CBC Digital Archives

1939: A star is born as the NFB makes its debut

media clip
On May 2, 1939, the film industry receives a major boost. Parliament has asked Scottish filmmaker John Grierson to assess the state of filmmaking in Canada, and he's found a lot to be desired. In response, Prime Minister Mackenzie King creates the National Film Board with Grierson as its director. The NFB would soon establish a reputation for innovation and excellence at home and abroad. When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honours the agency on its 50th anniversary, CBC's Dan Bjarnason looks back on the NFB's many accomplishments.
• The National Film Board was not the first public film production agency in Canada. The Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau actually holds that title. Created in 1917, the bureau was asked to produce films that promoted Canadian industry and tourism.

• Parliament passed the National Film Act that established the National Film Commission on May 2, 1939. Its name would soon be changed to the National Film Board. The original mandate of the NFB was to produce and distribute films that would help Canadians across the nation understand each other better. It was also given the responsibility of co-ordinating the film activities of governmental departments.

• The report that John Grierson submitted in June 1938 was a scathing 60-page document criticizing Canada's limited scope and creativity. While at the NFB, Grierson also became the first government film commissioner and was appointed general manager of the Canadian Wartime Information Board. With Canada's entry into the Second World War, in September 1939, he produced a series of patriotic films endorsing Canada's war efforts.

• Grierson left the NFB after the Second World War. His retirement was interrupted, however, when he was called before a secret Canadian tribunal and questioned about his former secretary who was allegedly connected to a spy ring. Questions were also raised about Grierson's possible communist sympathies but he was never implicated. He left Canada and temporarily moved to Paris before returning to his native Scotland.

• In 1941, accomplished filmmaker Norman McLaren joined the NFB and started up an animation division. He would eventually help the NFB establish itself as one of the top producers of experimental animation.

• Over the years the NFB has gained prominence and accolades for its work in documentaries, short films and animation. The agency's mandate has been revised a number of times to take into account a changing audiovisual landscape and its financial and social situation. As of 2006, the NFB's vision is to, "produce and distribute distinctive, culturally diverse, challenging and relevant audiovisual works that provide Canada and the world with a unique Canadian perspective."

• The NFB's head office is in Ottawa with operational headquarters in Montreal. It also has seven production offices across Canada. The NFB has received 68 Oscar nominations over the years and, as of 2006, has won 10 (plus an honorary Oscar for its 50th anniversary).

Also on May 2:
1497: Italian-born John Cabot sets sail from Bristol, England, to follow Columbus's route to what he (Cabot) thought was Asia. The expedition reaches land June 24, probably at Cape Breton, and cruises along the south coast of Newfoundland.
1964: "Northern Dancer" becomes the first Canadian horse to win the Kentucky Derby. "Sunny's Halo" becomes the second in 1983.
1967: The Toronto Maple Leafs win their 11th and final Stanley Cup of the 20th century, beating Montreal 3-1 to take the NHL final in six games.
Medium: Television
Program: Sunday Report
Broadcast Date: March 19, 1989
Guest(s): Tony Ianzelo, Derek Lamb, Elwy Yost
Reporter: Dan Bjarnason
Duration: 4:13
NFB footage courtesy of National Film Board of Canada.
Photo: Ronny Jaques/National Film Board of Canada. Photothèque/Library and Archives Canada/PA-179108

Last updated: November 3, 2014

Page consulted on December 12, 2014

All Clips from this Topic

Related Content

1939: King George VI's Christmas message

The King broadcasts a message of hope to the Empire in the early months of the Second World Wa...

1943: Churchill, Roosevelt and King meet in Q...

During the Second World War, key strategies are determined at the historic Quebec Conference i...

Their Majesties in Canada: The 1939 Royal Tou...

In the spring of 1939, a new King and his gracious Queen captured the hearts of Canadians. As ...

Mackenzie King: Public Life, Private Man

With his cautious policies and shrewd political skills, he successfully led Canada for almost ...

60 Years with the Canadian Opera Company

Since the Canadian Opera Company's inaugural eight-day season in 1950, the company has introdu...