In 1938, a year before the NFB was created, Vincent Massey, Canada’s High Commissioner in London, was already in discussion with his secretary, Ross McLean, about the value of the films made by the Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau. They felt that if the films were to fulfill their role in promoting Canadian commerce and tourism overseas, they would have to be of higher quality.
McLean, impressed by the work of the British documentary filmmaker John Grierson, persuaded Massey to send a report on the state of Canadian cinema to Mackenzie King’s government. He suggested that Grierson be invited to study the government’s filmmaking activities, at that point divided into four categories: educational, promotional, ministerial and films designed to promote specific ideas, or a sense of belonging among the citizenry.
After completing his study, Grierson found that there were two main problems with Canadian filmmaking: a lack of means and the absence of any governing direction. In fact, the Motion Picture Bureau served the interests of the Department of Commerce almost exclusively, to the extent that other sectors had gone as far as setting up their own film services. Grierson tabled a report in June pointing to the need for a coordinated film production unit.
On May 2, 1939, an act of Parliament created the National Film Commission, soon known as the National Film Board. Its work was to complement that of the Motion Picture Bureau. The headquarters of the NFB were set up in Ottawa, and at the time of its creation its mandate was “….to make and distribute films across the country that were designed to help Canadians everywhere in Canada understand the problems and way of life of Canadians in other parts of the country.” The NFB was also responsible for coordinating all the filmmaking activities of the various federal departments.
The law that was tabled set up a Governing Council of two members of the Privy Council, three people chosen from outside the civil service, and three people who were either members of the civil service or the Canadian military. The first meeting of the Governing Council took place on September 21, 1939.
That same month, Canada went to war, so production switched to patriotic films. John Grierson was known as both a pioneer of documentary filmmaking and a specialist in the psychology of propaganda. He was a firm believer in the use of film as a tool for social change. He seemed naturally destined to head the NFB and in October he was appointed as the first Government Film Commissioner. He had a remarkable influence on the NFB, even after he retired in November 1945, and until his death in 1972.
Nature has always inspired filmmakers and A Study of Spring Wild Flowers presents the viewers with images of some of the most beautiful varieties of spring flowers found in Canada. It’s not known who made this film, nor many of the other early films, since at this period filmmakers were not viewed as creators but rather as civil servants employed by the Motion Picture Bureau, and many of the productions simply have the Bureau’s logo in the credits.
The third short film made by the NFB was Scherzo. It was directed by Norman McLaren soon after his arrival in North America in 1939. This film had been lost and it was only in 1984 that the material was found to recreate the original version, which ran for 1 minute and 25 seconds. Norman McLaren had worked for the General Post Office of Great Britain and the British Gas Corporation, where he directed The Obedient Flame, his last film in the United Kingdom before immigrating to North America.
Until 1939, the Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau distributed its own films, as well as the few that were produced by other government services. The adoption of the act creating the National Film Commission (which became the NFB) changed things by establishing a central distribution service. The two organizations, both under the jurisdiction of the Department of Trade and Commerce, became responsible for increasing the circulation and screening of all Canadian government films, apart from a few films for the Department itself.
The first film distributed by the NFB was The Case of Charlie Gordon, directed by Stuart Legg and produced by the Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau during the period of transition between the two organizations. This 16-minute film tells the story of a young unemployed man who is able to make his way in society with the help of a community organization supported by the federal government.
Right from the start the NFB set out to reach the largest possible audience, and to do so it signed a distribution agreement with one of the largest producers of newsreels in the U.S.A. –The March of Time, which belonged to Time-Life. Their weekly newsreels were seen by 20 million people. The NFB also negotiated with Famous Players of Canada, who agreed to screen NFB films in their 800 cinemas.