Quebec talent contributes to Hollywood
Many Canadians contributed to the early growth of the U.S. film industry. As the Montreal World Film Festival (August 27 to September 7) winds down, let’s take a look at seven Quebecers, all born before 1930, who were key to big-screen history.
Mack Sennett was born in 1880 in Danville (Eastern Townships) as Michael Sinnott to an Irish family from County Wexford. By 1908, he made his way to New York and became a leading man in the early short films of the legendary D.W. Griffith, who put Sennett in charge of comedy films. In 1912, he launched his own Keystone Studios. In additioni to the well-known Keystone Kops, the studio made the first feature-length comedy, Tillie’s Punctured Romance starring Charlie Chaplin and Ontarian Marie Dressler. The landmark Hollywood sign was originally built by Sennett on the grounds of his mansion in Los Angeles.Florence La Badie was born in 1893 in Montreal to a well-off family and educated by the Sisters of the Convent at Notre Dame. A prodigy, she spoke English, French and German and sang and played piano well enough to perform with the Philadelphia orchestra. Moving to New York, the talented heiress became a film actress with Thanhauser Studios, particularly with the Million Dollar Mystery, a 23 episode series. She became an ardent peace activist and was obsessed with President Woodrow Wilson, a family friend. In 1914 she took a six month leave after a stay at the White House. Rumours spread that she had had Wilson’s illegitimate child. She died in 1917 after a car crash. Douglas Shearer was born in 1899 in Montreal and grew up with his sisters in Westmount. One sister, Norma (see below) became one of the all time Hollywood queens. He was never an actor, but was nominated for 25 Academy Awards and won 14 for his contribution to sound. A McGill engineering student, he visited Los Angeles just when Norma’s career was taking off. Hired by Jack Warner (to babysit canine star Rin Tin Tin!), he pioneered, in 1926, his technique of sound synchronization. Working with RCA Victor, he invented sound on film in a single reel. Employed by MGM, he became lighting director as well. Later, he improved film stock quality and began stereo research. During the Second World War, at the request of Winston Churchill, Shearer helped the development of radar. In addition to his 801 films, he created Tarzan’s yell and the MGM lion’s roar. Norma Shearer was born in 1902 in Montreal. She lived the life of a Westmount debutante until the Depression hit and she had to play piano in a music store window. Her mother had Norma’s crossed eyes cured by the famous Dr. N.H. Bates, whose “Bates Method” is still controversial. This led to a modelling career and a trip to Mayer studios in Hollywood, where she was championed by MGM boy genius Irving Thalberg, whom she eventually married in 1928. This union won the enmity of her rival Joan Crawford. Thalberg produced a string of hits, but died at 37, leading to a fight with Louis B. Mayer over her royalties from the estate. She won. She will be remembered for the fireworks between her and Crawford in The Women as well as her many box office successes in the ’30s. Glenn Ford was born in Ste. Christine (near Quebec City) as Gwyllyn Samuel Newton Ford, a “miracle baby,” since his pregnant mother survived a house fire three weeks before his birth. His family moved to Santa Monica, Calif., where he attended high school. His film career began in 1934 and he got his first starring role in The Adventures of Martin Eden, a Jack London story, in 1942. It premiered in Quebec City, where he was lionized by both English and French press. Glenn enlisted in the Marines and was one of the first to liberate Dachau. Back in Hollywood, he starred in Gilda with Rita Hayworth, a role that shot him to the top. Blackboard Jungle is another of his classics. In 1968, at age 52, he went to Vietnam in a combat role. Younger filmgoers may remember him as Jonathon Kent, adoptive father of Superman. Colleen Dewhurst was born in Montreal in 1924. Her father was a CFL player for the Ottawa Rough Riders and raised her as a tomboy. She took odd jobs in order to study acting in New York, where she debuted in 1946. She met and married acting icon George C. Scott (twice). She became the interpreter par excellence of Eugene O’Neill plays. Her many stage triumphs led to TV and film offers. TV roles included Murphy Brown’s mother and roles in Dr. Kildare, Hitchcock Presents and Love Boat. Canadians will remember her as Marilla in Anne of Green Gables. In film, she was paired with Barbara Stanwyck, Diane Keaton and Sean Connery. Christopher Plummer was born in 1929 in Montreal on “Black Friday”, the day of the great stock market crash. Acting in Montreal and Ottawa led to roles in New York and England. He portrayed many plum Shakespeare roles at Stratford, UK, (Richard III, King Lear) and Stratford, Ont., (Henry V, Hamlet, MacBeth, Cyrano.) Film beckoned in 1958, leading to the 1965 mega-hit The Sound of Music with Julie Andrews. Forty years later, still active, he had a strong supporting role in George Clooney’s Syriana. Bruce Yaccato’s wonderful 2006 Screen Legends provided much of the above information.