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Sins of the Fathers

1947, Starring Austin Willis, Georges Toupin, Frank Heron, Joy Lafleur, Mary Barcla. Directed by Phil Rosen and Richard J. Jarvis (Canadian Motion Picture Productions).

Perhaps the very first movies to be considered “exploitation” films, sex hygiene or VD films were first shown to popular audiences as early as the silent era. Combining melodrama and factual information about venereal disease, these movies were ostensibly presented as dire warnings about important public health issues, but became huge box office draws for offering curious audiences a clandestine peak at forbidden topics frowned upon by Hollywood censors. In many cases, sex hygiene films’ scenes of childbirth were the only film-going context in which full-frontal female nudity was acceptable at the time, outside of illicit stag movies. Producers knew this and pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable on screen in what they publically claimed was an educational experience, but more often was solely for titillation or shock.

Though Canada dabbled in this contentious genre when Edgar G. Ulmer arrived to shoot his 1933 quota quickie Damaged Lives (which boasted a skinny dipping scene), the 1947 Quebec-shot VD film Sins of the Fathers was a fully homegrown effort from one of the era’s biggest local film industry names, Larry Cromien. Likely inspired by the incredible state-side success of Kroger Babb's Mom and Dad (1945), a similar sex education film that included footage of live births and is said to have grossed more than US$100 million, Sins of the Fathers was an independent production that tells the tale of VD from a crusading doctor’s point of view. A highly controversial sensation on release, Sins of the Fathers was already forgotten by the 1970s and assumed lost less than a decade later. Though it had a notable effect on Canada’s film industry, testing taboos and leading to new approaches to film censorship, Sins of the Fathers has been almost totally excluded from critical and historical accounts of Canadian cinema.

In the film, a young physician Dr. Edwards (Austin Willis) intends to fight against the scourge of syphilis by organizing a Health League and stamping out places of ill repute, but can't make headway against the town council, which includes an influential nightclub owner Mr. Curran (Georges Toupin). Though Edwards gathers some support from locals, including the clergy, it's not enough to get his proposed measures approved, including having employers require blood tests to uncover additional infections. Things take a turn when the town mayor’s son Charlie (Frank Heron) visits Curran’s club and attracts the eye of the businessman’s daughter Patsy (Joy Lafleur). After they spend the night together at a Laurentides cottage, Charlie discovers he might be infected and confides in Dr. Edwards. The good doctor calls the careless lovers into his office, as well as their politically connected dads, and shows them all an instructional filmstrip on the horrors of syphilis. Shocked by what they see and now able to comprehend how VD has personally affected their children, Curran and the mayor agree to reverse their positions and support Dr. Edwards' health program. In a later town hall meeting, Curran even resigns, shamefully explaining that his opposition was the result of pressure from other disreputable business owners. Relieved to have finally succeeded, Dr. Edwards decides to marry his girlfriend Ellen (Mary Barclay), while Charlie, having confessed his dalliance to his fiancée Leona (Suzanne Avon), must delay their impending nuptials until his syphilis is fully cured.

Filmmaking in Canada was relatively rare until the late 1950s, making this mid-century marvel one of the most lucrative and proactive Canadian films of the immediate post-war period. Sins of the Fathers was shot at Quebec Productions, an upstart studio located in Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec, just east of Montreal and run by ex-radio producer Paul L'Anglais and financier René Germain. Quebec Productions had just mounted an ambitious film noir production—the English-language Whispering City (1947) was intended for North American market, which was shot simultaneously with La Forteresse (1947), a French-language version with all French-Canadian actors. Unfortunately, the film didn't do as well as anticipated and its failure had Quebec Productions refocus on the local Francophone audiences, which led to a string of film adaptations of popular regional radio serials, such as Le curé de village (1949), Un homme et son péché (1949) and Séraphin (1950).

Following the shooting of Whispering City at the end of 1946, Quebec Productions leased out their facilities to a few English-language films, including Sins of the Fathers. Producer Larry Cromien's Canadian Motion Picture Productions had just finished production on the Northern Ontario-shot airplane melodrama Bush Pilot (1947) when he began work on this new project. Sins of the Fathers was shot over 11 days in early February 1947 for a relatively small budget (figures range from $45,000 to $98,000) with the help of the Quebec Productions crew. Imported American director Phil Rosen fell ill during production and was quickly replaced by Richard J. Jarvis, who edited Whispering City.

The film itself is a slow-moving effort that focuses mostly on the trials of Dr. Edwards as he tries to convince others of the need for public education and treatment of VD and, ultimately, his work to expose of political corruption that keeps his crusade unfairly sidelined. All of the potentially salacious material is confined to the film-within-a-film short subject that Dr. Edwards runs in his office. Titled The Price of Ignorance, this is a fictional work that nevertheless combines bits and pieces of real VD shorts, including the U.S. Public Health Services’ classic melodrama Know for Sure (1941) and animations from an as-yet-unidentified film produced by the Royal Canadian Air Force, as well as clinical sequences of syphilis victims. This approach, in which characters in a sex hygiene film visit a doctor’s office to see another instructive filmstrip usually reserved for armed forces, was not uncommon at the time.

What's remarkable about Sins of the Fathers, compared to almost all other sex hygiene of the time, is its focus not on those whose lives are tragically transformed by VD, but on the establishment figures trying to stamp out the scourge. It’s a notably Canadian approach to the issue, more focused on the inner workings of bureaucracy and small town political intrigue than the personal problems of the infected. As the hero, the stoic Dr. Edwards always maintains the moral high ground—early on, he and his girlfriend are visibly upset when they discover that a double date they’re on is unchaperoned, and the closest he comes to a conflict is when he discovers the local business owners have encouraged unseemly insinuations about him in the newspaper gossip column. The emphasis is always on what’s good for the community, with only a secondary story playing on audience fears of contracting such a disease—though in this case, Charlie is only forced to deal with awkward questions about his delayed wedding, since his girlfriend forgives him completely for his indiscretion.

As with U.S. sex hygiene films, Sins of the Fathers was presented with what appeared to be educational intentions, even if that wasn’t quite the case. For his part, Cromien claimed to be a member of the Health League of Canada and stated, in advance publicity, that the organization was a direct sponsor of the film. However, the League's founder and director Dr. Gordon Bates—a popular anti-VD crusader in his own right—forcefully disputed his involvement, penning letters to newspapers to ensure that audiences were aware that not only was his organization not involved in the film in any way, he hadn't even seen it. Even if Cromien wasn’t involved with the Health League of Canada, the controversy kept the film in the headlines as its premiere approached.

Despite the local newspaper coverage, Sins of the Fathers didn't do much business in Montreal's His Majesty's theatre where it played a brief run at the end of April 1947 (the screening also coincided with a city-wide anti-syphilitic campaign). However, the film was a huge hit in Toronto, where it played at the Royal Alexandra theatre for four weeks straight during the summer of 1947. Variety excitedly noted "four-block-long lineups" and capacity crowds for three gender-segregated showings per day—two for women and one for men (again, common for sex hygiene films). More interesting is Variety's report that the theater apparently had six registered nurses from St. John Ambulance in attendance for each performance due to fainting at the more salacious scenes—the publication reported that "some 30 to 50 are keeling over in their seats or wavering out to the upstairs or downstairs lobby" each screening including "250-pound males." Some have speculated that the film's Toronto distributor spliced in additional medical footage to make a "hotter" version of the film that excited audiences more than the version that played Montreal. It’s not possible to say what might have been included in these additional scenes, since the most provocative scenes in the only surviving print of the film are footage of a natural baby birth and doctors draining spinal fluid as part of a medical test. It's likely that this version was not the print shown in Toronto, since it is shorter than the 96-minute running time noted in some places and the film’s percise history of censorship is unclear.

On initial release, the producers claimed that Sins of the Fathers was endorsed by Canadian church groups and the Salvation Army, although accounts differ, with some suggestions that Catholic groups asked for specific cuts before they would give their approval. The film's success directly prompted Ontario to create a special censor group (consisting of a doctor, an educator and a lawyer) to specifically deal with sexual hygiene films such as Sins of the Fathers and the perennially popular Mom and Dad, which was still doing booming business at theatres throughout the 1950s.

Not surprisingly, the film’s censorship problems didn’t stop at the border. Picked up for U.S. distribution on the strength of its Toronto screenings, Sins of the Fathers was quickly condemned by the U.S. Catholic organization the National Legion of Decency, which led to banning in some states (the film was also banned by the British Board of Film Censors). In the United States, the groundbreaking Canadian film played until at least 1953, also under the rather frank title Sex. As with Damaged Goods and other sex hygiene films of the era, screenings were reportedly sometimes accompanied by footage of a lecture from a doctor (a profitable sideline in which audiences were pitched on purchasing “exclusive” instructive sex books from the snack bar).

Since then, evidence of Sins of the Fathers has faded away like an unwanted infection, likely because of its taboo subject matter and connection to the disreputable tradition of sex hygiene films. It’s also not a particularly absorbing film, with the majority of the action playing out as dialogue in town hall meetings and office settings, captured flatly by mostly novice filmmakers. Still, that doesn’t mean that Sins of the Fathers wasn’t an influential and controversial Canadian cinema landmark, one of the first locally made films to do big box office on both sides of the border and show that Canadians weren’t afraid to tackle sensational issues despite our stuffy reputationa good omen for the future of Canadian genre film.

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