Lights, camera, Trenton: How a small Ontario town became Hollywood North

From 1917 to 1934, the Trenton Film Plant made more than 1,500 silent films. We talked to local historian Peggy Dymond Leavey about the studio’s heyday — and its biggest box-office bomb
By David Rockne Corrigan - Published on December 3, 2018

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Today, “Hollywood North” typically refers to Toronto or Vancouver. But 101 years ago, the title might well have belonged to Trenton, the home of Canada’s first and, for a time, only movie studio.

Opened in 1917, the Trenton Film Plant was rented out to various filmmakers before the provincial government purchased it in 1923 to use as a production centre for the recently formed Ontario Motion Picture Bureau. The bureau’s mandate was to provide “educational work for farmers, school children, factory workers and other classes,” to advertise Ontario as a place to live and invest, and to “encourage the building of highways and other public works.”

Between 1917 and 1934, the studio made more than 1,500 silent films. One of those films, a First World War drama called Carry On, Sergeant! (not to be confused with the first instalment of the British comedy franchise) was the studio’s biggest production. It cost $500,000 to make — more than $7 million today — and hundreds of locals were hired as extras and crew. But the film was a flop: it screened for only a few weeks in a handful of theatres across the province and was never shown outside of Canada.

By the early ’30s, though, silent films had been eclipsed by talkies — and the plant was not equipped to keep up with the evolving industry. In 1934, Liberal premier Mitchell Hepburn announced that Ontario should not be in the movie business, and the Trenton Film Plant was shuttered, soon fading into memory. (For a time, it was a community hall; today, it’s home to a textile mill.) The studio is the subject of a recent documentary, Hollywood of the North. We talk to Peggy Dymond Leavey, local historian and author of The Movie Years, about its history and legacy.

Why was Trenton chosen as the location for a movie studio?

Around 1915, there were a number of small movie companies that were popping up here and there. But none of them ever had a permanent studio. In 1917, a company by the name of Canadian National Features was looking for a place to build a movie studio. Trenton was not the first choice. They were actually trying to get something built in Kingston. But that deal fell through. I guess we had a good Chamber of Commerce in those days, so we were able to attract them.

What was the biggest film to be made at the studio?

That was when the studio was leased from the government by another company that was making Canada’s big epic film. That was Carry On, Sergeant!. And that was in 1927-28. At the time, Hollywood pretty well had a monopoly on movie-making. Great Britain was going to enact a new quota law that stipulated that all films had to be made in the British Commonwealth by a British subject with a screenplay written by a British subject. Canadian International Films was able to fulfill all that criteria. They hired Bruce Bairnsfather, who was a famous British cartoonist. He came here while he was on a speaking tour and took a look around and fell in love with the area. He thought it was the perfect place to make a film. He wanted to tell the story of Canada’s role in World War I.

What was the impact of this production on the community?

This was a very poor town. The nationalization of the railroads impacted a lot of the workers that were here. The logging industry had gone downhill. So anybody that could make some money jumped on the bandwagon and went to apply to be extras for the movie. People flocked to get even a dollar a day to be an extra. They were also hired to build sets and dig trenches. Some people actually say it was a boomtown when the movie studio was here. Other people just weren’t really interested and thought the “movie people” — which is what the locals called them — were not the type of people they should be associating with.

Carry On, Sergeant! was known at the time for a controversial scene involving a soldier and a "saloon girl." What was that about?

All you see is the couple going up the stairs. The soldier was on R&R, and they trooped into this little town. And there was a saloon there, and one of the saloon girls fell in love with the sergeant. He was originally uninterested, but she was really enamoured with him in his kilt. And one night, he succumbed to her charm, and they went upstairs to spend the night together. But you don’t see any of that, other than the suggestion of them going up the stairs. Some people think that was the reason so many people wanted to see the movie, but I think they would have been disappointed. In those days, it created a bit of a flurry, though.

Was the film a success?

It cost half a million dollars to make, which in those days was just out of this world. But it didn’t do well. It premiered at the Regent Theatre in Toronto. It had a successful two-week run there. But after that, it showed for a week at a time in a couple of smaller centres like Kingston and St. Catharines. It came to Trenton for a week. I imagine that was fun for everyone involved. But a funny thing happened: it was never sold in the United States, and it was never sold to Great Britain, which was the reason for making it in the first place. And, after that, it just kind of disappeared.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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