When Harlequin tried to translate a romance novel into a movie

Paperback publisher Harlequin hoped to repeat its success in books by founding a movie production company in 1977, a ‘boom’ year for Canadian movies.

The paperback publisher filmed in 1977 in Collingwood, Ont., without Canadian creators

Actor Keir Dullea is seen on the set of Leopard in the Snow, the first film effort by book publisher Harlequin, in 1977. (The National/CBC Archives)

Canada has become so well-known as a filming location for Hallmark made-for-TV movies that Saskatchewan's finance minister recently named the company specifically as one the province hoped to attract by boosting its grant program for film and television.

"They spit them out, like an incredible amount of films," Donna Harpauer told CBC News in March. "I swear my daughter watches all of them somehow. So I want to see a Hallmark film filmed in Saskatchewan."

But Hallmark, which was founded as a greeting-card company more than 100 years ago, isn't the only paper-goods corporation to try extending its brand with movies filmed in Canada. 

Harlequin, which was founded in Canada (but is now owned by American company HarperCollins) and was widely known at the time for its popular paperback romance novels, tried it way back in 1977.

'Starry-eyed romance format'

From romance novels to movies

45 years ago
Duration 2:26
Harlequin, a longtime Canadian publisher of popular paperbacks, branches out into the movie business in 1977.

On March 17, 1977, the CBC's Jeff Hussey reported for The National on Harlequin's first effort at making a movie. The company hoped to translate the "starry-eyed romance format" of the books into a new medium.

"Now, Harlequin has taken one of its most visual books and is making it into a feature film," said Hussey. That film was Leopard in the Snow.

According to the Globe and Mail, the film was shot in Collingwood, Ont. But the location of the shoot was the extent of the movie's Canadian content.

The film's male lead was played by American actor Keir Dullea. The female lead was English actress Susan Penhaligon. The film's writer and director weren't Canadian either, and that made for an interesting "off-screen subplot."

"The agency created by Ottawa to help finance filmmaking here, the Canadian Film Development Corporation, refused to kick in a dime to Harlequin," said Hussey. "Harlequin feels this is nitpicking."

And that was why Harlequin figured Canada's film industry was "not exactly thriving," Hussey added. 

'Pizzazz, chutzpah and plain old luck'

Making movies in Canada

44 years ago
Duration 4:54
The Canadian film industry is growing in 1977.

Later that year, in December 1977, the CBC program Newsmagazine learned that Canadian films had changed as a result of the founding of the Canadian Film Development Corporation.

"The one weight that's been taken off our shoulders is that we no longer think 120 artistic ways to photograph a beaver is enough to make a feature film," said producer Bill Marshall.

Sandra Gathercole of the Canadian Council of Filmmakers said such obvious Canadian symbols weren't what her organization was after. What mattered was that movies were creatively controlled by Canadians, as well as "the thrust, the subject matter, what have you." 

"Those films are Canadian," she said. 

Reporter David Burt said the 1977 feature film Outrageous!, starring performer Craig Russell as a Toronto drag queen, had been a successful example, and Burt knew why.

"Everyone involved came up with the right combination of pizzazz, chutzpah and plain old luck," he said.

Burt said the "recent boom" in the Canadian film industry had been due not to creators but to the bureaucrats in Ottawa.

"Because of the tax changes initiated in [1974], Canadian investors in Canadian films can write off 100 per cent of their investment against their income," he explained.

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