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First 'talkie' ever filmed in Canada and British Empire shot locally

The first movie with full sound was screened in Timmins in 1929

Everyone is anxious to jump on the bandwagon when it comes to new technology. Especially when it revolutionizes a sector.

Remember back when the first iPhone was introduced? Even earlier, how about the Sony Walkman?

It was no different back in the 1920s with the advent of movies with full sound — or talkies, as they were called at the time.

In Timmins, there were two major events centred around the high-tech advancement of talkies. One is relatively well known locally, the first talkie theatre in Timmins. The other achievement made news in Canada and across the pond.

The Timmins area was the site for the first talkie filmed in not only Canada, but the British Empire. (The U.S.A. previously dominated the field).

The first talkie movie screened in Timmins was at the Goldfield Theatre, at the corner of Balsam Street and Third Avenue. It was part of the Empire theatre chain, owned and founded by Leo Mascioli.

A 2015 story from TimminsToday titled Timmins theatre research in time for 100th anniversary, Jessica Whitehead, then a PHD student from Toronto, researched local movie theatres in the Porcupine Camp.

“Movies were important for the social life of Timmins from the beginning, because of the efforts of Leo Mascioli, the man Hollinger employed to bring mine workers from Italy,” she said. “Once settled in Timmins, the men needed to be housed, fed and entertained. Mascioli started exhibiting films in the gold camps at the back of his grocery store in 1912.

“The first modern movie theatre in Timmins was the New Empire Theatre, built in 1916 on Third Ave. Other theatres existed before. This was the first modern theatre.”

The Empire chain expanded in Timmins and the northeast starting with the Goldfield, the Palace and then into Schumacher, South Porcupine, New Liskeard and Kapuskasing.

By the 1930s, Famous Players Canadian Corporation, owned by Paramount, started taking over independent chains. The Empire fought back and in 1937 signed a partnership agreement with Famous Players. This provided for the building of the Victory Theatre in Timmins (now the Victory Tavern) in exchange for Famous Players getting the rights to the Quintland Theatre in North Bay.

As the new technology was being installed into the Goldfield Theatre, it was big news in Timmins in 1929 — even though the first full-sound movie was shown was at the Rivoli Theatre in New York City on April 15, 1923.

“First talkie here to be noted musical revue,” read the headline in the Sept. 26, 1929 edition of The Porcupine Advance.

“The Power Company’s men under the direction of Mr. Little, engineer of the Northern Electric Col, are at present busy rushing to completion the installation of the equipment at the Goldfields theatre, Timmins, for this town’s first ‘talkie’ motion picture showing,” the story read. “They expect to be ready for testing the equipment by Saturday of this week.

“Next week will be spent on testing and preliminary work to assure everything working smoothly for the opening night for Timmins’ first ‘talkies.’

“On Monday evening, Oct. 7th, the Goldfields theatre will open the talking motion pictures for Timmins with the offering Words and Music, the big musical revue that has made such a decided hit in every city where presented.”

It was reported the flick drew “crowded houses” in Toronto.

The excitement proved to be real as residents flocked to see talkie movies.

“Talking movies prove popular in Timmins,” read the Oct. 10, 1929, headline.

“There seems to be general satisfaction here with the talking movies installed at the Goldfields theatre and opening on Monday of this week with the excellent offering, Words and Music, a musical comedy of much merit,” the story read. “Singing, dancing and other features were especially good, and the reproduction is as perfect as science has been able to make it to date.

Those who have attended other ‘talkies’ agree that the equipment at the Goldfields is equal to if not superior to any of the big city equipment.

“At each performance for the three opening days this week there was a good attendance, the evening shows being crowded. The fact that there are two shows each evening and that both are largely patronized would suggest that the talkies have made a hit here and are proving unusually popular.”

It was the first theatre north of North Bay to install the advanced equipment.

“For the balance of the week, the offering at the Goldfields is the all-talkie comedy The Ghost Talks,” the story added. “Next Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, the offering will be Pleasure Crazed, while Thursday, Friday and Saturday of next week, The Last of Mrs. Cheyney will be shown.

“There are two performances nightly 7:30 p.m. and 9:00 p.m.; doors open at 7. Matinees daily at 2:30 p.m. Two changes of programme each week.”

Even before the Goldfield Theatre was revamped, reports of a talkie to be filmed locally created excitement.

“Timmins production will be first talkie made in Empire,” stated The Porcupine Advance’s headline on May 16, 1929.

“Mr. Geo McCall, motion picture producer, is busy completing the preliminary production of the film version of Breed of the Pioneers, a story of the North Land by Leslie McFarland, formerly of Haileybury,” the story read. “The production will be an all-talking motion picture and will be produced in Timmins and district.

“It will not only be the first all-talkie movie to be produced in Canada, but it will be the first 100 per cent talking motion picture to be produced in the British Empire.

“The whole production is to be made in Timmins and district and $35,000 will be spent on the production in four weeks, according to Mr. McCall. Of the $35,000, there will be $22,000 spent in Timmins.”

Plans were for much of the movie to be done in the Kamiskotia area, with town scenes in Timmins and some in Golden City. There was also an opportunity for locals to appear as extras in the show.

A follow-up story on May 30 provided details of the movie.

McFarlane moved his family to Haileybury for the summer. The Advance story picked up an interview from The Haileyburian.

“I’m particularly pleased that the first of my stories to be purchased for the motion pictures is a North Country yarn and that it will be produced in the North Country,” he said. “It will probably interest Haileybury people to know that the story is really the tale of the Haileybury fire.

“As it appeared originally in MacLean’s Magazine, I was obliged to alter my background considerably, for technical reasons, in order to play up my characters, but the descriptive passages and the general theme rise directly from the disaster. The plot has been elaborated somewhat for the picture version.”

McFarlane was a famed Canadian journalist and novelist. He was also one of the early ghostwriters of The Hardy Boys adventure series, using the pen name Franklin W. Dixon. His son, Brian, became a well-known hockey writer and broadcaster.

Today, the former Goldfield Theatre building is home to apartments.