Skip navigation

Saturday April 30, 2011

Pioneer created film culture over 5 decades

Committed evangelist of the art brought a love of movies that helped develop Ontario Film Institute

Long before the Toronto International Film Festival, long before Hot Docs, before Cinematheque Ontario and before the Genie awards, there was Gerald Pratley.

"There would be no film culture in Canada without Gerald Pratley - period," says documentary filmmaker Ron Mann. "He was our Henri Langlois [co-founder of Cinémathèque Française]. Gerald was the first person I knew who promoted film as a serious art form. He brought film nerds together to appreciate world cinema, which Canadians would otherwise have never seen. Don't think for one minute there would be the Toronto International Film Festival without Gerald Pratley."

Indeed, through five decades, in books, magazines and newspapers, on radio and TV, in lecture halls and cinemas around the country, Pratley did more to popularize the movies than any other Canadian. His knowledge of film, which was encyclopedic, was eclipsed only by his passion, which was boundless. He was an insightful critic, a generous teacher, and a committed evangelist of the art. Lugging prints, he thought nothing of taking 12-hour bus rides to and from remote Ontario communities, to screen work by some European director. And he was an indefatigable champion of Canadian films and filmmakers, a voice for a nascent industry before it found its own voice.

"As a film critic, it didn't really matter to him whether he agreed with you or not," said writer and broadcaster Kevin Courier. "What mattered was your sense of integrity, or perhaps, the idea that he still had things to learn from others. ... In a profession [with] its share of poseurs and careerists, Gerald was one of the real guys. He didn't set out to be a star, which may be why he doesn't have a stronger presence in contemporary film culture. ... But Gerald Pratley did build a foundation here for film culture and Canadian movies that made possible all that we see vibrant today."

"Gerald's legacy has not yet been properly recognized, but it was fantastic," said Risa Shuman, former curator for TVO's Saturday Night at the Movies, who lived with Pratley for 14 years. "He begat all of these things. Except for the National Film Board, there's scarcely a film institution in the country that doesn't have its origins in work that he did."

Gerald Arthur Pratley died on March 14, at the age of 87 in Belleville, Ont.

Born in London in 1923, the eldest son of a British railway guard, Pratley saw his first movie, Trader Horn, at age 8. But it wasn't until the war years, working 12-hour shifts in an engineering factory, that he discovered the magic of cinema. He went three times a week. Seeing films "was then the easiest thing and probably the only thing you could do," he later recalled. Although his mother cautioned him that movies had nothing to do with real life and would "just fill my head with romantic rubbish," Pratley disagreed. "I saw how powerful they are, what a fascinating, vital medium it was. They can show us the present, recreate the past and conjure the future."

When the war ended, he nursed hopes of directing, but could find no prospects in Britain. Then, learning of a director's course offered by Canada's National Film Board, he emigrated in 1946. But when he turned up in Ottawa, he learned the training program was defunct.

Instead, he went to Toronto, and found work in the CBC's continuity department, writing copy for on-air announcers. At the same time, he persuaded the CBC to let him turn a 1942 article on Fred Astaire's retirement - he'd written it for a British movie magazine - into a radio documentary. Soon, he was reviewing films on the air - the first movie critic to be heard on radio in Canada.

He developed a large and loyal following, so much so that he continued to host three movie-based programs a week, Pratley at the Movies, The Movie Scene and Music From the Films, until 1975. "I don't know [why] I ever thought about trying to do them," he later recalled, "because there was hardly any film music available on record, nobody was interviewing anybody, no stars came to Toronto then, no filmmakers. But I did these programs."

He did his first interview in 1948. Ronald Reagan was travelling to Britain to shoot The Hasty Heart, when a longshoreman's strike in New York forced him to sail from Canada. Pratley dragged a CBC sound crew with him to Toronto's Union Station and, using 16-inch discs, interviewed the future U.S. president. Thereafter, he managed to interview most of the leading actors of the day.

Within a decade, Pratley was a recognized force. In addition to his CBC shows, he founded or served on the boards of three organizations dedicated to popularizing films - the Toronto Film Society, the Toronto and District Film Council, and the A-G-E Film Society. And he churned out articles for Films and Filming, Film In Review, Hollywood Quarterly, International Film Guide, Canadian Film Weekly, Canadian Film Digest and Variety.

The famous show-business tabloid paid him a pittance - perhaps $10 a review. Its editorial parsimony was matched by a penchant for bureaucratic nuisance-making. Pratley had to buy a copy of Variety, clip out his article and mail it in with his invoice.

In the late 1950s, he began making annual pilgrimages to the Cannes Film Festival, the first Canadian film critic to attend. On one occasion, he was propositioned by Jean Cocteau. On another, at a party after a film opening, he danced with Sophia Loren - until her husband, a furious Carlo Ponti, intervened; she didn't dance for the rest of the evening.

Pratley belonged to a privileged generation of film critics who came of age coincident with the emergence of several of the 20th century's cinematic giants - Ingmar Bergman, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Akira Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray. He later befriended and wrote books about other major directors as well, including The Films of Frankenheimer: Forty Years in Film; The Cinema of John Frankenheimer; The Cinema of Otto Preminger; The Cinema of David Lean; The Cinema of John Huston. He also produced Torn Sprockets, The Uncertain Projection of the Canadian Film, and A Century of Canadian Cinema: Gerald Pratley's Feature Film Guide.

Once, in a review, Pratley mistakenly added a 'Von' to the surname of Austrian film composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold. In the mail shortly afterward came a corrective, hand-written letter from legendary silent film actress Louise Brooks. Thus was born a friendship and correspondence that lasted until her death in 1985. Living reclusively in Rochester, N.Y., Brooks eventually invited Pratley to visit her - an audience she rarely granted. Thereafter, he travelled regularly to Rochester to view films in the Eastman-Kodak archive, always visiting Brooks and bringing boxes of British biscuits that she loved. She conferred favours as well; it is said that he was eventually added to Brook's extensive list of sexual partners.

In 1957, Pratley became an adviser to Canada's first annual international film festival, in Stratford, Ont., and used that platform to showcase dozens of foreign films. The festival suspended operations in 1962, but Pratley was rehired as its chief programmer in 1971, when it resumed.

Sadly, the province in 1975 cut off funding, after organizers of the nascent Toronto Festival of Festivals, Bill Marshall and Dusty Cohl, petitioned government officials to underwrite their Toronto-based event.

In the late 1960s, Pratley persuaded the Ontario government to establish the Ontario Film Institute. He would serve as its director for the next 21 years, until it was absorbed by the Toronto International Film Festival and rebranded as Cinematheque Ontario. The OFI, then located in the Ontario Science Centre, boasted one of the finest facilities in the country, a 500-seat venue able to screen films in 16, 35 and 70 mms. The province's film archive was also based there, filled initially mostly with Pratley's own collection of books, films, clippings, and cinematic memorabilia. Says Risa Shuman: "He was a complete packrat. He saved everything."

But his tenure there was marred by constant battles against bureaucratic small-mindedness and budgetary thrift. While his own funds were being progressively squeezed, the province was lavishing new money on the Festival of Festivals, which already boasted other, generous patrons.

Still, film buffs recognized what he had created and flocked, from all across southwestern Ontario and upstate New York, to what became six-nights-a-week screenings. "I was a film student at York University in the early 70s," recalls Shuman, "and we had to take three buses to get there, but it was worth it. Every major distributor would preview films there. And the lead actors and actresses would also come."

"If Toronto's cinema culture is so rich with foreign films," film critic Shlomo Schwartzberg wrote in the online blog, Critics At Large, "Gerald is one of the main reasons. I'll miss him as a friend; Canadians should miss him as a film pioneer who contributed so much of value to our city and country."

In later years, as TIFF and Hot Docs grew in size and stature, Pratley felt somewhat marginalized. On the one hand, "he was proud," says Shuman. "He didn't need the film festivals to validate what he'd done." On the other, "he was hurt when TIFF refused to make him a gold patron and asked him to apply for press credentials."

There were some honours, to be sure: Pratley was nominated by Norman Jewison as a Member of the Order of Canada in 1984 and then elevated to Officer in 2003. He received a special prize at the 2002 Genie Awards, in recognition of his life-long dedication to Canadian cinema, and earned honorary degrees from York University, the University of Waterloo and Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

Gerald Pratley leaves three daughters, Orize Madill, Denise Lane and Jocelyn Leighton, and four grandchildren.

Back to top