-clubs.html.

Russell, Hilary, 1975. All that Glitters: A Memorial to Ottawa’s Capitol Theatre and its Predecessors, Canadian Historic Sits: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History – No. 13, Parks Canada.

Terrien, Paul, 1970. “Le Capitol ferme ses portes, victime de sa propre grandeur,” Le Droit, 1 May.

Images: The Capitol, http://www.pastottawa.com/tag/capitol-cinema/537/.

The Capitol, interior, circa 1943, by Chris Lund, Archives and Library Canada, PA-110976, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capitol_Cinema_%28Ottawa%29#mediaviewer/File:Ottawacapitolmgs2.jpg.

“Texas” Guinan, Scandalous Women, http://scandalouswoman.blogspot.ca/2011/09/texas-guinan-queen-of-night-clubs.html