For most of the 20th century, the film production community on the Canadian prairies was small, and the vast majority of homegrown production was in educational, industrial, wildlife, promotional, and sponsored films. One who excelled in this type of filmmaking from the 1920s to the 1970s was Winnipeg’s Francis Holmes.
Francis Joseph Slon Holmes was born on August 28, 1908, the son of Edward and Karalina (Slon) Holmes in Carlyle, SK. Edward Holmes was a newspaper editor and printer, originally from Bradford, Yorkshire. In 1900 he homesteaded near Alameda, N.W.T. in what is now southern Saskatchewan. During the winter months, he would take any writing jobs he could find, and thus was able to get articles published in and get printing jobs for both the Alameda Dispatch and the Arcola Star. Several years in, he realized he did not want to farm after all, and moved to Winnipeg where he secured a position with the Free Press.
Newspapering seems to have been an unstable business, and the family moved regularly. When the ownership of the Carlyle Herald came up for grabs in 1906, Edward jumped on the opportunity, and returned to Saskatchewan. The Holmes family lived in Carlyle until 1921. It was there that he met with an accident that would affect his way of working. According to his nephew:
As a child he had fallen on a milk bottle and the broken glass had severed the tendons of his right hand. The thumb and forefinger were not harmed but the other fingers were almost useless and did not grow to full size. Because of this he used his left hand for many tasks, including writing. He was not naturally left-handed.(1)
Shortly after they moved first to Dauphin where Edward founded the Dauphin Progress, and then back to Winnipeg where he rejoined the Free Press as city editor. Francis Holmes looked as though he was destined for a career in the printing trade. According to his nephew Richard:
“…all the sons learned the printing trade while young. Ed told his boys that they could do whatever they chose, after they’d learned what he could teach them. “If things go wrong” Ed said” you will always have a meal ticket as a printer.” (2)
Francis was first exposed to the relatively new medium of film in the early 1920s. There were several distinct events that influenced him. First he became inspired by a short film shot in 1922 of the construction of the Great Falls hydroelectric dam and generating station on the Winnipeg River east and north of the capital. Construction had started in 1914, delayed due to World War I, but driven by the increasing need for electricity in Winnipeg, was restarted in earnest in 1919. A small townsite sprung up with over 2,000 workers and their families. The first turbine was commissioned at the end of 1922. There were numerous parties of businessmen and tourists visiting the site during 1922, and Edward Holmes was one of them. As a result the Free Press published enthusiastic articles about its progress. The dam was well-documented by still photographers, but there is something about turbines and spillways that can only be captured in motion pictures. It was shot by an unnamed cinematographer, who also turned it into a theatre “blockbuster”. Shown in Winnipeg’s Lyceum Theatre, it was trumpeted in the February 1st, 1923 edition of the Free Press as a cinematic milestone:
Winnipeg Business Men Caught by the “Movie”
Film showing construction of Great Falls 170,000 H.P. Plant of Manitoba Power Company. Includes views of different parties numbering 4,000 Winnipeg business men who inspected the plant during last summer and the fall. Are you included? (3)
It ended, perhaps a little too enthusiastically, with: “Come, see this stirring industrial film.” (4)
Next he befriended a professional cinematographer. As he recalled in a 1972 interview:
For a couple of years I was office boy in CNR Colonization in Winnipeg and my first contact with film production came through the arrival of a crew from Toronto who were making a film for the CNR and they stopped off…, shot a sequence there, did a number of scenes around the place, and then moved on west. Their story hinged on a couple who had emigrated from England. It was a promotion type of film…and I was quite intrigued with what they were doing around the office… There was a chap named LaRue…Merv LaRue, I think he was chief of the crew and Fred Huffman…, was cameraman. Subsequently I would see Fred Huffman whenever he came through and it was Fred who talked me into the job of taking newsreel footage in Winnipeg. (5)
LaRue was already a well-known cinematographer. American by birth, he had started his career with Pathe Studios as a newsreel photographer. He covered numerous events in Canada including the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1919, and his most famous footage – that of Banting and Best’s experiments with insulin at the University of Toronto. Huffman was also a major figure in the Canadian filmmaking community, starting out with the Winnipeg-based Film and Slide Co., and later becoming a mainstay of Associated Screen News in 1930s.
Finally in the spring of 1924 the first Victor Cine cameras made their appearance in Winnipeg at the Film & Slide Co. of Canada which had a store at 322 Donald Street. That same summer Cine-Kodak cameras and Kodascope projectors were offered for sale at Eatons, The Hudson’s Bay Co., and Duffin & Co. stores. Both used 16 mm. film, and all of the vendors constantly advertised the possibilities of the cameras in the Free Press. For example in April 1924:
Bring the trip home in your own motion pictures. Prohibitive costs and intricate details have been eliminated…Today – at a cost so small that it is not a factor – you can have the thrilling enjoyment that only the “living” pictures can provide. The Victor cine camera…is inexpensive, and you can operate it with ease. Its use will soon become general. (6)
Another one in August by Eastman Kodak Stores Ltd. on Main Street emphasized both the fun and the relative cheapness of the new technology:
Make a Movie of it with a Cine-Kodak…New Eastman equipment presents you with a new pleasure – movies you make yourself. The camera is the Cine- Kodak and it’s as easily worked as a Brownie. Press the release – the spring motor starts and the movie’s in the making…vacation adventures, the children at play, Ed’s golf, Mary’s dive, the roadside picnic – but you know the things you’d like pictures of – now that the magic of movies is yours. Nor is this sport expensive – quite the contrary. (7)
These were exciting possibilities for the teenage Francis who already boasted still photography as a hobby. Caught up in the initial flush of creating still photographs, he also wanted to try his hand at moving images. He purchased an amateur camera. Just knowing how to shoot film was a rare skill in 1920’s Winnipeg, and when a person or organization wanted to get moving images shot locally, his name inevitably came up. Holmes’ first production was an incredible two-reeler eighty minute film about a visit by a group of prairie businessmen and politicians to Port Nelson on Hudson’s Bay.
The idea of a port on Hudson’s Bay through which western Canadian grain, lumber and minerals could be shipped directly to Britain rather than going through the time-consuming Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River route was the catalyst for building a railway heading north from Winnipeg. The first attempt started as early as 1883 but was abandoned in the interlake area five years later due to financial difficulties. Further additions were made in 1908-1909, and again in 1911, both brought to a halt for lack of money, and engineering issues related to building on the muskeg. By 1912 construction stopped at Kettle Rapids, approximately ninety miles from Port Nelson. It was neglected during the war years, but was never forgotten.
The upturn in the prairie economy in the early 1920s gave impetus for the railroad to be refurbished and completed all the way to the bay. In 1924 western farm and business leaders formed the “On To the Bay” Association”, and lobbied the federal government of McKenzie King to fund it. As part of this movement, an expedition of businessmen from all three prairie provinces, members of the Manitoba legislature, (including H.B. Grant, a reporter from the Free Press) was organized by J.L. Thomas, manager of the North Country Tourist Association. Their aim was to assess the feasibility of the route, and continue the push for government financial assistance. They set off in September 1925. When Thomas thought of recording the venture on film, it was Grant who gave him Holmes’ name. A later account explained:
The year was 1925 and the boy was still a teenager when what began as a hobby suddenly developed a cash potential. The North Country Tourist Association wanted Francis J.S. Holmes, of Winnipeg, to make them a motion picture. The fledgling producer recommended the use of a new amateur film size becoming known as 16 mm. – as opposed to the currently popular sub–standard size of 28 mm….and the project got underway. The end result was a 90-minute travelogue of a trip through northern Manitoba to the shore of Hudson’s Bay. (8)
The end product was a remarkable, surprisingly sophisticated, and well-edited black & white silent film, with intertitles written by Edward Holmes. Included were shots of Winnipeg, Dauphin, The Pas, Big Eddy Indian Village, Pikwitonei, Armstrong’s Lake, Manitou Bridge, Kettle Rapids, and along the Nelson River past the Limestone Rapids and Flamborough Head into Port Nelson. It even included quick clips of all the participants including the seventeen year old “Frank” Holmes, director. Of great interest were sequences when Holmes attached his camera to the front of the locomotive.
It was given a formal and very public screening at Marlborough Hall (in Winnipeg’s Marlborough Hotel). There were two showings nightly over three nights – October 5-7, 1925. Its newspaper advertisement trumpeted: “First showing of the interesting and thrilling motion picture recording the recent trip to Hudson’s Bay by Western Men. See the Hudson’s Bay Railway; the mighty Nelson River; the Cree Indians in their canoes, and Port Nelson.” (9)
Amazingly two copies of the film, later entitled Seaport for the Prairies, still exist, and can be found in the vaults of the Library & Archives Canada, and in the Provincial Archives of Manitoba.
Holmes’ next production, this time as a rookie newsreel “stringer”, was a life-changer. It brought him face to face with both mortality and celebrity, and left such a mark that this was the only part of his life about which he left a written memoir. Just after New Years 1926, he heard that a gold rush was breaking in Red Lake, ON – just across the Manitoba border. The previous year two prospectors found hints of gold in the English River Valley. The Geological Survey of Canada confirmed there was indeed gold, and the hordes started coming. By January 1926 there were over 3,000 men walking, riding or driving dog teams from a stop on the Canadian National railway line, up the frozen Hudson River route to stake over 13,000 claims.
But this was a new era, with new means of transportation to the gold fields. Businessman Jack V. Elliott inaugurated a new air service to Red Lake, and badly wanted a bit of publicity. The first two planes – Curtiss Jennys -were sent north from Sioux Lookout on February 27th with Holmes representing Fox News in one, and William J. Scott, reporter/photographer for the Toronto Star in the other. Holmes was looking forward to the adventure: “I was a kid with a camera, shooting for Fox News, and every day here meant scenes for the newsreels that people were anxious to see!” (10)
They took off safely, but the weather soon stopped cooperating. Holmes recalled:
About the time our gas gauge indicated the point of no return, we were completely enveloped in swirling snow. Both planes crowded closer, to keep each other in sight, for nothing was visible beyond. Farrington settled down to elementary navigation with a watch and compass taken from his pockets. The other pilot’s chief worry was to keep from losing sight of us. Radio couldn’t help, because we simply didn’t have it. Contact was lost when Farrington turned to spiral down through the storm. His reckoning indicated we were over Red Lake….We hit the ice near the lake shore, at a steep angle of approach, and one mighty bounce carried us into the bush beyond the shore line. Only the Jenny suffered in the final impact… (11)
Fortunately they crashed near to the Red Lake encampment:
An hour later, the storm abated to reveal a dog-team and driver, mushing along the trail a mile away, across the lake. We waved him in, then sent him on to look for the other plane…Darkness had set in by the time we were ready to flounder through the snow toward the dog trail….The darkness was absolute, as we trudged along the trail, occasionally kicking sideways to feel where the trail was going. There wasn’t a trace of horizon, nor the glimmer of a star. Eyes didn’t seem to help at all, you could leave them open or keep them shut, everything from the sky above to the snow beneath our feet was complete and utter darkness. It occurred to me then how easily I could have reloaded my camera in the biggest and coldest darkroom in the world. Suddenly a pinpoint of light flashed out of the darkness ahead, then flashed again and again. Someone was expecting us. The man with the dog team must have relayed our message. (12)
We spent the night in double-deck bunks, in a tent with a wooden floor. Three or four others like it, nestling in the bush were man’s contribution to the wilderness. Plus a couple of log buildings, one a Finnish bath house, and the other outfitted as an assay office…(13)
They could not get word out of the camp, and were missing in action for six days. Families and friends were starting to get concerned. Both the Free Press and the Toronto Star started composing dramatic headlines. The Star started with “Swirling, Snowy Inferno Enveloped Two Planes on Flight Into Red Lake.” (14) The Free Press upped that with the blazing headline “Both Red Lake Airplanes Crash During Blizzard – Plunge into Deep Snow on Lake; Occupants Escape…” (15) It continued with:
…machine limps into Hudson with shattered propeller, and passengers recount plight through blinding snowstorm and drop into seven feet of snow at mining camp – Frank Holmes, moving picture photographer, tells of blind rush to earth in quest of landing place….Frank Holmes, of Winnipeg, who was making the trip as movie photographer, used his cameras to advantage and will return to Winnipeg Tuesday with a complete record of the journey. (16)
For a short period Holmes became a celebrity. Both Scott, and another Star journalist, Paul Reading, included his name in their stories. For example in March 9th:
Frank Holmes, Winnipeg, movie man, just missed a bad smash when the airplane he was in had a forced landing at Red Lake on Friday last. Telling about his thoughts just after the plane struck the brush, Holmes said in Hudson yesterday, “By three seconds I missed a great scoop in getting first hand pictures of a plane crash. I had my movie camera between my knees, and if I had only known three seconds sooner that we were going to hit, I could have taken a picture of the ground coming up.” (17)
Another Star article continued the story: “As a movie photographer Mr. Holmes’ first thought was to get pictures, so he jumped out of the plane, landed in a deep snowbank above his waist and filmed the machine nestling right in the bush at the edge of the lake.” (18)
Recalled Holmes of the aftermath in a later interview:
… We hauled the plane out of the bush… [it was] pretty badly chewed up, the wooden prop was broken…the fabric on all four wings was pretty badly torn. I did all the repair work on it because Howard was too exhausted trying to keep his engine in operating condition. He’d get up every hour through the night and start the thing. The temperature was way down 35 or 45* below….we were stuck perhaps four or five days – but the thing flew out! (19)
He returned to Winnipeg on March 9th to a hero’s welcome. The following day the Free Press published his portrait with the caption “Escapes Death.” Less than a week after that his footage hit the big screen with all the attendant hype – again with an advertisement in the Free Press as well as lettering on the marquee of a real theatre:
The first motion pictures of the great gold rush at Red Lake, which were taken just about six days ago, will be shown starting Wednesday this week,at the Province Theatre. These are said to be wonderful insofar that they show the camps at Red Lake and the many hundreds of prospectors there and en route by dog sled to the great gold field. The aeroplane crash that you have read so much about in this paper recently is also shown. This remarkably and timely film forms part of the Fox News, which is a weekly feature of The Province Theatre. The pictures were taken by Frank Holmes, of Winnipeg, and constitute a clever movie “scoop.” (20)
A few notes composed by filmmaker Gordon Sparling many years later tied up the story:
Holmes took delivery of the first available Eyemo [sic.] early in 1926… and within the next couple of weeks became the first newsreel cameraman to participate in a gold rush, …for Fox News……The gold rush negative, edited in Toronto by George H.K. Mitford, then editor of the Canadian edition of Fox News, was flown by chartered plane to New York, adding somewhat to the gold rush excitement in theatres along Broadway…(21)
This was heady stuff for a teenager, and there can be little doubt that the above two productions solidified his determination to make motion pictures his life’s work.
Also in 1926, Holmes helped create Winnipeg’s first animated short (now lost) entitled Romulus and Remus. It was a story of the founding of Rome produced by two fellow Winnipeggers Charles Lambly and Jean Arsin (another Fox News stringer), and commissioned by the Montreal Catholic Diocese. It was so odd for the time that Holmes remembered it well:
Charlie was an awfully nice chap…he made a rather interesting contribution to animation. One of the jobs he was working on was a 1,000ft. 35 mm. b&w animation story of Romulus and Remus for some religious organization in Montreal…Charlie did it with little title cards, cut-outs, of figures hinged at the joints, just run a thread through with a knot on each side, but working on a flat surface with these little – you might call them dolls…He painted them up but of course it was not in color… but there was Romulus and Remus and the wolf that nursed them and quite a variety of backgrounds. And when he’d finished the job his customers were delighted. (22)
Carrying on with his aerial shooting, Holmes’ next project was a film shot for the Canadian government entitled Forest Fire Fighters of the Skies on the detection and suppression of forest fires. He recalled:
I shot the footage in 1927, 35 mm. b&w….this I did under contract to the Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau, Frank Badgely [Director]. This was for the Dominion Forestry Branch and I started it in ’27 and finished sometime in ’28. The finish was rather urgent, they wanted to use it at the British Empire Forestry Convention in Sydney, Australia….There was a lot of good aerial work in it and in those days we were using Vickers-Viking Flying Boats, Vickers Vedettes, Vickers Maroons, and working out of the air force base east of Winnipeg. (23)
The Third British Empire Forestry Conference was actually held in Perth, Australia, (with some sessions held in Aukland, New Zealand) from late August to October 1928. Holmes’ film considerably livened up a rather dry-sounding paper given by Col. H.I. Stevenson “Aircraft in Forestry: Containing Air Operations for Forest Fire Protection.” (24)
From the air to underground, Holmes’ subsequent job was just as dangerous in its own way as shooting from a biplane: the documenting of mining operations. According to one account his approach showed considerable ingenuity, and a little bit of naivete:
Manitoba’s mining industry was just beginning to take root in 1928 when Holmes set out with Col. L.D.M. Baxter, the newly appointed managing director of Manitoba Chamber of mines, to produce a film on the central Manitoba mining area. About eight horses and four sleighs later, some 400 miles of bush trails had been travelled, and a site manager had learned that henceforth he should be wary of cameramen. The one he had just encountered, having decided that he wanted at least a couple of scenes of activity underground, fired off a three-minute magnesium flare near the end of a drift just to light the scene, and smoked everybody out of the mine. (25)
Even with these significant achievements, Holmes was not yet convinced he could make a living from film. Accordingly he worked on his reporting and writing skills, and apprenticed as a printer. In his words:
You see, it wasn’t possible to make a steady business out of film production and I worked at the printing trade as a regular employment, and whenever I could scare up a film production I’d take time out to do it. So my work in Winnipeg was partly devoted to the printing trade and partly to film production. (26)
These particular talents would stand him well in the years to come. He became skilled with the Linotype – a machine that could set whole lines of type, rather than the individual letters which were the mainstay of 19th century printing technology. He knew how to do solid research and fact checking, he became very good at interviewing clients and resource people, he wrote scripts that got to the point quickly, became as economical in shooting film as he was in choosing his words, was always thinking about visual composition, kept up with new technologies, and most of all knew how to edit himself for maximum impact. Finally he knew how to communicate with other printers and photographers.
In 1928 the Holmes family relocated once again, this time to Regina where Edward became the editor of the morning edition of the Regina Daily Star. Although he was twenty years old, Francis followed:
At that time I was working as a Linotype operator. Well, with a new plant opening up in Regina they had openings for an operator too. So if I was going to run a linotype I may as well run it in Regina. So I went to Regina and hunted up whoever was interested in film production… (27)
Francis met and became friends with the only other filmmaker then in Saskatchewan – Dick Bird. Together they formed and led a movie production club that they called the Regina Amateur Cinema Club. As Holmes described it: “We organized this amateur movie outfit and carried on from there. I think it was two seasons or so.” (28) Their first and only feature film was given prominent mention in the May 11, 1929 issue of Canadian Moving Picture Digest:
The whirr of the motion picture camera, the terse orders “Shoot” and “Cut” and miscellaneous sounds incidental to the filming of a motion picture were heard in the vicinity of Regina, Sask., during the week-end, when work commenced on the “shooting” of the first production of the newly formed Regina Amateur Cinema Club. Under the direction of W.H. Bird, who had also prepared the scenario, a comedy-drama of the Saskatchewan wheat fields, employing the tentative title “Prairie Trails” has been selected for the club’s initial effort. The cast included several principals as well as several minor characters. A jail-house, a farm home and the streets of a western city are important settings for the early scenes of this “movie.” (29)
From his considerably more experienced colleague, Holmes gained a greater understanding of budgeting, planning, and editing. It is also likely that Bird introduced Holmes to the world of commercial still photography. Not only did Bird shoot on contract for the Regina Leader Post, but he ran a photographic business and processing laboratory on Hamilton Street. It was also in Regina that Holmes learned to fly – another skill that would increase the possibilities of his photography and filmmaking. He recalled: “I soloed in Regina on my 21st birthday 1929.” (30)
Holmes carried out one last commission for the federal Department of Agriculture in the summer of 1929. He shot footage of the various events, displays and activities of the Provincial Exhibition of Manitoba in Brandon. On film he presented a lively, thriving farming community – all the more poignant as the big drought was just beginning.
Needing to be his own boss again, Edward Holmes looked further west and purchased the Provost News in 1929. Since he was getting absolutely no business in Regina (Bird had that sewn up), Francis also decided to give the Alberta town a try and joined his family. He recalls:
He [Edward] wired me that he had bought this property in Provost and would I come up and see what I could do in the plant. So I went up there, and then the Depression developed, and instead of being there for a month or so, I was there for seven years. (31)
Most of his time in Provost was spent primarily as the Linotype operator of his father’s paper. However Francis was determined to explore still photography as an alternate career. According to his nephew Richard:
He set up a studio in the unused garage at his parent’s home. He took wedding pictures and portraits and family and children’s photos, and developed and printed them himself while he lived in Provost…and experimented with local pictures in the newspaper. (32)
However as most potential clients in the district had no money during the depression, this could only be a sidelight. As well most small and rural newspapers generally used few photo illustrations, as the making of the halftone printing plates from photographs was costly and time-consuming. When they did utilize them, they tended to incorporate images created and passed on by the larger urban newspapers, by press agencies, or by provincial government photo bureaux.
By 1932 however both Holmes Sr. and Jr. were becoming dissatisfied with their inability to utilize Francis’ quality photographs of local events in a timely fashion. They could not afford, nor did not see the sense in paying the established commercial photo-engraving houses to convert their images into halftone plates, nor for the many days delay in doing so. Francis started investigating – casually touring the photo-engraving plants in Edmonton, Saskatoon and Regina. But, as he relates in a 1936 article: “…it didn’t take long for each one of them to ease me out the door as soon as they realized that snooping for technical information was the real objective.” (33) Fortunately he was quick to see how the process was done and what was needed.
He had almost no budget to work with and subsequently came up with a cobbled together apparatus assembled from numerous parts such as a used 8×10 in. view camera, sheet metal light reflectors, an oak handmade printing frame, a bronze wire screen, a sheet of 12 × 12 in. 1 inch thick glass, an obsolete carbon arc lamp from the basement of the local movie theatre, a nitric acid bath made from a wooden tub lined with asphalt, and various “hooks, coil springs and clothesline wire.” (34)
The only ingredient he did have money for were the specialized chemicals. As he recalls in his article:
…Bill Miles and his hard working team of dray mules delivered a huge box of chemicals ordered from the firm of May & Baker in Montreal. Within that box was everything needed for delving into the procedures of wet-plate photography, which was basic to the art of photo-engraving in those days. That chest of chemical treasures contained a wide range of things smelly, sticky, poisonous, explosive, rubbery, acidic, powdery, alcoholic, etheric, wet, dry, and generally dangerous to anyone who might suffer from a slight lapse of attention. (35)
After much experimentation Francis oversaw the inauguration of the photoengraving operation at The News in the spring of 1936. It was an impressive coup for a journal of this size (under 800 subscribers), and according to its front page announcement:
Service of this kind has been confined so far to the great city dailies, and few, even of the dailies, have found it practical to install their own photo-engraving equipment…No weekly paper in Canada has so far attempted this work which simply bristles with technical difficulties. It would of course be impractical to send to the city for “plates” of local news pictures, and The News, having decided to give a local picture service, was compelled to consider the installation of its own plant. This it is doing. (36)
Having accomplished this for his father, Francis was ready to move on. He would later recount ”During those seven years I would say there was practically nothing doing in film production…certainly nothing that I knew of. I tried to sell a few films…nobody had money for that sort of thing.” (37) There is however one piece of evidence he was shooting moving pictures a bit. Another article in The Provost News in 1936 – under the headline “The News Camera” read:
The Provost News cameraman above may be a familiar figure wandering around this district during the coming months gathering news stories in a manner that’s new to weekly newspapers…The gadget he’s holding, which might be mistaken for a sub-machine gun, is really an inoffensive camera. A few weeks ago a youngster in town thought it was some kind of gun and scampered for cover when he saw it pointed his way. The camera is a Bell & Howell ”Eyemo”, a marvel of versatility and an ideal news recorder…it records about 400 pictures [i.e. feet] before needing reloading. (38)
By the autumn of 1936 Francis realized there was no chance of getting back into film if he stayed in Provost, and so returned to Winnipeg. He married Eleanor Hyndman Crosby, a registered nurse he had met at the Provost Hospital, in August 1937, and they settled down at 666 Riverwood Avenue in the subdivision of Fort Garry. He found employment with Winnipeg Printing & Engraving, but carefully devised a career strategy for himself, a plan that incorporated still photography and business writing, to ultimately return him to a full–time career in filmmaking.