Canadians In Early Hollywood

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Did you know that a Canadian gave Charlie Chaplin is first start in the movie industry? Or that a Canadian created the first permanent movie studio? Or that America’s Sweetheart was a Canadian? Or that Warner Brothers was founded by Canadian brothers?

When we think of Hollywood, especially the silent film era, we think of California and the United States, but the truth is that early Hollywood was heavily influenced and dominated by Canadians.

Today, I am looking at the early Canadians who influenced Hollywood. This is not a biography of each person, for that I have episodes on some of these people including Mary Pickford. Instead, it is looking at the industry as a whole and the impact that Canadians made.

As Macleans would say quote:

“From the very beginning, when the first motion picture to be made in California was given its humble birth, Canadians have been important in picture making. When the first camera was set up and the first foot of film ground out, a Canadian prepared the screen story, a Canadian designed the set, A Canadian cast the picture and directed it.”

To begin our look at Canadians in Hollywood, we need to start with Al Christie.

Christie was born in London, Ontario in 1881 and began his movie career working with David Horsley’s Centaur Film Company in New Jersey in 1909. The next year, Christie began to put out single-reel Mutt and Jeff comedies every week. In 1911, he moved to the west coast of the United States and it was there, in what would become Hollywood, that he established the first permanent movie studio on Oct. 27, 1911. With his brother Charlies, he then formed the Christie Film Company in 1916.

The film company primarily made comedies and Christie and his studio would give a start to some of the most famous silent movie stars in history including Harold Lloyd and Fatty Arbuckle. The Christie Comedies were known for being fast-paced slapstick movies and proved to be very successful.

Macleans would write quote:

“Al Christie is now among the foremost of those men who have devoted their lives to the creation of laughter. While he is one of the most stolid citizens of the parish, commodore of the Los Angeles Yacht Club and regarded by his fellow citizens as one of them, Mr. Christie still regards the Ontario city as his home.”

The studio would continue to operate until 1933, during which time it debuted the first talkie featuring African American actors including Spencer Williams.

Prior to the arrival of Christie, a woman named Florence Lawrence made her first film in 1906. Born in Hamilton in 1886, she would appear in 38 movies for the Vitagraph film company the following year and then began to work for the Edison Manufacturing Company, portraying the daughter of Daniel Boone in Daniel Boone, or Pioneer Days in America. She was paid five dollars per day for two weeks of outdoor filming.

From that point, her star would begin to rise and Lawrence would become known as the world’s first movie star. Her greatest success came from her roles with the Biograph Company, earning her the nickname The Biograph Girl. Throughout the early 1910s, she would continue to work, making upwards of $500 per week, which would be about $14,000 per week today. Unfortunately, she would be severely hurt in a stage fire in 1915, resulting in burns and aa fractured spine. She would spend months away from filming and when she returned, was not the same person. Universal Studios also refused to pay her medical bills. After filming one more film in 1916, she was paralyzed for four months due to her injuries. Her last major role was in 1921 in The Unfoldment. By the 1930s, she was working as an extra and on Dec. 28, 1938, she committed suicide.

Related to the Biograph Company, Mack Sennett, who was born in Danville, Quebec in 1880, had established Keystone Studios in California in 1912. The studio featured the first completely enclosed film stage ever constructed and it was with this company that some of the most important actors in the early history of Hollywood got their start including Raymond Griffith, Bing Crosby, W.C. Fields and one actor by the name of Charlie Chaplin.

Sennett was the first person to specialize only in comedies with his studio, through his Keystone Cops series that were based on humorous situations, rather than the personal traits of the comedian.

He would say in 1915 quote:

“Having found your hub idea, you build out the spokes. Then introduce complications that make up the funny wheel.”

By 1917, Sennett had started the Mack Sennett Comedies Corporation and throughout the 1920s his movies were in great demand but as talkies arrived, his movies became less popular even though his studio made a smooth transition into talking pictures and even won an Academy Award in 1932. The studio could not survive The Great Depression though and Sennett made his last film in 1935, a Buster Keaton movie called The Timid Young Man. By the time of his retirement, Sennett had made over 1,000 silent films and several dozen talkies.

It would be said years later that Sennett helped define screen comedy in the silent era and beyond.

Possibly the most important Canadian of the early Hollywood era was Mary Pickford, who was ironically called America’s Sweetheart and, was for a time, the most famous woman on the planet.

Born on April 8, 1892, Mary Pickford was the oldest child of Charlotte and John Charles Smith. When she was six, her father, who had already abandoned the family, died from a head injury after a fall while working on a Niagara steamship.  

Charlotte began to rent a room to a stage manager from the Cummings Stock Company of Toronto. As it turned out, this renter would change the life of the entire family. The manager suggested to Charlotte that her daughters would be perfect for the stage. That same year, Mary would make her stage debut with the Valentine Stock Company in 1898 in Bottle’s Baby.

In 1907, when she was 15, the family joined the David Belasco Theatre Company and he suggested that Gladys start going by the name Mary Pickford, which was her middle name and the middle name of her grandfather John Pickford Hennessey

By 1909, motion pictures were starting to take the world by storm. Seeing that this was where acting was heading, Pickford began to seek work in the new medium and landed her first cinematic experience in Her First Biscuits, which was directed by D.W. Griffith. She had been offered $5 per day whenever he needed her to be in a scene. Pickford, declined, asking for $25, stating quote:

“I am an actress and an artist, and I must have a guarantee of $25 a week and extra when I work extra.”

While she didn’t get that amount, she was given $10, double what the usual was for the time.

She soon signed with the Biograph Company and had her first starring role in The Violin Maker of Cremona, also directed by Griffith. The 15-minute film was released on June 7, 1909.

Of that time, Pickford would say, quote:

“I played scrubwomen and secretaries and women of all nationalities. I decided that if I could get into as many pictures as possible, I’d become known, and there would be demand for my work.”

In 1909, she appeared in 51 films, although some sources say 40, and when Biograph went to California in 1910, Pickford followed the company and would continue to make short films with D.W. Griffith.

In 1913, she began to work with Famous Players in Famous Plays, which would become Paramount Pictures. She would act in a silent version of A Good Little Devil, but Pickford was unhappy with the film, stating quote:

“One of the worst I ever made, it was deadly.”

Despite the poor showing of the film, she would act in several films from 1913 to 1914 including In The Bishop’s Carriage, Caprice and Hearts Adrift. It was the last one that made her a extremely popular with the viewing public and she would ask for a pay raise thanks to the excellent showing of the film. In her next film, Tess of the Storm Country, released five weeks after Hearts Adrift, her name was above the title and it sent her career into overdrive. It was believed that this was the film that made her not only the most popular actress in America, but the world.

By 1916, only Charlie Chaplin surpassed Pickford in popularity. Both Chaplin and Pickford enjoyed fame far beyond anything the other actors in Hollywood enjoyed. From the mid-1910s to the 1920s, Pickford was believed to be the most famous woman in the world. One silent film journalist would say she was, quote:

“The best known woman who has ever lived, the woman who was known to more people and loved by more people than any other woman that has been in all history.”

On June 24, 1916, Pickford signed a contract that paid her $10,000 per week, or $213,000 today. This new contract, signed with Zukor would also give her full authority on the production of the films in which she was starring. She was also entitled to half of a film’s profits, with a guarantee of $1,040 or $22,000 today.

In 1919, along with Charlie Chaplin, Griffith and Douglas Fairbanks, she formed United Artists. Through this new company, she could produce and perform in her own movies and distribute them in a way she liked.

In 1920, she would release Pollyanna, which grossed $1.1 million, followed by Little Lord Fauntleroy in 1921 and Rosita in 1923, all of which grossed over $1 million.

Her career, like that of other silent stars, would slow down through the 1920s and by the 1930s she had mostly retired after her last film appearance in 1933, but had made enough that she was able to live comfortably for the rest of her life.

She would receive an honorary Academy Award for lifetime achievement in 1976, which she accepted at her home of Pickfair, where she had spent most of the last two decades of her life.

Born in London, Ontario, Jack L. Warner started out in his career working in vaudeville with his brothers and before long they became interested in filmmaking and would purchase a camera from a projectionist for $1,000, with Jack Warner contributing $150 through the pawning of a horse. The brothers screened a copy of The Great Train Robbery as they travelled throughout the United States before settling in New Castle, Pennsylvania and renting a store to turn into a theatre. The business became so successful that they were able to sell it to the General Film Company for $52,000, about $1.6 million today, in 1909. With money, they decided to go full on into film production in 1910. In 1917, Jack Warner was sent by his brothers to open a film exchange company and in 1918 they purchased the film rights to My Four Years In Germany, which was a commercial success. The four brothers then established a studio in Hollywood, with Jack as the co-head of production, and called it Warner Brothers. Warner Brothers still exists, and is one of the most iconic film studios in the world and one of the Big Five film studios in the United States.

Other people who made a mark, at least small, were Richard Travers, who was born at a Hudson Bay Trading Post in 1885 to a father who was serving with the North West Mounted Police. From 1912 to 1930, he would appear in over 140 films.

There was also Marie Dressler, who was born in Ontario in 1868 and would transition from a stage career to a film career in 1914 at the age of 44. She had an impact on early film history beyond just appearing in films. In 1902, she helped a young Mack Sennett geta  job in a theatre, starting him on his way to becoming part of Hollywood history. Her first major movie was Tillie’s Punctured Romance, and she would state she cast Charlie Chaplin in the movie to be her leading man.

Macleans would write quote:

“While resting up in Los Angeles after a long and strenuous season, Marie Dressier was approached by Mack Sennett, another Canadian, and persuaded to do a picture. Tillie’s Punctured Romance is still remembered.”

This film was the first full-length screen comedy and it was released through Christie’s Keystone Studio. This was also the last Chaplin film that he did not direct or write. The film proved to be a huge success and would be shown in theatres for years through the silent film era. She would continue to act until 1934 when she passed away in California at the age of 65.

One fascinating fact about Canadians in early Hollywood is that from 1929 to 1931, the Academy Award for Best Actress was won exclusively by Canadians, Mary Pickford, Norma Shearer and Marie Dressler.

I will end this with the story of a meeting by Charles Foster, who was an American that served in the Royal Air Force during the First World War and how everywhere he turned he met Canadians in California. He would visit Hollywood where he met Sidney Olcott, a director who was born in Toronto and had been making films, including Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1908, for the past decade. Foster then taken to Pickfair where he met Mary Pickford, followed by a tour of MGM Studios, where Louis Mayer, another Canadian who was the founder and head of MGM, spoke with him. He was then given tea by Norma Shearer, and Mack Sennett then took him on a drive around the area. By the end of the day, he was sitting with Jack Warner and future King Kong actress Fay Wray, as well as other Canadian actors Walter Pidgeon, Deanna Durbin and Fifi D’Orsay.

It seemed no matter where Foster looked, he was running into Canadians who had made their mark, or were making their mark, on Hollywood.

Information from Macleans, Canadian Encyclopedia, Wikipedia, CBC, Canada’s History,

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