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Point of View: Gerald Pratley Finally Gets His Due

Point of View: Gerald Pratley Finally Gets His Due, image,
Wyndham Wise at the Film Reference Library in Toronto. Photo by Norman Hart.

Point of View: Gerald Pratley Finally Gets His Due
by Wyndham Wise

(September 5, 2019 – Toronto, ON) A new plaque sits on the wall outside TIFF’s Film Reference Library that acknowledges the contribution made by Gerald Pratley to the library’s beginnings. Remarkably, since the Bell Lightbox, home to TIFF, opened in fall of 2010 it has taken nine years for this to happen. The following are the reasons why.

Before I begin what is essentially a tale of wounded pride and bruised ego, I should probably establish my bona fides vis-à-vis Gerald, whom I regarded as a mentor and first met 44 years ago this summer. During my University of Toronto years, I occasionally biked up from my downtown digs to the Ontario Science Centre at the corner of Don Mills and Eglinton for Gerald’s Ontario Film Theatre screenings in one of the best-equipped auditoriums in the city. However, I never met the man. In 1975 I was given that opportunity. I was researching notes for the Art Gallery of Ontario film program run at the time by Ian Birnie. This gave me a reason to visit the library Gerald had personally built over the years since he was assigned his cubbyhole office just off the entrance foyer of the Science Centre in 1969.

The office consisted of just two desks, one for him and one for his part-time assistant. The library itself was more like a rabbit warren, stacked floor to ceiling with books separated by a pathway so narrow it was only good for one visitor at time. Space for film posters was limited and of course there was no space for films or film preservation. But it was the only film library in town and the best west of the Cinémathèque québécoise in Montreal.

Gerald had been a fixture in the Canadian film scene since the late 1940s. He came to Canada from England in 1946, and two years later became the CBC’s first film critic, writing and broadcasting The Movie Scene, Music from the Films and Pratley at the Movies between 1948 and 1975. As the CBC’s senior critic, he was chosen to sit on the first Canadian Film Awards jury, held in Ottawa in 1949. From 1969–76, he was the chairman of the international jury of the CFAs. During this time he was also active with the Toronto Film Society and from 1970–75 he was the director of the Stratford International Film Festival. He was the CBC’s man at the Cannes Film Festival for 30 years, during which time he also wrote for Variety, Canadian Film Weekly, Canadian Film Digest, Hollywood Quarterly and Film In Review. Pratley authored six books, including a history of Canadian cinema, Torn Sprockets: The Uncertain Projection Of The Canadian Film (1986), and A Century of Canadian Cinema: Gerald Pratley’s Feature Film Guide (2004).

Gerald Pratley,
Gerald Pratley photo by Aaron Harris/Canadian Press.
Perhaps his greatest accomplishment was founding the Ontario Film Theatre (OFT) and its sister organization the Ontario Film Institute (OFI) in 1968. It reflected a growing cinematic maturity in Ontario. After decades of neglect, the provincial government was finally committing itself to the growth of a film culture, albeit reluctantly and with insufficient funding. Before the OFT it was difficult to find place in Ontario where one could enjoy films from outside the Hollywood mainstream. There were no film festivals or magazines and film instruction did not exist at any educational level. Only a small community of hard-boiled film enthusiasts met in a few film societies (mostly in Toronto), desperate to catch a glimpse of the world of film not distributed by the Hollywood majors or exhibited by the Famous Players / Odeon monopoly. It was only by the dint of efforts of enthusiasts such as Gerald and his colleagues from the Toronto Film Society, Patricia Thompson and Clive Denton, that Ontario actually got its own film theatre and institute. Over a period of 20 years, from 1969 to 1989, the OFT ran the most ambitious and most complete film screenings in the province.

Gerald spoke about the founding of the Ontario Film Theatre in an interview that appeared in Independent Eye in 1991. “Back in the mid-1960s I became increasingly perturbed by the failure of the Canadian Film Institute in Ottawa to do anything much for Toronto, let alone for the rest of Canada. They didn’t seem to be making much progress in forming a national presence. One of the reasons Montreal established the Cinémathèque québécoise (founded in 1962, initially known as the Conaissance du cinéma) was because the CFI wasn’t doing anything for Montreal. Quebec wanted their own so they got their own. I was on the board of directors at the CFI for some time. I urged them to move to Toronto; nothing was going on very much in Ottawa. But they refused.”

This antipathy toward the CFI would prove to be his eventual undoing. For it would be people associated with the CFI, including Piers Handling and Wayne Clarkson, that would end up running the Toronto film festival and eventual taking over what Gerald had built all those years, and he did not take to this kindly or graciously. However, before I explore this rivalry further, I need to flashback to the Canadian Film Awards of 1973. In 1973, a number of Quebec filmmakers boycotted the Awards out of a perception that the organization had a systemic bias against Francophone films. This protest resulted in the last-minute cancellation of the 1973 awards ceremony, with the winners announced at a press conference and the complete cancellation of the 1974 awards. 

Slipstream, movie, poster,
This poster for Slipstream was scanned from an original in the Northernstars Collection.
The 1973 awards were also criticized for the international jury’s choice of Slipstream as best feature over much stronger nominees such as Peter Pearson’s Paperback Hero, Don Shebib’s Between Friends and Claude Jutra’s Kamouraska, with some writers later declaring that the film’s victory essentially confirmed that the boycotting directors were correct in their beliefs. In its December 1973 year in review, The Globe and Mail named Slipstream as the worst film of the year and singled out the Canadian Film Award jury for a special “Grand Prix for General All-Around Stupidity” for choosing it. It should be pointed out that Gerald was the head of the international jury that chose Slipstream in 1973.

This was his Achilles Heel. He sincerely and fundamentally believed he knew better than anyone else and more about movies than his provincial counterparts. He carried around with him that patrician English sense of superiority, a colonist attitude that was anachronistic by the 1970s. When I was hired by Cinema Canada in the late 1980s, my editor warned me to be aware that Gerald “was a fussy old lady.” He was particularly put out when the Festival of Festivals, under the guidance of Piers Handling, assigned Canadian film historian and Queen’s professor Peter Morris, who had roots in the CFI, to write The Film Companion in 1984 as part of the launch of Perspective Canada at the festival. Previously Peter had written the first complete history of early Canadian cinema in Embattled Shadows (1978). In response, Gerald wrote Torn Spockets (1986) and dismissed Morris’ work with his very first sentence: “Canada’s early work in film-making is not important, and there is little point in trying to pretend otherwise.” Not only did he dismiss the silent films of Ernest and Nell Shipman as being unimportant, he took great exception to the work of Cronenberg and Egoyan, constantly trashing their films in his international writings. It was not the sort of thing that endeared him to the new generation of Canadian filmmakers emerging in the 1980s.

Before the Festival of Festivals launched in 1976, there was the Stratford International Film Festival, which Gerald oversaw as head of the OFT. It was a modest affair, in keeping with Stratford’s refined theatrical atmosphere, but it was well run and when producers William Marshall, Henk Van der Kolk and real estate lawyer Murray ‘Dusty’ Cohl were cooking up their plans to launch a splashy international film festival in Toronto they naturally turned to Gerald for advice, even offering him a position with the festival if it all worked out given his experience and standing in the community. But when push came to shove, Bill and the boys froze Gerald out, and when they ran into trouble after a couple of years of extravagant spending, they turned to Wayne Clarkson from the CFI to run things for them and not Gerald. Clarkson brought along his Ottawa buddies, Piers, Peter Harcourt and Peter Morris. These were the people who were going to shape the future of Canadian cinema. Gerald was sidelined, a relic from the past.

The final insult came in 1989 when the OFT was no longer welcome at the Science Centre, and Gerald was given his marching papers. His collection was moved to a warehouse on Don Mills Road north of Eglinton, and a committee was set up to sort out its future. As the Toronto reporter for Cinema Canada, I attended a round table that included Gerald and representatives from Festival of Festivals, York University, the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television, and provincial government bureaucrats. Gerald was still insistent that he could go on running a stand-alone library and institute given the right financing and access to the proper building – he wanted the historic Elgin Theatre on Yonge Street no less – but he was dreaming in Technicolor. York U. was genuinely interested in having the collection, however it only made sense that the festival took over and the collection was moved downtown. It was first placed in the Warner Bros. building at the corner of Church and Carlton. It soon moved a block west into the old Ontario Hydro building at the northeast corner of Yonge and Carlton on the Mezzanine level where it remained for nearly 20 years until TIFF moved into the Bell Lightbox. The OFT morphed into the Cinematheque Ontario with curated programs in the Art Gallery of Ontario screening hall, a real come down from the state-of-the-art auditorium at the Science Centre.

Cameron Bailey, TIFF,
Photo of Cameron Bailey © Ralph Lucas for Northernstars.ca
The brand-spanking new Film Reference Library opened on the fourth floor of the Bell Lightbox with no reference to Gerald anywhere. When Piers announced his retirement last year, it gave me hope and I made an effort to have the library acknowledge Gerald’s contribution. I was further spurred into action when I was in the library one afternoon and the new assistant in charge of research was introduced to me. I asked her a few basic questions and was horrified to discover she didn’t know who Gerald was. It struck me that the Library had hired someone who had not done the research necessary for the job for which she had applied. A research job!

By now I was pretty pissed off, so I started a letter-writing campaign. First to the new head of the library. I was met with deathly silence. Next I wrote to the executive of the Toronto Film Critics Association, an organization I helped create back in 1997, with the idea that the TFCA could apply some pressure. Again silence. I waited a bit longer, and then wrote again, this time to the entire membership of the TFCA with copies to the head of the library and the new co-head of TIFF, Cameron Bailey. Cameron emailed me back several months later with the news that a plaque would be going up outside the entrance to the library. He was good to his word and Gerald has finally got his due.

The text reads: Gerald Pratley (1923 – 2011) We would like to acknowledge the key role that Gerald Pratley played in the establishment of The Film Reference Library. Pratley was a true champion of film and a tireless leader. As a founder of the Ontario Film Institute, he ensured that a collection of materials indispensible to film education, production, and research was housed and preserved for future generations. In 1990, the Province of Ontario selected TIFF to be the guardian of the Ontario Film Institute, granting its holdings of film prints and film resources and prompting the creation of TIFF’s Film Reference Library.

Northernstars logo imageWyndham Wise is the editor of Take One’s Essential Guide to Canadian Film and publisher of Take One: Film & Television in Canada (1992–2006).