John Grierson wanted the NFB to become a powerful propaganda agency, responsible for controlling the flow of all government information. To achieve this, he suggested to Mackenzie King in November 1939 that a Bureau of Information be created with direct ties to the Prime Minister. This suggestion was ratified in December and the Bureau of Public Information was created to collect and disseminate information about Canada’s war effort. In 1940 Grierson received financing from the Bureau to support the production of the series Canada Carries On, which was widely distributed around the country.
Until now, the Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau had been responsible for film production, and the arrival of the NFB, ready to serve a similar purpose, soon led to conflict. Grierson deplored a situation where the duplication of administrative structures stalled production, and on November 27, 1940, he submitted his resignation to the chairman of the NFB. He called for the Bureau to come under the administration of the NFB, and disparaged the public service for its lack of flexibility in hiring creative talent. Finally the government yielded to his demands in June 1941.
The NFB needed the skills of experienced filmmakers. Grierson invited some American directors to join the Board (Irving Jacoby, Roger Barlow, Gordon Weisenborn, Robert Flaherty, Stuart Legg), along with some European directors (Joris Ivens, Boris Kaufman, Alexander Alexeïeff). He also brought in young Canadian filmmakers who already had a name, people like Ross McLean and Donald Buchanan. Grierson also recruited, for his own reasons, people with no film experience at all, such as Donald Fraser, James Beveridge, Tom Daly, Sydney Newman and Stanley Jackson. The filmmaker Guy Glover came to the NFB thanks to his friendship with McLaren. The latter had to stay in New York to finish his contract with Caravelle Film, and wouldn’t join the Film Board until 1941, though he had made a number of shorts with the organization before that.
Grierson always stressed the importance of creativity in the filmmakers he hired, but he believed that federal employee status was incompatible with creativity. The filmmakers and producers he recruited were hired on three-month contracts, with the possibility of renewal at the end of the term. This continued to be the norm until 1950, when the NFB began giving permanent positions to filmmakers (though in the mid-1990s severe budget cuts forced the Film Board to lay off its filmmakers and a large number of technicians and return to the philosophy of its early years.
This same principle of instability existed within production teams. However, because roles were interchangeable, people became competent in a wide variety of fields. This flexibility led to an egalitarian style of filmmaking, and many technicians later became directors.
By the end of 1940, the organization had a dozen employees, all anglophone except for Philéas Côté, director of Distribution. He was the first French Canadian to be hired by the NFB.
Most films made by the NFB and the Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau in 1940 were in English. As was typical in animation, the four shorts made by Norman McLaren had no narration and so they could be shown to any audience, no matter what language they spoke.
It’s worth noting that Un du 22e, directed by Gerald Noxon, which is a tribute to the soldiers of the famous Royal 22nd Regiment of Quebec, is considered to be the first French-language film made by the NFB, even though it was actually filmed by a team from Associated Screen News.
Over the years the NFB worked regularly in partnerships, and starting in 1940 it co-produced Wings of Youth with Audio Pictures Limited. The film shows how the British Empire tried to deal with aerial bombardments, and how it turned the slogan “the future lies in aviation” to its advantage.
Work started on the series Canada Carries On, the aim of which was to highlight Canadian achievements and situate Canada on the international scene. The filmmaker Stuart Legg, who was an expert in film propaganda, took archival material from a variety of sources and used his editing experience to make a number of films in this series, including Churchill's Island which, in 1941, was the first NFB documentary to win an Oscar®. Thanks to commercial distribution agreements signed with Columbia Pictures for films in English, and with France Film for films in French, this series was shown regularly in close to 700 theatres across the country. It was the most widely seen series in Canada in any genre.
The war prevented films from being distributed across Europe (apart from the British Isles) and much of Asia. The distribution service therefore concentrated on getting the films shown in Canada and in other parts of the British Empire, in the U.S., Latin America, and in the Middle and Far East.
From May 1939 onwards, the National Film Board and the Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau came under the umbrella of the Department of Trade and Commerce. But John Grierson believed that a single administrative structure could more effectively coordinate the film activities of the various federal departments. Because he also believed that the primary purpose of film at this time was to sustain the war effort, he suggested that film should come under the Department of National Defence rather than the Department of Trade and Commerce. He decided to force the issue by resigning in November 1940, though he withdrew his resignation a few months later.
His arguments persuaded the government, and on June 11, 1941, by an Order in Council, the powers, duties and functions of the Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau were merged with those of the NFB, and transferred from the Department of Trade and Commerce to the Department of National Defence, as Grierson had wished.
The NFB also took on the photographic and film services of the Bureau of Public Information, which meant that the NFB became responsible for producing more of the graphic material needed by the government for the war effort.
Commissioner John Grierson invited Norman McLaren, a fellow Scot whom he knew well, to take charge of animation. McLaren arrived on September 7, 1941. He had already directed some shorts for the NFB, but his first film as a director working in the full employ of the Board was Mail Early, a publicity film for Canada Post. McLaren’s style and technique worked well given the requirements of war: his films were made quickly and cheaply with minimal equipment, were essentially visual and so sidestepped all linguistic problems, and they were amusing. McLaren’s works made between 1942 and 1943 were the first NFB colour films.
McLaren was also busy recruiting people and setting up the animation studio, which started running in 1942. Right from the start, he set a standard for excellence based on research and innovation, and his presence over the years had an impact on all NFB productions. Documentaries, and later feature films, benefited both directly and indirectly from his studio’s activities.
The documentary studio began the monthly series Canada Carries On, and Atlantic Patrol was the first episode to be seen in theatres. Two other films in this series are worth noting: Churchill's Island, the NFB’s first documentary to win an Oscar®; and Warclouds in the Pacific, a documentary about the possibility of an attack on Pearl Harbor distributed two weeks before the event took place. Material for the films came from British documentary sources and footage received from the Germans, Italians and the Japanese as well as American archival material. All three films were directed by Stuart Legg. The series screened not only across Canada, but also in the United Kingdom, the U.S., Australia, India and the West Indies.
Throughout the process of setting up and defining the role of the NFB, John Grierson had a clear vision of the place he hoped the organization would occupy on the national and international scene. But he failed to grasp an important aspect of Canadian culture – its bilingual nature. Throughout the war period, only a very few films were produced in French, and French Canadians had to watch French versions of English films. Philéas Côté, who was the only francophone working for the NFB, talked to the Commissioner about the problem, and this led to the hiring of the first French-speaking filmmaker, Vincent Paquette. He directed a monthly magazine series in French called Actualités canadiennes, which began screening in September. The episodes in this series were widely watched in both French Canada and across the French-speaking world. In March 1943, the title of the series became Les reportages.
When it created the National Film Board in 1939, the government assigned a mandate designed to respond to issues of Canadian identity. The NFB was to produce films to help Canadians know and understand one another better, but it also had a role in representing Canada to the rest of the world. In 1942, writing in the British review Documentary Newsletter, Grierson summarized the NFB’s work as follows: “The first part of our work in Canada ended at the beginning of 1942. (…) There are particular reasons why Canadians are so ready to watch their own films. The need to create a feeling of national unity in a country where there are such vast geographical and psychological distances between people is one reason, but not the most important one. More important still, I think, is the fact that Canada is becoming conscious of its particular place in the world, as few English-speaking countries have done until now, and understands that it is uniquely placed. (…)There is no other way that I can explain the incredible support we have received, nor the long-term hopes tied to this projection school that we have created.”
The NFB gave Canada an image internationally as a distinct and independent country at a time when this was particularly crucial. A new world order was in the making, and Britain’s relationship with her dominions was being re-examined on both sides. The images of Canada sent overseas by the NFB also served as a contrast to the predominance of powerful images coming from the U.S.
In September, the NFB organized a unit to coordinate newsreels. The idea was to tie in the production of newsreels with the war effort to stimulate production while at the same time increasing the number of Canadian subjects seen in newsreels in Canada and abroad. Subjects covered included industrial and agricultural production, Canada’s participation in mutual aid programs, the Quebec Conference, as well as other international conferences. Newsreels intended for the army came to be produced by the Canadian Army Film Unit, created in 1943.
Work started on the monthly series The World in Action. These were 20-minute films based largely on montages of footage culled from the British government, the production unit of the Signal Corps, French newsreels and material from Germany, Italy, Japan, China and the U.S.S.R. The most remarkable films in the series are Inside Fighting Russia, The War for Men's Minds and Balkan Powder Keg, all three directed by Stuart Legg, and Our Northern Neighbour by Tom Daly.
The purpose of the series was to present Canadians with a synthesis of events taking place around the world during the war, along with information about their potential impact on life in Canada. It eloquently portrayed the successive phases in the Allied strategy, but also helped people understand and interpret Canadian participation in such international organizations as the Commission on Food and Agriculture, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the International Civil Aviation Organization.
Montreal celebrated its 300th birthday, and in honour of the occasion Vincent Paquette directed La cité de Notre-Dame, the first film made in French by a French Canadian.
NFB films screened in theatres in Canada, the U.S., the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India and the West Indies and were also screened by the British Ministry of Information and newsreel agencies. They were seen almost everywhere across the Allied nations.
Canada is a vast country, and for people living beyond the urban centres there was little access to commercial cinema. Under the direction of Donald Buchanan, who had founded the National Film Society and so had contacts across the country, the NFB set up a network of travelling projectionists to help screen its 16 mm films. While film presentations in the country depended upon these rural film circuits, in urban areas films were distributed through industrial and union circuits and through volunteers.
Each rural film circuit existed within a well-defined area. The projectionist, equipped with a portable projector and a well-chosen selection of films, travelled through his territory – usually by car – following a well-defined route and schedule. Screenings were held for free in libraries, parish halls, schools and civic centres. Some of these circuits were entirely paid for by the NFB; in other cases they were paid for in cooperation with agricultural and educational organizations in the different provinces. Approximately 1,700 screenings were held each year, with a monthly audience of about 250,000 people.
The industrial circuits presented films to workers, while union circuits offered programs to local unions across the country in conjunction with the Canadian Congress of Labour, the Trades and Labour Congress and the Workers’ Educational Association.
There were also voluntary film councils created with the help of civic organizations and social clubs that weren’t served by any of the other NFB circuits. These councils supplied a volunteer projectionist, and the NFB provided projectors, on the condition that the equipment be used to screen educational films to parish groups, women’s organizations and youth clubs.
The NFB was also associated with continuing education programs, particularly those at McGill University’s MacDonald College near Montreal and with the University of Alberta.
This innovative means of distributing 16 mm films through non-theatrical film circuits and the interest that Canadian audiences showed for these films attracted the attention and admiration of a number of other countries, which wanted to learn more about how the film circuits functioned, especially in rural areas.
By fusing the Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau with the NFB in 1941, John Grierson successfully managed to centralize the propaganda machine, as he had recommended take place in his report in 1938. But his influence reached far beyond this. At the beginning of 1943, in addition to his role as the Commissioner of the NFB, he was asked to become General Manager of the Wartime Information Board, which the previous year replaced the Bureau of Public Information, judged to be inefficient.
This position as General Manager gave Grierson the power to direct all the country’s information policies according to his own vision. By taking the reins of the graphics department of the Wartime Information Board he was able to extend the use of a documentary style to the photographs, posters and publications put out by the government. From then on he controlled the means, the production and the policies of Canadian propaganda.
From this time onwards the size and the scope of the NFB grew considerably. It produced more graphic material needed by the government for the war effort, and funds from the Wartime Information Board served to support the making and distribution of films.
Women’s contributions to Canadian film production aroused little interest in the early years of the NFB, though John Grierson sought out women directors and encouraged their work. Evelyn Cherry, Evelyn Lambart, Gudrun Parker, Laura Boulton and Jane Marsh were pioneering women filmmakers and were responsible for several important films, including Alexis Tremblay: Habitant (1943), Before They Are Six (1943), People of the Potlatch (1944) and Listen to the Prairies (1945). Several films about women’s wartime contributions were made in the period immediately following the war and are fascinating documentary evidence of male attitudes to women in the workplace. These were films like Proudly She Marches (1943), Wings on Her Shoulder (1943) and Careers and Cradles (1947). They weren’t produced by the NFB but were added to its vast Archives collection. They are essential to the understanding of cultural and socio-political values at different points in Canadian history. They also help illustrate the evolution of filmmaking techniques and are frequently requested for research and consultation.
In 1943, approximately a dozen French speakers worked under the supervision of English-speaking producers. The NFB decided to bring them together in the “French Unit,” a name that clearly shows the NFB functioned primarily in English at this point. Vincent Paquette directed the unit, while continuing to produce Actualités, renamed Reportages. The primary purpose of the series was to highlight the role of French Canadians in the war, though the films also covered history, culture and religion. There are 118 Reportages, which include Appel spécial à la femme canadienne par madame Casgrain (Reportages no 7, 1941), Nos Canadiennes dans l’armée et l’aviation (Reportages no 8, 1941), Université de Montréal (Reportages no 77, 1942), La Conférence de Québec (Reportages no 42, 1943), Les Canadiens en Italie (Reportages no 57, 1944), La Palestre nationale (Reportages no 99, 1944), De Gaulle au Canada (Reportages no 73, 1944).
In addition to the existing travelling projectionists’ circuits, the NFB set up the Voluntary Film Councils, a team of volunteer projectionists in urban areas to screen films in English-speaking areas not covered by industrial or union circuits. It wasn’t until 1946 that a similar service was set up for francophones.
The NFB opened offices in London, Chicago and New York, and its films were also available through 25 Canadian diplomatic posts around the world. Over the course of the year 592 copies of various 16 mm films were sent to 11 countries either within the British Empire or elsewhere (except the U.S.A.).
The extensive distribution across Canada and abroad of the series World in Action, which looked at Canada’s participation within international organizations, was regarded in British and American theatres as an expression of Canadian views of current international events. The films were seen in about 1,000 theatres in the U.K. and in 5,000-6,000 theatres in the U.S.A., as well as across Canada. This meant that each edition of the monthly film was seen by 30-40 million viewers. Special editions of the films were also prepared for distribution in places such as South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, India, and throughout Latin America. The series was distributed by the United Artists Corporation.
This is the first year that the activities of the National Film Board were described in an annual report put together by the Board itself. From 1939-1942, information about the Board was collected in reports from the Department of Trade and Commerce, and from 1942-1944 by the Department of National Defence. In each case, the reports were limited to very short texts that made no mention of the films produced by the NFB.
In a meeting held on September 7, 1945, the chairman of the Board of Trustees suggested that it would be a good idea for the NFB to produce its own annual report, though it was not required to do so, since he believed that the NFB might gain some political leverage were it to present its own report to the House of Commons. The other Board members agreed, and it was decided that an annual report would be written for the preceding fiscal year from April 1, 1944 – March 31, 1945. This first annual report was presented on November 14, 1945, and it took stock of the NFB with a wealth of information about its structure, productions and distribution channels in Canada and around the world.
A total of 308 films were made by a dozen production units in 1944. These were divided into three major sectors: the national filmmaking program (46 films), information programming during wartime (153 films) and production for other government departments (109 films).
The national filmmaking program was created in response to a growing demand from schools and other Canadian groups for films about Canada. There were five series produced for this program: one on community life in Canada; one on agriculture and rural development; one on natural resources and industry; one showing Canadian developments in the arts, sciences and medicine; and a series of tourist films.
The series Rural Newsreels, Industrial Newsreels and Frontline Report (which became Canadian Screen Magazine) used footage shot by the Film Unit of the Canadian Army overseas and were designed to inform urban and rural Canadian audiences about what was happening on the war front. Similarly, the series Canada communique and Eyes Front (which later became the Revue-cinéma canadienne) were distributed by the army reserves to Canadian troops overseas, as well as in military camps in Canada, and provided information such as the visit of Madame Chiang Kai-shek, the Canadian convoys, the repatriation of the wounded, women in the workplace, as well as sports events.
An hour-long theatrical release, This is Our Canada, was commissioned by the government of the Soviet Union to be shown in theatres in the U.S.S.R. The purpose of the film was to show different aspects of Canadian life, including its potential in the fields of commerce, industry, agriculture and air transport, as well as to inform people about the Canadian war effort.
Since his arrival at the NFB in autumn 1941, Norman McLaren made many animated films in support of the war effort. The light and amusing tone of his films helped to reinforce the messages, for example Five for Four on the benefits of buying war bonds and V for Victory, which encouraged people to buy Victory Bonds. But Keep Your Mouth Shut (1944) was his last war effort film. From 1944-45 he concentrated on producing the series Let's All Sing Together and Chants populaires, some of which he narrated himself. Each series consisted of popular songs, in English and French respectively, sung to animated backgrounds.
In May, a filmstrip unit was created. This kind of projection, which had been developed 20 years before, was a new form of education through images. Each projection consisted of a five-foot reel of non-flammable film, in which a series of photographs was arranged in a precise order to illustrate a particular theme. A written or recorded commentary accompanied each show. Since filmstrip projectors were cheaper and easier to run than a film projector, they were popular among the poorer organizations, and there was a growing demand for the 800 filmstrip projectors in use across the country.
The NFB performed all the steps in the production and distribution of its films, i.e. from writing the script to the final copies screened in theatres. This meant that it needed not only production studios, but also technical services including a laboratory, sound recording studio, photographic services, sound effects and music, animation, visual effects, projectors, cinema archives, and technical organization and maintenance. To get a sense of the scale of production, note that in 1944 the laboratory developed 7,000,000 ft of 35 mm film, as well as 1,250,000 ft for non-theatrical distribution.
As well as producing films, the NFB also managed a graphic design unit made up of four different services: the photographic services, which worked for various government departments taking and developing photographs, as well as distributing printed matter and sketches to newspapers, magazines and publishing houses; an exhibition service, which prepared photographs and display panels used for public information; graphic design and typographical services used to create publicity posters, placards, flyers, caricatures and illustrations for government publications; and the filmstrip projection service for various government departments.
Canada’s influence in international affairs led to an increasing demand for films about different aspects of Canadian life, from its topography to its natural resources. The NFB helped prepare the country for its post-war economy by producing and distributing films that gave Canada a higher profile internationally.
Using film agencies in New York, the NFB distributed its newsreels throughout the U.S.A. as well as to newsreel agencies in Canada and Latin America. The companies responsible for editing these newsreels sent them out throughout the British Empire. NFB newsreels made their way, via London, to the British Ministry of Information, the United States Office of War Information and the French government. The films were distributed in China, India, Sweden, Portugal, Turkey, Africa and the Middle East. The NFB also had offices in Washington, Chicago, Mexico and Sydney. It distributed its films via 25 Canadian diplomatic missions (embassies, legations and consulates) as well as through commercial offices that had been established overseas by the Canadian government. In 1944, there was a 200% increase in overseas distribution, with 1,948 films distributed to 31 countries.
In Canada, the NFB now had regional offices in Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver. During the year, 3,112 copies of 761 films circulated in the rural and urban film networks. Some films were about the Canadian war effort, others transmitted specific messages from various government departments, or shared information of particular interest to rural populations such as notions of hygiene, price controls and methods of scientific farming.
Each month about 465,000 people watched NFB films. In October, the Victory Loans campaign led to a record 2,856 screenings, reaching a total audience of 385,615 people. It is estimated that each month 3 million people watched the series Canada Carries On and The World in Action in theatres, while short newsreels and Actualités were seen by all filmgoers across the county.
There was also an increasing demand for the French-language productions of the NFB which were distributed through industrial and rural film circuits as well as by theatres catering to French-Canadian audiences. This growing interest can be explained by a couple of different factors: the difficulty in finding original material in French, and the fact that the biggest newsreel companies didn’t serve French theatres. The films in the series Les reportages screened once a week in 72 theatres, as well as in social clubs, associations and schools in Quebec, Ontario, New Brunswick, Alberta and in Saskatchewan, to an average audience of 720,000 people each month. Overseas, after the liberation of Europe, the demand for French-language films grew, especially in France and Belgium.
Commissioner John Grierson firmly believed that cinema was the best way to propagate a common vision, and the war offered him a chance to use his talents as a propagandist with full legitimacy. He also believed in the interdependence of nations, expressed in the series Canada Carries On and especially in The World in Action, where the episodes anticipated the creation of a new world order after the war. These films came dangerously close to dealing with questions of foreign policy, an area normally the exclusive domain of the government and the Prime Minister, who didn’t particularly appreciate the NFB’s interference. Nevertheless, Grierson’s position as the head of the Wartime Information Board was renewed following an initial term of six months, though his project to launch an information campaign about post-war economic restructuring was put on hold. This disagreement led to Grierson’s resignation from the Wartime Information Board in January 1944, though he kept his position at the NFB.
Our Northern Neighbour, which portrayed a Russian soldier in the Allied forces in a favourable light, attracted heavy criticism. United Artists refused to distribute it in the U.S.A., and the Quebec Censorship Office blocked it too. The NFB was accused of creating Communist propaganda at the expense of the Canadian government. In January 1945, Stuart Legg’s Balkan Powder Keg threw negative light on the British Government’s actions in Greece and the prime minister ordered it withdrawn. This incident raised the question of the freedom of action of the NFB, but Grierson reaffirmed its independence and refused to give the Minister of Foreign Affairs any veto powers over films. The film was taken out of circulation, re-cut and re-baptized Spotlight on the Balkans. This faux pas put an end to the freedom that Grierson had enjoyed until this point, and he was not encouraged to remain at the head of the NFB after the war. Repudiated by the Canadian government and filled with ambitious projects for the international development of the documentary, Grierson resigned on August 7, 1945 and left the NFB definitively on November 7, 1945.
Before coming to Canada, John Grierson had spent ten years making documentaries for the Empire Marketing Board (1927-1933) and for the General Post Office (1933-1937). During this period he put into practice not only his theories about documentaries, but also his ideas about organization and production. Though he often sparked controversy as well as ideological debates, his contribution to Canadian film is rarely questioned. The NFB, with its unified structure, distribution network and socially engaged filmmakers, represents a priceless heritage.
Ross McLean became interim film commissioner. He was the one who, in 1938, had first proposed bringing Grierson to Canada to study the government’s filmmaking activities. In autumn 1945, the NFB passed under the jurisdiction of the Department of National Health and Welfare.
Films for theatrical release continued to be made, with new episodes of the series World in Action and Canada Carries On, and of Actualités and other French-language films. The war is an ever-present theme in such films as Road to the Reich, about the Canadian Army’s entry into Germany, and Ordeal by Ice, a documentary about winter training for the Scottish regiment, the Lovat Scouts, in the ice fields of British Columbia. Not all films were about soldiers: To the Ladies was a tribute to Canadian women for their willingness to cooperate with national price controls and other anti-inflationary measures.
The end of war in Europe led to the making of Salute to a Victory in memory of fallen Canadian heroes. This film was remarkable in that it was shot, in its entirety, within two hours and that it opened in all the theatres across the country, from Halifax to Vancouver, on Armistice Day in Europe. Another record is that The War Is Over, shot in less than 72 hours, screened across the country the day before armistice with Japan.
With peacetime, happier topics returned, and people enjoyed music in films like The Singing Pipes, a visual poem devoted to Casavant organs; Toronto Symphony, the first film ever to be made about a Canadian orchestra; and Listen to the Prairies, a tribute to the Manitoba Music Festival.
Reportages became Coup d’œil and offered films about the problems of rural, industrial and cultural life in French Canada. French versions of reports that had originally come out in English were presented on subjects like winter sports, homemaking and tourist attractions.
In addition to production aimed at commercial theatres, films and animated shorts on rural and cultural issues and geared towards community screenings continued to be made. This is Our Canada, for example, looked at the ethnic diversity of Canada to show that the country’s vitality was due not only to the English- and French-speaking majorities, but also to more recent immigrants from central Europe, Ukraine, and Poland as well as other countries. Versions of existing films were also made in approximately 40 different languages.
The NFB depended on five different methods of distributing its films within Canada: the 85 rural film circuits; the industrial circuits reaching an average monthly audience of 132,712; union circuits, where the 292 groups showed films to an average of 26,426 workers each month; the 83 film libraries that screened 16 mm; and commercial theatres.
Film distribution at the local level greatly increased to respond to specific requests for films on subjects like public health and social welfare campaigns, or public security and urban safety issues, as well as for cultural and educational programming. To respond to these requests, the NFB had to develop a distribution system that was more flexible than the monthly film circuits it had used in the past. It helped places across the country set up their own film libraries where people would be able to watch the films they wanted, on the subjects that interested them, whenever they wanted. These new, local film libraries screened 16 mm films to varied audiences who had not previously been reached by either the rural film circuits or the industrial and union film circuits.
In commercial theatres in Canada, the documentary series World in Action, Canada Carries On and Les reportages or Coup d’œil were sold in the same way as all other commercial productions and were distributed to several hundred movie theatres with the aid of Columbia Pictures of Canada and France-Film. During the year, the NFB also distributed a couple of special films: The Rhine’s West Bank was made by the British Ministry of Information with film shot by the British and Canadian armies, and True Glory, a documentary on the Allied campaign in Europe.
Films were distributed overseas either through the offices of the NFB in Britain, the U.S.A., Australia and Mexico, or through Canadian embassies and consulates, or thanks to theatres and special organizations. These films were carefully chosen to show the true face of Canada, i.e. of a progressive, industrialized nation with a rich and complex cultural heritage, and an interest in the arts, sciences and social problems. It was a country rich in commercial and manufactured goods, as well as primary resources and agricultural products and what was more, a market of twelve million consumers. Finally, it was attractive to tourists, whether they wanted sports, history or spectacular landscapes.
As part of widespread cost-cutting measures, the Department of Finance asked interim commissioner Ross McLean to reduce his budget by 15% and his staff by 40%. Though he was already overwhelmed by problems inherited from John Grierson’s anti-bureaucratic management style, McLean nevertheless began reorganizing the NFB. The Board’s administration was reorganized and simplified and 93 people were laid off, reducing the number of employees to 654.
With the end of the war, private production companies began to criticize the fact that the NFB was financed with public funds, which from their perspective seemed unfair. They wanted the NFB to return to advising the government on film matters, one of the functions in its original mandate. Throughout the NFB’s history, this was frequently to be a contentious issue.
In February, an event that had occurred the previous year provoked a scandal that affected the NFB. In early September 1945, Igor Gouzenko, an employee in the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa, defected, taking with him documents proving the existence of a Soviet spy ring in Canada. This was a determining factor in the Canadian government’s decision to join forces with the U.S.A. in the Cold War, and led to an inquiry into the possible infiltration of government services. John Grierson’s secretary in 1944, Freda Linten, was mentioned as being linked to the spy network. Grierson was thus implicated by unproven circumstantial allegations. Under suspicion for communist sympathies, he came under scrutiny from both the Canadian and American police, and given the atmosphere of the Cold War at this period, many doubted his innocence and the NFB was found guilty by association.
As a result of budget cuts, production dropped from 310 film projects in the previous year to 214 films, a decrease of 90 films, though this figure didn’t include newsreels and short films for publicity or other purposes. However, the films were more ambitious and complex than in the past, and quality improved. There was a greater degree of technical proficiency than before, evidence of the increasing expertise of the NFB staff who were now ready to take on more diverse productions.
The commercial film series World in Action, about international events of special interest to Canadians (e.g. trade, housing and the work of the UN), continued at a rate of six productions a year, though it was eventually cut. Canada Carries On, however, maintained a rate of twelve films a year. This series depicting Canadian achievements and events continued until 1959. The French language Vigie series produced ten films on industrial, agricultural and cultural subjects in French Canada.
The graphic design unit produced posters for a number of different exhibitions including Design in Industry, put on by the National Research Council and the National Gallery and shown throughout the country; Films and the Library, presented throughout the Dominion as well as at the Congress of the American Library Association in Buffalo; and an exhibition on Canadian scientific achievements for the National Research Council, which was put on display at the UNESCO General Conference in Paris.
Though the rural film circuits operated by the NFB had dropped from 85 to 67 and though the industrial and union film circuits no longer existed, the circulation of films both within Canada and overseas was rising fast. The most important factor was the growing number of film libraries in urban areas that showed NFB productions, ensuring that the films were available for industry as well as for trade unions. These local non-commercial distribution networks in Canada upheld community screenings.
A special distribution service was set up for women’s organizations in 1946. More than 1,800 information packages for women were distributed, each of which included a catalogue of 200 films available in the film libraries available for this project across the country.
Overseas, distribution outlets were set up in 35 countries and initial contacts were made in 30 more countries. Over the course of the year, 2,861 copies of films were sent to Canadian government agencies overseas, an increase of 552 over the previous year; 1,422 copies were sold, and the material needed to print 54 films in six different languages was issued. Hundreds of copies of films were distributed around the world.
In January, Ross McLean, who had been interim commissioner since autumn 1945, was named Commissioner. The situation wasn’t particularly promising: the government was displaying an increasing discomfort with the NFB’s autonomy, while its most virulent detractors denounced the Film Board for being politically dangerous, financially irresponsible and usurping the markets destined for the private sector.
Far from being discouraged by this, McLean set out instead to elaborate a vision of the future. He wanted to position the NFB to take advantage of the imminent arrival of television with all the broadcast opportunities offered by this new medium, and he wanted to explore feature-length fiction films. These aspirations only served to heighten the distrust felt for the NFB by private industry in Canada and the U.S.A.
John Grierson had congratulated himself on the cooperation that existed between the NFB and Hollywood. McLean, on the other hand, decried the fact that the major Hollywood studios dominated the Canadian market without offering anything in return. In June 1947, he suggested that the government force the studios to invest in Canadian film production between 30-40% of the 17 million dollars they made in profits annually. The Motion Picture Association of America reacted swiftly, creating a committee designed to hamper any attempt made by Ottawa to stand in Hollywood’s way.
The government had already reacted to some of the NFB’s previous productions. For example, in 1944, Our Northern Neighbour, which presented the Russian Allies in a favourable light, had provoked a negative reaction and its distribution had been banned in the U.S. and in Quebec.
Three years later the NFB again found itself at the heart of a controversy. In response to a request from the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, the NFB sent Grant McLean, the Commissioner’s nephew, to film reconstruction efforts in China. He returned with previously unseen images of Mao Zedong and the Communist forces at Yunnan, and of Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists engaged in civil war. Since this film recognized Communist China, a position that ran contrary to the official policies of Canada and the U.S.A., the Secretary of State for External Affairs intervened and prevented it from being released. This episode ended the internationalist leanings of the NFB.
There were significant budget cuts, with some services cut entirely, and the number of employees dropped from 654 to 589. This was the first time that any mention was made in the annual report of the serious problems with the NFB offices and studios, and of the effects on staff. This difficult situation persisted until 1956 when the NFB moved its offices from Ottawa to Montreal. The report’s section on the laboratory says that “While the completely unsatisfactory housing of the Film Board's technical operations continues to hamper full development the past year has seen […] close co-operation between practical technicians and engineers in the various phases of film production [that] has resulted in greatly improved picture and sound quality.” Considering that nitrate film is highly inflammable, security was a particular preoccupation and it was noted that “To help reduce fire hazards, Technical Operations […] completed the survey of all the wiring in the motion picture section of the National Film Board and replaced all of the faulty equipment. The age and general deterioration of the buildings in which the Film Board is housed presented a continuing problem throughout this year […]. The necessity for continual compromise of technical operations in order to minimize fire hazards and combat the problems of dirt, dust and rats cannot be solved until adequate housing for the National Film Board has been provided.”
It was a sign of the times that filmmakers started to ask that their creative work be recognized and that their names be on the film credits, a practice Grierson had opposed. The “battle for screen credits” symbolizes the extent to which people were moving away from the idea of “public service” that had prevailed hitherto.
A total of 167 films were produced during the year. Among these there were nine films in the series Vigie about different aspects of cultural, industrial and agricultural life in French Canada. The series Canada Carries On grew by twelve films intended for commercial screenings. For close to eight years this series had regularly offered Canadians an insight into their country and that of their neighbours in times of war and peace. In 1947, for example, there were films made on Canadian sports, atomic energy, the Canadian National Exhibition, salmon fishing in British Columbia, and the role of women in public life and in the arts in Canada.
Production on the series Coup d’œil and Eye Witness started in 1947 and continued until 1959. These were films about Canadian events and people shown in theatres across the country: films such as Mackenzie King Retires (1948), Un Canadien à Paris (Coup d’œil no 43, 1952), Royal Ontario Museum Is Popular Classroom (Eye Witness No. 51, 1953), Fishermen Hunt Battling Broadbills (Eye Witness No. 64, 1954), and Hands Across the Sky (Eye Witness No. 66, 1954), which was about aid to Pakistan.
Another new series, Mental Mechanisms, about psychological problems in daily life, was commissioned by the federal minister for the National Department of Health and Social Welfare and was made with the help of the Allan Memorial Institute of Montreal. The first in this series, The Feeling of Rejection, was well received in Canada, Great Britain and the U.S.A., and there were other films in the series in production.
The filmstrip service added 30 new programs, nearly doubling the number of shows from previous years. The subjects were chosen to meet the needs of teachers and school curricula.
When the government created the NFB in 1939 as the nation’s filmmaking service, it gave it the mandate to produce documentaries that would inform Canadians about the country’s natural resources and the way they were being used, as well as about commerce and industry, basic hygiene rules, arts and science, in short about everything that would promote a more active sense of belonging as well as international cooperation.
The different services within the NFB continued to attempt to fulfill this original mandate, but productions costs were on the rise while the number of employees and budgets were diminishing. The impact was felt as funding to the NFB dropped, and only 103 films were made during the year. There were a further 59 films sponsored by various government departments, and four co-productions with other government services to bring the total to 166 productions.
Government agencies continued to use as much as ever the documentary film services as well as other forms of visual educational material devised by the NFB’s graphic design services, depending on them to create filmstrips, photo reports, display materials and flyers. For example, the NFB made two films (one for cinemas and the other for non-commercial film circuits), sketches and models, photo reports and an illustrated brochure and flyer for the campaign by the National Capital Planning Commission.
Production was reorganized, and four different studios were created with an executive producer at the head of each, responsible for dividing the work among the different directors. Each studio had its own area of specialization: Studio A – agriculture, French-language programming, French, English and foreign language versioning, provincially sponsored films; Studio B – sponsored films, animation; Studio C – Canada Carries On and Coup d’œil, newsreels, travel and tourism; Studio D – international affairs, scientific and cultural films. There were two distinct production categories: 35 mm films for commercial distribution to theatres, and 16 mm films for non-commercial distribution, mainly for the rural film circuits.
Production continued on the series Coup d’œil in French and Eye Witness in English. There was a warm reception for the most important film in the series, Opening of Parliament (Eye Witness No. 12). Eleven new films were made in the series Canada Carries On, including one on Newfoundland’s entry into the Canadian Confederation.
A film entitled Over-Dependency was made in the series Mental Mechanisms (produced for the National Department of Health and Welfare, in cooperation with the Allan Memorial Institute of Montreal. Before this series, the only films about mental illness were based on clinical work and were intended exclusively for doctors. But given the success of the first film in the series when it was shown experimentally in rural film circuits, the authorities at the Department of National Health and Welfare released for public viewing the succeeding films in the series. These had such an impact in the U.S. that a producer was borrowed from the NFB to direct the operations of the Joint Mental Health Film Board.
A film is made up of images, dialogue and narration, supplemented by a musical score. The NFB employed three composers and a musical director. For the film When All the People Play, for example, composer Eldon Rathburn travelled on location and his compositions were inspired by the music of the region, while the composer Robert Fleming based his score for Marée montate (The Rising Tide), a film about fishing cooperatives in the Maritimes, on the ballads of Nova Scotia. In Passport to Canada, about immigration, an orchestra made up of strings, flutes and brass was used, while for La terre de Caïn (North Shore), a trip up the St. Lawrence, composer Maurice Blackburn used only flutes and a piano. Finally, Planning Canada's National Capital used a recording of the Peace Tower bells playing the national anthem.
The cooperation between the different services led to a better use of film in terms of quantity and quality. The audience for the non-commercial film circuits of the Board (where films screened through federal and provincial departments, through public libraries and school boards, as well as through other regional, provincial or federal organizations) grew to nine million people, while seven million viewers watched NFB films in commercial theatres. During this same period 20,000 copies of Canadian films were circulating in 50 countries outside Canada.
Staff at head office in Ottawa kept close ties with the representatives in the ten regional offices of the NFB (the one in St. John’s, Newfoundland had opened in March). Publicity and marketing staff had been reduced by 10% and there were now 62 people responsible for promoting educational films. They also trained in the film libraries, now numbering 235. The film councils, which supported the work done by the film libraries, had grown in number from 200 to 250.
Sales of films through the NFB offices and through commercial and government distributors had increased by 35%, and the sale of filmstrips by 19%. A commercial agent was set up in Paris to distribute NFB films in a territory that included France, Belgium, Denmark and French North Africa.
An optical effects printer, the first of its kind to exist in Canada, was built in Toronto with the participation of Canadian Arsenals Ltd., a Crown corporation. This meant savings of U.S. $20,000—or the difference between the cost of its construction and its sale price in the U.S.A. The blueprints for this machine were made available to the film industry in Canada and abroad.
The NFB also built a machine to correct and print colour film, allowing each image on the negative to be treated separately. Patents for this machine were registered and its blueprints submitted to the industry at the final conference of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers. NFB engineers also devised a new process to duplicate colour negatives. This procedure used monochromatic light and was already yielding surprising results.
In April, the government created the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences (Massey Commission) chaired by Vincent Massey, who in 1936 had recommended inviting John Grierson to Canada. The Commission examined the possibilities of radio and television and took stock of government agencies for the arts and science.
In July, the NFB submitted a memo asking for responsibility to devise television programs, an increased operating budget, and Crown corporation status. It also asked for a larger staff and better working conditions, particularly a building to bring under one roof all its activities, currently dispersed in ten different locations. The minister responsible for the NFB, Robert H. Winters, did not endorse the brief as it conflicted with his policy on the NFB’s role in television.
In November, fear of Communism seized the NFB again. The Financial Post revealed that the Department of National Defence, for security reasons, no longer wished to use the Film Board’s services for “secret” dossiers. The minister concerned confirmed this and warned the NFB that this situation would prevail until it provided proof that there were no Communist sympathizers in its ranks. Commissioner Ross McLean asked the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to make an inquiry, which it did, sending him a list of 36 employees deemed suspect. McLean refused to fire them, arguing that he had seen no proof of disloyalty.
In December, McLean learned from the press that his mandate would not be renewed in January 1950. In solidarity, the assistant commissioner, Ralph Foster, resigned and many members of staff considered doing so as well. However, McLean dissuaded them from sabotaging the NFB. At this time, there were 540 employees.
The non-commercial series Eye Witness and Coup d’œil proved very popular and so were screened in theatres. The NFB produced six films – three in English and three in French – to screen as part of the series early the following year. Also, 68 newsreel subjects were shot, some for this series and 38 for the commercial newsreel and television outlets.
The Film Board’s policy in this regard was to avoid competition with commercial companies. An agreement stipulated that NFB filmmakers wouldn’t film anything that was strictly news, but they devoted their energies to short feature subjects, supplying images of Canadian life across the country. After rough editing in the Ottawa labs, the footage was sent to the commercial distribution syndicates in New York, to be added to news bulletins and TV programs. Next it was distributed in Canada, the U.S., South America, Europe and Australia.
More colour films than usual were made in 1949 to attract tourists at a time when the American dollar was vital to the national economy. One series of five non-commercial films, produced in English and French versions, highlighted the beauty of the country. The films were Canadian Cruise (yachting on our waterways), The Road to Gaspé (cycling in that enchanting region of Quebec), Canoe Country (a trip on the lakes and rivers of northern Ontario), From Tee to Green (the best golf courses) and Famous Fish I Have Met (about the joys of fishing. All were sponsored by the Canadian Government Travel Bureau. A total of 1,676,700 people saw the Canadian tourist films distributed via 62 theatres set up in universities and public libraries by staff from the NFB and the Travel Bureau.
The NFB began an Ontario distribution service for films in French and made sure that the University of Ottawa increased its distribution.
Since Newfoundland had joined the Confederation, the NFB made sure it had the same access to films as the other provinces. The Film Board opened an office at the ministry of education in St. John’s, added many films to the provincial film library, put in place three representatives and provided eight monthly programs for the rural circuits.
Theatrical films screened in 800 Canadian theatres, 51 more than the previous year. As before, the most popular films were the Canada Carries On (En avant Canada) shorts.
The non-theatrical distribution system was regarded in Canada and abroad as one of the NFB’s most remarkable accomplishments and it was growing every day. Screenings in community centres increased, and the NFB founded more film councils and new film libraries, the number of which climbed to 265 (44 at the end of the war). More than 5,000 groups all over Canada regularly used NFB documentaries. In 1949, Canadian non-theatrical audiences reached nine million, up by 24% from 1947.
The NFB launched the first Canadian optical effects printer and invented the continuous filmstrip printer, using additive light source.
Research staff worked on colour reproduction, lens calibration, accelerated photography, time-lapse photography and chemical processing. Also, studies of cine-photomicrography finally yielded a machine consisting of a camera and a microscope to produce fixed or animated photos (black and white or colour) of infinitesimal things that could be enlarged up to a thousand times. Commercial producers, industrialists, scientists and teachers in Canada, the U.S. and Europe were fascinated by this discovery.
What is more, at the request of the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Film Board succeeded in assembling a machine for the easier reading of microfilm.
To fulfill its mandate of supporting the war effort, the National Film Board needed adequate resources. The Commissioner, John Grierson, persuaded the government to transfer the Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau and its personnel from the Department of Trade and Commerce to the NFB, which was under the Department of National Defence.
From the start, the Commissioner established the principle of the freedom of ideas and action of the NFB. Though the organization was funded by the government, it maintained an independent stance in administration and films. This has been the case throughout its existence.
During the difficult war years, the NFB made hundreds of films about Canada’s activities in all sectors and on all fronts. They were filmed by the cameramen of the Canadian Armed Forces, and some, like Churchill's Island, the first Canadian film to win an Oscar®, are still considered classics. A number of remarkable film series were also produced, including Canada Carries On and Actualités canadiennes, which became Les reportages in March 1943.
Aside from commercial agreements with distributors, the NFB also set up distribution networks for its films in both urban and rural areas, to explain to the Canadian people what was going on around the world and Canada’s role in the war.
By the middle of the decade the NFB had close to 800 employees. Norman McLaren was hired in 1941 to set up an animation division. Production increased and a slide-show unit was added in 1944.
With the end of the war, the NFB underwent an identity crisis that led to questions about its purpose and survival. This forced it to reaffirm its legitimacy and helped it gain administrative freedom and artistic maturity. In the spirit of national unity, the organization refocused its activities on its original mandate “to interpret Canada to Canadians.” Films about social issues common to people across the country dominated film production, with works about agriculture, health and welfare, the creative arts, and the beauties of the different regions in the country.
On their side, the filmmakers and technicians were able to devote themselves to the art and technology of filmmaking. Over the years, the NFB’s technicians and directors have been responsible for dozens of important innovations in cinema. Necessity being the mother of invention, they solved difficulties of all kinds, sometimes in the middle of a film shoot, invented new equipment and improved the quality and performance of the existing technology.