Buster Keaton’s final word

Posted in Toronto Cinemas on March 6th, 2013 by Eric Veillette

John Sebert, left, and Buster Keaton, on the construction site of MacDonald Block during filming of The Scribe. “He didn’t think the script was funny,” says Sebert. “He’d been making these industrial films for years, but he was still dedicated to the gags. He still wanted to make people laugh.”

This piece was originally published by the Toronto Star on March 5, 2013. It appears here in a slightly edited form.

Buster Keaton, who rose to fame in the 1920s, directed and starred in some of the most famous films of the silent era. The General (1926) is ranked 34th on Sight and Sound magazine’s list of the 50 greatest films of all time.

Nearly four decades later, during a chilly October in 1965, Keaton was in Toronto, appearing in The Scribe , an industrial safety film commissioned by the Construction Safety Association of Ontario.

It would be his last film. On Feb. 1, 1966, Keaton died of lung cancer.

The short, directed by John Sebert, features Keaton as a would-be reporter visiting a construction site, press pass tucked into the band of his famous pork-pie hat. It appears as a special feature in Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release of Buster Keaton’s College (1927), available this week.

Until he was contacted by the Star, Sebert was unaware that his first directorial effort was coming out. “I think it’s wonderful,” he says on the phone from Naples, Fla. “I still have my reservations about the film. It could be a lot better, but over the years, all sorts of people have wanted to look at it.”

A life-long cinema fan — who often saw Keaton’s films when presented by the Toronto Film Society — Sebert was a renowned photographer and long-time contributor to Chatelaine and various catalogues, including Eaton’s, when he was offered the chance to direct a film.

When a 30-minute documentary on construction safety was proposed, Sebert immediately thought of Keaton, whose slapstick was constructed with engineering-like precision. “He’d be wonderful because he spent most of his life making accidents happen,” he adds with a laugh.

While physically in good shape — performing most of the sight gags and running along the site — Keaton was in poor health, often falling into uncontrollable coughing fits. “We flew to San Francisco to meet with him and set everything up. When we got there, he said: ‘My wife doesn’t want me to do it, but I really want to do it.’”

The shoot lasted 10 days. While other locations are visible, the majority of the production takes place on the construction site of MacDonald Block at Bay and Wellesley. “Whoever granted us permission must’ve been a Buster fan, because they made it very easy for us to shoot in this location.” The site was completed in 1968. Sebert would direct other films, as well as nearly 1,000 television commercials.

Keaton, whose career declined in the 1930s after losing creative control of his films when he signed to MGM, appeared in several industrial films throughout the years, and his stone-faced appearance was a regular fixture in television commercials, like this Ford van advertisement, also released in 1966.

Chris Seguin, a local silent film historian, applauds Kino for releasing the short because it was likely only ever shown in union halls or during training sessions. “Without companies like Kino and private collectors, these films would be lost. Even the CSAO disposed of their only 16-millimetre print once they could transfer it to VHS — and they did a lousy job of it at that. These films were considered disposable, but they’re a major part of an artist’s legacy.”

The elusive short, shot on 16mm film, was acquired on Ebay by Kino Lorber producer Bret Wood. A print also exists at Library and Archives Canada.

While in town, Keaton also filmed his last television appearance, as a guest on the CBC game show Flashback. One of the panelists was Elwy Yost, the former host of TVO’s Saturday Night at the Movieswho died in 2011 .

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Parkdale’s Odeon Theatres

Posted in Toronto Cinemas on October 24th, 2010 by Eric Veillette

In Thursday’s Toronto Star, I looked at the history of the 52-year old Toronto Film Society, which continues to offer rarely-screened classics every month at Innis Town Hall. During my conversation with TFS president Barry Chapman, he shared memories of some of the Queen St. West cinemas of his youth, like the Parkdale, the Kum-C, and the Odeon.

Although the Odeon name is usually associated with the mighty British cinema chain which settled in Canada in 1948, two other Queen St. cinemas shared its name. At 1558 Queen St. W, a silent-era, 700-seat house opened around 1919. The building still exists, housing a neighbourhood grocer.

Slightly to the east, the above photo (circa 1976) shows the now-demolished Odeon cinema at 1473 Queen W. Designed by renown theatre architects Kaplan & Sprachman, the 750-seat theatre opened in 1931 and was later part of the 20th Century cinema chain. In the ’70s, after being up for sale through various realtors (for a measly $125 000!), it re-opened as the Regal.

Greg Chown of Lost Toronto (who gratefully shared this photo with me) shows that the site now occupies apartments and a Shoppers Drug Mart.

Sources

Toronto Daily Star, July 17, 1931.

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Toronto’s Burlesque Legacy

Posted in Toronto Cinemas on October 1st, 2010 by Eric Veillette

Don Evans, of Meaford, On, wrote a great letter in response to a piece I wrote for the Toronto Star on the Victory Burlesque:

“Re: Less sleaze, more tease, July 18

During the 1930s the south side of Queen St. between Bay and York St. had two burlesque houses: the Roxy and later, around 1936, the Casino theatre.

The Roxy was converted into a regular Hollywood second run or older movie theatre before the Casino opened. I can recall seeing Burlesque stars such as Gypsy Rose Lee, Sally Rand, Rose La Rose with straight men like Rex Doyle and Robert Alda [father of Allan Alda], and comics like Phil Silvers and Abbott & Costello.

The Casino ran four shows a day, including Hollywood movies, like Boston Blackie, plus the stage show complete with a line of dancers, a couple acts including ballroom dancers, comics, MCs — usually the straight man — and of course the featured striptease artist. There was a pit band of course and Archie and boys are well recalled.

Both theatres are now long gone, but I certainly remember the Casino theatre during the 1940s featuring top acts like Nat King Cole and Sammy Davis Jr.”

For more on Toronto burlesque, check out Kevin Plummer’s great Torontoist writeup about the Lux Theatre.

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Ontario Film Censorship: Then & Now

Posted in Toronto Cinemas on August 27th, 2010 by Eric Veillette

In case you missed it, I wrote about the history of film censorship in Ontario for the Toronto Star last weekend. I was surprised to learn from a few friends who didn’t know we still had censors (nowadays known as the Ontario Film Review Board), but the truth is that Ontario has had constant film censorship, certification, review — whatever you want to call it — for nearly a century.

I originally set out to contrast the puritanical outlook on film exhibition from the board’s inception in 1911 to its latter days in the 1980s with today’s “hands-off” approach, but judging by the article’s positive reaction, from academics to art gallery owners to theatre exhibitors, many people out there think the Ontario Film Review board still has too much power.

If you’re curious to know more about the early days, I heartily suggest Paul Moore’s book Now Playing: Early Movie-going and the Regulation of Fun and for modern-day battles with the OFRB, have a look at Taryn Sirove’s dissertation “Freedom, sex power: Film and Video Regulation in Ontario.”

Up top: the original Ontario Board of Censors burning 40 000 ft. of rejected nitrate film for a newsreel shot by William James in 1914. Library & Archives Canada.

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The Great Candy Bar Uprising of 1947

Posted in Toronto Cinemas on May 7th, 2010 by Eric Veillette

The thought of modern-day kids protesting the price of candy bars — let alone anything — seems inconceivable.

No matter how pricey multiplex food courts get, people just keep gobbling and sipping away.

But years before concessions became common-place, independently owned cigar stores and candy stores such as Laura Secord or Jenny Lind often flanked downtown or neighbourhood theatres and they continued to do so long after snack bars came to vogue in Toronto in the mid-1940s.

The Tivoli Cigar store was located on the left-hand side of the grand Tivoli, at Victoria and Richmond Sts.  The Tivoli was the first Toronto theatre built for the mighty Allen chain before Famous Players took over in the early 20s. The cigar store’s proprietor, Max Blackstein, posed in the photo above for the Globe & Mail on May 6, 1947, when the price of candy bars had recently risen from 5 cents to 8 cents, a big increase in those post-war years.

The enterprising Blackstein refused the increase, hence the happy-looking kids in the photo above. He told the Globe & Mail his bars are “for kids only” and reported a ten-fold increase in business.

G.S. Moffatt of Moyers Ltd., speaking to CBC Radio (available at the CBC Archives), said the increase was a result of poor cocoa crops and the increase of other commodities used in their products.

The previous week, over 500 students marched along Bloor St., from Harbord Collegiate to Christie Pits, protesting the increase and leaving rallying cards on parked automobiles lining the street.

“The price of chocolate bars is too high,” said Norman Penner, the executive secretary of the National Federation of Labor Youth, the organization who sponsored the protest. He claimed youngsters simply couldn’t afford the bars at that price.

Penner said that the excuses from manufacturers weren’t helping, either.

The students took it a step further by boycotting the offending vendors. The Star reported that students in Halifax were “flaunting their disapproval in the face of retailers. Groups of youngsters, both boys and girls, toured retailers stores yesterday. In each case they asked the price of bars and when told, registered pained expressions and marched on to the next store.”

Similar protests occurred in Winnipeg regarding the increasing price of soft drinks. Indeed, the teen-agers were coming of age.

But according to the Toronto Telegram, the protest was seen as nothing more than the exploitation of children to further a communist agenda. The Telegram further accused the NFLY of being a front to a Marxist organization.

What kind of a world was post-War North America coming to when an old fashioned nickel couldn’t buy you a nickel candy bar anymore?

Sources: Globe & Mail, May 6, 1947 (photo); Toronto Telegram, May 1, 1947; Toronto Star, May 1, 1947; CBC Radio, May 6, 1947

More: a great writeup on the history of the concession stand by Jill Hunter Pellettierri over at Slate.

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