Hollywood Comes to Canada: The Making of Captains of the Clouds
Written by guest blogger Dr. Jessica Leonora Whitehead
During the Oscars this year a new PSA aired from the Canadian Media Fund, launching the MADE Campaign, which celebrates the work of Canadians in the film industry from both home and abroad. Narrated by Christopher Plumber, scenes from Hollywood productions like Deadpool, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Spiderman are shown as Christopher Plumber tells the audience: “This is Canadian content and it’s time we take credit for it. Starting now.” While today Canada is labeled Hollywood North with Canadian cities like Toronto, Vancouver, and even the Northern Ontario cities of Sudbury and North Bay acting as regular shooting locations for American productions, this was not always the case. My article for the Canadian Journal of Film Studies explores the historical roots of Canada as a shooting location for Hollywood films by examining one of the first Hollywood features shot in Canada, the 1942 war epic Captains of the Clouds.
The concept for Captains of the Clouds was developed in conjunction with the Canadian government and Warner Brother Studios. In 1941, the United States had not yet entered the war, but many Americans were joining the Royal Canadian Air force (RCAF) thanks in part to Canadian lobbying groups like the Clayton Knight Committee, which encouraged Americans to join the war effort. The RCAF wanted to partner with Hollywood to showcase their air training plan and signed a contract with Warner Brothers on 28 January 1941 at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, which was also, probably not coincidentally, the headquarters of the Clayton Knight Committee. Shortly after the deal was signed, RCAF Lieutenant Owen Cathcart-Jones was sent to California to work as an advisor on the film about two Canadian bush pilots, who join the RCAF to support the war effort.
Much to the chagrin of Hollywood, one of the Canadian government’s only stipulations about the film, other than they agree to show the RCAF in a positive light, was that the film had to be shot in Canada. The government hoped that the film would give jobs to Canadians, but instead the entire cast and crew came to Canada from Hollywood, which the North Bay Nugget described as a “Cavalcade to Canada.”
One of the largest roles to go to a Canadian was Brenda Marshall’s stand in who was an Ottawa woman by the name of Rita Cross and she received front-page coverage in Canadian newspapers. The focused coverage for a stand in role is in many ways the perfect metaphor for Canada’s relationship with Hollywood because despite decades of attempts Canada remains as a peripheral force in the film industry. In the case of Captains of the Clouds, Warner Brothers completely rewrote the script, the production crew fought the inclusion of Canadian workers on the set, and most of the Canadian actors that appeared in the film were stand-ins and extras.
The American producers left with a negative view of the country and wrote in one of their reports that the people of North Bay were thirty years behind in everything and that they would never want to leave their studio in Burbank again. It would not be until decades later that Canada was made into a regular shooting location for Hollywood, but the production of Captain of the Clouds highlights the historical roots for Canada as a shooting location for Hollywood films. Although today the MADE Campaign is trying to label Hollywood films shot in Canada as Canadian content my article demonstrates how Canada often has a stand in role when Hollywood comes to town.
Dr. Jessica Leonora Whitehead will be starting an Arts and Science Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Toronto in July and holds a PhD from York University. Her dissertation, Cinema-Going on the Margins: The Mascioli Film Circuit of Northeastern Ontario was funded by a SSHRC Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship, and was nominated for both York University’s Dissertation Award and the Barbara Godard Dissertation Award. Her research is also supported by the Italian American Studies Association Memorial Fellowship, which she was awarded in 2018. She has published articles in the journals Transformative Works and Cultures, Italian Canadiana and chapters in the books Cinema Outside the City: Rural Cinema-going from a Global Perspective and Mapping Movie Magazines. In addition, she is the co-editor of an upcoming collection in the journal TMJ: Journal for Media History. Her research has also been featured on the CBC’s radio show Up North and in the Timmins Daily Press.
Read Dr. Whitehead’s latest article, “Hollywood Goes North: The Making of a ‘Canadian’ War Epic, Captains of the Clouds” free to read for a limited time here.