Saturday, 7 March 2020

350 Years of the Hudson's Bay Company on Film

Today's special post comes from the 2020 O Canada! Blogathon. Click on the banner above to learn more about films from the Great White North!

One of the oldest American film genres is the Western, dating back to 1903's The Great Train Robbery. Being one of the oldest, it has also been the most prone to falling in and out of favour. Worse yet, it can often become a victim of its own popularity. In the heydays when Westerns were everywhere, filmmakers looked for every opportunity to set the next serial, B-movie, or A-lister apart. That sometimes led to inspired insanity of Weird Westerns like Gene Autry's Phantom Empire, but one of the most enduring has been the "Northern." Still steeped in American attitudes and traditions, the action is transplanted to the mighty "Northwoods." Mounted Police take the place of sheriffs and rangers (despite having very different approaches to law enforcement), French Canadians and Métis take the place of Mexicans and swarthy "half-breeds", the Sierra Nevada mountains replaced Griffith Park (few productions ever actually made it up to the Canadian Rockies), but the movie "Indians" remained more or less the same. And snow. Always snow.

The Klondike Gold Rush of 1896-97 became a potent setting, though it was always imagined by Hollywood's writers and directors to be a wild and lawless place more like Nevada, filled with gunfights and swaggering riverboat gamblers. The reality was that the Mounted Police under the command of Sam Steele kept everything very orderly in the Queen's Dominion, much to the surprise of unruly American Stampeders. Sometimes the setting was the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway across the country in the early 1880's, though again, with considerably more bloodshed than happened in fact. Treaties had been signed between the Crown and Indigenous peoples years before the railway was built. Most often, the setting for a Northern was just the far-flung regions of a generic mountainous, forested landscape. The most archetypal of these films is Rose Marie, the 1936 musical starring Nelson Eddy and Jeanette Macdonald. Ostensibly taking place in Northern Quebec maybe, it was filmed in the Lake Tahoe region of California and features a song and dance number under a massive faux-Pacific Northwest totem pole.

But before the Mounties, before the treaties, and before the Canadian Pacific Railway, the vast regions of the Northwoods were the monopoly of the Hudson's Bay Company. Turning 350 years old in 2020, Canada's national department store is the world's oldest retailer and one of the world's oldest extant commercial enterprises. Its exciting images of palisade trading posts, luxurious beaver fur, ribald voyageurs, and isolation in the Northwoods turned Hollywood's head, and often to the Company's chagrin.

Hudson's Bay, released in 1941, stands out as the biggest budget attempt to tell the origins of the Hudson's Bay Company as a serious drama. Paul Muni stars as Pierre Esprit Radisson with Laird Cregar as his brother-in-law and partner in adventure, Médard Chouart des Groseilliers, a pair of coureur des bois (independent fur traders) in New France who discovered the great fur-bearing regions of Northern Ontario and Manitoba.

Born in France in 1636 or 40, Radisson arrived in New France in 1651. Shortly thereafter he was captured by the Iroquois and adopted into a family. He learned all the necessary skills for survival in the Canadian wilderness and the tongues of different Indigenous peoples. Unfortunately, a botched escape attempt resulted in his horrific torture (including having the skin of his feet stripped, his fingernails pulled out, and his hands thrust into hot coals). He eventually did escape, successfully, and on return to New France found his half-sister married to des Groseilliers. For his part, des Groseilliers had come to New France from old France a decade before the brash Radisson. The more stable of the pair, he had already ingrained himself into prominent families in Quebec. But the lure of fur beckoned them both.

On return to Quebec, the majority of their profits were confiscated by the governor on the grounds that they left New France without permission. Pitches for an expedition into Hudson's Bay for a more direct route to the fur-bearing lands of modern-day Manitoba and Ontario fell on deaf ears in New France, New England, and France proper. In England, however, they found a willing partner in Prince Rupert of the Rhine and his cousin King Charles II (played in Hudson's Bay by Vincent Price). Recently restored to power after the republic of Cromwell, the monarchy was hurting for cash and ready to give out trading monopolies left, right, and centre. These monopolies served two main purposes, spreading the British Empire while fattening the Crown's coffers. Charters to groups like the East India Trading Company and Hudson's Bay Company offered a more cost-effective form of imperialism.  

Not content to leave an expensive feature film to the vagaries of history, writer Lamar Trotti and director Irving Pichel added in John Sutton as Lord Edward Crewe, an entirely fictional English nobleman exiled from his home country who becomes the financier of the expedition into the mighty Northwoods. His main functions seem to be 1) to provide a handsome leading man opposite Paul Muni's more swarthy characterization of Radisson, 2) to provide Muni a foil for Radisson's speeches, and 3) to provide romantic tension in a subplot involving Lady Barbara Hall (Gene Tierney). Crewe's ear is turned by Radisson when he is promised the fabulous wealth required to get him back in the good graces of King Charles II and to wed Lady Barbara. 

Excerpts from Hudson's Bay, featuring Vincent Price.

The fictional Crewe provides a link between Radisson and Prince Rupert of the Rhine (played by Nigel Bruce, most famous as the Watson to Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes). The gambit works and the trio are given use of the king's ship Nonsuch for a return voyage to Hudson's Bay, laden with trading goods. In historical fact, two ships were dispatched, both formerly of the Royal Navy: the Nonsuch and the Eaglet. The Eaglet, which carried Radisson, was forced to turn back by storms in the North Atlantic. Only the Nonsuch, bearing des Groseilliers, made it successfully to the mouth of the Prince Rupert River draining into Hudson's Bay. After a profitable winter of 1668/69, the ship returned to England and the Royal Charter establishing The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson's Bay was signed in 1670.  

To meet the European demand for fashionable hats made from beaver fur felt, the HBC was granted a trading monopoly over all of the lands where all of the rivers drain into Hudson's Bay. In 1670 nobody knew how vast that territory was: it includes Northern Quebec, Northern Ontario, the entirety of Manitoba and most of Saskatchewan and Nunavut, and Southern Alberta right into the Rocky Mountains. This territory was named "Rupert's Land" after Prince Rupert. 

Hudson's Bay split from history once again by only having the one vessel and having Radisson on it. Along for the ride was Lady Barbara's equally fictional brother Gerald (Morton Lowry), who adds some dramatic tension to what would otherwise have been a desolate and uneventful winter by the frozen sea. Contrary to Radisson's wishes, Gerald trades brandy to the Natives, causing drunkenness and murder. An atonement in blood is demanded, else there be a Native uprising. It is interesting to see a fairly enlightened (if somewhat paternalistic) concern for the effects of alcohol on Indigenous populations in a film of this sort. The businessmen of the Hudson's Bay Company are portrayed as being perfectly willing to trade brandy to the people they characterize as "savages," but the dignity and well-being of the Indigenous peoples are constantly being defended by Radisson. The HBC actually did refrain from trading alcohol to Indigenous peoples wherever the company held a monopoly, on the understanding that alcoholism interfered with the orderly progress of fur trapping and trading. 

It takes some time and many speeches by Radisson for Crewe to understand this as well. Those speeches clearly articulate how Hudson's Bay is not merely a wilderness adventure film set in the Northwoods, but a wartime propaganda film and a cinematic origin mythology for Canada. The film itself opens with the national anthem of Canada (which hadn't been written for another two centuries after the events of this film) and the two dominant pieces used in the orchestral score are that same national anthem and the French chanson "Auprès de ma blonde" (which also wouldn't have been written for another decade). The tune of "O Canada" swells noticeably when Radisson starts to wax poetic about his dreams of a future great nation that will rise from Canada's bosom, where anyone from any nation and walk of life may be strong and free, as long as they love the land and love the people in it.   

Opening of Hudson's Bay, with its abridgment of "O Canada."

Intriguing parallels can be drawn between Hudson's Bay and the other great Canadian propaganda film of 1941, 49th Parallel. Though the latter takes place in 1941 with a story of stranded Nazi U-boat survivors trying to make it through Canada to the then-neutral United States, both films articulate a vision of Canada as a place of tolerance and opportunity against a backdrop of stunning, rugged natural beauty. Speech after speech is made in both to Canada's many virtues and its safe distance from the slaughter unfolding in Europe. Oddly though, neither film was made by Canadians. 49th Parallel was a British production and Hudson's Bay was by 20th Century Fox. At least 49th Parallel was mostly shot on location, which is more than could be said for Hudson's Bay.  

Hudson's Bay appealed not only to wartime nationalism and the interest in Northerns, but also to historical costume dramas and "mountain man" type films. Prior to Hudson's Bay, Spencer Tracy fought Natives in Northwest Passage (1940) and Randolph Scott played the part of Hawkeye in Last of the Mohicans (1936). Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert tried to save their farm from the ravages of the American Revolution in Drums Among the Mohawk (1939), and there was, of course, that other great costume drama of 1939, Gone With the Wind. There has never been a shortage of historical dramas, but the time seemed particularly ripe for a film about the Hudson's Bay Company. Even DeMille was considering making one until he caught wind that Hudson's Bay was in production.  And as we shall see, that was probably a good thing.

Hollywood has typically held a tense relationship with the Hudson's Bay Company, with no small part of the blame going to DeMille. The archetype of the vicious, corrupt "chief factor" who's word was the only law and whose fists were iron was an easy one to appeal to for cinematic villains. This figure's main weapon of punishment was la longue traversée, where offenders were sent out into the snows with no protection or provisions, never to return. The problem, of course, was that this never happened.

The 1923 film North of Hudson's Bay, directed by John Ford and starring Tom Mix, is a long-form treatment of la longue traversée. Alternate titles in non-English markets are usually some variation on "The Death Trail," which figures so prominently in the story. In it, Tom Mix's brother is killed by a villainous fur trader with designs on his gold mine. The brother's partner Angus is framed and sent on the Death Trail. There he is intercepted by Mix, en route to join his brother. Heading the same direction is the daughter of the villainous trader, and the two strike up a romance that becomes complicated when Mix is also sent on the Death Trail. Approximately 40 minutes of North of Hudson's Bay's original 50 minutes currently exists.

The remaining footage of North of Hudson's Bay (1923)

An archetypal example of the villainous chief factor is Nomads of the North (1920), making its third straight appearance on this blog for this blogathon. Produced by James Oliver Curwood and based on his own book, it is a poignant example of everything Northerns had to offer in the Golden Age of Hollywood, including the conniving son of a corrupt HBC official.

  One more time for Nomads of the North (1920)!

As we've discussed in a previous article, Curwood's relationship with Canada was ambivalent. The government granted him a stipend to visit the country each year to gather material for his extremely popular novels. But his portrayal of Canada as a lawless frontier was irksome to the colonial offices of the Canadian Pacific and Canadian National Railways. Yet for as much damage as Curwood may or may not have caused for the image of the Hudson's Bay Company, perhaps nobody did worse than Cecil B. DeMille.

The most infamous of DeMille's "Canuxploitation" films was North West Mounted Police (1940), discussed at greater length in another prior article. Widely regarded as an awful film in its own right, it grossly misrepresents the North West Resistance of 1885, when the Métis people of what is now Saskatchewan fought for their rights against the Government of Canada. The Métis are the descendants of European fur traders, primarily French and Scottish, who married Indigenous women. In traditional Indigenous societies, trading was as much a process of treaty-making as an exchange of goods. For Europeans to access those trading networks, it was advantageous to marry into the communities they encountered. Furthermore, Indigenous women held the necessary language and survival skills for life as a trader in the Canadian Northwoods. To be fair, these marriages were also advantageous to the Indigenous women and their families, giving them privileged access to European trade goods, medicines, technologies, and the power structures of the traders. These marriages resulted in retiring European men abandoning their "country" families as often as not, but nevertheless, their children were imparted with a hybrid of European and Indigenous cultural traditions that further evolved to the Great Plains, creating a unique Métis culture that consistently found itself having to fight for its rights against the Government of Canada.

In DeMille's hands, the Métis were reduced to mere swarthy Hollywood "half-breeds" whose defeat was not due to excessive Canadian military strength mobilized by a recently completed transcontinental railway, but thanks to a Texas Ranger portrayed by Gary Cooper. More egregious than DeMille's most disregarded and forgotten film was his invention of the previously maligned la longue traversée in 1914. The offending film was Call of the North, co-directed by DeMille and Oscar Apfel. Itself based on the 1903 novel The Conjuror's House; a Romance of the Free Forest by Stewart Edward White and it's 1908 stage adaptation, Call of the North features a corrupt chief factor sending the son of a man wrongfully executed for adultery out on la longue traversée, only to be rescued by his lady love and the Chief Factor's own guilt revealed.

An excerpt from Call of the North (1914) in which the
protagonist is sentenced to la longue traversée.  

When the film Call of the North was remade in 1921, with Jack Holt in the lead role and depicting pillaging and death marches at the hands of the HBC, the venerable company had enough. HBC sued Paramount Pictures for misrepresentation of history and defamation. Since then, Hollywood was more careful to portray its evil fur traders as belonging to no particular company. In North of Hudson's Bay, for example, the flags flying over the villainous trader's post are the British Red Ensign, but devoid of the logo of the HBC.

The Hudson's Bay Company flag. In North of Hudson's Bay, the "HBC" is missing.

Simultaneously, the HBC took the bit in its own teeth and produced its own documentary to commemorate its 250th anniversary. Released in 1920, The Romance of the Far Fur Country is arguably one of the most important documents in Canadian cinematic history. Not only is it an early example of the documentary form more frequently attributed to  Robert J. Flaherty's Nanook of the North (1922), but as a documentary it tracks the entirety of the Hudson's Bay Company's fur trading operations, from its urban department stores on the Canadian Prairies to trading posts in the High Arctic, from Hudson's Bay to Alert Bay, from how beavers are trapped to traditional Indigenous hide tanning processes to traversing the country by canoe. It is a better and more complete visual documentation of the HBC's operations than could ever have been asked or hoped for.

Modern trailer for Romance of the Far Fur Country (1920).

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the film is how readily it shows the tensions within the enterprise of Canadian colonialism. At one point, the film turns its attentions to an Indigenous chief who is given time to express his grievances with the government's failure to live up to the treaties. In the Canadian version of the film, this is presented very straightforwardly. The title cards transcribe a very forthright and reasoned criticism. However, in the alternate cut of the film shown in British theatres, none of the chief's grievances are expressed. It says that he has grievances, certainly, but these are paternalistically dismissed as the infantile complaints by unenlightened people who do not understand the graciousness of British rule. Indeed, as the 19th century drew on, the Hudson's Bay Company was accused by the British Parliament of interfering with colonialism. It was in the interests of a fur trading company reliant upon the traditional networks of Indigenous peoples to maintain the status quo. Having settlers flooding into Rupert's Land would have been bad for the HBC's bottom line, and so the company consistently fed Parliament disinformation about Western Canada for decades. By 1870, the situation was untenable and Parliament forced the HBC to liquidate its claim to Rupert's Land, selling their monopoly to the newly formed Government of Canada for £300,000 (£34,179,000.00 in today's money, or $58,393,778.32 Canadian). Apparently, by 1920 there was still enough resentment to put the HBC at odds with the Government of Canada, though those complaints did not work their way past British censors.

Footage of Alert Bay, British Columbia, from Romance of the Far Fur Country (1920).

The HBC was more lenient on Hudson's Bay, and threw its considerable weight behind the production. The notion of a dignified historical epic starring Paul Muni and rising actress Gene Tierney was too good of a marketing opportunity to pass up. HBC historian Clifford Wilson acted as adviser and the HBC's historical magazine, The Beaver, ran a multipage feature dedicated to it. Stores throughout the Dominion promoted the film in shop windows, hoping for residual sales of famed Hudson's Bay point blankets with their green, red, yellow, and indigo stripes on a white field. After the end of the beaver fur trade, the HBC transitioned to more straightforward retail sales. Already as much of a cultural institution as a capitalist one, the HBC entered a new age with the construction of a series of very modern brick, marble and terracotta department stores in the 1910's and 1920's. These multi-storey buildings - which were often the tallest and largest buildings in the downtowns of Calgary, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, etc. - not only sold goods, but acted as cultural hubs. They featured restaurants and lounges, public rooms, salons and barber shops, and everything else that made them a luxurious and giddily anticipated outing.

Window display in an HBC store, 1941.
HBC's Vancouver department store, c. 1920's.

Unfortunately this time around the HBC seemed to back the wrong horse. Though Hudson's Bay was a modest commercial success, it was a critical flop. There is a lot of wit in the film - especially from the mouths of Muni and Cregar with their overbaked French-Canadian accents - but not as much action as one might hope from a Northern. The fictional characters don't add anything except the tedium of what Hollywood executives think is appealing, forcing audiences to miss out on what could have been some excellent scenes of wilderness survival and storms on the high seas. For the historically-minded there are some didactic recreations of the life of coureur des bois and the voyageurs (the workmen who paddled the canoes that ferried good to and from the trading posts), but they are brief. Muni and Price lend their excess of charisma to their roles, overshadowing anyone else with the misfortune of sharing the screen with them at any given time. Overall, the scale of Hudson's Bay doesn't reflect its status as a big budget feature film. It more closely resembles the sort of historical docudramas produced by the National Film Board of Canada during the 1960's. The following 28 minute episode on another notable personality from the fur trade, David Thompson, likely has more actual footage of wilderness adventure than Hudson's Bay does in its 95 minutes.

Coherent with the scale of the National Film Board productions is another version of Hudson's Bay, a  TV series running for 20 episodes through 1959. This number pales in comparison to The Lone Ranger (1949-57, 221 episodes), The Cisco Kid (1950-57, 156 episodes), The Gene Autry Show (1950-56, 91 episodes), The Roy Rogers Show (1951-57, 100 episodes), Wagon Train (1957-65, 284 episodes), Bonanza (1959-73, 430 episodes), and other far more popular Westerns. Granted there were many, many less popular Westerns that likewise only last one season and 20-30 episodes, but Hudson's Bay the TV show highlights the difficulty of fitting the storied Company of Adventurers into a successful Western format.

It may be that the fur trade's very nature as a sober business venture doesn't lend itself well to feature film treatment. I find that a little hard to believe though, when a movie like Hudson's Bay is already fairly entertaining and contains the seeds of what could easily have been a much better movie. Nevertheless, since 1941 there has never been another major attempt to dramatize any incident in Canada's first 200 years of colonial history.

If you enjoyed this post, stick around! On march 18 we'll take a look at Banff, the crown jewel of Canada's national park system, and on April 1 we'll be reviewing the small handful of 19th century Canadian futurist novels!


Silver Screenings said...

First, you get bonus points for using the word "Canuxploitation".

Secondly, thank you for such an interesting essay on HBC and filmmakers. It's interesting that HBC hasn't been the subject of a feature film for decades, even though there is SO MUCH material there.

Thirdly, the footage from Alert Bay is fascinating. I was thinking, in viewing the clips you posted, the real Canada is so much more beautiful than the faux Hollywood Canada we see far too often in films. But, having said that, the John Ford film looks like it might become a new fave. I watched only about 15 minutes, but I'll bookmark it to enjoy in full later on.

Finally, thank you for joining the blogathon with this insightful and well-researched essay. You can't talk about the history of Canada without talking about the Hudson's Bay Company, which makes your contribution invaluable.

Caftan Woman said...

I remember seeing Hudson's Bay with Muni ages ago. I was a kid and got a kick out of Canada in a Hollywood movie. The historical background and context fascinates me. I can understand Hollywood looking north, but I can't understand their ignoring what was truly there for the usual stuff. Creatively, it is a shame.

Cory Gross said...

Not to brag, but I think I even coined the term "Canuxploitation" during a prior O Canada! Blogathon :D

But thank you nonetheless! There is such a wealth of stories in the annals of the fur trade... Just reading the first two of Peter C. Newman's HBC books would furnish endless material. It's too bad that we too readily think our own history is boring and shameful. The fur trade was probably the most benign part of Canadian history, but I can only imagine the kerfuffle that a film about it would inspire today.

Virginie Pronovost said...

I enjoyed reading this very informative piece! It's weird to think that now more and more Hudson Bay department stores are closing doors...