#tbt ‘Rhapsody in Two Languages’

By Pat Mullen

“City of contrasts!” proclaims narrator between the pomp of Gordon Sparling’s Rhapsody in Two Languages. “It’s modern! It’s old!”

We’re throwing it far back through the history of Canadian documentary this Thursday with Rhapsody in Two Languages, a short city symphony film about the vibrancy and legacy of Montreal.

Coming just a few years after Dziga Vertov’s landmark documentary Man with a Movie Camera, Rhapsody in Two Languages pays tribute to the life of Montreal with quick cuts and regal music to convey a city that stands just as tall booming metropolises like New York, London, or Paris. Sparling contrasts the Montrealers who work and play in the great city with energetic scenes of the rat race cut against the leisurely cultural scene that makes the city so rich. Other contrasts, like encounters between Francophones and Anglophones, highlight additional contrasts through humorous exchanges in both of Canada’s official languages. (Although Rhapsody, awkwardly, is only in English.)

This 1934 film predates the National Film Board of Canada and marks one of the earliest works in Canadian documentary, particularly among the films that still hold up today. Looking back on the film and it’s role in the early years of Canadian film history in Canada and the Documentary, Marc Glassman writes. “After the success of Nanook, documentary production in Canada was quite minimal until 1939. The films shot by the Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau were travelogues with little artistic merit. The first Quebecois director, George Valiquette, shot three docs for the Canadian government on Arctic Expeditions in 1922, 1923 and 1925. The most noteworthy talent to emerge was Gordon Sparling, who directed the Canadian Cameo series of short docs for Associated Screen News intermittently from 1932 to 1954. His masterpiece Rhapsody in Two Languages (1934) is a city symphony film set in Montreal, which captured the contrasts in an urban environment that embraced the new—flashy cars and a spectacular nightlife—with the old: horse-drawn carts carrying eggs and milk that pass by ancient churches with their aging parishioners.” As proof of the film’s legacy, Rhapsody in Two Languages was selected as one of the top ten Canadian short films of all time in a Canada 150 poll conducted by TIFF, alongside other pioneering classics like North of Superior.

Watch Rhapsody in Two Languages below: