louferrigno’s review published on Letterboxd:
Genre Killers (1/31)
Genres tend have a lifespan, which implicates that every venture of creative expression that exists can be capable of not only inspiring other creatives to push boundaries and lay out a tablet of history to examine, but also that every venture of creative expression can experience a process of death that sees its potential burnt-out and lead to the opening of paths for other genres to take hold of the attention of diverse audiences. The normal play-by-play that follows the history of most genres is that one, or that a coincidental handful of, artist(s) cobble together the traits and characteristics of the past, synthesizes them with modern experimentation brought about by cultural inspiration, and is able to produce a style of art that seems so fresh and unique from the outset that consumers will want more and producers/new artists will attempt to capture the sparks found in those first stabs while also trying to produce something of value on their own (or, in a worse case scenario, cash in on something that is now popular at the cost of devaluing the genre in future explorations). We commonly associate the concept of genres with music, the self-reliant need to try and categorize an aural experience just to get some form of concrete understanding on how to approach it and how to compare it with other acts of artistry, but films of course are also commonly described with certain genres, be that the broad descriptors of “action”, “sci-fi”, “drama”, or “horror” that are able to get to the basic roots of what emotions a film will try to elicit and the audiences it caters best to, or the necessary subgenres to try and summarize a bounty of films down to 1-3 words, genres help guide us in approaching films and allow a launching point to dissect a massive topic like film history into comforting, though still no less daunting, chunks of context. Film genres aren’t easy to “kill”, perhaps more accurately it’s easy to disrupt their flow, but they also have a lifespan that can be laid out and analyzed to better instruct, inspire, and understand in a larger sociological reach.
That’s not to say film genres haven’t had plenty of violent deaths over time.
Going back to music, there have been plenty of genres which didn’t meet its end by gradually exhausting all its potential, and rather were trampled over by outside factors putting an end to any further thoughtful exploration, grunge was tragically stalled and left in a state of perpetual mourning by the death of Kurt Cobain, disco was headbutted into oblivion by White Sox fans during Disco Demolition Night, emo became a punchline by indie-scene kids once its look and sound became exaggerated out of sight from its more earnest origins, the deaths of music genres are well-documented and rarely tend to pinned down to a single song/album (rare examples do exist, such as My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless defining AND killing shoegaze for being TOO good) in part because of how much we as a culture define music genres not just by their sound, but also by the scenes, cultures, and places that cultivated those sounds and made it their own. Film, however, often looks back at its biggest abrupt endings and is able to point to a single film that can be solely responsible for the violent death of a genre, since, after all, it takes a lot more money to sink into a film that flops than it does an album that flops, which can immediately cause investors/artists within the field of film to be far quicker in staying away from a genre’s path than it does for music culture. Films, by their very nature, tend to be magnanimous and strike as so all-encompassing that it can be easy to point to a single film and determine, yes, this is why this genre HAD to end, but there’s too many examples of these, some good, some bad, some extremely popular, some obscure by contemporary standards, to pin as just a single film’s faults, especially with what the history of music has to teach us about why genres explode and fall to smithereens. Nearly all “genre killers” aren’t assassins, they are just accidental cyanide capsules to segments of film history that, when looked closely, seemed to be on its last legs anyway. Something’s under the caboose for the deaths of these genres because if music tends to not die solely in a vacuum, neither does film.
So, fuck it, let’s look at 31 examples of genre killers in the realm of cinema and see whether a single movie can be blamed or whether the meat of these stories lie farther beyond an artist’s reach
It should be clarified that when I’m talking about genres in film, especially this early in this marathon, I’m applying a very loose definition of what it takes to be called a “genre”. Movements, as in cultural-specific mutations of genres, tend to have just as much importance in allowing dozens of films to be assembled and described with a quick term with outlined characteristics and styles, since, after all, grunge was a very Seattle-centric genre/movement before being claimed by the world as its own against the wishes of its hometown. Similar artistic composition tends to come from people in close proximity noticing what their peers are doing and deciding to build on-top of one another, meaning that describing the French New Wave as a genre is less radical a statement than suggested, since the term “genre” by itself is meant to align history and criticism of aesthetic expressions into a consolidated package. The evolution of communication will allow us to dive deeper and deeper into the common definitions of “genre” via subgenres and the internet-aided birth of the microgenre, but to get to the heart of what it takes to truly kill a genre means we do need to, first of all, examine points in time when ticket sales weren’t the easy motivations in pulling the plug on genres and movements.
So when the first example of a genre I bring up is the demise of “the entire Canadian film industry”, it’s not to take that literally and stretching the hell out of what constitutes as a genre, but rather establishing a ground zero for the hypothesis this entire project is founded on and also sowing the seeds for themes that will be more abundant when postscript time rolls around.
William Heise’s 18-second film The Kiss established several firsts upon its debut exhibitions in the spring of 1896, the first steps towards human sensuality being preserved and captured in moving visuals, the first steps towards America taking the reigns as the central hub for film production, and the first steps towards Canada’s inferiority complex in terms of their complex film industry. Shown in a public screening in Montreal on July of that year, the initial reactions of film were mixed, some writing it off as a novelty, while some saw it as a valuable tool to preserve the expansive country around their sidewalks and mountains. James Freer, farmer in Manitoba, landed in the latter category and saw the potential of allowing those outside his province to experience what life was like in the Prairies, thus convincing him to acquire an Edison-branded celluloid camera and take on the daunting responsibilities of being the first Canadian filmmaker, creating short cinema verite scenes around his home province and trying to one-up what Thomas Edison’s boys were cooking in New York through sheer, understated honesty and simplicity. The Canadian Pacific Railway Company saw what Freer had done and convinced him to tour the United Kingdom (as a result of Canada being established as a dominion assembled from scraps of land the British Empire acquired from the French and allowed to self-govern itself, this fact will be important later on), once in 1898 with the compilation film Ten Years in Manitoba (now lost) and again in 1902 for the sake of supporting immigration from Great Britain to increase the country’s population and labor. Freer’s second tour would wind up killing his filmmaking career once word got around that he had downplayed the cold winters and mosquito problems of his province and thus integrated too much fiction in his preservation of honest, humble living, but this 1902 exhibition would see Canada’s federal government sponsor a nascent film industry for the first time and be instrumental in its growing development, roughly 26 years before they would be a victim of their own prosperity.
The early-to-mid 1900’s saw Canada begin their love-hate relationship with the United States’ film industry, as even though The Canadian Pacific Railway Company continued to produce more films to encourage immigration into their country, Canadians were not the ones telling their own stories, as the CPRC elected to hire the more experienced and more technically-advanced crews from the Edison Manufacturing Company to better sell Canada and its products to a world outside their own, with the few contemporary Canadian filmmakers reduced to making newsreels or travelogs. America, being too confident for its own good, exploited their upstair neighbor’s hospitality by turning Canada into another backdrop for their own narrative fiction films, settling scores between noble Mounties and villainous French-Canadian lumberjacks and incorporating Métis and gold prospectors into their own film lexicon, leaving Canada in the dust for their own artistic gain. 1912 was when Canada officially had enough and decided to make their own fiction films alongside their fact-driven films, with the Canadian Bioscope Company being founded by H.H.B. Holland in order to pour all available talent they could acquire from both American and Canadian sectors to make Canada’s first feature-length fiction film, 1914’s Evangeline (now lost). Presented in both New York City, New York and Halifax, Nova Scotia, with American actors playing the main characters and Canadian actors playing the supporting cast, it was an uneasy but mutual attempt to join forces at the cost of $30,000 and was enough of a success for other Canadians to be convinced that starting up their own film studios to compete with the overwhelming American cinematic culture could work out (though the Canadian Bioscope Company would never again regain their glory days and folded the next year, its assets seized and considered missing before World War I’s end). The British American Film Company of Montreal, the Conness Till Film Company, the All Red Feature Company, all vital in establishing the birth of the Canadian film industry and understanding, in baby steps, the reasons why it is the way it is today.
But I didn’t promise the story of a birth, I promised the story of a death. Let’s skip a decade in order to read what the entire country thought was gonna be their final chapter in the history books of their unique film culture.
Ernest Shipman, Ontario native, aided in producing what was Canada’s greatest box office success in the silent age, 1919’s Back to God's Country (not lost), with a budget of $67,000, a profit of roughly $1.5 million, and the film that put Canadian film fiction firmly on the map. Shipman also aided in producing the first film that truly put Canadian films on the rocks, 1924’s Blue Water (now lost), which was such a disaster that it caused Shipman to leave his country in shame and live his final seven years in New York with nothing to show for it. That year, a single other Canadian feature film was produced, while production on short films also saw a rapid decline from the country with funds and confidence drying up (America? Unscathed during the Roaring 20’s and with enough stability to increase the amount of Hollywood films with Canadian-themed plots for both countries). Inserts for Hollywood pictures, newsreels, and short documentaries populated the rest of the 1920’s in terms of Canadian cinema, and all hope seemed very lost, not just for Canada but also for Europe. The United Kingdom, fed up with how many British movie theaters showed nothing but American content, retaliated by enforcing the Cinematograph Films Act of 1927, requiring 15% of all films shown in Britain to be of Commonwealth/UK origin and, in theory, allowing Britain to step-up their game to fit the quota. Canada wasn’t punished directly by the Films Act, the country being technically a dominion of the United Kingdom meant it wasn’t classified as a “foreign country” and could sneak in however many films they could muster up, but America decided to pounce upon this rule and established subsidiaries in Britain and, crucially, Canada to make “quota quickies”, films engineered to appeal specifically to the British market and hiring English/Canadian actors to work for American directors/producers. The small pool of Canadian talent became scooped-up for these disguised Hollywood productions and forced the country to live in complete inaction, with scarcely any films being made as a pureblood Canadian feature in the 30’s and 40’s. If you want an honest-to-god accurate reason towards why the Canadian film industry died until roughly the 60’s/70’s (when cultural sponsorship projects allowed the funding and revitalization of Canadian filmmakers to tell their own stories once again), the very nature of “quota quickies” is the biggest culprit, proximity to the States meant Canada couldn’t rebuild itself in the same efficiency as Britain’s overseas film industry could once the country realized they royally fucked up in 1938, and answers in detail why it died as it lived: a total ramshackle.
….So what’s the deal, then, with Carry on, Sergeant!?
The Ontario Motion Picture Bureau was one of those many film studios responsible for pushing Canada’s cinematic output to the world, not through fiction but with the time-tested production of educational reels to inform and promote the infrastructure of Ontario and its civilians, happily state-sponsored in 1917 and boldly distributing 1,500 reels of 28mm safety stock (which was less combustible than the 35mm nitrate film stock popular at the time) per year. Like the rest of Canada, things changes for the OMPB come the mid-20’s, as the much safer 16mm film stock became more popular and caused 28mm to be irrelevant and useless, and controversies/protests over its bureaucratic decisions led to it slowing production on their short church-approved shorts. Still, by 1927 it was one of the few film organizations left standing that wasn’t left abandoned due to Hollywood absorbing its talents, and private investors came together to try and make a hell of a Hail Mary for their country, funneling however much money they could into something that would save the country a la Back to God's Country and regain their lost footing. 1918’s The Romance of Old Bill (now lost) was a decent success in its home country of Britain and was an even bigger success in Canada (adjusted by the relative standards of “success” for Canadian films, of course), where it was curiously renamed into their snapper title Carry On!, and the OMPB looked at this film as a reference point towards how to bring Canada back to its days of glory, even going so far as to hire the man who created Old Bill to give them a helping hand.
The problem was that the man that went on to write their comeback film was also chosen to direct the film. That man had never directed a film before and he would proceed to prove he had no goddamn idea what he was doing.
Bruce Bairnsfather, humorist and cartoonist, served in World War I and started to gain acclaim from his fellow troopers with his “vulgar caricatures”, poking fun at this world being torn apart around him and doing everything he can to ease with the hearing damage sustained from his time in the trenches. Old Bill was a character that recurred in Bairnsfather’s drawings, a curmudgeon with a bushy walrus mustache that cynically and dryly commentated on the behaviors of his fellow soldiers and the volatile environment surrounding him, and became the main hero of a musical comedy in 1917 called The Better 'Ole which Bairnsfather exerted creative control by co-writing the book for. The musical was a smash in both Great Britain and on Broadway, and was adapted twice, including the above-mentioned 1918 film. Canadian International Films, an independent subsidiary built from the ground-up by the unknown Canadian private investors, was founded in 1926 and agreed to hire Bairnsfather to make a film for them on the grounds of Old Bill’s success with both stage and screen. Bairnsfather wasn’t cheap but, again, the investors didn’t care and drummed up a contract regardless, hiring, in similar fashion to their American counterparts, British actors in order to disguise the Canadianness of this major film once Shipman’s kiss of death stained the country. Bairnsfather wanted this to be his magnum opus, and based on scale alone he certainly didn’t hold back, instructing the OMPB to build massive sets far beyond their initial budgets and even went so far as to build a French street that stood standing for fifteen years, meaning this was gonna be a massive gamble to take on. The investors (one of which including then-current Prime Minister Arthur Meighen) were scared shitless, as Bairnsfather had cost them a disputed amount that ranges from $350K to $500K and it resulted in his film being the most-expensive film made in Canada (Back to God’s Country, if you recall, needed ten times LESS than that and was the previous record-holder). This needed to draw in nearly every single patron that could crawl into movie theaters just to have a chance, and 1928 became a very fateful year for what was the first fiction film produced by Canadian International Films and filmed in OMPB’s sets.
For OMPB, it was their last fiction film. For CIF, it was their last film period.
Reports differ on whether the film’s reception was positive or negative at the time, but it became very clear that such a big-budget film was doomed to fail from the word “Go”, foiled again by their noisy neighbors downstairs. The Jazz Singer, with its Vitaphone sound-on-disc system, effectively ended the silent era and pushed Hollywood to focus more and more on talkies, turning 1928 into the last feasible for any silent film to have any success before being deemed a relic of the past. Carry On, Sergeant! was a silent film, and one people weren’t really keen on seeing, dying within weeks of its release and putting Canada into a complete standstill where any attempt to make a big-budget film would be shot down in clear remembrance of Bairnsfather’s colossal bomb. Feature-length films were still made in Canada, but very rarely (to wit, only one Canadian feature film was made in the 40’s), as it became clear the country was best-suited for being an outpost for Hollywood productions and that its original material wasn’t cutting it anymore. After 1928, the Canadian film industry was pronounced dead and survived thanks to America, a looming shadow visible in the post-70’s fear-stricken attempts to make it on their own once again.
Now, is Carry On, Sergeant! a “genre killer”? Not necessarily, the poison ingested by Blue Water’s existence and the rise of “quota quickies” stand as more instrumental in dismantling the foundation of Canada’s film industry, but Carry On, Sergeant! certainly is a more flashier death that’s arguably circumstantial to the question but is still an important factor for demise nonetheless. In a way, this is the perfect starting point to the world of how a genre gets “killed”, because even though statistically at least a few of these next 30 films that’ll be covered will be the sole killers, film history can never truly exist on its own, the failure of Bairsnfather’s film means less when it isn’t presented next to the years of Canada developing as its own personal movement, even somewhat of a “genre” of a film next to the less-troubled productions of American and British films that Canada had direct competition with and thus needed to stand out (or, when the chips were down, blend in with). If we have to concede that Carry On, Sergeant! is indeed directly responsible for discouraging, and thus killing, Canadian films as a genre/movement outside of America’s films in the “Northern” genre by convincing investors to stay away from approving Canadian films like it, then it cannot be understated enough that the bolts were already loosened by the time of its 1928 release, and that it only took Bairnsfather holding a magnet next to them for it all to collapse, it can be blamed but it’s not the sole reason for the infrastructure to hurtle towards oblivion. This, I will predict, will become somewhat of a pattern.
NOW, with that history lesson out of the way, is the damn film even good?
A big problem with the film is that for how big and expansive (and expensive) it is, this is a really thin film that doesn't have a lot going for it, most of the story is communicated through lightly-connected vignettes that paint the image of war in the trenches and mull about essentially recapping the entirety of World War I without any tight direction or verve to really make scenes like an entire regiment of French-African troops getting gassed make the impact they require. Now this could be an attempt on the film's part to translate its central theme, that of "carrying on" and facing the world even on the brink of cataclysm like WWI seemed to present itself as, into an economic collage of life during wartime, but it lacks agency, it lacks anything to really offer a hook for its slow-going narrative and as such it creates a film that, by-and-large, feel less substantial and borderline propagandist in the name of war itself (not necessarily propagandist towards Canada like their tourist reels of the past, Canada barely has a presence here and the sudden appearance of the USA, waving flag in tow, entering the war late in the game offers more of a presence, man this really can't escape from the States, can they?)
Now that's not to say there's NOTHING to the film, maybe very little worth talking about but some substories bob and weave their way, fighting for dominance as Bairsnfather struggles to grips between his humorist origins and actually trying to tell a tell of high-drama, replete with flowery prose seeping their way into the intertitles every now and then. Syd Small is meant to be the comic relief of the film, plucky, constantly getting in the way of his soldiers, being caught in the crossfire of enemy fire and comically surviving in methods such as hiding in a chimney, the underlying problem here is that not only are Small's sequences not very entertaining, they come WAY too close into contact with the film's many serious sequences, several of which attempt to humanize the axis powers (after all, they've got mothers too), and dilute the film's mood even more. Perhaps the thing that contributed most to the film's controversy and another explanation towards why it tanked is lead soldier-turned-sergeant Bob Mackay, everyman with a dame back home, having an affair with a prostitute in the type of salacious intrusion to the image of the noble, hard-working Canadian audiences wanted and expected at the time, and this does lead to a few of the film's strongest scenes and Mackay tries both to hide and show penance for this affair he's bewitched by, yet the majority of all this happens in like the last 20 minutes of the film and is a case of too-little-too-late in terms of reeling me in. Knowing that in two years time All Quiet on the Western Front would take its place as the definitive fictional document on World War One in all its terrors and inability for either side to really "win", much of this film does feel very quaint and its easy to see why the silent era would choose to discard this almost completely when judging its most notable releases and what would be worth standing the test of time.
That said, though, Carry on, Sergeant! is at least a true spectacle in the visual department and proved it wasn't wasting Canada's money frivolously (...well it DID but you get what I mean), the sequences within Parisian streets and bars are gorgeous in their detail, while the moments where troops find themselves marching towards Ypres or holding down the fort manage to convey the war-torn nature of its destroyed ground and environment quite well, and many of the intertitles get pretty creative in trying to communicate the mood of the scene, even when it's something as simple as adding a flavor background, it's a nice touch I always appreciate seeing from this era. Still, however, flavor touches and impressive visuals couldn't save this from being a major stain in Canadian cinema and enough of a person non grata that it's name would be lifted 30 years later by the bawdy British comedy series Carry On with no complaints. Canada will eventually rise from the ashes, however, and they've since been able to make several films that have taken the mantle of, at their respective times, the most expensive Canadian film production. One of them will also take down an entire genre down with them, meaning we haven't seen the last of the Great White North just yet.