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The 1950s: Television and the Move to Montreal

The 1950s: Television and the Move to Montreal

The National Film Board was affected by two major factors in the 1950s. The first was the advent of television to Canada. The second involved the move of its operational headquarters from Ottawa to Montreal. Both of these events greatly influenced the type of films produced at the NFB.

In September 1952, the audiovisual landscape of Canada was greatly changed with the establishment of the first CBC television stations in Toronto and Montreal. The NFB would start to produce content exclusively for this new medium. The On the Spot series would be the NFB’s first foray into TV production. This series would consist of documentaries running 15 minutes on some aspect of life in Canada. The show was eventually expanded to half-an-hour before being replaced by Perspective, which was a mix of documentaries and dramatic productions on contemporary issues in Canada. This series would run until it was replaced by the seminal groundbreaking series of direct cinema documentaries, Candid Eye.

Although by 1955, one-half of all production was for television, the NFB continued to make films for its other traditional markets, including documenting the Canadian visit by Princess Elizabeth in 1951 in Royal Journey, which was released to theatres throughout Canada and would eventually be seen by two million people in over 1,200 cinemas across the country.

The move from Ottawa to Montreal was not supported by all concerned in the Federal Government. For one thing, one-quarter of the annual program was derived from sponsored films and since the agencies and departments were in Ottawa, it made sense to stay there. Eventually management realized that it made more sense for the NFB to “detach” itself from the ultra conservative public service in Ottawa. They felt that the best way for the NFB to reinvent itself was to remove itself from Ottawa, which would mean, in practical terms, more autonomy. The emergence of direct cinema and the creation of the French Unit and would go a long way in solidifying the NFB’s reputation as a creator of fascinating innovative documentaries.

Albert Ohayon

Having viewed over 7,500 films, Albert Ohayon is our resident collections expert. He studied film production and journalism at Concordia University in Montreal and has been working at the National Film Board since 1984.

  • Crossroads
    1957|28 min

    This half-hour dramatization, broadcast on the CBC as part of the Perspective series, tells the story of an interracial couple who plan to marry and the prejudices they face. It is amazing to see that the NFB was ready to tackle such a controversial subject as early as 1957. The response to the broadcast was startling, with the majority of people approving the sensitive way filmmaker Don Haldane approached the subject.

  • Varley
    1953|15 min

    Frederick Varley, a member of the Group of Seven, was showcased in this documentary bio from 1953. Shot in 35 mm complete with a script and dramatic musical score, it is unlike the type of biopic we are used to seeing today, resembling more a feature film than a documentary. Already in his seventies when the film was made, Varley is seen in his studio painting and contemplating what the world has to offer. Varley was greatly affected with what he saw working as a Canadian War Artist in World War I. The desolation and conflict forced him to search for beauty in everyday things and this is reflected in the paintings presented.

  • The Living Stone
    1958|32 min

    When director John Feeney set out for Cape Dorset, Baffin Island in the spring of 1957, it was with the intention of shooting two documentaries, one on Eskimo stone carvers and one on the community itself. Bad weather and other factors made it impossible to complete the shooting of the community film. Instead, Feeney concentrated on the carvers’ film. This short film would be blown up to 35 mm and distributed theatrically in Canada and abroad and would eventually earn an Oscar® nomination.

  • The Stratford Adventure
    1954|39 min

    This account of the first-ever Stratford Shakespeare Festival almost did not come about because of the cost involved. Eventually it was decided that this was too important of an event in the history of Canada to pass it up. Shot in colour on 35 mm, it required a great deal of planning as the artistic director of the festival refused to let cameras in during rehearsals and performances. Scenes of rehearsal and of the actual performances had to be recreated using the actors and crew! Budgeted at $60,000, it would eventually cost $83,000, mainly due to all the time spent recreating certain key moments. The result, however, was a huge success, playing theatrically in Canada, the U.S.A. and Europe to enthusiastic crowds and eventually earning the film an Oscar® nomination.

  • Royal Journey
    1951|51 min

    The visit to Canada by Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh in 1951 was captured by the NFB on 35 mm colour film. What made this unique was that for the first time ever Eastmancolour film stock was used. This film stock, at the time not yet on the market, was affordable compared to Technicolor. It differed from standard film stock by not needing bright sunshine to render rich colours and could be used in cloudy weather, rain or snow.

  • The Back-breaking Leaf

    This award-winning film was originally produced for the Candid Eye series, but when this show ended its run on the CBC it was decided to air the film on Documentary 60, the show that took over Candid Eye’s timeslot.

  • Corral
    1954|11 min

    Having grown up in South-Western Alberta, Colin Low knew a thing or two about cowboys and horses. Not being a very good rider himself, he wanted to show just how difficult it is to break in a wild horse. Shot on the Cochrane Ranch, where his father was the manager, Low managed to capture the beauty of this struggle between man and beast. The film, which was part of the Canada Carries On series, would play theatrically across Canada in April 1954 and in some American cities, including Washington, D.C. The film would eventually win the Best Documentary award at the Venice Film Festival.

  • The Days Before Christmas
    1958|29 min

    What exactly goes on in a large Canadian city in the last few days before Christmas? Using this premise, an NFB film crew (featuring cameraman Michel Brault) was dispatched throughout Montreal just before Christmas 1957 to film what was happening, including the shopping frenzy and general merry making. The film would eventually be broadcast as part of the Candid Eye television series a year later and would be singled out as one of the best examples of direct cinema ever made at the NFB. The BBC would broadcast the film on Christmas Day 1959.

  • Paul Tomkowicz: Street-railway Switchman
    1953|9 min

    Part of the Faces of Canada series, Paul Tomkowicz Street Railway Switchman is a terrific portrait of those unsung, unnoticed people who keep the community running. Shot on 35 mm with a portable Arriflex camera, it allowed its small crew the freedom to follow Tomkowicz around at night in the dead of winter, something that would have been impossible with older cumbersome camera equipment.

  • Neighbours
    1952|8 min

    Canadian theatrical distributors were not too impressed when they were shown Neighbours in 1952. Most thought it of poor technical quality as well as gruesome. Most American distributors agreed, yet the film was picked up and shown theatrically stateside, leading to a surprising Academy Award for Best Short Documentary. The Oscar® led to theatrical showings around the world. Interestingly, the film was censored by an American educational distributor, who felt that the scenes of the women and babies being attacked were too much to show to children. It wasn’t until 15 years later that Norman McLaren would restore the film to its original version.