The National Film Board’s first, and longest-running, theatrical series, Canada Carries On was launched by John Grierson and Stuart Legg in 1940 and continued until 1959, when it was cancelled due to the different demands of television and the waning power of its propagandistic mission. The format changed minimally over the years: each film was ten to twenty minutes in length and used voice-over commentary and minimal dialogue in order to simplify translation. (The French language series was called En avant Canada and included a few films produced originally in French.) The style, however, changed radically, with the wartime films being decidedly more propagandistic than those that followed.
1940 – 1945:
Production began in early 1940 under the supervision of Legg, who also wrote and directed most of the early films in the series, including the very first, Atlantic Patrol, which was released in April 1940. The music for most of the films was by Lucio Agostini and the narrator was Lorne Greene. When Legg was transferred to oversee the development of the World in Action series in 1942, supervision of Canada Carries On passed to Stanley Dawes and in 1945 to Sydney Newman.
Films were released at the rate of one per month. The style was characteristically declamatory, using dramatic music, exhortative commentary and rapid editing. The films used both existing stock footage and specially shot material. Many of the films – such as Ordeal by Ice (1945), Letter from Aldershot (1940) or Trans-Canada Express (1944) – were photographed directly for the series, while others – such as Atlantic Patrol, Home Front (1944), Train Busters (1943) or Children from Overseas (1940) – combined stock footage with original material. Only a few – Churchill’s Island (1941), Warclouds on the Pacific (1941) – were compilations of previously shot material.
The emphasis throughout the series was on boosting national morale. The themes of transport and communications (linking Canadians with each other and the world) tended to dominate. Even a film such as High over the Borders (1942), about bird migration, was used to symbolize a new world without frontiers. The series was financed by the Wartime Information Board and was aimed primarily at Canadian distribution, though it was also released internationally. By 1944 it was seen both theatrically and non-theatrically by more than two million Canadians, thanks in part to twenty regional film libraries and a circuit of ninety-two rural cinemas that alone reached approximately 250,000 people per month.
Characteristic examples of films in the series made during this period include: Atlantic Patrol, Un du 22ième (1940), Home Front, Churchill’s Island, Warclouds on the Pacific, Women are Warriors (1942), Quebec, Path of Conquest (1942), High over the Borders, Proudly She Marches (1943), Train Busters, Look to the North (1944), Trans-Canada Express, Breakthrough (1944), Atlantic Crossroads (1945), Ordeal by Ice and Salute to Victory (1945).
1945 – 1959:
With the end of the war, the series lost its financial backing from the Wartime Information Board, but continued under Sydney Newman (from 1945 to 1952) as the Board’s principal theatrical series. Although initial releases emphasized war-related topics, later films were wide-ranging in subject, style and treatment (though the reliance on a ceaseless commentary continued), covering anything vaguely in line with the Board’s official mandate of “interpreting Canada to Canadians and the world.”
Most were ponderous and unremarkable, but it was in watching such films as Fashions by Canada (1946), Canada, World Traveller (1946), Montreal by Night (1947), Champions in the Making (1950), City in Siege (1950) and Toronto: Boom Town (1951) in theatres that many Canadians formed their first impressions of the work of the NFB. A handful of films covered more serious topics than the typical travelogue or topical film: Small Fry (1946) dealt with the welfare of children; Careers and Cradles (1947) addressed the increasing role of women in the workforce; What’s on Your Mind? (1947) tackled the issue of mental illness; Unto the Hundreth Generation (1950) was about environmental conservation; and After Prison, What? (1950) dealt with the rehabilitation of convicts. Surprisingly, only a few films reflected the internationalism of the Grierson period, including Everyman’s World (1946), 55,000,000 for Breakfast (1949), Our Town is the World (1950), and Thunder in the East (1950).
After the arrival of Arthur Irwin as Film Commissioner in 1950, the series enjoyed a brief revival. Irwin introduced an “international programme” designed to propagate Canadian ideals of democracy and promote the Canadian image abroad. Though only half a dozen of these highly conservative films were made, they had relatively large budgets and permitted some variation in approach, from traditional documentary in The Man in the Peace Tower (1951) to dramatizations in The Herring Hunt (1953), Farewell, Oak Street (1953) and Country Magistrate (1953).
The only serious attempt to cover international issues was Ronald Dick’s Germany – Key to Europe (1953), a film that eventually gave rise to the television series World in Action. But under Nichols Bala (Executive Producer of Unit C for its last fifteen years), most of the films continued to be rather mundane reportages. Only the release of films made by other Units gave the series any sense of vitality. These included Mr. Mayor (1953), The Romance of Transportation in Canada (1953), The Joli-fou Inn (1955), Gold (1955) and Street to the World (1958).
By the middle and late fifties, other series (namely Perspective, Horizon and Candid Eye) designed specifically for television were demanding the attention of all NFB Units, while the format necessitated by television made the Canada Carries On series appear even more irrelevant than many already felt it was. In 1959 the series was cancelled, along with En avant Canada and the Eye Witness/Coup d’oeil series.