If you asked someone where “Hollywood of the North” is located, they might guess New York City, Vancouver, or any other major North American city above the Mason-Dixon line. They’d be wrong. While no longer operating in the same capacity as it once was, “Hollywood of the North” was actually a moniker given to a small Canadian town in Eastern Ontario. Located 170 km east of Toronto, this town churned out silent films from its film plant between 1917 and 1934, attracting many big-name stars of the day from the U.S and Great Britain in the process. “Hollywood of the North” is none other than Trenton, Ontario.
Trenton has been a part of my life ever since I was a little kid. My grandparents lived in the next town over, so many of my sleepover memories ended up involving a trip to the Trenton Mcdonalds, or shopping at its Dollar Store. Later, I attended multi-unit Girl Guide events at Trenton High School, a fact of much pride to me, as my own mother had attended that same school many years previous. Soon, I started becoming a little more interested in Trenton’s history, as I wanted to learn more about what it had been like when my mother and grandparents had lived there. This “research” mainly consisted of questions like What house did you live in?, and Where did Mom like to hang out when she was my age? It wasn’t until early this year when I finally clued in that Trenton had a history just as interesting as my family history, thanks to an old Toronto Star clipping my grandmother had about “Hollywood of the North”. The idea that such a small town had once been the proclaimed centre of the Canadian film industry greatly intrigued me, and I asked if I could visit the place where the film plant had once been as a birthday gift. Unfortunately, Ontario locked down right around that time, so I spent my days doing independent research about the film plant while I waited to go. (As of writing this, I still have yet to go, but my parents have promised me that we can go sometime this summer.) So, partly to share my knowledge of this unknown historical period with you, and also as a Father’s Day gift to my grandfather, I have written this post here today for your viewing pleasure. Whether you’re familiar with Trenton, or couldn’t find it on a map, reading this will be worth your while. It may not sound like a silent film plant in a random town is all that interesting, but some of the historical events that unfolded in Trenton went on to have lasting effects on our nation’s history.
In the years following the Great War, economy began to boom as innovations, some discovered as a result of the War, began to create thousands of new jobs for returning servicemen. One of the industries that really took off during this time was the silent film industry. Silent films were a cheap method of entertainment for the masses, just as popular for them then as modern-day movie experiences are for us now. This technology, of filming individual scenes and putting them all together in a 10-minute clip or half-hour movie, did what popular vaudeville shows of the day could not. Silent films allowed actors free movement in locations that weren’t props-and-paint, but real places. As silent films gained popularity, Canadian filmmakers started to develop an itch that needed to be scratched. Most of the films shown to Canadian audiences had been produced either in Great Britain, or Hollywood, California. Why were there so few Canadian pictures to compete with them? And why didn’t Canada have much of a film industry to begin with?
Although a few smaller film studios were already in operation across Canada, a private company made headlines when it chose the small town of Trenton as the location for its new film studio. With lots of land, a railway, local scenery to fit almost any scene imaginable, and proximity to Toronto, Trenton was perfect. The opening of the Trenton Film Plant in 1917 signalled the start of a bright future, not just for the plant, but also for the town itself. A few silent films were produced at the plant over the next couple of years, although not all were met with high praise.
The number one enemy of the Trenton Film Plant during its years of operation was politics. The studio changed hands multiple times before being handed over to the Ontario Motion Picture Bureau (OMPB) in 1923, and even sat empty for a few years after another film company lost its funding and moved out. Ultimately it was politics that ended the plant, too; funded by the OMPB until its closure, the quality of the silent films produced at the Trenton Film Plant in the late 1920s and early 1930’s struggled to compete with more modern “talkies”. This was partly due to a poor decision to invest in 28mm film tape instead of upgrading the studio’s equipment. Once 16mm film tape became the industry standard, the 28mm tape the OMPB had stockpiled was next to useless and the funding for the company gone. Before that happened, however, Trenton was alive with film production during its boom years. Around 1,500 films were processed there throughout its lifespan, although majority were not filmed on-site. (Movies shot elsewhere were assembled at the plant towards the end of its operation.) One of the numerous films shot at the Trenton Film Plant was Carry On, Sergeant, billed as Canada’s first major motion picture.
(Image Source: Toronto Star)
Carry On, Sergeant, the brainchild of popular First World War British cartoonist Bruce Bainsfather, was the only “movie” in the sense we’re used to (an hour and 57 minutes long) ever filmed at the Trenton studio- and for good reason. The 1928 war drama was rocked with scandal, from an ever-changing script and an unpleasant director, to a scene in the movie implicating that one of the characters, a married man, had had an affair with a woman in France. Of course, the release of the movie during the dying days of silent film didn’t help much, either. While it was a mild domestic success, Carry On, Sergeant never made it into the cinemas of Great Britain or the United States. The loss was enough to convince investors that perhaps it was best to stick to shorter films for the time being.
After an at time illustrious and at times disappointing 17-year career, the Trenton Film Plant closed its doors for good in 1934. Actors turned back to the original Hollywood for on-screen roles, and the growing unpopularity of silent films meant that no more film companies came knocking at the empty plant. The building itself housed various clubs and businesses before becoming a textile mill. It still made a fun story for older Trentonians to tell their children, but the legacy of Canada’s longest operational silent film plant is relatively unknown to the general public today. Film festivals are now held in Trenton every year in honour of the town’s role in the film industry, and the location of the former film plant has been given a quiet nod with the street name “Film Street”.
All of this information and more can be found in Peggy Dymond Leavey’s fantastic book The Movie Years. It’s a quick read, but the text is well researched and easy to follow. This book is perfect for film nerds, history buffs, and people who want to learn more about the history of their town. Peggy Dymond Leavey has written a few other history books, too, which are also worth checking out.
(Check out The Movie Years here.)
Trenton is a town rich in history. It sits adjacent to Canada’s largest Air Force Base, as well as the historic Trent-Severn Waterway. Trenton was even the site of series of explosions in 1918 as a devastating fire destroyed their munitions factory. Whether you remember the town for its history, the role it plays in our country’s defense, or the people, know that it has a claim on something few other places in North America can. For a period of time, Trenton was considered “Hollywood of the North”.
I hope you enjoyed this brief history lesson! If you like learning about little-known events in Canadian history, let me know in the comments if there is a specific topic you’d like me to cover. There are several other stories, like the 1918 Trenton Explosion, Camp X (Canada’s secret WW2 spy training facility), and the search for pirate treasure on Oak Island that I am happy to share my knowledge of with you.
If you’d like to see a sample of what Trenton’s Film Studio got up to during its operation, this website has the entirety of Carry On, Sergeant available to watch for free. Because many scenes of the movie required local extras, families from the Trenton area may just recognize a great-grandparent or two!