This week’s blog post is my contribution to The Early Women Filmmakers Blogathon, which is being hosted by Movies Silently. Please visit the Blogathon site to read new reviews and essays about 20th century films directed by women.
The very fact that [film] societies are operated by volunteers (who are elected by a membership except in rare cases) contributes to their unique atmosphere. An unimposed mutual interest first brings the ‘evangelists’ together; it drives them continually to explore and search out films of artistic and historic merit which otherwise might remain unknown and unseen; it urges them to find audiences in living-rooms, halls and theatres; it can stimulate them to study and discuss, often to write, and sometimes even to make films.— Dorothy Burritt, 1959[i]
In Vancouver, British Columbia, during the late 1930s and 1940s, Dorothy Burritt (1910-1963) was one such “evangelist” whose enthusiasm for cinema led her to make films.
The Vancouver Branch of the National Film Society of Canada was organized in 1936 to promote the appreciation of motion pictures, both as art and as entertainment. Its film fare was eclectic and often challenging. The society grew surprisingly in the late 1930s, with a paid membership of 600 or more. The popularity of its screenings is confirmed in a short film that documents a Sunday afternoon show at the Stanley Theatre in April 1940.[ii]
Some of the amateur films produced by society members in Vancouver transcended their creators’ modest intentions, and provide early evidence of an artistic sensibility in western Canadian cinema. Fortunately, these long-forgotten works have been preserved, and can be found in Canadian archival collections.
In the late 1930s, Dorothy Fowler, a UBC student and film society member, met Oscar C. Burritt (1908-1974), a mainstay of the society. He was an avid amateur filmmaker who would go on to work for Vancouver Motion Pictures (later Shelly Films) as a director and cinematographer. They would marry in 1942. Oscar’s VMP colleague Lew Parry recalled Dorothy as “something of an artiste” who was interested in “arty things, arty groups, discussions on philosophy and all that sort of thing.”[iii] Not unlike the collaboration of Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid on Meshes of the Afternoon, the pairing of Dorothy and Oscar brought together her sense of drama and visual style with his wit and cinematographic skill. Their partnership produced a few obscure but delightful treasures of Canadian independent filmmaking.[iv]
Three There (1940) (Digital frame grabs from BC Archives V1986:63 item #1)
Their first complete film, Three There (1940), records a long weekend on Galiano Island in the Strait of Georgia with their friend Margaret Roberts. Although on first appearance nothing more than a well-photographed holiday keepsake (with the requisite posing, repetition and waving to the camera), Three There is actually a little essay in using film to create a sense of place and mood. The action of waves and the passing of steamships mark the languid rhythm of “island time” as the three friends wander along country roads, relax in a cottage, visit neighbours and play on the beach. In a series of striking vignettes, Dorothy lolls in the grass like a reclining goddess and performs dramatic Martha Graham-like gestures in a suspended mirror. Viewing the film is somewhat like listening to the ambient music of Brian Eno (which would in fact be the perfect soundtrack). As elsewhere in Dorothy’s work, there are strange similarities to Maya Deren’s visual style — although Deren would not make her seminal first film Meshes until 1943, some three years later. Especially evident throughout Three There is the affection and humour shared by the trio.[v]
“and–” (ca. 1940). (Digital frame grabs from BC Archives V1985:36 item #1)
At around the same time, Dorothy collaborated with Margaret Roberts to produce the collage film “and–”, the earliest known attempt at experimental filmmaking in Vancouver, and among the earliest in Canada. “and–” is partially composed of material culled from Oscar’s late-1930s footage. This found footage — including negative and inverted (reversed) images and wild camera movements — is combined with painted and scratched stock, and a section where holes punched in the frame have been filled with other images. The result is refreshingly chaotic. From an ominous opening shot of a large metal cylinder rolling toward a fragile glass figurine, the film hurtles headlong through segments of increasingly frenetic rhythmic montage to its abrupt conclusion at a stop sign. Local landmarks appear upside-down, and both Oscar Burritt and Margaret Roberts put in cameo appearances. Preserved today in silent form[vi], the film was originally presented with a soundtrack of jazz music from phonograph records: Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing” and Bud Freeman’s “The Eel”. The technique of painting and scratching directly onto film would later become widely identified with Norman McLaren of the National Film Board of Canada. However, Dorothy and Margaret were almost certainly inspired by the earlier work of Len Lye, whose pioneering short A Colour Box (1935) had been screened by the film society.[vii]
The Vancouver Branch of the National Film Society had been inactive during the Second World War. In 1945-46, however, Dorothy Burritt, Moira Armour and Vernon Van Syckle joined forces with painter and Vancouver School of Art instructor Jack Shadbolt to continue the screenings. Collaborating with the short-lived Labor Arts Guild, they presented an impressive series featuring more than 60 cinema classics. It is worth noting that this series included key works by Luis Bunuel, Sergei Eisenstein, Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau — an ambitious program for any film society, even today.[viii]
The most complete and personal and of Dorothy’s cinematic efforts was Suite Two: A Memo to Oscar (1947), made in collaboration with UBC student and film buff Stanley Fox. In 1946, the Shelly Films operation had moved to Toronto, and Oscar went east to continue working for the company. Dorothy, who remained behind temporarily in Vancouver, conceived Suite Two as a present for her husband: a memento of their old home at Suite 2, 1960 Robson Street — part of an old mansion that would soon be demolished. Like Three There, the film transcends its simple objective, and in so doing provides an amusing glimpse of a unique milieu.
Suite Two depicts Dorothy at home, and records the community of friendships the couple enjoyed in Vancouver. Entering through a window, the roving camera watches Dorothy arise, brush her hair, tidy the apartment, drink coffee, and sit for a formal portrait by painter Peter Bortkus. In the evening, several friends (including film editor Maureen Balfe, film librarian Moira Armour and clairvoyant Nettie Gendall) drop in for drinks, dancing, spirited conversation and a screening of a French feature film, Sacha Guitry’s Pearls of the Crown (1937). Refreshments are served by an absurd figure in an animal costume; he bears a curious resemblance to Sesame Street‘s “Big Bird” of two decades later. The most intimate of the Burritts’ films, essentially made for an audience of one, Suite Two is perhaps the most satisfying as well. Its modest aim — to depict a person, a living space and a milieu — is so charmingly achieved that the film fascinates complete strangers 70 years later. Due to its very specificity, recording this particular person, this room, these curios, and this gathering, the film achieves a degree of “universality.” One can only envy the Burritts the pleasure they took in their friends, and enjoy the spirit in which the film captures it. Suite Two received Honourable Mention in the amateur category at the very first Canadian Film Awards presentation in 1949.[ix] (For further discussion of Suite Two and Dorothy Burritt’s influence, see my recent blog post “Portraits of a Lady”.)
The film society officially regrouped in 1947, and became the Vancouver Film Society in 1950.[x] Moving to the east, the Burritts helped to create the Toronto Film Society. In 1951, when the society brought Maya Deren to Toronto to produce a dance film, Moira Armour and Dorothy Burritt directed the TFS workshop that collaborated with their famous visitor. The completed project, Ensemble for Somnambulists, was shown only once in Toronto. Dissatisfied with the film, Deren never released it, and later remade it as The Very Eye of Night (1952-58).[xi]
Dorothy proved instrumental in building the Canadian Federation of Film Societies, and did much to promote the awareness of film as art in Canada. Oscar left Shelly Films in 1950 to join the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, where he supervised the television film services and trained film personnel. Unfortunately, the couple’s interest in making films lost out to their institutional activities. They continued to shoot home movies, but these largely lacked the playful artistry of their Vancouver films.[xii]
The Burritts’ contribution to the film society movement was recognized by a special Canadian Film Award in 1963, just a few months before Dorothy’s death. Shortly afterwards, the Toronto Film Society established The Dorothy Burritt Memorial Award (later renamed for Dorothy and Oscar Burritt), an annual cash grant to support projects that contribute “to greater understanding and enjoyment of film as an art”.
© 2017 Dennis J. Duffy
[i] Dorothy Burritt, “The Other Cinema,” Food for Thought, vol. 19 no. 6 (March 1959), p. 265.
[ii] This 16 mm footage, shot by Oscar Burritt, is BC Archives item AAAA2047 at the Royal British Columbia Museum (RBCM) in Victoria, BC.
[iii] Lew Parry interviewed by David Mattison, 11 June 1981; oral history tape no. T3855:0004, BC Archives.
[iv] Biographical information about Oscar Burritt and Dorothy Burritt was supplied by Douglas S. Wilson of Toronto in his correspondence with the BC Archives’ moving image archivists, 1981-1990, and by Stan Fox and Don Lytle in conversation with the author.
[v] Three There is preserved at Library and Archives Canada (LAC), Ottawa. The RBCM holds a video reference copy, BC Archives item AAAA2879.
[vi] “and–” is also preserved at LAC. The RBCM holds a video reference copy, BC Archives item AAAA0004.
[vii] Dorothy Burritt, “The Other Cinema,” p. 263.
[viii] Jack Shadbolt, “A Personal Recollection,” in Vancouver: Art and Artists, 1931-1983 (Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery, 1983), p. 41. Shadbolt recalls Dorothy Burritt as a “fanatic” on the subject of cinema.
[ix] The edited camera original of Suite Two: A Memo to Oscar is preserved at the RBCM as BC Archives item AAAA2810.
[x] Societies file no. 2279, “Vancouver Film Society,” B.C. Registrar of Companies files, BC Archives. The society was dissolved in 1953, but a second incarnation was active from 1955 through the early 1970s.
[xi] Herbert Whittaker, “Show Business,” Toronto Globe and Mail, 3 October 1951 p. 9; John Porter, “Artists Discovering Film: Postwar Toronto,” Vanguard, Summer 1984, p. 24. Ensemble for Somnabulists was published as an “extra” on the Zeitgeist Films DVD release of Martina Kudlacek’s documentary In the Mirror of Maya Deren (2002). Dorothy Burritt and Moira Armour are credited under “production assistance”.
[xii] One of their few completed films from this period is Oscar’s Cinemaorgy, which documents the Toronto Film Society’s 1955 visit to George Eastman House at Rochester, New York. It is preserved at LAC.