Canada’s First Feature-Length Film Produced by Amateurs
by Dorothea Mitchell

A Race for TiesThe Amateur Cinema Society of Thunder Bay wrote, acted, filmed and produced a feature-length film in 1928-29 entitled A Race for Ties. A copy of this remarkable movie is housed in the archives of the Thunder Bay Historical Museum Society. Writing some 47 years later, Dorothea Mitchell, the screenwriter, wrote of this project’s genesis and completion. The photos are from the archives of the Thunder Bay Historical Museum Society

“In the Fall of 1928 a business friend of mine, Fred Cooper, invested in an amateur movie camera (somewhat of a novelty in those days) to use on a European trip. On his return, the showing of these pictures aroused much interest

“One day, knowing me to be interested in photography and amateur theatricals, he asked if I thought we might attempt doing a little play which could be put on to aid charities. I wired to Hollywood for a book of plays specifically slanted towards this sort of effort. Disappointment was in store for us. Not one of the “sketches” would take more than ten minutes to show. Then Fred said, “Couldn’t YOU write a scenario for us?”

This I did (within a week), and it was based on a timber deal I had myself experienced in the adjacent bush country, but of course making a young girl the heroine. As the author, I was privileged to choose the cast, and, with the Photographer and Director, became a charter member of the Amateur Cinema Society of Thunder Bay. I had not intended to take a part in the film myself, but couldn’t find anyone willing to play “Aunt Sarah”. (It has never bothered me to make a complete fool of myself, if the part calls for it.)

“Since we were all business or professional people, exteriors had to be shot on Sundays. And in a few weeks the snow might be going. This meant that our motorcade left the city almost before daylight (each taking a snack-lunch) and headed toward the desired location – anywhere from ten to twenty-five miles out. The first shooting was accomplished on March 3rd and exteriors were completed by Sunday, the 17th. The greatest thrill, to my mind, was that exteriors had to be done without rehearsal.

A Race for TiesInteriors had naturally to be done in the city, and during evenings, artificial light being essential. Photography completed, a few of us worked, night after night, cutting and splicing, fitting exterior to interior scenes. After this came the sub-titling, the most tricky and tedious job of the whole production, because, if our old-fashioned projector was allowed to remain stationary more than a few moments, it would burn. When completed, members were invited to make suggestions for the final title. The one selected – A Race for Ties.

“The preview, at the Prince Arthur Hotel, was a truly posh affair. All the VIPs were invited and bouquets presented to the leading lady and the author. Expressions of opinion were quite complimentary, perhaps the most extravagant coming from the manager of our biggest local movie house, the Colonial. He said our effort was definitely ahead of many of the early professional productions. The film was shown in the Lyceum Theatre on May 31st, June 1st and 3rd – just three months after the Cinema Society’s inception.

“A Race for Ties (at 1,600 feet of 16mm film) is authoritatively stated to be the first feature-length movie made in Canada entirely by amateurs.”

The film’s cast and credits:
A Race for Ties

  • Martha Lake – Marion Attwood
  • Eddie Cooke – Jack Attwood
  • Harold Saunders – Joe Attwood (the father)
  • Dorothea Mitchell – Aunt Sarah
  • Wally McComber – “The Goof”
  • Laddie – “The clever mongrel”
  • Bill Gibson – Watnot (Cheetham’s envoy)
  • Duncan Roberts – Cheetham (the timber dealer)
  • Harold Harcourt – Larkin (the Camp clerk)
  • Edward Linley – Barlow
  • Harold Harcourt – Director
  • Fred Cooper – Photographer
  • Dorothea Mitchell – Author
  • Chris Dunbar – Art Director
  • Toivo Hill – Transport
  • George McComber – Publicity