23 May 2017

The Critical Age: Thoughts on a Film I'll Never See


Motion Picture News, 1 September 1923
In the opening scene of The Patriot, the 1998 motion picture adaptation of William C. Heine's The Last Canadian, small town immunologist Wesley McClaren (Steven Seagal) ropes cattle on his Montana ranch. The second scene shows McClaren working to save the life of a sickly young calf, as hired hand Frank (L.Q. Jones) looks on. In the third, local neo-Nazi militia leader Floyd Chisolm (Gailard Sartain) whips up his followers in a compound surrounded by the Feds. McClaren doesn't feature in The Last Canadian, nor does Frank, nor does Floyd Chisolm, nor does the entire State of Montana. Conversely, Gene Arnprior, the novel's protagonist does not feature in the film. In fact, The Last Canadian and The Patriot don't share a single character or setting. Not one scene from the novel is depicted in the film.


Because I'm a firm believer in research, and am a glutton for punishment, I've watched all ninety minutes of The Patriot and have read all 253 pages of The Last Canadian. Twice. I can attest that there is as much similarity between the two as there is between Armageddon and The Queers of New York.

I'm fairly certain that The Patriot is the least faithful screen adaptation of a Canadian novel, but can't say for sure because I'll never get the chance to see The Critical Age, the 1923 film based on Ralph Connor's Glengarry School Days. Like so many thousand other silents, The Critical Age is a lost film. Everything I know about it – which isn't much – comes courtesy of 94-year-old reviews, like this one, written by Laurence Reid for the May 19, 1923 edition of Motion Picture News:
We don't see the reason for calling it by its present title in view of the fact that the original story was known far and wide as ''Glengarry School Days." Perhaps they felt that it might not interest the customers who had emerged from adolescence. Some title more suitable than "The Critical Age" should have been employed. This is the only shaft of criticism which we can hurl at this neat little production, which is strong in atmosphere – which tells a story of political conflict without any tedium being suggested as is often the case in this type of plot.
     The original yarn carried quite a schoolroom background. It has not been neglected here. It serves here in introducing two highly adaptable players in James Harrison and Pauline Garon – as well as establishing the romance. The political sequences follow and bring forth the efforts of a rich Parliament member [sic] and his son to put over a bill which would dislodge the homesteaders. The romance carries on apace through the efforts of this son to win the daughter of another lawmaker from a young homesteader. The latter is successful in scenes which carry on with sufficient color [sic] and movement – scenes which take in the girl's rescue from the river and a mad ride in a motor car by the champion of the farmers who casts his vote in the nick of time.
Reviewer Reid assumes that the reader is familiar with Connor's novel. And why not? Glengarry School Days was an international bestseller. I expect I would have more than one shaft of criticism, but then I prefer adaptations that play some small deference to the source.


Maineiac Harlan Knight plays lead character Peter Gorach. James Harrison appears as Tom Findley, while Alice May brings life to his mother. Montrealer Pauline Garon, who would decades later land a bit part in How Green Was My Valley, plays love interest Maggie Baird. And then we have Wallace Ray as Bob Kerr, Raymond Peck as Senator Kerr, Marion Colvin as Mrs Baird, and William Colvin as Senator Baird. Not one of these characters appears in Glengarry School Days. The plot Reid describes in Motion Picture News will be entirely unfamiliar to readers of the novel.

The few surviving stills are equally unrecognizable.


Glengarry School Days does feature a heroic dog – name: Fido – who saves Hughie Murray from a bear attack. The son of a clergyman, young Hughie is the protagonist of Glengarry School Days, though he doesn't appear in the screen adaptation. In this way, he is no different than any of the other  characters in the novel. Parliament Hill does not feature and Ottawa isn't so much as referenced. No girl is rescued from a river. There is no mad ride in a motor car, which is not surprising when one considers that Glengarry School Days is set in the 1870s.

Despite my misgivings, I'd gladly give The Critical Age a chance. I expect it is more enjoyable than The Patriot, if only because, at 46-minutes running time, it's barely half the length.

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22 May 2017

More Victoria Day Disaster Verse


The Toronto Daily Mail
25 May 1881
John Wilson Bengough's poem on the wreck of the Victoria on Victoria Day, 1881, off the banks of the Canadian Thames. Published in his Motley: Verses Grave and Gay – most certainly an example of the former –  it joins Ingersoll Cheese Poet James McIntyre's succinct "Disaster to Steamer Victoria at London" as verse inspired by the disaster. I honestly can't say which I prefer.

Motley: Verses Grave and GayJ.W. Bengough
Toronto: William Briggs, 1895


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14 May 2017

A Novel My Mother Read



Glengarry School Days:
     A Story of the Early Days in Glengarry
Ralph Connor [pseud. Rev. Charles W. Gordon]
Toronto: Westminster, 1902

My mother was a great reader. Her typical day began by pouring over the Montreal Gazette during breakfast. When finished, she'd turn to a little booklet that provided a passage from the Bible with a brief commentary. The books she read dealt primarily with politics and the environment. In her mind, religion, politics and the environment were inextricably linked.

My mother never expressed much interested in fiction. I remember her reading Five Smooth Stones, Ann Fairbairn's 1966 bestseller, but I'm certain this was only because someone once gave her a copy as a Christmas gift.

Five Smooth Stones is 932 pages long. She was a good friend.

The only other fiction I remember my mother reading was I Am Barabbas, a religious historical novel written by Laurence H. Blackburn (author of God Wants You to Be Well and The Evaluation of Physiological Syncope in Aviation Personnel). I'm sure there were other novels. Her copy of Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road, the 1946 Collins White Circle Edition, sits on my shelves.


Strange to think she bought this as an eighteen-year-old. Tastes change, I suppose. People, too.

Glengarry School Days is the only Canadian novel that I know for a fact my mother read. I have  memories of her telling us – my sister and I – whenever we passed through Glengarry County on annual visits to our Upper Canadian cousins. Of the novel itself, my mother said nothing. Having read it now myself, I wonder how much she remembered?


Published in 1902, the year after The Man from Glengarry, Glengarry School Days is not so much a sequel as filler. It takes place during the same time period as the earliest chapters of the former, though you'd never know it. The characters are familiar – Rev Murray, Mrs Murray, Hughie Murray, and Ranald Macdonald, to name just four – but no references are made to the events of The Man from Glengarry. There is no overarching narrative, rather the book consists of a series of episodes, as reflected in the chapter titles: The Spelling-Match, The New Master, The Bear Hunt, etc.

Judith Skelton Grant and others suggest that Glengarry School Days is drawn the author's memories of the county and the one-room schoolhouse he attended as a child. I'm sure they're right, and it is in this the novel's strengths and flaws lie. Connor's attention to detail may be of value to cultural historian, but it stalls the plot, as in this early passage:
The afternoon was given to the more serious part of the school work – writing, arithmetic, and spelling, while, for those whose ambitions extended beyond the limits of the public school, the master had begun a Euclid class, which was at once his despair and his pride. In the Twentieth school of that date there was no waste of the children's time in foolish and fantastic branches of study, in showy exercises and accomplishments, whose display was at once ruinous to the nerves of the visitors, and to the self-respect and modesty of the children. The ideal of the school was to fit the children for the struggle into which their lives would thrust them, so that the boy who could spell and read and cipher was supposed to be ready for his life work. Those whose ambition led them into the subtleties of Euclid's problems and theorems were supposed to be in preparation for somewhat higher spheres of life.
Schoolhouse aside, the unifying element of the novel is religion. As in The Man from Glengarry, it is the flawless, saintly Mrs Murray – and not her ordained husband – who serves as spiritual guide, leading boys and young men the path they will follow tho become clergymen. Their number includes cynical city boy Jack Craven, the last in a line of schoolteachers.

No more drinking for Jack!

In this novel, Mrs Murray's example is echoed in Mrs Finch, the mother of Hughie's good friend Thomas. An older boy, Thomas serves as a role model to young Hughie, much like Ranald Macdonald did in The Man from Glengarry (in which, it should be noted, Thomas is not so much as mentioned). The two are similar in both character and family, the most obvious difference being that Ranald's mother is dead. Thomas's mother is still alive, though she is suffering a long, slow death from breast cancer. Mrs Finch nearly makes it to the end of the novel, expiring with just two pages to go.

I spoil nothing. You can see it coming.

The deathbed scene is melodramatic and jarring, particularly given the subtlety of the message imparted throughout Glengarry School Days. You see, it is Thomas, not his sisters, who nurses Mrs Finch through her final months. Connor wants to demonstrate that one can be masculine and muscular – or, best of all, a Muscular Christian – and still be tender, gentle and loving.

A good son, that Thomas Finch. A role model for us all.

Homage: The fourth chapter begins with a conversation between Mr and Mrs Bushy (not Busby), two squirrels who live by the schoolhouse in an old beech tree. Lasting two pages, the exchange is entirely out of place. I was reminded of nothing so much as the animal stories Charles G.D. Roberts and Ernest Thompson Seton – particularly Bannertail – which, of course, was Connor's intent.


Trivia: All UK editions – four that I can count – were published by Hodder & Stoughton under the title Glengarry Days.

Object: I own two copies. The one I read appears to be the first Canadian edition... or so a bookseller once claimed. I have no reason to doubt. It also appears to have once belonged to a man – or, perhaps, boy – named Dougal Sinclair. Might this be the same Dougal Sinclair, a 21-year-old dry goods clerk, who was recorded in the 1901 census as living in Glengarry? I like to think so.

Three hundred and fifty pages in olive green cloth, I bought it four years ago in London, Ontario. Price: $2.00.

Access: Once a mainstay, today's Canadian public library patrons will find that themselves served only by this country's very largest. Fortunately, copies of Glengarry School Days are held by nearly every academic institution in the country.

There have been numerous Canadian, American and British editions. Used copies are plentiful and cheap. I expect few booksellers bother listing it online. My advice is to go for one of the Westminster editions.

The novel was a longstanding title in the New Canadian Library, and somehow survived as part of the series to the end. The last NCL edition – price: $17.95 – is still listed on the publisher's website. Do not bother looking for it in our national chain; not one of its 231 stores stocks a copy.


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08 May 2017

The Return of The Pyx



It's no great secret – and certainly no deadly secret – that this spring's Ricochet Books title will be John Buell's masterful debut novel, The Pyx. The reissue was announced a few months ago, though I haven't mentioned it here.

I should have. I've never felt so proud in working to return a title to print.

No Canadian novelist has been so unjustly neglected as John Buell. He was published by Farrar, Straus, he was praised by Edmund Wilson, and he has been out of print for more than a quarter century. I never once heard John Buell's name in the years I studied at Concordia University... the very same university at which he was teaching.

Wish I'd known.

Sean Kelly was one of Buell's students. This was years earlier, when The Pyx was first published. Sean was good enough to write the introduction to the new Ricochet edition. It begins:
In 1959, when his novel The Pyx was published, John Buell was a 32-year old professor at Loyola College, where I was a first-year student and he saved my life.
The first half of Sean's introduction has just been published in Concordia University Magazine. You can read it and the rest of the issue online – gratis – through this link. Sean's piece features on the third to last page.


The Ricochet edition of The Pyx will hit bookstores later this month. It can be pre-ordered through the publisher and online booksellers.

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01 May 2017

A Gangster Finds God



Hooked
Ernie Hollands with Doug Brendel
Toronto: Mainroads Productions, 1987
A stolen car took me there. Hollywood was a grotesque paradise for me, with wide streets lit up  in neon, hundreds of peep shows where a guy could see a pornographic movie for a quarter, fifty cents if it was really raunchy. Teenage boys and senior citizens seemed to keep the place in business. Roaming the sidewalks were real-life versions of the girls in the porno flicks, painted-up prostitutes, some barely into their teens, others obviously pushing fifty. And liquor flowed freely everywhere.
Ernie Hollands is a smalltime crook looking to make it big in Hollywood. He thinks that pulling off heists in Tinseltown – as opposed to, say, Moose Jaw – will make him "someone with class, with clout, with a great reputation." Things don't go quite as planned. His first few days are wasted whoring, drinking, and selling stolen wristwatches. Eventually, he sets his sites on a Hollywood Boulevard grocery store: "They were doing big business, with customers swarming the aisles, and cash registers ringing like church bells, as the cashiers took in fives and tens, the twenties, the mounds of ones."

Ernie plans to rob the place after hours, then use the money to plan a big bank heist – "something to get real headlines." Because he'll be needing food as he works out the details, Ernie decides to shoplift from the very same supermarket. What he doesn't bank on – sorry – is a cop watching behind a plate of one-way glass. The cop stops the crook, patts him down, and finds a loaded .38. They struggle. The gun goes off:
My eyes fell on the policeman's leg. The wound, just below the knee, was pumping blood furiously. I was mortified.
     "Take the gun!" I shouted, holding the weapon out to him. "Take the gun!"
The cop grabs the gun with one hand, "grasping his bloody leg" with the other:
"I should put a bullet tight through you," he growled, and I knew he was serious. In the pit of my stomach, I was sick to see what I had done. And, in the moment, my whole life – all forty-two years of it – made me sick. I had accomplished nothing, I was little more than a wart on society's skin. I was slime. And this seemed to prove it to me, finally.
     "Go ahead," I replied as I stared down the barrel of the gun. "You'd be doing me a favor."
An autobiography that reads like a pulp novel, Hooked begins with the author's final crime – then flashes back to his childhood. There's nothing to envy. The son of a sixteen-year-old mother and forty-seven-year-old father, Ernie grows up surrounded by siblings in a two-room
Ernie Hollands at 17
Halifax slum house. There was only one pot to piss in. At age eight, Ernie learns that his parent's affection can be bought by shoplifting food and booze. A bit of an entrepreneur, he steals bundles of newspapers left on the curb for carriers and sells them at a discount in all-night restaurants. Ernie was a hellion at school, which gave mean Mrs Toblin an excuse to pull down his pants and give him the cane.

He ends up at the Halifax Industrial School – more of a prison, really – from which he makes his first great escape. What happens next is a bit of a blur. Ernie moves between Canada and the United States, picking pockets, shoplifting, and breaking into homes of the affluent. Every once in a while he gets caught, is sentenced, and then manages to escape. You'd almost think someone was looking out for him.

If there is a problem with Hooked, it is that its author has too much to confess; his crimes are so numerous, and the book so short, that not many are gone into in any detail. The one I remember most involves jewelry. Somewhere in the States, he teams up with a drunk to rob the home of a couple who own a grocery store. Their eighteen-year-old daughter stumbles upon the scene and is locked in a closet. The sound of her pounding on the door has Ernie realize that she's wearing a ring – which turns out to be an engagement ring – and so he opens the door and takes it.

Shows what a right bastard he was.

Ernie remained a bastard for many of the years that followed, and he kept getting lucky breaks. He has to serve only one year for shooting that Hollywood cop. After that, Ernie is extradited, and ends up in Millhaven, where his reputation as a cop-shooter brings considerable respect. Life is pretty good: "I had a radio, earphones, cigarettes, plenty of food, numerous books". The inmates are encouraged to take up hobbies – painting, needlepoint, sculpting – but none of these appeal. Eventually, he settles on fly-tying, and quickly develops a reputation as a master. Sports shops take notice, as does the press – "Time Flies Tying Flies" is the headline in the Toronto Star – and it isn't long before Ernie is raking it in:
I was making two or three thousand dollars a month, all tax-free. The taxpayers of Canada were paying my way, providing my housing, my utilities, my meals, my entertainment. I sat in my cell, smoking cigars by the case, watching television, reading filthy magazines, tying flies, and counting the money.
Those words appear on page 113 of this 146-page autobiography. The thirty or so pages that follow would have come as a surprise had the book's cover not promised a dramatic "before and after" saga I have ever read. What follows lives up to that grand claim.


Hoping to flog his wares, Ernie writes to Grant Bailey, the owner of a Pembroke, Ontario sporting goods store. He gets no order in response, but two religious tracts, along with a lengthy letter in which the storeowner recounts his journey to accept Jesus Christ as his Saviour. Ernie strings Bailey along, which unleashes a steady stream of tracts and books. Ultimately, they have the greatest effect:
On March 12, 1975, at two a.m., I got out of bed and I knelt in my cell in Milhaven Prison. I held my Bible and I raised my hands in the air. With tears streaming down my face, I let Jesus set me free.
The beginning of a remarkable scene, it's very well described in the book, but I much prefer Ernie's account from a later appearance on 100 Huntley Street:



I admit to being cynical about such things – can we agree that the percentage of crooks amongst evangelical preachers is very high? – but I've seen nothing to suggest that Ernie didn't leave crime behind. He married a widow, adopted her children, and at age fifty fathered his first child. He also founded Hebron Farm, an institution dedicated to helping ex-cons reenter society.

Hooked has an interesting structure in that the pages dealing with Ernie's redemption and Born Again life are so few. It's much more about crime than Christ, though the latter wins out in the end.

Ernie Hollands died in 1996, at the age of sixty-six. A smalltime crook who looked to make it big, he died a bigger man.

The critics rave: The only reviews I've seen for Hooked are the three on the back of the book itself. Two are provided by men associated with Full Gospel Business Men's Fellowship International, an organization that was new to me. The  third comes courtesy of John Wesley White:


I've written about Dr White's own books many times over the years – Arming for Armageddon, Thinking the Unthinkable, and Re-Entry – and can attest that his literary criticism is superior to his music criticism. Yes, once you pick Hooked up you will not get stopped.

Object: A cheap 145-page mass market paperback. I found my copy, a third printing, five years ago at the Stratford Salvation Army Thrift Store. Price: $1.00. Signed.


It came with a colour postcard of the Hollands family. Suitable for mailing.

Access: If information in my copy is to be believed – and I see no reason to doubt – 270,000 copies of Hooked were published in the first four years of its release. I've seen a later video in which Ernie pegs the number at a held-million. Not surprisingly, it is being sold online for as little as one American dollar. A crooked New Hampshire bookseller hopes to get US$96.71. At US$6.98, the lone signed copy is the one to buy.

Hooked is still in print, and can be bought directly from Hebron Ministries for eight Canadian dollars.

Library and Archives Canada has a copy, as do Portage College and something called Theolog in Vancouver.

I've seen two translations, French and Spanish, though Hebron Ministries informs that there are also Russian and Chinese translations in circulation.

I have no reason to doubt.

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