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HBC at the Movies

Laird Cregar, actor in movie Hudson's Bay, ca. 1940 - HBCA 1987/363-M-67/7

Laird Cregar, actor in movie Hudson's Bay, ca. 1940
HBCA 1987/363-M-67/7

During the early years of filmmaking, the general public was quite satisfied at the prospect of paying admission to a nickelodeon to view such pictorial epics as Arrival of a Train at a Station or Le dejeuner sur l'herbe. However, by the turn of the 20th century the ability to hold audiences captive through the spectacle of moving images had become more difficult. Then, as now, people wanted to be taken away from their every day lives and into a new world. And so narrative film - or to put more simply, storytelling through the movies - was born. And as the content and technique of film became more ambitious and complex, Hollywood began to look for subject matter outside its own backyard. An obvious choice lay just to the north: Canada. Enter Hudson's Bay Company.

As far as we can tell the first filmic references to the Company is a 1915 production titled Alice of Hudson's Bay. Unfortunately, a synopsis could not be found. In all likelihood the story concerns itself with the romantic adventures of a young heroine in the wild and rugged forests of Canada. Its shooting location may also be nowhere near our country. Even up to the 1950s, Hollywood managed to tell its grand Canadian tales without setting foot on our soil. It has always been considerably easier and cheaper to choose locations close to Hollywood or to simply recreate the setting on a sound stage.

Those of you who are fans of director John Ford (The Searchers, Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath) will be delighted to know that he has ties to the Company's filmography. In 1923, Ford directed a picture titled North of Hudson Bay. (Its working title during production was Journey of Death!) In the United Kingdom this silent epic was released as North of the Yukon. Obviously, the exact setting of the story was not that important. The star of the film was western icon, Tom Mix.

Paul Muni, actor in movie Hudson's Bay, ca. 1940 - HBCA 1987/363-M-67/8

Paul Muni, actor in movie Hudson's Bay, ca. 1940
HBCA 1987/363-M-67/8

Perhaps the most significant contribution Hollywood made to the reputation of the Hudson's Bay Company dates from the year of 1940. Twentieth Century-Fox Studios headed up a lavish production titled Hudson's Bay - a title that tells you all you need to know.

Here's a brief synopsis:
The adventurous exploits of early fur traders Radisson and des Groseilliers are chronicled as they struggle to form a trading company. Their first attempt to partner with the French is met with arrest and imprisonment. Through their charming wit and cunning, the two escape and ultimately form a merger with Prince Rupert and King Charles II. Everybody is quite happy. The End.

It must be admitted that the screenwriters did not exactly emphasize the more exciting aspects of the Company's formation in 1670. This is both unfortunate and somewhat surprising, especially considering that The Beaver magazine's editor, Clifford Wilson, is listed in the film's credits as technical advisor. The rationale for such a large-scale production is also a little baffling, since it is fair to say that despite a total running time of 95 minutes not much happens. However it may be that 20th Century Fox felt a certain need to compete with other studios in the area of period costume epics. These types of films were very high on the list of project priorities. People loved to see expensive looking sets, locations, costumes, etc. Gone With The Wind had been released only the year before to great overall success. It probably seemed like a good time to cash in with another big historical costume drama. In that respect Hollywood hasn't changed at all over the years!

Promotional window display promoting movie Hudson's Bay, Jan 1941 - HBCA 1987/363-M-67/9

Promotional window display promoting movie Hudson's Bay, Jan 1941
HBCA 1987/363-M-67/9

A glance at the cast and crew of Hudson's Bay Company brings a nostalgic smile to one's face. Director Irving Pichel was responsible for co-directing the 1932 classic thriller, The Most Dangerous Game. The cast includes Paul Muni (Scarface), Gene Tierney (Laura), Vincent Price (House of Usher, Edward Scissorhands) and Nigel Bruce (Suspicion). The main cinematographer is George Barnes. According to the Internet Movie Database, Barnes carries an amazing 143 listed credits for cinematography, including work on films such as Rebecca, Jane Eyre, Spellbound, The Bells of St. Mary's and War of the Words. And yes, Hudson's Bay was not shot in Canada at all; instead, it was filmed in the state of Idaho and on 20th Century-Fox sound stages.

So what sort of film is it? Well, it's not horrible. It is quite competently produced. But it just lies there without very much to say. Nor do the hilariously ludicrous French-Canadian accents serve the history of the Hudson's Bay Company well. As for the critical and financial success of this film, no information could be found. Perhaps the fact that the there hasn't been an HBC themed movie since Hudson's Bay was released says something? Which really is too bad. Because there are lots of wonderful HBC stories just waiting to be told.