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In Honour of my Grandfather: Studio Gratien-Gélinas

My grandfather is considered the grandfather of Quebecois theatre. What people don’t know is about his contribution to cinema right here. In fact, he was the one who directed the first talking and speaking short film in Canada, La Dame aux Camélias, la vraie, in 1943. This was before he would release the first contemporary French Canadian film, Tit-Coq, 10 years later.

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In his honour, Groupe Dazmo, founded by Iohann Martin, Andrew Lapierre and myself, have announced that today one of the room in the Grandé Studios complexe will be named Studio Gratien-Gélinas. The room, located in Pointe-Saint-Charles, offers 14,000 square feet of space and will host film and television productions accueillera tant des productions cinématographiques que télévisuelles, from here and abroad. En direct de l’univers will set up a permanent location here starting January 12, 2019.

A mythical grandfather…and an innovator!

Filming a commercial in Hollywood, 1936.

For generations of performers, Gratien represents the root of all Quebec theatre. But when we dig a little deeper, we discover some historical gems demonstrating all the cinematographic talent is nothing new, and that the work of Gratien Gélinas is closely tied to its beginnings. Since its inception, which was when he opened the first film studios in Quebec—right on the corner of Saint-Denis et Sainte-Catherine, in the 40s—and up to the end, when he was president of the Canadian Film Development Corporation (which is currently known as Telefilm Canada), Gratien’s career was intimately tied to the film boom in Canada.

A studio Grandé for a Canadian film legend

After his death in 1999, Gratien Gélinas was remembered for his fascinating and creative legacy which was a testament to his tenacity, complexity, and profound humanity. My grandfather played an important role as a filmmaker, but to us, it was his home videos he made from 1940-1950 that resonated even more. He was a resourceful and adept documentarian at the time. It’s these testimonies of our lives that should be credited to his professional resume. Some of the footage can be found in a documentary made by his youngest son, Pascal Gélinas, Le géant aux pieds d’argile, and produced by InformAction.

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At the start of 2019, we would like to honour a pioneer in the film industry, the same one that we’re all passionate about and working in today. Today, the Grandé team aujourd’hui is proud to highlight the name of this creator thanks to the new Studio Gratien-Gélinas.

To learn more about Gratien and cinema, here is a piece inspired by the biography Gratien Gélinas: La ferveur et le doute, by Anne-Marie Sicotte.

Gratien Gélinas and his Love of Cinema

Gratien in his office

Act I: A Preamble and the First Speaking and Colour Film in Canada.

Towards the end of 1940, Gratien had one passion he needed to fulfill: film. He was a fanatic when it came to the seventh art. He spent every summer at home immortalizing the family on film. Wanting to experiment more in the medium, he started his own film business, obtained the best equipment on the market and rented a studio. “Walls and ceilings of the studio are covered in a special material which absorbs sound and the windows are hermetically closed.” Gratien planned a “comedic short film.” He equally wanted to produce documentaries and “full-length features.”

The first piece was released summer 1942. La dame aux camélias, la vraie, was pastiche celebrating the work of Alexandre Dumas and was meant to presented in the next edition de Fridolinons. With Jacques Pelletier, decorator, and Marc Audet, CKAC technician and amateur filmmaker, Gratien went to New York to secure camera equipment: projectors, sound gear and an Eastman Kodak camera, “one of the best models at the time, an extraordinary camera with slots to store film.” On the ground floor of a studio on  Saint-Denis, the film crew set up a darkroom to develop the soundtrack, separately from the film strip. Suddenly, a world war started, and the Canadian government had to ration 16mm film to just 100 feet of track per month for each client. The film needed between 3000 and 4000 feet. The whole team huddled up, took off in two cars and stopped at every shop to buy the maximum permissible amount of film.

Filming started and the entire team worked hard. “The work was stressful, we slept for three hours and filmed for 10. The indoor scenes were going well, but the outdoor ones were awful. It was november, it was cold and we were always rushing for light.” Marc Audet, at the camera, ran “the sound in the back, in a little cabin,” to tell where the sound was coming from. Gratien took care of the set design, the staging and the angle of the camera. “He would check in the camera, and would move around like a director from scene to camera saying “I don’t want that,
C’était novembre, il faisait froid, il fallait se presser question lumière. » Marc Audet, à la caméra, court « au son en arrière, dans une petite cabane » pour dire à quel endroit partir le son. Gratien s’occupe du décor, de la mise en scène, de l’angle de la caméra. « Il venait voir dans la caméra, il se déplaçait comme un metteur en scène, de la scène à la caméra, ‘Je ne veux pas de ça, zoom in on his head a bit more.’”

Each 100ft film reel was sent to Toronto to be developed, and would come back five or six days later. That’s when we’d go over the failures…For editing, Gratien and Louis Pelland only shared a practical knowledge. At the last second, Gratien caught a cab to the station because the final copy of the edited footage had to be printed in New York. Fearing it would be seized at customs, Gratien smuggled it in. In New York, he had to edit the last ten scenes.

Exhausted, he placed cold compresses on his head so he wouldn’t fall asleep while he worked. Later, watching a film that caused so much worry, he fell asleep! He returned to Montreal without waiting for the final copy, delivered in the mail. With tremendous disappointment, he realized that the picture was blurry, and the reds had turned brown, the blues to green. Gratien collapsed. With Garceau, he returned to New York. The newer version was far from perfect: the sound was terrible and the picture was very dark, which would require an arc projector that would warm up the image, instead of an incandescent projector lamp.

There was a mixed reception for La Dame aux camélias, la vraie, from the audience of Fridolinons 43.The night of the premiere, the public was surprised to see a film, let alone its creator in real life. It wasn’t well received and critics panned it. People wanted the real Fridolin. Gratien felt “considerable disappointment” that people could only see the mistakes and not appreciate everything else. Suddenly, Radiomonde noted that the film provided a taste of what could be accomplished once they overcame the trial and errors.

“Gélinas has successfully delivered some stunning images: gnarled trees, storms, a scarecrow-like figure that suddenly bursts in a Duvivier-like fashion…crystallized trees and the interiors where rays of light and shadows compete. A well-selected soundtrack. And the dialogue! In sum, a great cinematic effort, a costly plaything that can take our amateur and capitaliste Fridolin in a new direction.”

To say that Gratien was disappointed the film didn’t resonate with the public—despite the encouraging review—was an understatement. He just finished one of the most challenging periods of his life, where he worked more than he slept, for a cold reception from the public. After three revisions, Gratien shortened the film. He was discouraged. So much work for something that was far from his initial ambitions! In spite of the challenges of filming during a war, the rationed film and equipment, Gratien took a break from film and sold his equipment for $7500 (a profit) 1.5 years later to a Torontonian.

LA DAME AUX CAMÉLIAS FILM

La Dame aux camélias, la vraie (26 min.) from Pascal Gélinas on Vimeo.

Act II: The First Classic of the Quebecois Big Screen

In 1953, the film industry in Quebec started to take off. J. A. de Sève, the owner of the film distribution company suggested Gratien film Tit-Coq. The cultural community was already thinking of making “videofilms” for television, a new medium that was already booming in the U.S. in the 1940s.  The Radio-Canada Society, a local production and broadcast service, was already seeing the light of day.

Gratien, actor and assistant director of the film Tit-Coq, filmed in 1953, listens to the soundtrack in one sitting.

De Sève, on the other hand, wanted a feature film for the big screen. A production by Français René Delacroix, a French director. Gratien own the rights to his film; J. A. de Sève made a personal cash advance for the production, and reimbursed the profits in addition to the sole rights of the film’s distribution and operation. Gratien had to produce without payment: the rights to his work, his studio, his production, the editing and playing the title role. His only salary would be the film’s net profits…after France Film took its cut.

The majority of the title roles go to the actors; their salary varies between $75 per day for Juliette Béliveau, and $35 for Clément Latour. Monique Miller, aged 16 and a half, got the role of Marie-Ange… for $20 a day. Luckily for her, her lawyer friend read her contract, Heureusement pour elle, un ami avocat lit son contrat, and went to great lengths, with the help of Gratien, to increase her salary to $35 a day.

With Muriel Guilbault, who played Marie-Ange in Tit-Coq between 1948 et 1950.

Most of the scenes of the 13 Canadian film were captured in the Renaissance Studios, on Côte-des-Neiges. Gratien remembers Saint-Louis Square, where a chilly wind wouldn’t disperse hundreds of onlookers.

“At night, when we were filming the kissing scene in the park, the one where Tit-Coq kisses Marie-Ange under the watchful gaze of the Montreal police, for every take, every kiss Tit-Coq gave Marie-Ange, there was a long, sensual whistling that was hard to ignore and that filled the atmosphere from Sherbrooke, to des Pins and Saint-Denis, right to Saint-Laurent.”

When filming ended, Gratien settled into his studio with two monitors. This fascinating stage lasted a month, and went on day and night. Tit-Coq premiered Friday, February 20, 1953. The next day, Jean Béraud wrote, in La Presse, that a full auditorium gave a standing ovation. “We wanted a classic of French-Canadian cinema. And we have it! Finally!”

“Well, there you have it. With the path that Tit-Coq once cleared towards the theatre, another day dawns. God! It’s so exciting — and necessary — to see yourself on screen. And suddenly, to not simply be interested in a documentary or moved by our humanity, but to be struck and bare, and seen by the eye behind the camera (…) My dear friend, if you encounter this film on your screen, tell yourself, before all else, that for the first time, we exist. A good number of us, at least. And that that is how we are, take it or leave it.” — Journalist René Lévesque, in L’autorité on February 28, 1953. Gratien never saw a dime. Even worse: three years later, he still owed nearly $20,000 to France-Film. Despite it all, the film sparked an interest within the country. In 1954, it was played in primarily Francophone parts of Canada. And, once it was captioned in English, it was screened in Ontario and considered a great success. Finally, on October 7, the English version premiered in Toronto to great fanfare.

Gratien with stage manager Michael Langham at the Stratford Festival. Ontario, 1956.

Act III: The Art of Distributing Subsidies

At the end of 1960, Gratien found himself another cause to stand by, and that was Canadian cinema. Since November 1969, he was president of the Canadian Film Development Corporation (now known as Téléfilm Canada), which was founded in 1968 by federal government to develop the film industry in Canada with investments or subsidies. The secretary of State, Gérard Pelletier, called Gratien, one of the few Canadians who had actually made films, but especially a French-Canadian production well-received by the entire country.

Gratien could, in his new role, put forth his desire to contribute to a national culture. The industry of Quebec cinema was young, heating up and enthusiastic. It was adapting to the rise television viewing by hiking up ticket prices, opening drive-ins and by opening more theatres with reduced ticket pricing.

He quickly channeled his drive into his work. Because the CFDC had to choose which projects to finance, he sat down and read scripts and met with the producers and directors. He also represented Canada at film festivals all over the world. Since 1973, his roles at the CFDC brought him to Cannes, where he presided over the Canadian delegation. According to an old colleague, Gratien’s presence, for more than a decade, gave a significant boost to Quebec productions, despite all the pushback from directors on content. Carole Langlois remembers Gratien’s passion when he was retelling a situation that pleased him, in great detail, to the yawning members. “It was very important the he joined us, she explains, especially when it came to Quebec production. He hated mediocrity, but once something touched him, he did everything he could to make it happen. He vehemently defended what he loved.”

But meetings with directors were never easy. “Our cinema is very artistic,” explains producer Claude Godbout. “The directors weren’t ready to compromise when it came to their ideas.”  Furthermore, Gratien had a very specific vision and opinion of what he deemed good. “He wasn’t in a state of grace with the film community. Once he expressed his rules, his preferences, one had to ask themselves if he had really transitioned from theatre to film.”

Grandé Studios is equipped with 12 production spaces spread out between two sites near Montreal’s downtown core. Opened in 2016, the studios in Pointe-St-Charles offer 182,000 square feet of production room. Standing 54 feet tall, they’re among some of the tallest film studios in the country and will help establish Montreal as a leader in the seventh art as much as it will nurture the talent of artists in the city. We’ve had the pleasure of hosting U.S. productions such as X-Men (FOX), televised series such as The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair (MGM) and Jack Ryan, a Tom Clancy franchise produced by Paramount (Amazon), as well as Quebecois productions like Danser pour Gagner et La guerre des clans (V).

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Here are the links to Studios Grandé’s social media accounts so you can follow along:

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Photos Bibliothèque et Archives Canada, Fonds Gratien Gélinas.

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In Honour of my Grandfather: Studio Gratien-Gélinas