21 May 2011

Horace Brown: Saturday Matinee



The first book to appear under his own name, Horace Brown's Whispering City is the rarest of things: a novelization of a Canadian feature film. The movie itself has shriveled to a footnote today, but in 1947, the year of its release, it was a very big deal. Shot twice – once in French, once in English – for a few months it looked to be the first fruit of a vibrant post-war Canadian film industry. Of course, all died on the vine. I expect the reason had much to do with money, though I blame Jack Valenti.

Whispering City is a pretty good little movie, a fine example film noir. Set in Quebec City, predating Hitchcock's I Confess by some seven years, it tells the story of pretty Mary Roberts, an intrepid lady reporter who gets caught up in a decades-old murder. Corruption, madness, suicide... it's all good fun, though the ending is so rushed that you'd almost think director Fyodor Otsep was counting each frame before he ran out of film.

Globe and Mail film critic Roly Young was amongst the greatest champions of Whispering City, giving the movie four stars (just half a star less than La Forteresse, the French-language version). It was, he wrote, "first-rate motion picture fare, and a pleasant augury for the future of Canadian-made films."

Over six decades later, it's easy enough to judge for ourselves; the entire film has been posted on YouTube:


Just how closely Horace Brown sticks to the screenplay, how adept an adaptor he was, I cannot say. I've not read his Whispering City, and know of only two extant copies: one held by the University of Calgary's Special Collections, the other belonging to bowdler of Fly-by-night (who kindly provided the image above).

Whispering City was the only original title produced Brown's own Global Publishing Company, a short-lived venture that produced a handful of movie tie-in editions (like Great Expectations and Henry V) and the two-issue Original Detective Stories.

Horace Brown died in 1996 at the grand old age of 88. The Globe and Mail provided no obituary, which doesn't seem at all right when one considers his twelve years of service as a Toronto city alderman. In this role, he provided a great deal of copy for the newspaper, including this front page story from 14 March 1972:


I don't see that the Globe and Mail or anyone else paid much attention to Brown's novels. I'm inclined to believe that more has been written this past week here and at Fly-by-night – and, by remarkable coincidence, at Mystery File – than has appeared in the last sixty-five years.

Is it time more attention was paid? Don't think so, but I will raise my glass to a hardworking man, a writer who left behind a number of CanLit curiosities.

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1 comment:

  1. Hi Brian: I am Horace Brown's eldest child (there are 3 of us: 2 girls and a boy in between) and have a copy of each of his books. Great to read all your comments re his writings as well as his interesting life. I just found you so I haven't had a chance yet to digest it all but wanted to contact you in the meantime. Is there anything in particular you'd like to know? Regards, Myrna (Brown) Foley

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