Feature Hollywood film shot in Erin in 1935

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

Motion picture production companies have sent crews to Wellington County a number of times over the past 25 years.

The favoured location has been the Fergus and Elora area, where old stone buildings and the Grand River lend atmosphere to small-town and historical stories.

Also popular with film makers has been the Caledon Hills region and the area on the eastern boundary of Erin Township.

Movie crews first visited the latter locality area 65 years ago, in September 1935. Booth Dominion Productions of Toronto, with a crew of about 40 actors and technicians, some of them from Hollywood, set up shop in Erin for almost two weeks for the filming of a gangster film. Their presence and activity generated a lot of excitement in what was otherwise a dull Depression year in the village.

Dozens of local people signed up for work as extras or as assistants to the technicians. Both Erin hotels rented every available room – they hadn’t seen business like this in years.

The movie, which was untitled at the time of the filming, was a love story centred on a bank robbery. The George Ramsden property in Erin served as the location for the robbery, and other scenes were filmed on the main street and in Stanley Park.

For the obligatory chase scenes, the film crews and their cars went to Belfountain and the Forks of the Credit. Not all the film was shot in the Erin area; there were scenes in Brampton and Toronto as well.

The production manager, Jack Chisholm, became involved in a bit of an incident in downtown Toronto. He parked his car in a parking lot, and told the attendant that there were machine guns and other movie props in the car, and to keep an eye on the contents.

The attendant did more than that. He told everyone he saw, and showed them the guns. When Chisholm returned, Toronto police and RCMP officers were swarming around his car. He had to do some quick explaining in order to keep the props and permit filming to continue.

The director of the film was Sam Newfield, who was then in the early stages of his career. He would become one of the hardest working men in the film industry, directing more than 75 films, from Under Secret Orders in 1933 to Along the Mohawk Trail in 1957.

Virtually all were “B” films, mostly westerns and gangster stories, starring actors such as Buster Crabbe.

Altogether, Newfield amassed credits for work as a director, producer, writer or technician on some 240 films.

The film made in Erin and the surrounding area certainly fell into the “B” category. The starring roles went to Charles Starrett, Adrienne Dore, Kenneth Duncan and Wheeler Oakman, none of whom were household names, then or now.

The budget for the film was $30,000, a minuscule amount for a motion picture even in the 1930s.

Unable to find out much about this film, I spoke to my friend Ian Easterbrook of Fergus, who knows a great deal about films made in Canada. He turned up more information quickly.

The Erin film was released as Under Cover in January 1936 by the British branch of MGM.

It is short for a feature film, only 61 minutes. The plot is straightforward, and rather predictable. Bob Hunter, a bank clerk, feels humiliated and shameful when he fails to stop a bank robbery.

Determined to restore his reputation, he joins the RCMP, and jointly they track down and capture the bandit. His sudden heroism captures the heart of Betty Winton, who he has long admired from afar. The film was also shown with the title Undercover Men.

The production schedule for Under Cover overlapped with another film directed by Newfield and using the same actors, production crew and a similar plot. The King’s Plate (also screened as Thoroughbred) was shot around the old race track at Long Branch, on the west side of Toronto, and elsewhere in the Toronto area. It was also released by MGM in England.

Sam Newfield was not the first to film a two-for-one package. David O. Selznick produced two silent Tim McCoy westerns simultaneously in 1927 for MGM, reducing production costs by about 50% for each film.

Both these Booth Dominion films, it appears, were produced to comply with regulations in the United Kingdom. Fears that Hollywood was swamping the British film industry resulted in a quota system, requiring that a percentage of films shown must be British.

Due to the lingering ties of the British Commonwealth in the 1930s, films produced in Canada were deemed to be equal to the domestic product.

MGM contracted with Booth Dominion to produce these films, and sent in the key people to supervise the job. Thus, it is likely that British cinema patrons saw Under Cover backing up an MGM blockbuster on a double bill. Lower production costs in Canada were a factor, but not the dominant one in choosing the Toronto and Erin locales for the filming.

The entire shooting schedule for Under Cover filled less than two weeks. Film Laboratories of Canada in Toronto did the film processing and editing. Sam Newfield and the other Hollywood people quickly returned home. Newfield directed seven other films in 1935, in addition to the two in Canada, and polished off 11 more in 1936.

It would appear that Booth Dominion Productions made only these two films. Under strong pressure from George T. Booth, who owned the similarly named Booth Canadian Films, the owners changed the letterhead to read “Dominion Motion Pictures Limited” less than a month after Under Cover was completed.

Neither Ian Easterbrook nor I have turned up a release date for Canada or the United States, and so far I have discovered no information about a local showing, if any, or where it was shown, since Erin had no movie theatre.

The fact that there are alternate titles strongly suggests that Under Cover and The King’s Plate both had Canadian and American releases.

As far as I am aware, though, Under Cover has never been available as a cassette re-release. Prints do exist. The Public Archives of Canada has negative, print, and video tape copies of the film. It would certainly make an enjoyable evening’s entertainment to have this movie screened in Erin 65 years after it was shot.

All three Toronto daily papers ran feature stories on the filming in Erin. Jack Chisholm, the production manager, did most of the talking. All those involved with the picture were delighted with the reception and cooperation they received in Erin.

Chisholm flattered local sentiments when he told one reporter that, “The locality around Erin and in the Caledon Hills is better for motion picture work than California.”

This may be a bit of an exaggeration, but the area does have attractions that continue to draw motion picture producers and television crews in a steady stream.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Nov. 24, 2000.

Thorning Revisited