Back between 1946 and 1949, a small-time film maker produced a series of 85 films depicting towns and villages in southern Ontario.
Eight of them featured centres within the circulation area of this newspaper: Drayton, Durham, Elora, Erin, Hillsburgh, Linwood-Macton, Palmerston, and Rockwood.
Some older readers may remember the original screenings of those films 60 years ago. They were crude even by the standards of the 1940s. There was no sound, and the camera work is sometimes unsteady. They were filmed on black-and-white 8mm stock, a format now probably unknown to most people under 40.
The films ranged from 20 to 30 minutes in length, and were devoid of plot. Instead, they depicted local people engaged in everyday activities and occasionally at special events. At the time they simply gave locals the thrill of seeing themselves on the screen.
Over time, the significance of those films has risen. They capture a sense of our small towns when they were much different than today. The postwar era, in part due to the widespread ownership of motor cars, saw the end of the tight communities that characterized small town Ontario before that time. In that sense, they have tremendous historical value, revealing everyday small town life in the mid-20th century.
Since their original screenings, copies of those films have popped up here and there. In general, though, they have been largely forgotten. The film maker was not a professional, but rather a Baptist divinity student, Roy Massecar (1918-2003), a native of Waterford, Ontario. He produced the films to underwrite partially his studies at McMaster’s divinity school in Hamilton, where he graduated in 1947, and to supplement his income during his first years as an impoverished minister at small congregations. At that time, he had a goal of filming religious subjects as his life work, rather than spending his career as a regular minister.
A couple of years after graduation, Rev. Roy Massecar moved to the United States and put his films into storage. Following his death his widow, Marion Massecar, donated the old films to the University of Western Ontario in 2005. Staff at the university, under the direction of archivist Robin Keirstead, have restored the footage, some of which was brittle and damaged, and have made it available to the public on a series of DVDs in a series called Stars of the Town.
Copies of those DVDs have been distributed to libraries and museums across Ontario. A couple have been shown at screenings around Wellington County and adjoining communities, but the majority of people are still not aware of their existence.
Massecar usually spent only a couple of days filming in each town, after making some initial contacts and lining up particular events to film. He concentrated heavily on filming people and faces, but the films also depict many street scenes and main street businesses. A few weeks later, after he had the film processed and had edited it to a final form, he returned to the town for a single or double public showing, charging an admission of 40 or 45 cents. He also offered to sell prints of the film to local people. Such sales were probably meagre. Few those days could afford the cost, and fewer still owned an 8mm movie projector.
The filming at Elora, in September 1947, was probably typical of his methods. Rev. Massecar, who was then stationed at Drumbo, visited the village in late August, setting up some of the scenes and getting a feel for local activity. He began filming on Labour Day, Sept. 1, and a few days later he captured action at the public school field day, among other activities around the village.
Massecar planned to show the completed film on Sept. 12 at Elora’s Armoury Hall (now the LCBO outlet), but production and editing delays forced postponement until a week later. The screening drew a couple of hundred people, a sizeable crowd for a village of 1,100 population in 1947.
In an article on the filming, Elora Express editor Kay Marston recognized the documentary and historical value of the film, but realized the major attraction would be for local people to see themselves and their neighbours in a film.
The series of films is a remarkable and unique artifact depicting fairly recent history in Wellington and southern Ontario. But there are some questions about the minister’s motives and his explanation that it was a profit-making venture. It is hard to see how Roy Massecar made much money from the films, or even met his costs.
In few places was the audience greater than 250 or 300 people, and often must have been much less. At 45 cents per head that works out to less than $150 of revenue for each film. It is unlikely that sales of copies of the films generated much additional revenue.
Against that are Massecar’s living and travelling expenses, the cost of film and processing, and the rental of a hall for showing the finished film and advertising for the event. Those costs surely equalled the revenue, and in some cases exceeded it. There can be little doubt that Rev. Massecar thoroughly enjoyed producing these films, and that he was content to if the income from them covered most of his costs.
Another puzzling question is the method used by Massecar to select the towns he would film. He produced one on Hillsburgh, for example, but neglected larger towns such as Fergus, Arthur, Mount Forest, and Harriston. All of those towns had much larger potential audiences.
In any case, local history buffs should be grateful to Rev. Roy Massecar for producing these films, to his family for saving them, and to the University of Western Ontario Archives for making them available to anyone who wishes to purchase a copy.
The Wellington County Museum and Archives has copies of the Wellington County films. Those wishing their own copies can purchase them through the University of Western Ontario. They are priced at $15 for each film, taxes included, plus $3 for shipping. Turnaround time is about four weeks. The phone number for the archives is (519) 661-4046; email at email@example.com.
More information can be found at http://www.lib.uwo.ca/archives/stars%20of%20the%20town/.
The author may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.