Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The Endangered List (Case File #32)


Christopher George (Roy MacRae)
Johnny Crawford (Chris MacRae)
Johnny Yesno (Muskrat)
Al Koslik (Fisherman)
Wally MacSween (Cannery Manager)
Gordon Robertson (A Drunk)
Wendy Sparrow (Carol)


Directed by
George McCowan

Written by
William Sigurgeirson and Jacob Zilber

Produced by
James Margellos

Cinematography by
Miklós Lente

Music by
Grant Herrocks

Edited by
Werner Franz


VANCOUVER -- Preceding the world premiere of producer Bob Elliott's feature movie THE INBREAKER at the Orpheum Theatre here, the 38-year-old filmmaker was involved in a round of grassroots campaigning, a tour that took him, composer Grant Herrocks, arranger Curt Watts, scriptwriter Jacob Zilber and star Johnny Crawford into a total 13 lower mainland schools. Following the picture's premiere, THE INBREAKER was set to open in 15 British Columbia theatres (five of them in the Vancouver area), the largest multiple opening yet for a Canadian-made film.

Intensive Campaign

Describing Elliott's intensive campaign, the Province's Michael Walsh said, "For the students, the Elliott presentation offers a behind-the-scenes look at the business of making movies, together with an opportunity to talk to some local film people. For Elliott, it is a chance to promote THE INBREAKER, the project that is his own big break into the world of feature filmmaking. The school tour is designed, primarily, to make the local youth audience aware of a youth-oriented action-adventure picture. There is an irony in it, though, in that Elliott himself is a high school dropout. "I was more interested in the film business than I was in school," he said in his office. In the time-honored Hollywood tradition, he left school at 17 to take a job in a movie house.

Unlike a lot of would-be filmmakers, Elliott was more interested in learning about the movie business than cinema art. From a Saturday job -- changing the signs outside a North Vancouver theatre -- he progressed through the ranks of usher and assistant manager to full manager. "A person progresses in a series of plateaus," he said. One of the major plateaus that he achieved was managerial status within the Famous Players organization.

It was at that point that Elliott decided that "I wanted to own my own theatre." A friend, movie producer Jim Margellos, put him in touch with some people looking for a theatrical investment. The results was the formation of a new company, Northwest Cinemas, and the building of a double auditorium theatre, the Langley Twin Cinema.

First Movie

It was at the same time that Elliott decided to make his first movie. As manager of Famous Players' Park Royal cinemas, he was in charge of a successful Saturday matinee program. "I knew that if the kids could actually see themselves on that big movie screen, they'd keep coming back," he said.

Buying a used 16mm camera, he shot a ten-minute short celebrating the joys of the Saturday Fun Show. "The kids loved it," he said. "We showed it at one Saturday matinee and it went over so well that we later played it as the short with Disney's THE ARISTOCATS.

Following that experience, Elliott says "I started reading books on filmmaking, because I wanted to make a proper shot and try for national distribution." A second company, Bob Elliott Productions, was founded to make movies.

One of the things that his years of booking and buying film had taught him was the importance of distribution. “There’s no point to making movies if you’re only going to show them in your basement,” he said. “I knew that, if we were to produce films, the only way to assure their distribution would be to form a distribution company.”

That base he covered with Elliott Distributing, a company that acts as a British Columbia subdistributor for a number of Toronto-based organizations. In recent months, it has handled such feature films as LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK, a Charles Bronson thriller titled THE FAMILY, the cycle sport documentary ON ANY SUNDAY, and a Bill Cosby drama titled MAN AND BOY.


On the production side, Elliott turned out three short subjects, then turned his attention to a feature project. With Jake Zilber, a creative writing instructor at UBC, he developed an EASY RIDER-like property titled CALICO HIGHWAY. The idea was submitted to the federal government’s movie-funding body, the Canadian Film Development Corp. “They asked for a rewrite,” Elliott said, “and then they asked for another rewrite. Eventually, as an exhibitor, I could see that the time was past for that kind of movie, so we decided to forget that one and go on to THE INBREAKER.”

This time the elements came together more smoothly. The CFDC gave its stamp of approval to Elliott’s first revision and even went so far as to recommend an experienced director, Toronto’s George McCowan, who currently works out of Los Angeles. Reading over the script, an original story about a college student who travels to the West Coast to spend the summer working for his brother, a commercial fisherman, he suggested two actors. To play the older brother he recommended American TV actor Christopher George. To play his arch rival he suggested Toronto broadcaster Johnny Yesno.

Hires Johnny Crawford

Elliott had his own ideas about the pivotal younger brother role. Having seen an Academy Award-winning short titled THE RESURRECTION OF BRONCO BILLY, he decided to hire Johnny Crawford. THE INBREAKER went before the cameras last July in Alert Bay. After five weeks of shooting and seven and a half months of post-production work, it was ready.

Elliott planned one of the biggest launchings ever given a local film. The premiere was a major production, with the stars and their guests arriving in an eight-car vintage-vehicle cortege. Outside the Orpheum, on the still-unfinished Granville Mall, the 70-piece North Vancouver Youth Band filled the3 street with music. Inside, the 12-man Bob Herriott Big Band did the same for the theatre lobby.

Before the end of August, Elliott Distributing will have spent $30,000 on advertising and publicity. The film, Elliott says, currently is booked into 43 British Columbia centers. Every one of his 15 prints will be in active use during a two-month period, working to help Elliott attain yet another plateau.

After the launching of THE INBREAKER, Elliott hopes to turn his operation into a full-scale production house. He has charted an expensive, extensive program of expansion that includes the development of both production facilities and film properties. "We're ready to go into back-to-back production of three feature films and we have an idea for a TV series," he said. His plans are based on the acquisition of financing -- some $3.5 million worth -- the availability of which probably will depend on the performance of THE INBREAKER.

"If hard work can make it happen, though, the odds are with him...Bob Elliott (could be) well on his way to becoming British Columbia's first homegrown movie mogul."

(Boxoffice, July 22, 1974, p.K-1 & K-4)


ALERT BAY, B.C. – “The two Indians were fighting or at least looked as if they were both drunk and fighting. Actually they were sober and faking it,” according to Les Wedman, Vancouver Sun columnist. “One was Johnny Yesno and the other was Lenny George, both playing parts in THE INBREAKER, the $400,000 first feature film that both Bob Elliott Films is shooting here and at Port Hardy on Vancouver Island.”

In an in-depth description of the filming of the fight sequence, Wedman said, “The fight that John Thomas, combination stunt coordinator and electrician on the movie, had choreographed for the actors was real enough for director George McCowan and cinematographer Miklos Lente. And it looked real to Alert Bay Indians who had been recruited as extras to fill out the fight sequence outside one of the three beer parlors in the fishing town.

When the film’s second assistant director, Don Granbery, explained to the extras that the two Indian actors actually were good guys in the Jake Zilber-W. J. Sigurgeirson story and white man Christopher George was the villain, they calmed down. But before they did, Johnny Yesno thought he was going to have to stand back-to-back with Lenny George and slug it out with the others. He was even willing to run but George said if he were hit, he’d hit back.

Importing Indians to Alert Bay – with 800 of its own, according to local statistics – is like taking coals to Newcastle. And the situation was just as incendiary. A busty blonde woman, reportedly somewhat in her cups at 10 a.m., leaned out of a window above the movie make-believe and shouted, “I’ll give five bucks to anyone who’ll get in there and make it real.”

There were no takers and the ante was raised to $10, along with deprecating remarks about the movies giving the worst impression about Indians. When all that failed to stop the action, she then offered children in the street $1 each to step in front of the camera or blow gum bubbles into the lens. Earlier, Jacques Herbert, sometime actor from Nanaimo, playing the Rubber Man in the film, had been filmed as he was being forcibly ejected from a pub, landing on his back on the street with the guitar he was playing. The scene had to be done 14 times before director McCowan was satisfied and, by then, apart from Hubert being black and blue, a lot of the townsfolk were red hot with anger, again because they thought the heave-ho was for real. “I think,” said producer Jim Margellos, “that we have worn out our welcome in Alert Bay.”

To anyone’s recollection, the Canadian production THE INBREAKER is the first feature film ever to shoot in the small community. It’s possible, had the movie people not wrapped it up in Alert Bay that day -- the rest of the action to be done in Port Hardy -- that the community might have started shooting back.

Cameras Were Novelties

When cameras first turned three days earlier, they were a novelty. Many of the residents stood around to satisfy their curiosity. The next day, when it was necessary to stop traffic occasionally on the town’s only main street, there were rumblings of resentment. That night the fishing boats docked and fishermen were walking around with thousands of dollars in their pockets. The following day, when the movie fight was being staged, there weren’t too many sober people about and the local people were openly hostile.

The next morning, well ahead of schedule, was spent in pick-up shots of Hollywood actors George and Johnny Crawford. The movie company worked unimpaired and met only casual disinterest, even from the pub-crawlers. George McCowan, back in the comparative safety of the Thunderbird Hotel in Port Hardy, looked as if he’d been through the wringer. “I’ve filmed in the Tenderloin area of San Francisco at two in the morning and I’ve never seen anything comparable to what we ran into at Alert Bay,” he said.

Avoids All Trouble

Actor Chris George, who plays an Indian-hating fisherman in THE INBREAKER, doesn’t like trouble of any kind, especially if it would mean the makeup artist Pentti Taivainen would have to try to cover up a swollen eye. That’s why, in his hotel bar, at a table surrounded by friends in the film, George, former truck driver and New York private eye, ignored stares from a corner table whose occupants couldn’t resist bumping his chair as they passed by. Temper under control, through gritted teeth, George just said “there are trouble-makers in this room” and ignored the situation.

Johnny Yesno, host of CBC Radio’s Our Native Land when he’s not working in films and an articulate spokesman on Indian problems, blames “the government, politicians and the media too” for ignoring the plight of Indians in remote areas of this country. In defense of the drinking Indian, Yesno -- who isn’t opposed to an eyeopener himself -- said the hotels themselves are culprits. “They don’t kick them out until they pass out or run out of money.”

At closing time, the police swoop down to “fill their quota” to impress on their headquarters how much they’re needed in isolated Canadian towns, he said.

[Boxoffice, August 13, 1973, p.K-6]

Special thanks to Robert Richardson and John Charles


Robert said...

It's a puzzle to me that despite featuring Christopher George in the cast this has never found its way to video, a typical fate of many small Canadian films but with a recognizable Hollywood actor you'd hope it would enjoy a bit more marketability. I seem to recall the film playing on Pay TV in Canada circa 1983-4 but failed to catch an airing.

Discovering the connection with Northwest Movie Centres Ltd was quite interesting. At one point in the mid-to-late 1970s they owned a trio of cinemas in British Columbia's Fraser Valley - Langley, Maple Ridge, and Port Coquitlam. THE INBREAKER's film editor, Werner Franz, briefly was the owner-operator of the Maple Ridge cinema and perhaps not too surprisingly THE INBREAKER played there. Franz unfortunately passed away at an early age due to heart attack. I'm not sure how long Northwest was around - a decade perhaps - but all three cinemas are long since gone.

I give credit to Bob Elliott for obviously jumping into the promotion of the film with enthusiasm. Reviews for THE INBREAKER were at best mediocre, but I wish he'd met with a bit more success and helped encourage more indigenous productions at that point in the 1970s.

Larry said...

I remebered when this was made, they used the St Alice Hotel beer parlour in North Vancouver and used a lot of the locals, I met and chatted with Johnny Crawford in the lobby. Wish there was a release on vhs or dvd. still looking though.