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5 Hollywood Pioneers You Didn’t Know Were Canadian

Just about everyone on both sides of the 49th are well aware of the Canuck credentials of such Hollywood heavyweights as Ryan Reynolds, Keanu Reeves, Rachel McAdams and Jason Reitman (Apparently the letter “R” holds the key to success here). But the maple syrup trail goes all the way back to the founding of the world’s movie capital. Here are five iconic names and faces you didn’t realize were fellow Canadians.

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5) Mary Pickford (1892-1979)

Born Gladys Marie Smith, this Toronto girl would gain fame as “America’s Sweetheart” via her appearances in films at the New York-based Biograph studio after being discovered by pioneering director D.W Griffith. She quickly rose in popularity among moviegoers and within a few years, became the first actress to sign a million dollar contract (with Adolph Zukor’s Paramount Pictures).

Not content to merely work in front of the camera, Pickford moved into producing her own work and in 1919 was a founding partner in “United Artists”, a distribution company that gave independent producers a chance to bypass the increasingly vertically-integrated nature of the film industry. By the time sound came in, Pickford’s ingenue days were behind her and she soon retired from acting after making only a few talkies, but not before scoring an Oscar for Best Actress in 1929.

Later in life, she would purchase the rights to many of her early silent films. While she had initially intended to have them destroyed upon her death, she eventually donated 50 of them to the American Film Institute in 1970, helping to preserve a slice of silent cinema for future generations.

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4) Louis B. Mayer (1884-1957)

Although born somewhere in the 19th Century-Russian Empire (the exact location is disputed), the man who would one day run the mightiest studio of Hollywood’s golden age grew up as a boy in St. John, New Brunswick. Saying he had humble beginnings would be an understatement as Mayer quit school at age 12 to support his father’s scrap metal business.

With Atlantic Canada being too small to contain his ambitions, Mayer headed south to Boston in 1904 where he started both a family and later a theatre chain that took advantage of the growing Nickelodeon craze to become the largest such chain in New England. 

Like many of his contemporaries, Mayer grew dissatisfied with just distributing films and expanded his scope into producing them. His move to Los Angeles proved fruitful as what began as the modest “Louis B. Mayer Pictures Corporation” morphed and merged its way into Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1924 and would soon boast of having “more stars than there are in the heavens”. His reputation among these stars ranged from being an overbearing “monster” (Elizabeth Taylor) to a paternal figure and “wonderful guy” (Mickey Rooney). The big budget musicals, technicolor spectacles and small town comedies and dramas helped to define America of the mid-20th Century for both itself and the world.

Mayer would eventually be forced out of MGM by parent company Loews in 1951. While he intended to carry on as a producer via his stake in Cinerama, the picture faded on Mayer’s Hollywood career and he ultimately passed away from leukemia at age 73.

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3) Mack Sennett (1880-1960)

If you’ve ever heard of the “Keystone Kops” or witnessed multiple cream pies to the face, you can thank Mack Sennett. Born Michael Sinnott in Danville, Quebec, this young man initially had ambitions to become a singer (a vocation both his mother and future president Calvin Coolidge allegedly tried to talk him out of!), before falling in love with the relatively new medium of film. He learned all the ropes he could at New York’s Biograph studios before planting his flag in Edendale, California to form the Keystone Studios.

With a firm eye on slapstick, Sennet’s production cranked the laugh-o-meter past eleven with its crazy car chases, kooky “Keystone Kops” who possessed more clumsiness than authority, and intense custard pie warfare. The gags were fast and furious and the casts were studded by future stars including Harold Lloyd, Gloria Swanson, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, and most legendary of all, Charlie Chapin. Just about every silent film comedian you can think of got their start under Sennett.

Unfortunately, Sennet himself couldn’t keep up with the times, and once sound came in, film comedy had seemingly left him behind, but not before nurturing one more discovery, Bing Crosby, who got his start in a series of two-reeler shorts produced and occasionally directed by the former Quebecer. Awarded an honorary Oscar in 1938, Sennett went into semi-retirement, making the occasional cameo in various films, including Abbott and Costello Meet the Keystone Kops (1955) before ultimately passing away at age 80 in 1960.

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2) Allan Dwan (1885-1991)

A native of Toronto, Allan Dwan may be the only director of Hollywood’s Golden Age to rival Cecil B. Demille for sheer longevity. Between 1911 and 1961, Dwan directed over 400 films, many featuring the biggest stars of their eras including Douglas Fairbanks, Shirely Temple, Gloria Swanson (he was her favorite director), John Wayne, Jane Russell and Barbara Stanwyck. Never a “name” director, Dwan’s filmmaking style was described by journalist Daniel Eagan as being “so basic as to seem invisible, but he treats his characters with uncommon sympathy and compassion.” 

He left several legacies including helping to devise the dolly shot, starting the career of future Wizard of Oz director Victor Fleming and being a valuable source of information on the silent era in Kevin Brownlow’s ground-breaking docuseries on the silent era, Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film (1980). Like his career, Dwan’s life lasted longer than his contemporaries, only passing away from heart failure at age 96.

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1) Jay Silverheels (1912-1980)

Born as Harold Jay Smith in Ontario’s Six Nations of Grand River, this young Mohawk played lacrosse all across North America before being spotted by actor Joe E. Brown in Los Angeles in 1937 who encouraged him to do a screen test. Smith started as an extra and stuntman, eventually adopting the screen name of Jay Silverheels based on a nickname he had while playing lacrosse.

After nearly a solid decade of playing such roles as “Native Lookout” and “Indian Scout” in a myriad of classic westerns, Silverheels started to play in bigger films like Captain from Castile and Key Largo before finally landing the role that made him a household name; The Lone Ranger’s faithful friend and partner, Tonto.

To an entire generation of children, Tonto was a positive Native American role model when few existed and even fewer were played by Indigenous actors. The role lasted for over 200 episodes and two feature films. While not in front of the camera, Silverheels bred racehorses and supported the Indian Actors workshop, which helped to nurture the talents of a new generation of Indigenous thespians. He passed away at age 67 from a stroke, was cremated and his ashes were returned to his birthplace in Ontario.

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