First Nations actor during filming of Prairie Conquest Autumn 1951, photo by Rusty Macdonald, S-RM-B4771, courtesy Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan

Francis Holmes – Prairie Filmmaker

On the work and life of a prolific early Canadian filmmaker

147 mins read

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.


Part 1

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)

He continued:

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)

advertisement for Holmes’ Red Lake Gold Rush Aeroplane Crash film scoop
Manitoba Free Press, 17 March 1926, p.11

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.

Commercial, industrial, educational, training, travelogue, and sponsored films were not a branch of film production that put one on the road to fame. One did not work with glamorous stars, one did not adapt great works of literature. Instead one worked with every day subjects, explained as clearly and simply as possible how things worked, and sometimes suggested why one might need this product or visit this place. These films could utilize artistry and creativity, but that had to be in the background. Pleasing the client came to the foreground. As agriculture, natural resources, a nascent tourism industry, and a smattering of manufacturing were the chief commercial activities in the prairie provinces, they made up the bulk of the subject matter.


Viewers of these specialty films were – by their nature – limited. The productions never made it into theatres. Instead they were shown in government offices, corporate boardrooms, factory floors, classrooms, church basements, conferences and at rubber chicken luncheons for community organizations. And few people actually considered them “works.” Holmes himself knew this – he mused: “The motion picture is still very intriguing, but the public concept of motion pictures today is such they judge it all on what you can do in the photoplay field, what you can do in the drama field. Well this is entirely different….” (39)

The field had changed considerably since Holmes was last active in the late 1920s. Kodachrome 16 mm. motion picture film came on the market in 1935, and colour became very popular very quickly. Then with the introduction of optical soundtrack technology at the turn of the decade, all film productions had to have sound or were considered outdated. Holmes recalled his limited early efforts:

Well in those days all I was doing was voiceovers. I used to take that part of it to Vancouver and get Ken Hughes at CKWX and we’d work these things out…. He was a very capable chap, an excellent voice. The odd part of it was we did a lot of these in the early days straight on the optical track, and never had a moment’s trouble with them. Ken would go through a 20-minute run and never fluff a sentence, but once magnetic track came in, then our troubles began. We’d have take after take…in particular with a change to other voices, men out of the broadcasting business, not quite as experienced as Ken. (40)

By the early 1940s the Manitoba provincial government finally came around to appreciating the value of photography and film in explaining and promoting its activities, and bringing forth the issues facing Manitobans. John S. McDiarmid (1882-1965) – minister of Mines & Natural Resources, regularly contracted for Holmes’ productions. In 1940 he commissioned a film on the surveying and mapping of the 23rd base line stretching east-west across the province 500 miles north of the United States border. The 22 minute colour film – Mapping Manitoba – demonstrated how the surveyor and aerial photographer meshed their efforts to provide data for the most accurate mapping yet known. It showed men examining older maps, loading up airplanes to head to the new surveys in Thicket Portage and Wintering Lake, establishing the base camps, extensive footage of camp life, surveyors on the move with snowshoes, setting up transit stations, putting in survey monuments, and measuring distances on lakes. According to the Provincial Archives of Manitoba, it was the first survey in Canada where the survey party was transported by air.

Later that fall, Holmes was sent to Melita to record a bird-dog show – the Manitoba Field Trials Club. The Free Press printed nine shots of the winning mutts, and reported that:” Colored movies of the 1940 trials, one of the finest in the history of the meet, were taken by Frank Holmes, government photographer.” (41)

McDiarmid appreciated Holmes’ talents, and offered him a full-time job as a photographer with the Travel and Publicity Bureau of his department in 1942. His salary started at $1,200. The Travel and Publicity Bureau started in June 1941 under director H.E. Beresford with several objectives: to promote and develop the tourist industry, and “…to disseminate information concerning natural features, points of historical and scientific interest, industrial and agricultural developments and opportunities for recreational and cultural activities in all parts of the province.” (42)

Holmes filled a number of roles: he wrote and edited the various pamphlets and departmental bi-monthly magazine The Keystone Province, he took stills to illustrate these and other government publications and annual reports, and he started producing films in-house. Looking at issues of The Keystone Province, one can feel Holmes’ presence in the language, the visuals, and even in the choice of subjects for each issue. Some of these were “The Vacation Issue”, “Wildlife Issue”, “Winter Industry Issue”, “Fur Issue”, “Conservation Issue”, “Sport Fishing Issue”, “Agricultural Issue”, and the “War Production Issue”. However due to the frustrating (both then and now) policy of government bodies to not credit any employee’s contribution by name, there is no way to attribute particular photographs or paragraphs to him. Although much praise was directed towards the departmental library of “photographs and cuts” – and rightly so – the motion pictures were surprisingly not mentioned in any of the annual reports during his term. The Public Accounts show that his salary rose to $1,600 in 1943-1944, and $2,400 in 1944-1945.

Holmes’ first film production as a government employee was a travelogue on the Whiteshell Forest Reserve. Located straight east of Winnipeg on the C.P.R. line adjacent to the Ontario border, it was already known for its camping, canoeing, fishing and, to an intrepid few, cottaging. The reserve contained over two hundred lakes including Whiteshell, Falcon, Brereton, and West Hawk. Roads were starting to be constructed, and the provincial government was determined that this was going to be a post-war flagship tourist destination primarily for Americans. Holmes undoubtedly shot his footage of the natural attractions at the same time he shot his colour stills for the special issue of The Keystone Province.


Holmes occasionally took part in special projects that the minister thought of importance. One of these was an interesting test for colours worn by hunters carried out near The Pas in October 1944. It is an intriguing and exploratory use of the camera:

According to officials of the game branch of the department of mines and resources here, plans are now being made to test the effectiveness of white and of red garments against backgrounds of woods bright with fall colors to determine which color is safer for hunters. To assist in the experiment, Frank Holmes, of the travel and publicity bureau, Winnipeg, will take the colored photos and moving pictures of two hunters, one dressed in white, the other in red. Mr. Holmes arrived yesterday from Churchill and other points on the Hudson Bay line where he took action shots of the barren lands caribou on their yearly trek south. During the experiment, hunters will be photographed …each man following the same trail to be chosen for the variety of fall colors and typical northern pattern. (43)

McDiarmid was also a personal user of Holmes’ films – he gave frequent public talks, and instead of using slide shows for his visuals, he would run a film. For example in January 1942, he gave two public talks on lumbering, and one on fur farming. The Free Press:

An illustrated talk on Manitoba’s lumbering industry by Hon. J.S. MacDiarmid… featured a meeting of the Winnipeg aerie, No. 23, Order of Eagles, Tuesday evening at the Marlborough hotel. The speaker traced the work done by the government in the lumber field. He stressed the essential nature of lumbering in wartime pointing out how air training centres were erected with the aid of timber grown in Manitoba. Colored motion pictures accompanying Mr. MacDiarmid’s talk were shown by Francis J.S. Holmes. (44)

The second one, about a week later, was to the Canadian Pacific Association at its luncheon meeting in the Royal Alexandra Hotel. McDiarmid’s talk was entitled “Manitoba Forests in Industry and War”, and it was “illustrated with films of forestry operations in this province and in other parts of the Dominion.” (45)

That same month he also gave a talk at the Quota Club’s dinner meeting, again in the Royal Alexandra Hotel, on the topic of fur rehabilitation in northern Manitoba. The Free Press reported:

“An important source of income has been established,” said Mr. MacDiarmid, ”In this rehabilitation of the marshlands in which Manitoba has led the way, an amount of $361,000 having been realized from sale of muskrat skins in the past year. Four other areas are in process of development, and a fifth large area comprising over two million acres situated near Hayes River will be suitable for beaver, otter and mink. The department’s kodachrome moving picture of the Summerberry development on the Saskatchewan River photographed by Mr. Francis J.S. Holmes, was shown. It is a most interesting and artistic film. (46)

In April 1943 McDiarmid addressed the Y.M.C.A. Emblem Club on the topic of the government’s long-term plans for youth. He obviously grabbed the nearest departmental film at hand as it was not really related to the topic:

Post-war plans to care for the youth of Manitoba are now being drawn up by the provincial government, Hon. J.S. McDiarmid, minister of mines and natural resources told the members…a technicolor film, Fur Rehabilitation in Northern Manitoba, was shown. Entertainment was provided by Harry Cleven and Doc Moffat who led a sing-song… (47)

McDiarmid deputized his assistant minister J.G. Cowan to address the Malachi Campers Association at their annual general meeting in December 1943 where he: “…presented a color film of the Whiteshell Forest Reserve.” (48)

Again in August 1944, McDiarmid gave a talk to the Portage la Prairie branch of the Manitoba Game and Fish Association on the continuing importance of the fur industry to the province:

Speaking at a largely attended meeting held here, Monday night,…Hon. J.S. McDiarmid, minister of mines and natural resources, told the gathering that the government would give every consideration to the development of the marshes in the interests of fur farming and the preservation of wild life, pointing to the fact that $600,000 had been realized from the sale of pelts in 1944….A film showing scenes in the Whiteshell area and field trials at Melita was shown by Frank Holmes, provincial photographer. (49)

And in May of 1945 he was a guest speaker at the Canadian Camping Association (Manitoba Section) annual general meeting held in the Legislature Building. He chose to show Holmes’ film on the Whiteshell Forest Reserve.

Holmes produced a number of patriotic short films during the years of World War II. Few seem to have survived, but their titles indicate he was trying to inspire and inform those on the home front: They’ve All Got Wings, Versatility is an Asset, We Don’t Mind the Work, Men With Wings, By the Hands of Volunteers, Your Old Junk is Important, Good Things Do Grow On Trees, Sailors from the Prairies, and Auxiliaries are the Answer!

One major effort does still exist though – Manitoba Fights For Freedom – from 1944, a copy of which is held by the Provincial Archives of Manitoba. It documented the province’s war effort including the training of troops, to the munitions, garment and airplane factories. There were numerous screenings noted in the Winnipeg Free Press – for example as part of the annual dinner of the Manitoba Chapter of the American Society of Metals:

The programme included piano solos by Miss Marion Aingley, tenor solos by Linton Kent, several instrumental pieces by Joseph Boux and Charles Hovey, readings by Pearl Craw and a movie, Manitoba Fights for Freedom, presented by Hon. J.S. MacDiarmid, minister of mines and natural resources. (50)

Another was to the St. James Board of Trade in April 1945, where “Hon. J.S. McDiarmid, provincial minister of mines and natural resources, presented a running commentary.” (51) Even after the end of the war, it was still shown. From March 1946:

A color film, Man Fights for Freedom, will be shown at the March meeting of the Fort Garry Home and school association, Monday at 8:30 p.m. in St. Paul’s Parish hall. The film, presented by the provincial government’s department of mines and natural resources, shows the part played in the war years by industrial plants in the Winnipeg area. (52)

With the cessation of hostilities, the Manitoba government entered a period of contraction and retrenchment, and Holmes’ services were not considered as essential as they once were. He thus struck out on his own in 1945. His first step into the medical film occurred that year when the Winnipeg Dental Society hired him to produce a film on the radically new technique of implanting acrylic jacket crowns over broken or decayed teeth. The film was so useful and authoritative that it was ultimately donated to the country’s foremost faculty of dentistry at the University of Toronto where it was used for teaching for decades. The following year he was commissioned to do a film about the care and training of paraplegics at Winnipeg’s Deer Lodge Hospital for Dr. Oliver S. Waugh, chief of neuro-surgery at the University of Manitoba. Deer Lodge was an institution for long-term care of the chronically ill.

A long-standing association was initiated with Ducks Unlimited Canada also in 1945. The organization was incorporated in Winnipeg in March 1937 in response to the drastic drying up of the marshes and wetlands of the prairies during the Depression, and questionable farming practices such as the draining of marshland for negligible returns, and stubble burning. Approximately 2/3 of all prairie breeding grounds had been destroyed since the 1880s. Waterfowl were dying off in great numbers, were unable to nest and reproduce, while others were altering their migration patterns to avoid the western provinces. Ducks Unlimited, bankrolled mostly by American conservationists, was set up to promote conservation measures and carefully regulated hunting. It did this by restoring grasslands and watersheds, replanting forests, occasionally purchasing land, and lobbying governments. A huge component of its activities involved outreach and education of farmers and other landowners.

Holmes had seen and documented the damage pertaining to muskrats. He understood the impending environmental crisis, and so joined them immediately. He also became their official photographer. His images started to populate their numerous publications, and he began accumulating footage. He is mentioned in a June 1945 newspaper article:

The second report comes from Ducks Unlimited, whose photographer, Frank Holmes, secured vivid movies of a devastating fire that swept the Delta marshes a few weeks ago, causing great loss amongst the breeding ducks over an area of several square miles. Some of the scenes of wild-life destruction are too gruesome for public showing, but destroyed nests are there aplenty and will make conservationists writhe at the thoughtlessness of persons who do their burning after April 30th. (53)

The Delta Marsh was a large area on the south shore of Lake Manitoba, just north of Portage la Prairie. The efforts of conservationists like Ducks Unlimited ensured that it was eventually turned into a Wildlife Management Area protecting close to 11,000 hectares of wetlands.
Nothing worked better to gather a rural audience to a speaking event than to have an accompanying film. Holmes assembled his first, and possibly his finest wildlife films, entitled The Big Duck Factory for the Ducks speaking circuit. It was a forty-four minute silent b&w production that explained the effects of the great drought and the harmful farming practices had reached a crossroads in the existence of ducks and other animals that live in the marshes. It then explained how Ducks Unlimited was restoring wetlands and whole ecosystems.

It was shown at conferences, dinners and banquets, usually accompanied by a commentary by Tom Main, the association’s general manager. Some typical showings in the Manitoba capital include The Manitoba Game and Fish Association (12 December 1945), The Greater Winnipeg Game & Fish Association (24 March 1946), The Fur, Feather and Fin Club (17 May 1946), the Royal Canadian Reserve Corps. (9 November 1946), and the Linwood Home & School Association (31 March 1949). One notable occasion was its screening at the annual dinner of the Ottawa Fish and Game Association in 1946. Seventy years later, a copy of the film was found in the archives of Ducks Unlimited in Memphis, and screened once more at a fundraising dinner in Ottawa. (54) Holmes would go on to produce three more films for them: Each Year They Come (1953), Nature’s Neighbours (1954), and This You Have Done (1955).

The former was notable for Holmes’ use of animation techniques he had been introduced to by Charles Lambley back in 1926. Film historian Gene Walz commented on this in his essay “Shack-Wacky Animation: The Case of Manitoba”:

Each Year They Come [is] an amusing piece about waterfowl migration…While his mentor Lambley’s animation was European in subject matter and style, Holmes took his inspiration from American puppet and cel animation. Simple and colourful, yet more realistic than the comically individuated Donald and Daffy, Holmes’ ducks sang and danced in the animated segment of this otherwise straightforward live-action film. The results were mixed; the blue-collar filmmaker never again tried to impose his kind of animation on a client’s film. (55)

According to information received by the Library & Archives of Canada from Holmes, Ducks Unlimited found the production too long, and several years later asked him to cut the animation segments. A new title was also given – They Always Come Back.

Throughout his career Holmes was a tinkerer. At the beginning, he had little choice. His equipment was of necessity cheap and second hand, and needed to be repaired and refurbished. There was no one else in Manitoba who could do it. However it was not too much of a struggle, for he had a logical mind and was a natural fabricator and electrician. He also had an instinctive understanding of optics.

Holmes invented a camera in 1946, specifically to carry out filming for a production sponsored by Ducks Unlimited. The camera itself became newsworthy. The Free Press gave it front page status in its May 29, 1946 issue:

Looking just a little like one of Rube Goldberg’s specialties but actually a very efficient photographic machine, Big Louis, a specially adapted movie camera invented by Francis J. S. Holmes of Fort Garry, was viewed Tuesday afternoon for the first time by photographic experts and technicians… The invention, to be used for photographing wild life in their natural setting in color, may also be the answer to the problem faced by medical and clinical photographers — how to photograph operations with close-up detail and stay out of the way of the surgeon at the same time. (56)

Commenting on his invention, Holmes : ”…who has 20 years experience in the production of commercial motion pictures, said that he needed a special camera that would make bird and wild life photography easy and sure. “I didn’t see that there was any machine manufactured to answer my needs so I went ahead and designed one myself.“” (57)

It continued:

The object of the special attachments, which are built around a standard 16 mm movie camera, is to make extreme telescopic closeups of wild life. Saving of film, many feet of which are usually wasted with ordinary telescopic lenses, is one of the main features. This is made possible by the special 18 inch brass tube view-finder in which the exact image is viewed the same size it will appear on the film. Magnification is so great that a playing card held 12 feet from the lens will entirely fill the view-finder. Four lenses which are contained in the tubular finder were specially ground in Winnipeg. The 63 pound camera, complete with specially designed tripod, has two nine-inch focal length Bausch and Lomb lenses. One is for viewing, the other takes the actual picture. A pistol grip arrangement with a trigger release for the camera mechanism makes aiming and operating sure and lightning fast. (58)

It summed up: “Big Louis was about six weeks on the drawing board, Mr. Holmes recalled, and two months in the building.” (59)

For the same film Holmes also designed a sturdy rotating duck blind to seat both him and “Big Louis”. His promotional blurb read:


The rubber-shod man in the wooden cage is Francis J.S. Holmes tuning up a couple of gadgets that are strictly for the birds. When Ducks Unlimited (Canada) wanted an outstanding film on the domestic life of wild ducks, these two units designed by Holmes and built by Louis Starr and Bill Springer, at Winnipeg Brass Ltd., were put to work. The end result was a film called “Each Year They Come.” Canadian Film Awards rated it as “one of the best, perhaps the best, waterfowl film ever made in Canada.”…The wooden cage…is the dome for Holmes’ turret blind, a unit designed to hide camera and operator while the birds go about their business. Foot-controlled by a wheel on the floor, the blind rotates swiftly and quietly through a range of 360* in order to bring the camera to bear on anything coming through the marsh. (60)

It struck a note with the North American birding community:

Dr. A.A. Allen of Cornell University, was the first to ask if he could copy the design, for the use of his students in ornithology. Fred Sharp, of Tilley, Alberta, built one for himself. Pete Margosian, of Moody Institute of Science, Los Angeles, used sketches sent from Winnipeg to build another that was put to work in the Bear Lake marshes of Utah…(61)

It then quoted Margosian who was using it in the Florida Everglades:” The boys down here are now convinced that two things are here to stay. One is TV and the other is Holmes’ turret blind.” (62)

For most of the 1940s Holmes was earning income from all three of his skills. A self-promoting pamphlet – believed to date to 1946 – was printed up and distributed by him. Under the title “Announcing a new type of service for the users of Publicity Material” it summarized what he could offer clients. For example:

Men who use photography in business know that the quality of the product they buy depends on the experience and skill of the man behind the camera. Whether it’s an aerial shot of a fox farm, a series on some industrial process, or outstanding scenic photography, Holmes has the know-how to make it good. You’ve seen hundreds of stills by Holmes in Manitoba government publications. Drop in at Eastman Photographic Materials store on Portage Avenue and see the big enlargements decorating their walls. Five of the eight were shot by Holmes – the other three came from Rochester. (63)

For his writing:

Writing that tells your story in a style that’s easy to read. Descriptive writing of the type you enjoyed during the years that Holmes was editor of “The Keystone Province” published by the Travel and Publicity Bureau, Manitoba Department of Mines and Natural Resources. Whether it’s a new booklet for general distribution or a catalogue of merchandise, Holmes can put the whole job in shape for you, and give you the benefit of many years experience as a newspaperman and printer. (64)

And for the motion pictures:

Twenty years experience in the production of commercial motion pictures… form a background to guarantee the successful completion of that picture you’ve planned. Holmes specializes in the production of 16 mm. Kodachrome motion pictures – sound or silent – and you can be sure that quality is absolutely tops. Whether its lumbering or mining, farming or manufacturing, Holmes can put your story on the screen, to your entire satisfaction, and do it economically. (65)

The pamphlet ended with “you needn’t wonder any longer about who’s going to turn out that motion picture you need or the material for that new publication you’re planning. Holmes can do the job you want – the way you want it.” (66)

Holmes occasionally stepped outside his writing comfort zone. He collaborated on a book entitled Ducks Are Different, which was published in 1949. It was reviewed in the Winnipeg Free Press on 12 August:

A new type of booklet on the identification of ducks has been issued by Francis J. S. Holmes of Fort Garry, Man, under the title “Ducks are different.” It consists of 18 caricatures in color of the ducks most commonly found in the cental [sic.] provinces and states. They are drawn by Angus H. Shortt, internationally known Winnipeg bird artist, who based his ideas for the illustrations upon the fact that each has at least one outstanding characteristic that can be easily remembered. Mr. Shortt emphasized that feature in each species of duck and produced an amusing caricature that will remain in one’s memory and prove of use in the field. The text was written by Mr. Holmes who gives a breezy, one-page story on each bird. We can safely recommend this booklet to sportsmen and to women who wish to give a gift. (67)

While Holmes was somewhat isolated in Winnipeg, he maintained contact with his fellow professionals throughout Canada, and was a member of long standing in the Association of Motion Picture Producers and Laboratories of Canada founded in 1948. He frequently attended the annual general meetings, and in 1950 was elected to the board of directors at the annual get together in Ottawa. (68)

As well he started doing work for the province next door. In 1951 he produced a film entitled We’ve Got You Covered: The Story of Saskatchewan’s Auto insurance, which explained and promoted an exceptionally controversial CCF government statute – the Automobile Accident Insurance Act, which brought in compulsory government “no fault” automobile insurance. At the end of World War II, at least 90% of all insurance applying to Saskatchewan residents was not only unregulated, but written by companies from eastern Canada. The Douglas administration set up a self-sustaining crown corporation to take over this role from the private sector. Like many other initiatives from the self-proclaimed socialist government, this measure was fought by the insurance industry, and even by other governments – including the Manitoba government which would not recognize that Saskatchewan drivers in Manitoba were insured. The film showed the development of automobiles from the 1920s to the 1950s, examples of accidents, as well as street scenes in Regina and North Battleford. Holmes would later write: “On screen are the men who wrote the original act, which started a new trend in car insurance in Canada. The film contains some excellent scenes of very early automobiles in use.” (69)

In 1953 he completed two films for the Saskatchewan Department of Natural Resources. The first was a film called Lumbering in Saskatchewan. It showed how white spruce was harvested, cut and processed into lumber products. It was the first time Holmes had assembled – but not shot – a film. He found it challenging and rewarding. He explained:

The footage was shot by Tommy Morrell…at that time he was cameraman for the Saskatchewan Department of Natural Resources. Tommy shot the footage, his deputy minister came with him down to Winnipeg to talk to me about what they might do to turn it into a useful film, make a story of it. So I took the thing on, I did the editing on it, I wrote the script for it, and delivered prints to them and they were quite happy with it. (70)

He also felt obligated to make a justified comment on government administrators taking credit for work they did not do:

Now there were only three of us involved in it – which was for the Provincial Saskatchewan Department of Natural Resources. Subsequently, a year or so later, I heard through Tommy Morrel that this fellow Holliday had entered a print of that in the Edinburgh Film Festival and won an award with it, and later, in Holliday’s office I saw this thing framed and on the wall, but he’d had absolutely nothing to do with making that film! (71)

This print of the film eventually made it into the collection of the British Film Institute. Fortunately two other copies of the production are held in the Saskatchewan Archives Board.

The second production was about sport fishing in Saskatchewan. Entitled Happy Fishing Grounds, it was a typical period piece, trying to appeal to (mainly American) anglers to drop in for a visit and take home some huge Saskatchewan fish. Shots of the more popular and scenic lakes and resorts were interspersed with shots of aircraft transporting fishermen to those locations.

Holmes was next commissioned to do a film on tuberculosis, a disease that was causing concern to Canadians in the 1950s. His 36 min. film – The Road to Recovery – was introduced by Dr. Edward L. Ross – then Medical Director of the organization. The film started with a brief history of the Manitoba sanatorium, then went into patient check-ups, various x-ray inspections (both in clinics and a mobile unit on an Indian reserve), full examinations, taking blood samples and analyzing them, a patient arriving at Ninette, meals, bed and wheelchair rest periods, giving shots, surgery, recreation, rehabilitation/vocational activities, children’s education, and classroom instruction to medical personnel. It seems to have been later re-released under an alternate title The Mark of Distinction.

The Free Press reported on December 12, 1953 on a speech given to the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce by Jack Cummings, executive director of the Manitoba Sanitorium Board. He explained that new cases of tuberculosis were still being found in Manitoba on a daily basis. The article then went on to say:

A new film, made in Manitoba by Francis Holmes of Fort Garry – The Road to Recovery – was introduced by Mr. Cummings. Describing the work of the Sanatorium board from the first suspicion of infection in a victim to the complete rehabilitation, the sound-and-color movie will be used in the training of student nurses …Shown in the film are methods of diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation used in the sanatoriums of Brandon, Ninette, St. Boniface, Winnipeg and Selkirk. A very full portrayal of the work done in fighting TB among the Indians of the province is given, as this has been one of the most serious problems the board has had to deal with. Dynavar Hospital at Selkirk is devoted entirely to infected Indians. At the end of the showing, Dr. Ross H. Mitchell, a member of the board who was seeing the film for the first time, said it was a very faithful portrayal of the work done by the board. (72)

Holmes continued his interest in the development and use of new forms of transportation – airplanes, caterpillars, and tractor trains – and especially in their use in the northern part of the province. In 1951, he was hired by the Patricia Transportation Co. to document the complete uprooting and relocation of the mining town belonging to Sherrit-Gordon Mines – Sherridon – consisting of over one hundred buildings – to the newly founded Lynn Lake townsite. The film was called Beyond The Steel. The dramatic logistical and visual aspects came from the fact that all the structures were transported by Linn tractor and caterpillar crawler train through dense bush and over frozen lakes on a journey exceeding 150 miles over the fall and winter of 1951-1952. The steel (i.e. the C.N.R. railroad) would not arrive at Lynn Lake until late 1953 when the film was completed.

In 1963 he produced Wings of Your Own, an inspirational examination of the urge to fly, and how to learn to fly light aircraft. It was sponsored by Standard Aero Engine of Winnipeg, and was introduced by former RCAF Air Vice Marshall Robert Leckie. The emphasis throughout was placed on the Canadian instructor community, and the role of flying clubs.

In 1966 he produced one of his most dramatic industrial films, though it conversely may have the most boring title – Facts About Freighting, done for the Sigfusson Transportation Co. Ltd. In Holmes’ words the film:

Presents a number of problems related to winter freighting by tractor train in northwestern Ontario and northern Manitoba. The most spectacular of these shows the equipment and technique used to recover a huge Caterpillar tractor after it has broken through the ice, drowning the driver and plunging to the bottom, 101 feet below the surface of Island Lake, in northern Manitoba. (73)

Not surprisingly the most stable source of business for Holmes was the agricultural industry – for which Winnipeg was the undisputed centre of activity on the prairies. Since the 1880s it had been the headquarters of the western grain industry. It was home to the Grain Exchange, the head offices of numerous grain companies including the Bawlf Grain Company, Ogilvie Milling, the National Grain Company, the United Grain Growers, and the Manitoba Cooperative Wheat Producers. As well it was the western Canadian head office of most farm implement manufacturers such as Massy-Harris, John Deere, International Harvester, and DeLaval. Indeed Holmes had many agri-business clients, and usually two or three film productions in progress continuously throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Growing up in a rural environment, Holmes had a deep knowledge of farming. He was fully aware of the seasonal cycles, and all of the operations involved – plowing, harrowing, seeding, irrigating, manure-spreading, cultivating, swathing, threshing, combining – and knew how they could be captured with the greatest visual impact. He was continuously on the move inspecting crops, and always seemed to be driving out of town into the fields, or jumping in an airplane to see what they looked like.

He recalled in a 1974 interview:

In the type of work I was doing, a really fast job, was say about six months – and some of them would take me two years, particularly in the area of agricultural films where you’ve got to run through the entire crop season to complete the job. And then, if something happens to that particular crop…that was significant to your story you’ve got to wait until next year. So it was not uncommon to allow a couple of years to complete a job. My normal production would be six films a year, six 20-minute films a year. One year I did seven, but that seventh was the one that made things pretty rough because I was squeezed for time in every respect. (74)

He continued:

Another thing of course was if I could find enough work in one particular industry – agriculture for instance – where I did most of my work, there were many stories to be told for commercial purposes, and if I could make six films in agriculture in one season, I could go back and forth from one area to another. I wasn’t wasting time going from agriculture to lumbering to fishing to mining. So it would be a very efficient way to work it. In fact, on many occasions I would be making films for grain companies…and because they were competitors that had what you might say a common interest in the whole operation. So I would tell them I’m making one for so-and-so and another for so-and-so…so I’d be travelling in this area anyway. And what I’d propose to do was divide the travelling expenses between the four of them. [The] situation was very acceptable, and they knew I wasn’t tossing information back and forth. (75)

One topic he explored in depth, and was extremely well-known for, were weeds and herbicides. To the modern urban reader, a matter of weeds can seem inconsequential. However for a prairie farmer in the 1940s, weeds could signal the destruction of a crop, the loss of a year’s earnings, grinding rural poverty, and even foreclosure. Holmes was convinced – and he may be correct – that it was the impact of films that caused a cultural shift in the way farmers thought about the large-scale use of chemicals – especially in their dealing with weeds. Starting with 1944’s Sinox-The Weed Killer, Holmes would go on to produce fourteen related films including The Story of Weed-Bane (for Naugatuk Chemicals of Montreal), Beware Those Noxious Weeds (for Chipman Chemical Co. of Winnipeg), Farm Chemicals Pay Off (for F.H. Peavey Co. of Minneapolis), The Story of Weedone and Victory Over Weeds (for United Grain Growers), and Weeding with 2-4D, Weeds Can’t Win, and Weeds Take a Beating (all for National Grain Co.).

His film Soil is Our Heritage appears to have been a milestone. It was premiered at a meeting of the Agricultural Bureau of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce in October 1948. The entire meeting revolved around the “wonderful 2-4D”. H.E. Wood, chairman of the Manitoba Weeds Commission, gave a fulsome talk on “the greatest boon to the farmers of western Canada in the last 50 years.” (76) He described the chemical as the best form of weed control yet discovered, and predicted a “great expansion in the use of the new miracle chemical” in the west. He explained the pilot project by 30 municipalities and experiments by the Manitoba Telephone system in 1947 to control weeds and woody growth along highways and irrigation ditches, and the astounding success. Then, to end on a high note:

F.C. Vodrey, manager of the agricultural department of the National Grain company, showed a film entitled Soil Is Our Heritage. This film showed among other things a desert near Brandon where there had once been fertile lands 60 years ago. “This soil when first turned over was fertile and black. Let us keep it that way for generations to come” the speaker in the film advised. (77)

Time has shown that this chemical approach has had deleterious effects on the environment, but there is no denying that for many decades it dominated agribusiness, and for many gun-shy prairie farmers who had lived through the Depression, Holmes’ weed films offered exciting solutions and hope for their futures. That is undoubtedly why he was hired to shoot so many on the topic.

Holmes had the larger picture of prairie agriculture in his sights as well. It had undergone major changes during his lifetime: steam threshing had given way to gasoline-powered combining, tractors replaced horses, and many daily chores became mechanized. New and hardier strains of wheat had been developed – such as Selkirk – at the University of Manitoba. One of his finer films from this period is Prairie Conquest completed for the National Grain Company. Holmes’ own precis described the historical docu-drama well:


…a story on the transition of western Canada from buffalo rangeland to a well established economy in agriculture. Scenes from the early days are presented through re-enactment of the arrival of the Selkirk settlers in the Red River Valley of Manitoba, early cultural practices, antique tillage and harvest equipment in use, then on into modern times. (78)

It was a newsworthy event when it was first completed in March of 1952. The Free Press actually announced its premiere:

Prairie Conquest, a new color movie produced by the National Grain company, Winnipeg, was given an initial showing Friday at the Manitoba Club. The 50-minute movie, which took two and one-half years to complete, tells the story of western Canada’s conquest by people, grain and machinery…. Highlights include the development of Red Fife wheat by David Fife; shipment of the first wheat from Winnipeg to eastern Canada; building of the first railway and the gradual mechanization of prairie farms. (79)

There were further production details provided:

The movie will be shown in Western Canada by company fieldmen. Of the 96 people in the cast, 24 are branch office employees. Much of the old-time machinery was loaned by the Western Development museum, Saskatoon. Other tools had to be constructed from patterns when the originals fell apart. (80)

This production was likely the most viewed Holmes production. It was shown regularly for many years. Some of the events it was connected to include the annual general meeting of the Rockwood Agricultural Society (December 1952), the Christmas party of the Academy Road Veterans home (December 1952), Our Savior’s Lutheran Church Supper (January 1953), the Manitoba Land Inspectors’ Association meeting (January 1953 – with introduction by F. C. Vodrey of the National Grain Co.), and the St. Boniface Kiwanis Club (September 1953).

It was even sought after by local film fans. One account from October 1952:

Prairie Conquest, a 50-minute movie which was produced by the National Grain company, will be shown in Theatre A of the Broadway building Friday, at 8 p.m. as part of a documentary film night. The event, open to the public, is under the joint sponsorship of the Winnipeg Public Library, the department of university extension and adult education of the University of Manitoba, the film services committee of the Junior chamber of commerce, and the Winnipeg film council. Prairie Conquest, which will be prefaced by an introduction by Fred C. Vodrey, traces the development of western Canada from earliest days. It is in color. Two other short subjects will be shown. They are: Flying Skis, a sports reel; and Hunters of the North Pole, a travelogue. (81)

Another important screening was at the annual meeting of the Manitoba Historical Society in April 1952. Some of the subjects discussed at that conference included the planning of a memorial to Lord Selkirk, a bronze plaque for Alexander Ross, a soon-to-be-published history of Ukrainians in Canada by Paul Yusyk, four other ethnic group studies (Mennonite, Icelandic, French, and Polish), and to end the conference, a much anticipated showing of Prairie Conquest. (82)

The film went well beyond the borders of Manitoba though. An excited article in the St. Albert Gazette in March of 1952 gave an idea of its intended reach:


Within the next few weeks, hundreds of Alberta citizens living in areas served by a National Grain Company elevator will be treated to a really different type of film. The new picture, “Prairie Conquest” was produced at Winnipeg and shows the exciting and romantic development of Western Canada…this is the newest color movie produced by the National Grain Company. It is a 50 minute color film with sound and commentary…the idea originated in the National’s Agriculture Department, and took two and one-half years to complete…Filming took place in the prairie provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, with additional scenes at the Lakehead…the movie is now released over the National’s country circuit to be shown by fieldmen of the company to an estimated 500 towns in the west. (83)

Needless to say, it also was screened in Provost, AB. His nephew Richard:

I still remember as a very young boy in the old brick schoolhouse in Provost going to the basement to watch a film with my classmates (Gr. 2 or 3??). I clearly remember when the projector fired up and the opening credits came on with music and then artwork with F.J.S. Holmes name emblazoned across the screen. I told the teacher that he was my uncle. I don’t think she even replied to me …(likely was busy rolling her eyes when I made that claim). (84)

The other big-picture agricultural film was 1958’s Equal to Marquis which was introduced by former premier of Alberta, and then president of United Grain Growers Ltd., John E. Brownlee. It portrayed the full story of wheat – from the farmer’s fields to the dinner table. Holmes did a considerable amount of travelling for this production – the first to take him overseas. As he put it:

Visually the story ranges from the Peace River country across the grain belt of Western Canada to deal with growing, marketing and transportation through the Lakehead…Moving overseas we see the handling of Western Canadian wheat through the ports of Liverpool, London, Rotterdam and Antwerp to the bakeries and consumers of the British Isles and Europe. (85)

Another film that developed out of his relationship with U.G.G. was 1960’s Triumph Over Disaster. This production documented the aftermath of a collapsed grain terminal elevator in Port Arthur (now Thunderbay) on September 23, 1959. The 110 foot high 6,500,000 bushel concrete structure simply fell into Lake Superior. And when 2,500,000 bushels of wheat plunged into the water, it caused a twelve-foot tidal wave washing boats ashore and dislodging float planes in the harbour. 86 The company lost over $5,000,000, and was determined to rebuild with state of the art processes. The film showed the new techniques in the reconstruction of the elevator. As Holmes described it: “This is one of those once-in-a-lifetime events.” (87)

As the 1950s progressed, Holmes faced increasing competition from local filmmakers such as the Michel J. Sym Studio and Percy Brown, both of Winnipeg. However his more dangerous competition came from higher-priced and nationally reputable producers of central Canada. One was the Associated Screen News from Montreal which produced short – mostly sponsored – films covering all of Canada. They stuck their noses into Manitoba in the 1930s and 40s with Soil, Seeds and Sunshine (1935), John Bracken Canadian (1944) and even stepped directly on Holmes’ toes with their Meet the Ducks (for Ducks Unlimited in 1951). The real shark in the water though was Crawley Films of Ottawa. They cut in, and eventually started to dominate business with the Manitoba government. For example they produced Look to the Centre (1953), Meet Manitoba (1954), Agriculture Means Industry (1955), The Mighty Ones (1955), To Catch a Fish (1955). They were masters at hustling up business from sponsors, they had an impressive reputation (two of Crawley’s films The Loons Necklace and The Newfoundland Scene had won “Film of the Year” at respectively the first Canadian Film Awards in 1949, and then in 1952), and they could provide more sophisticated productions and faster completion times as they had a staff of over thirty writers, cinematographers, and editors.

In some ways it was a factory, and Holmes again had to adjust by using freelance employees. It was something he did not like to do. As he explained in the 1972 interview:

I have hired people as employees and found that the end result wasn’t worth it. The total income would increase but by the time you deducted the total expenditures and salaries you’d end up with nothing more…the worst feature of it…I would send these fellows out to do a job and once they were away from home base…they would have a problem. They would never undertake the responsibility of trying to solve the problem, but would phone back…what would I want them to do about this… (88)

Either with a crew or solo, Holmes undoubtedly faced much of the same dismissive, anti-western bias that present day prairie filmmakers face. In his 1956 promotional pamphlet he included a paragraph on how to select a producer. He wrote:

To make certain that you’ll get value for your money you invest in a motion picture for your own use, pick a producer who can demonstrate his ability to make useful films. Claims are not enough. You’ll find also that price alone is an unreliable guide. It’s never safe to assume that just because you’ve agreed to spend the most money that you’re going to end up with the best film. That could be just another way of getting experience – the hard way. On the other hand, a low-budget production mat not necessarily be a poor one – it all depends on who made it….Finally, don’t overlook the fact that a Westerner can give you a better job on stories about the West. (89)

Holmes took a more sophisticated approach to messaging in the 1960s. Many of his concepts started to deal with self-improvement. For example in 1965 he produced a trilogy of training films for Robinson, Little & Co., operator of 180 small department stores throughout western Canada. They were all based on a topic dear to his heart – customer service. The films examined how to act, how to dress, how to deal with customers.

He also started to consider the concept film as opposed to blatant hard-selling of his sponsor’s products. And he became enamoured of the idea of bringing in multiple voices and viewpoints, rather than his original idea of one all-knowing narrator. His major films in 1965 were based on the importance of education. The topic was very much on the minds of Manitobans in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The educational framework and its institutions had been allowed to deteriorate from the Depression years on by cautious provincial governments. The MacFarlane Royal Commission carried out a full examination of the state of education, presenting its findings in 1960. It spelt out the need for and recommended proper funding, and the raising of standards.

That Holmes could convince his sponsor, Wawanesa Insurance, to fund the films with no mention of the company or of the insurance industry, and that he could round up a large group of notable people in the fields of business, law and journalism clearly demonstrates how well connected Holmes was.

The first of the two films was described in an unidentified promotional piece:

A new approach to story-telling in sponsored films has been established with the recent release of “Unlimited Horizons”, a 30-minute 16 mm. production in color and sound, sponsored by the Wawanesa Mutual Insurance Company. Unique is the presentation on screen of seven men prominent in the fields of Canadian business, education and journalism, combining their thoughts to explain the relationship between agriculture and business, while emphasizing the importance of education.

Aimed principally at students of high school age, all across Canada, the purpose of the film is to encourage our young people to seek the best possible education, by letting them see and hear what outstanding men have to say on the necessity for education as it applies to Canada’s business life today. (90)

The participants included Dr. E.W. Stringam, president-elect of the Agricultural Institute of Canada, A.M. Runciman, president of United Grain Growers Limited, H.K. Leckie, general manager of the Meat Packers Council of Canada, Toronto; J.A. Collyer, manager of Foodwide of Canada Ltd., Toronto; F.G. Muirhead, divisional catalogue manager, T. Eaton Co. Limited, Winnipeg; E.N. Davis, associate editor of Regina Leader-Post, and Leonard Hynes, president of Canadian Industries Limited, Montreal. According to the promo piece:

Following each man’s appearance on screen, his voice continues to narrate the remainder of the story dealing with his particular field. Written and produced by Francis J.S. Holmes, of Winnipeg, the film is indicative of the widespread interest of Canadian businessmen in education for our young people. Arrangements for distribution will make “Unlimited Horizons” available to 4H clubs, schools and universities from coast to coast. (91)

The film was well-received. A 1966 speech given by J.R. Weir, deputy-director of the Science Secretariat in the Privy Council Office in Ottawa, to the annual general meeting of the Canadian Council of 4-H Clubs:

…I would like to commend to you a recent film, “Unlimited Horizons”, produced for the Wawanesa Mutual Insurance Company by Francis J.S. Holmes, which I believe portrays a long overdue presentation of today’s agriculture from a Canadian viewpoint. We need to encourage and stimulate some of our most intelligent young people to choose a career in this profession which offers such a wide range of interesting, rewarding and challenging opportunities. This film in my mind illustrates in a real way how agriculture, industry and universities have shared in leadership. (92)

The second film was entitled The Great Potential, which was completed in time for Canada’s centennial year. It built upon the first, but this time targeted young women:

Stressing the importance of education for girls, “The Great Potential” is the third in a series of films to reach the screen under the sponsorship of Wawanesa Mutual Insurance Company. Since the subject is one of national importance and widespread interest, this 30-minute 16 mm. film in color and sound ranges across the greater part of Canada to emphasize that education for a livelihood plus education for living are equally important to our future homemaker. Directed not only at girls, but at many parents as well, the film presents a belief that a well educated girl is better equipped to earn a livelihood, better equipped to manage a home and guide a family of her own, and better equipped to re-enter the world of business and the professions in later years if circumstances are such that she must. (93)

It too featured a number of prominent participants such as Mrs. Davie Fulton, vice-president of the Vanier Institute of the Family, Mrs. D.W. McGibbon, of Toronto, past president of the national organization of I.O.D.E., Judge Mary Carter from the Magistrate’s Court, Saskatoon, Mr. C.I. Usher, deputy minister of Alberta’s Department of Youth, Mrs. Robert Orange, of Sudbury, the president of the Canadian Federation of University Women, Mr. R.H.G. Bonnycastle, first chancellor of the new University of Winnipeg, Mr. Justice A.M. Monnin, of St. Boniface, a member of the board and the executive of the Vanier Institute of the Family.

The promotional write-up noted that: “Written and produced by Francis J.S. Holmes, of Winnipeg, the film is also being released in a French-language edition that will broaden its usefulness in Eastern Canada.” (94)

These two films represent the nadir of Holmes’ career. At the start of the 1960s Holmes had been Manitoba’s best known commercial/ industrial film producer. He was relatively secure in financial terms, well-connected within the prairie business community, and with provincial government bureaucracies. However he was losing ground to the central Canadian production companies. He knew he had to upgrade his financial and technical capabilities. He incorporated his business as Francis J.S. Holmes in May 1959 – in the wonderful language of incorporation documents – to:

…carry on the business of motion picture producers and to operate motion picture studios, to photograph, produce, develop and otherwise create photographic pictures, motion and still pictures and sound incidental thereto and to install, distribute, buy, sell, rent, barter, import and export and otherwise generally trade in motion picture and still pictures, photographic and sound supplies and equipment. (95)

The value of the capital stock was $50,000 divided into five hundred shares of $100 each. There were three stockholders: Richard Goodwin, Robert Goodwin, and Robert Law – all three were lawyers. The president was Holmes, and the secretary was his wife Elenor. Together with Donald Campbell, vice-president (and chartered accountant), these three made up the board of directors.

Holmes was tiring of the constant travel, and then working out of his cramped home. He felt he had to establish truly professional facilities. Accordingly the company purchased Lot 48 East in the rural municipality of St. Andrews for $15,000. The Free Press reported on August 29th 1960:

One of the few men in the motion-picture making business in Winnipeg, Francis J.S. Holmes, plans to build a studio, a home and a private air strip in St. Andrews. A 13-acre site at Lot 48 on River Road has been purchased by Mr. Holmes where his expanded facilities will be located. Since 1945 they have been at his home at 666 Riverwood Avenue, Fort Garry.

Mr. Holmes said Monday that construction will start after the provincial government has widened the River Road. The government announced earlier it would be made into a scenic drive….the airstrip to be built on the property will accommodate farmers. “Flying farmers from all over the west visit the city” and they prefer to use a private strip to the busy landing field at the airport, he said. (96)

The new facilities enabled him to complete even higher quality productions, and called for a new promotional pamphlet which highlighted the enhanced capabilities that Holmes could offer prospective clients:

First, there’s the film producer, a man who devotes his whole time to preparation, production and delivery of complete stories on film – and has done nothing else for years, in Winnipeg… Production equipment here is the latest and best. For instance, no other camera can equal the mechanical perfection of the Maurer 16 mm. professional camera. Ours is the only Maurer in Canada west of Toronto. (97)

The new era also called for more complicated soundtrack work with mixed combinations of overlaid music, sound effects, and ambient sound. It required much more work than his traditional one-dimensional voiceover narration, and accordingly he purchased the necessary equipment:

Magnetic film recording has now superseded other methods of putting original sound on master film tracks. Our Magnasync 16 mm. magnetic film recording equipment is widely acknowledged as the outstanding unit in its field. The output of the Magnasync, reproduced by electroprinting to variable density track, provides the ultimate in 16 mm. optical prints today….A narrator’s booth, with floating floor, and double walls lined and interlined with fiberglass provides the maximum in extraneous sound reduction for voice recording…. Background music from dual turntables is fed through a six-channel console which also handles the mixing of sound effects. A number of our films carry music composed right here for the job, some with lyrics also written here to carry the theme of each film story. (98)

For a number of films in the 1960s, Holmes worked with audio engineer John W. Arbuthnot, who would go on to establish his own shop Arbuthnot Audio Electronics, with a recording studio in the basement, on Tache Avenue in St. Boniface.

Holmes’ production all but ceased in the last half of the 1960s. Fundamental changes were taking place in the world of production, and the ground started to shift under him. The overriding development was the advent of video, primarily for educational and then commercial work. Video offered numerous advantages: instant recording (it did not need to be processed in a lab), easy and quick editing, and it was relatively cheap to duplicate and distribute many copies. The process appeared deceptively easy, and many administrators – with their peculiar administration logic –thought video productions could be created by almost anyone, and eased off using contractors like Holmes. Corporations and government departments started to experiment with in-house advertising and corporate profiles or histories.

In addition these same government departments and companies, as well as colleges, high schools, churches and convention centres all started to acquire their own video playback machines, and slowly moved away from heavy projectors and accumulated film libraries. And yet another set of customers for his agricultural films and travelogues – the local broadcasters – were also turning to video. As early as 1960 CBWT (CBC) Winnipeg had installed its first two video machines. CJAY-TV hit the ground running with video when it came on the air later that year. While both operated their telecines (converting film into video signals for broadcast) well into the late 1970s, their increasing preference was to air born-video productions.

Holmes could clearly see that his traditional clientele desired a new form of production and distribution. There is no doubt he could have mastered the new medium. Yet he made the decision – for either aesthetic or economic reasons – to not cross the line into video.

Not only did his clientele shrink quickly, but his time was increasingly taken up with his tinkering. There was one project in particular “the gully bin”, which was not related to motion pictures in any way. This was a grain storage and loading facility meant to supplement, if not replace, the traditional country and terminal elevators. Designed by Holmes, architect George Stewart, and Robert Law, it was easy to assemble and move, cost one quarter the price of a conventional elevator, and was considered innovative enough to be featured in another Free Press article in April 1972. A reporter described its promise:

The gully is basically a structure that is built where there is a natural gully or ravine and functions economically because nature provides the foundation and gravity moves the grain…Holmes says low cost of the gully bin would enable authorities to increase storage capacities at ports and thus provide grain immediately for ships coming into harbor. Prompt loading of ships, he said, would save farmers millions of dollars in demurrage charges. He says the idea has been well received by both the federal government and the grain companies. (99)

In the summer of 1972 Holmes retired and moved to Medicine Hat for several years. He then relocated to Whiteshell (by then a provincial park) at West Hawk Lake, and finally to Toronto where he died in Sunnybrook Hospital in 1990.

His fifty-five or so extant films have left a rich visual legacy. While one can tell much about Holmes from his finished films, one can deduce just as much – if not more – from his unfinished productions and unused footage. There are numerous reels of stock footage, outs and trims, in his fonds at the Provincial Archives of Manitoba. Many of these shots and sequences are spliced together in no particular order for ease of storage, but as they unroll so does the curtain on his travels, his character, his visual preferences, and his career. The list is long – but some prime examples include Winnipeg street shots (especially both Portage Avenue and Main Street), streetcars, C.P.R. and C.N.R. locomotives and trains on the prairies and coming out of tunnels in the Rocky Mountains, the Experimental Farm at the University of Manitoba, aerial scenes of Regina, Peace River Valley at junction of Smokey River (AB), prairie homesteads, cattle, Massey Harris combines working in fields, threshing, forage harvesters, baling hay, grain pouring from truck into pit of grain elevator, lumber being unloaded for a rail car, seeding operations, turkey and sheep farms in Alberta, cowboys and horses on Alberta ranches, cattle gathered around a salt block, winter feeding of beef cattle, bison grazing, grading and cutting meat in a meatpacking plant, a hydroelectric plant in Manitoba, logging activity in Sooke Harbour – Vancouver Island, grain terminals at Fort William (now Thunderbay), Provost, storm clouds over the prairie, silhouetted grain elevators at sunset, rural train stations, fields of sunflowers, grain fields in stook, handfuls of wheat kernels, men on dogsleds, ducks, antelopes, muskrats, rabbits, woodpeckers, gophers, moose in sloughs, Canada geese, swans, x-ray of a goose skeleton, close-ups of dragonflys, and Ukrainian folk dancers. They strongly evoke aspects of the Canadian west.

As a commercial filmmaker some may say that Holmes could only produce what his clients told him to do. But that would be misleading, for he exercised almost complete control over them. He decided on the approach and tone, and he scripted, directed, shot and edited the films. It is true that the original topic was decided by the client – but Holmes was still able to explain prairie history and customs, promote prairie resources, document the western Canadian landscape, flora and fauna, explain western Canadian attitudes and changing society, and tell non-fiction prairie stories in a visual and creative manner.


Seaport of the Prairies (for North Country Tourist Association), 1925
Red Lake Gold Rush (for Fox Movietone News) 1926
Romulus and Remus (for Montreal Catholic Diocese – producer Charles Lambly), 1926
Central Manitoba Mining Area (for Manitoba Chamber of Mines), 1927
Forest Fire Fighters of the Skies (for Dominion Forestry Branch), 1927-1928
Brandon Exhibition 1929 (for Dominion Department of Agriculture), 1929
Mapping Manitoba (for Manitoba Department of Mines and Natural Resources), 1940
Manitoba Field Trials Club, Melita, 1940
Fur Rehabilitation in Manitoba Marshlands (for Manitoba Department of Mines and Natural Resources), 1940
Trapping on the Summerberry Fur Rehabilitation Project (for Manitoba Department of Mines and Natural Resources, {1941}
Harvesting Manitoba Timber (for Manitoba Forestry Branch), 1941
Fur Rehabilitation in Northern Manitoba (for Manitoba Department of Mines and Natural Resources), 1941
The Whiteshell Summer Playground (for Manitoba Department of Mines and Natural Resources), 1942
They’ve All Got Wings, 1940-1945
Cowpath to Commerce, 1940-1945
Versatility is an Asset, 1940-1945
We Don’t Mind the Work, 1940-1945
Biddy’s in Business, 1940-1945
Good Things Do Grown On Trees, 1940-1945
Saga of Sipiwesk Lake, 1940-1945
Your Old Junk is Important, 1940-1945
Sailors From the Prairies, 1940-1945
By the Hands of Volunteer Workers, 1940-1945
Afield on the Manitoba Uplands, 1940-1945
Sinox the Weed Killer (for National Grain Co.), 1944
Manitoba Fights for Freedom (for Manitoba Department of Mines and Natural Resources), 1944
Hunting Garb Safety Test (for Manitoba Department of Mines and Natural Resources), 1944
The Big Duck Factory (for Ducks Unlimited Canada), 1945
The Acrylic Jacket Crown (for Study Group A – Winnipeg Dental Society), 1945
Beware Those Noxious Weeds (for Chipman Chemical Co.), 1945
Weeding with 2-4D (for National Grain Co.), 1945
Commercial Fishing in Manitoba (for Manitoba Department of Mines and Natural Resources), 1945-1946
Weeds Can’t Win (for National Grain Co.), 1946
Care and Training of Paraplegics (for Dr. O. S. Waugh, Deer Lodge Hospital), 1946
The Story of Weed-Bane (for Naugatuk Chemicals Division, Dominion Rubber Co.), 1946
Weeds Take a Beating (for National Grain Co.), 1947
The Story of Weedone (for United Grain Growers Ltd.), 1947
Soil is Our Heritage (for National Grain Co.), 1948
Farm Chemicals Do Pay Off (for F.H. Peavey & Co.), 1948
Weedone Newsreels (for United Grain Growers Ltd.), 1948-1949
More Power for B.C. (for Fox Movietone News), 1949
We’ve Got You Covered (Saskatchewan Government Insurance Office), 1951
Happy Fishing Grounds (for Saskatchewan (Department of Natural Resources), 1951
Road to Recovery (for Manitoba Sanatorium Board), 1951
-alternate title The Mark of Distinction
Prairie Conquest (for National Grain Co. Ltd.), 1952
The Pioneering Farm Co-operative (for United Grain Growers Ltd.), 1952
Fishing for Facts (for Saskatchewan Department of Natural Resources), 1952
Beyond the Steel (for Patricia Transportation Co.), 1953
Lumbering in Saskatchewan (for Saskatchewan Department of Natural Resources), 1953
Tuberculosis: While You’re Waiting, 1953
Each Year They Come Back (Ducks Unlimited), 1953
Trails Across the Water (for Patricia Transportation Co.), 1954
Nature’s Neighbours (for Ducks Unlimited – Canada), 1954
Fishing at Cranberry Portage, 1955
Fishing at Oneman Lake, 1955
This You Have Done (for Ducks Unlimited – Canada), 1955
Insect Pests of Stored Food (Stored Food Product Insect Laboratory/Dominion Department of Agriculture), 1956
Victory Over Weeds (United Grain Growers Ltd.), 1956
Rural Route to Success (for James Richardson & Sons), 1957
Pioneer Farm Co-operative (for United Grain Growers Ltd.),1957
They Always Come Back (edited version of above – for Ducks Unlimited), 1958
Livestock: Managing the Beef Herd, 1958
What’s Your Beef? (for James Richardson & Sons), 1958
Equal To Marquis (for United Grain Growers Ltd.), 1958
Building Better Beef (for Manitoba Pool & Federated Co-Op), 1959
Finishing Beef Cattle (for Manitoba Department of Agriculture), 1960
All Within 4H (for Manitoba Department of Agriculture), 1960
Grain Growing Deserves Study (for Manitoba Department of Agriculture/Extension Service), 1960
The Magic of Milk (for Dairy Branch, Manitoba Department of Agriculture), 1960
Triumph Over Disaster (for United Grain Growers Ltd.), 1960
Wings of Your Own (for Standard Aero Engine), 1963-1964
Those Who Mind the Store (for Robinson, Little & Co.), 1965
The Merchant Makers (for Robinson, Little & Co.), 1965
Dressing for Business (for Robinson, Little & Co.), 1965
Facts About Freighting (Sigfusson Transportation Co. Ltd.),1966
From 4-H Onward (Wawanesa Mutual Insurance Co.), 1966
Unlimited Horizons (Wawanesa Mutual Insurance Co.), 1966
The Great Potential/Le Grand potentiel (Wawnesa Mutual Insurance Co.), 1967
It’s All for the Birds, 1972


1. Holmes, R. – e-mail to author, 23 September 2016
2. Ibid.
3. “Winnipeg Business Men Caught by the “Movie”” Manitoba Free Press, 1 February 1923, p. 19
4. Ibid.
5. Holmes, F. – interviewed by G. Sparling, 9 January 1974, p.1 Gordon Sparling Fonds, Acc.# 1993.001 Media Commons/University of Toronto Library, Box 3
6. advertisement “Bring the Trip home in Your Own Motion Pictures”, Manitoba Free Press, 22 April 1924, p. 6
7. advertisement “Make a Movie of it with a Cine-Kodak”, Manitoba Free Press, 13 August 1924, p.3
8. Sparling, G., untitled document on Francis Holmes’ career, typescript, p. 1 Gordon Sparling Fonds, Acc.# 1993.001 Media Commons/University of Toronto Library, Box 3
9. “The Hudson’s Bay Railway and Port Nelson at the Marlborough Hall”, Manitoba Free Press, 1 October 1925, p. 19
10. Holmes, F.J.S. [Memoir of gold rush at Red Lake], typescript, stamped July 1958, p. 1 Francis J.S., Holmes fonds, file P3640/17, Provincial Archives of Manitoba
11. Ibid., p. 2
12. Ibid., pp. 2-3
13. Ibid., p. 3
14. Scott, W.J. “Swirling, Snowy Inferno Enveloped Two Planes on Flight Into Red Lake”, Toronto Star, 9 March 1926, p. 1
15. “Both Red Lake Airplanes Crash During Blizzard – Plunge into Deep Snow on Lake…” Manitoba Free Press, 9 March 1926, p. 1
16. Ibid., p.1
17. “Prospector Found Gaelic Red Lake’s Common Tongue“, Toronto Star, 9 March 1926, p.2
18. Scott, W.J. “Swirling, Snowy Inferno Enveloped Two Planes on Flight Into Red Lake”, Toronto Star, 9 March 1926, p. 1
19. Holmes, F.J.S. [Memoir of gold rush at Red Lake], typescript, stamped July 1958, Francis J.S., Holmes fonds, file P3640/17, Provincial Archives of Manitoba
20. “In Movieland”, Manitoba Free Press, 16 March 1926, p. 10
21. Sparling, G. , untitled document on career of Francis Holmes, typescript, p.2 Gordon Sparling Fonds, Acc.# 1993.001 Media Commons/University of Toronto Library, Box 3
22. Holmes, F.J.S. – interviewed by G. Sparling, 9 January 1974, p.6 Gordon Sparling Fonds, Acc.# 1993.001 Media Commons/University of Toronto Library, Box 3
23. Ibid., p.5
24. Third British Empire Forestry Conference, Australia & New Zealand…Papers Presented (Canberra: H.J. Green, Government Printer, [1928])
25. Sparling, G. , untitled document on career of Francis Holmes, typescript, p.2-3 Gordon Sparling Fonds, Acc.# 1993.001 Media Commons/University of Toronto Library, Box 3
26. Holmes, F.J.S. – interviewed by G. Sparling, 9 January 1974, p.1 Gordon Sparling Fonds, Acc.# 1993.001 Media Commons/University of Toronto Library, Box 3
27. Ibid., p.2
28. Ibid., p.2
29. “Regina Amateur Cinema Club Begins to Shoot Pictures”, Canadian Moving Picture Digest, 11 May 1929, p. 13
30. Holmes, F.J.S. – interviewed by G. Sparling, 9 January 1974, p. 2 Gordon Sparling Fonds, Acc.# 1993.001 Media Commons/University of Toronto Library, Box 3
31. Ibid., p.2
32. Holmes, R. – e-mail to author, 23 September 2016
33. Holmes, F.J.S. “History of a Daydream” Provost News, 28 October 2015, p. 16
34. Ibid., p. 16
35. Ibid., p. 18
36. “Birthday Issue of News Marks a Departure for Weekly Journalism” Provost News, 27 May 1936, p. 1
37. Holmes, F. – interviewed by G. Sparling, 9 January 1974, Gordon Sparling Fonds, Acc.# 1993.001 Media Commons/University of Toronto Library, Box 3
38. “The News Camera”, Provost News, 27 May 1936, p. 1
39. Holmes, F.J.S. – interviewed by G. Sparling, 9 January 1974, p.3 Gordon Sparling Fonds, Acc.# 1993.001 Media Commons/University of Toronto Library, Box 3
40. Ibid., p. 3
41. “When North America’s Finest Ran at Melita”, Winnipeg Free Press, 17 October 1940, p. 17
42. 12th Annual Report of the Travel and Publicity Bureau for the Fiscal Year Ending April 30, 1942 (Winnipeg: Manitoba Department of Mines and Natural Resources, 1943) p. 121
43. “Plan Safety Test of Hunting Garb”, Winnipeg Free Press, 12 October 1944, p. 17
44. “McDiarmid Gives Talk on Lumbering”, Winnipeg Free Press, 14 January 1942, p. 14
45. “Forests in Wartime””, Winnipeg Tribune, 20 January 1942, p. 15
46. “Fur Resources Dinner Topic for Quota Club”, Winnipeg Free Press, 22 January 1942, p. 11
47. “Make Post-War Plans for Youth”, Winnipeg Tribune, 9 April 1943, p. 10
48. “Malachi Campers Re-Elect Officers”, Winnipeg Tribune, 3 December 1943, p.8
49. “Govt. Interest in Projects Assured”, Winnipeg Free Press, 23 August 1944, p. 5
50. “Society of Metals Has Variety Programme”, Winnipeg Free Press, 12 January 1945, p. 5
51. “Hanks Discusses Airport Planning”, Winnipeg Free Press, 7 April 1945, p. 4
52. “Color Film Shows Local War Industry”, Winnipeg Free Press, 9 March 1946, p. 2
53. “Chickadee Notes”, Winnipeg Free Press, 22 June 1945, p. 9
54. Simpson, P. “Forgotten Ducks Unlimited film recovered by detective work:” Ottawa Citizen, 17 February 2016.
55. Walz, G. “Shack-Wacky Animation: The Case of Manitoba”, p.74 in Beard, W. & White, J North of Everything: English Canadian Cinema Since 1980 (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2002)
56. “Manitoba Man Invents Special Movie Camera”, Winnipeg Free Press, 29 May 1946, p. 4
57. Ibid.
58. Ibid.
59. Ibid.
60. “For High Quality Motion Pictures……” (Winnipeg: Francis J.S. Holmes Film Productions, [1960])
61. Ibid.
62. Ibid.
63. “Announcing a new type of service for the users of Publicity Material” (Winnipeg: Francis J.S. Holmes, [1946])
64. Ibid.
65. Ibid.
66. Ibid.
67. “Chickadee Notes”, Winnipeg Free Press, 12 August 1949, p.13
68. “F.J. Holmes Heads Movie Producer’s Group” Winnipeg Free Press, 20 December 1950, p. 3
69. “Printing Masters, in color and sound, of the films listed herewith are the property of Francis J.S. Holmes Limited”, Francis J.S. Holmes information file, Library & Archives Canada, p. 1
70. Holmes, F.J.S. – interviewed by G. Sparling, 9 January 1974, p.5 Gordon Sparling Fonds, Acc.# 1993.001 Media Commons/University of Toronto Library, Box 3
71. Ibid., p.5
72. “TB Strikes Every Day in Manitoba, Group Told”, Winnipeg Free Press, 12 December 1953, p. 1
73. “Printing Masters, in color and sound, of the films listed herewith are the property of Francis J.S. Holmes Limited”, Francis J.S. Holmes information file, Library & Archives Canada, p. 2
74. Holmes, F.J.S. – interviewed by G. Sparling, 9 January 1974, p.2-3 Gordon Sparling Fonds, Acc.# 1993.001 Media Commons/University of Toronto Library, Box 3
75. Ibid., p.3
76. ““Great Boon to Farmers” – H.E. Wood Lauds New Weed Control – 2,4-D” Winnipeg Free Press, 15 October 1948, p. 18
77. Ibid.
78. “Printing Masters, in color and sound, of the films listed herewith are the property of Francis J.S. Holmes Limited”, Francis J.S. Holmes information file, Library & Archives Canada, p. 1
79. “New Color Film Tells Grain Story of Canada’s Past”, Winnipeg Free Press, 15 March 1952, p. 17
80. Ibid.
81. “Color Movie Traces History of Prairies”, Winnipeg Free Press, 17 October 1952, p. 12
82. “Lord Selkirk Memorial Plans Up For Approval”, Winnipeg Free Press, 30 April 1952, p. 3
83. “Albertans to See Historical Film Produced by National Grain Co.”, St. Albert Gazette, 28 March 1952, p. 3
84. Holmes, R. – e-mail to author 23 September 2016
85. “Printing Masters, in color and sound, of the films listed herewith are the property of Francis J.S. Holmes Limited”, Francis J.S. Holmes information file, Library & Archives Canada, p. 1
86. “Elevator Collapse Starts Tidal Wave”, Globe and Mail, 25 September 1959, p. 34
87. “Printing Masters, in color and sound, of the films listed herewith are the property of Francis J.S. Holmes Limited”, Francis J.S. Holmes information file, Library & Archives Canada, p. 1
88., Holmes, F.J.S. – interviewed by G. Sparling, 9 January 1974, p.2 Gordon Sparling Fonds, Acc.# 1993.001 Media Commons/University of Toronto Library, Box 3
89. “Prescription for Better Films” Winnipeg: Francis J.S. Holmes, [1956])
90. “Unlimited Horizons”, unidentified promotional document, p.1 Gordon Sparling Fonds, Acc.# 1993.001 Media Commons/University of Toronto Library, Box 3
91. Ibid., p. 1
92. Weir, J.R. “Sharing of Leadership – Agriculture, Industry and Universities”, speech notes for presentation to Annual Meeting of Canadian Council on 4H Clubs, 4 May 1966, p. 1 Gordon Sparling Fonds, Acc.# 1993.001 Media Commons/University of Toronto Library, Box 3
93. “The Great Potential”, unidentified promotional document, p. 1 Gordon Sparling Fonds, Acc.# 1993.001 Media Commons/University of Toronto Library, Box 3
94. Ibid., p.2
95. Application for Letters Patent of Incorporation – Francis J. Holmes Ltd., 1 May 1959, Companies branch, Government of Manitoba
96. “Local Movie Maker Plans Fly-In Studio”, Winnipeg Free Press, 29 August 1960, p. 8
97. “For High Quality Motion Pictures……” (Winnipeg: Francis J.S. Holmes Film Productions, [1960])
98. Ibid.
99. Guttormson, E. “Solution offered for Grain Problem”, Winnipeg Free Press, 22 April 1972, p. 32


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