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  • Ephemera as MediumThe Afterlife of Lost Films
  • Paul S. Moore (bio)

Early cinema culture was as ephemeral as nitrate film was flammable. Traces of early film practices are hidden in print ephemera, whose recent digitization has opened the possibility of recovering lost histories of lost films by unknown filmmakers. Two following examples reshape the contours of Canada’s early cinema history. In methodological terms, my point is to ask how this type of research is related to the orphan film movement, given that these are examples of lost films without extant film prints. Because my research didn’t begin in the film archive, are these examples really orphan films? Phrased polemically, are these lost films orphaned by the orphan film movement? The concept of “orphans” may be broadened and strengthened by a methodological approach that begins with ephemera of all forms, not only orphaned, archived film prints. My work does not begin with extant films but instead relies on the novel power of digital searches of local newspapers combined with sometimes naive searches and colleagues’ informed hunches to bring neglected knowledge of lost films to light. Like the orphan film movement, collegial sharing and intuitive browsing lay a foundation for ephemera to be the medium by which lost films may at last gain an afterlife.


In the past, I have advocated for the history of cinema in Canada to become focused on exhibition and how practices of showmen and audiences together created film publics.1 I had presumed that there was simply not enough filmmaking to sustain a national project centered on films as texts. There are too few cases of films made in Canada and far fewer archived copies of what little was produced.2 As I turned to documenting early exhibition sites on a national scale, I was surprised to find examples of early local view-making in the Western Prairies and on the East Coast. Looking for early [End Page 134] cinema showmen, coast to coast, I inadvertently, through robust results of digital searches of archived newspapers, found examples of lost films. I was not expecting to find a pioneer filmmaker when I naively asked a colleague, Robert Seiler, when were the earliest moving pictures he knew to be shown in the Canadian Prairies. None were noted before 1899 in published histories, but Seiler graciously shared a note he had found for Edison’s Vitascope in Brandon, Manitoba, in 1896.3 “Impossible!” I initially thought, but then I found a notice even a little earlier in Winnipeg, and then others in smaller towns that mentioned the showman: Richard A. Hardie. Iteratively and collectively, digital searches of the region’s newspapers pieced together his story.

Hardie had toured throughout Manitoba with an Edison phonograph in 1892 and 1893, before arranging the Canadian debut of Edison’s Vitascope in Winnipeg in July 1896 (before its better-known debut in Ottawa) while touring elsewhere for at least four weeks (all before its debut in Toronto). In 1897, Hardie turned his attention to making local films as well as exhibiting them. He paired his kinetoscope with the Cosgrove Comedy Company, just as it was about to embark on a repeat tour of the region. At the same time, Hardie also made a series of local views, hiring Edward Amet, the Illinois maker of the Magniscope, an early independent projector. Amet spent a week in Manitoba training Hardie, and together they made a total of more than two dozen scenes: the Canadian Pacific express train approaching Carberry, the Winnipeg Fire Brigade, and pictures of Manitoba premier Thomas Greenway stooking wheat on his own farm. Hardie gave the film an official debut to a gathering of business, railway, and government officials in September 1897.

After a tour across the prairies with Cosgrove, Hardie went to Montreal to fund-raise for a railway-sponsored immigration venture and there hired James S. Freer to lecture and accompany the show in England to promote immigration and settlement to western Canada. Freer was established as a lantern slide lecturer and was an immigrant himself, unlike Hardie or Cosgrove. Playbills and posters of Freer’s “Ten...