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filming Here Will I Nest in Poplar Hill Ontario in Aug 1941 - Mel Turner is at the cameraTalbot of Canada
Our first colour feature film

by Christopher Doty

"My goal is always the same as every real film-maker - to make the greatest picture ever. And I'm still trying." - Mel Turner

 

Canada's first colour feature began its life on the stage of London's Grand Theatre on the evening of November 14, 1938 when the London Little Theatre presented Here Will I Nest, an historic drama based on the life of Col. Thomas Talbot, the man responsible for settling most of Southern Ontario during the early 1800s. The play was written by Hilda Mary Hooke.

Hooke had been actively involved in the city's amateur theatrical scene for at least a decade. Her decision to write Here Will I Nest was probably influenced by her own British heritage and the success of 25 Cents, a Canadian play that had triumphed for London Little Theatre at the Dominion Drama Festival two years earlier. Hooke likely reasoned the time was right for more original Canadian drama.

Two years later plans for filming Here Will I Nest (later re-titled Talbot of Canada) began to percolate. Mel Turner, a movie entrepreneur with several short sound films to his credit, was eager to tackle a feature-length production.

cast of Here Will I Nest prepare to shoot a sceneShooting continued throughout the summer of 1941 in Byron and on the shores of Lake Erie. Because the Colonel's original log cabin in Port Talbot had been drastically renovated over the years, it was unusable for the film. Fortunately, Memorial Park in Poplar Hill offered the cast and crew use of a rustic log house. More than half the film's running time took place at this location. In August the Strathroy Age Dispatch reported that the shooting was "particularly interesting to the natives of the district…who, no doubt, wonder if they have lost their way and by mistake landed in Hollywood."

On the evening of March 31, 1942 a by-invitation-only audience attended the premier of Here Will I Nest at the Central Library in London. Because Turner did not have sufficient funds to make a married print, he had to run two projectors - one carrying the audio, the other carrying the video - in perfect synchronization. The result made the projection room so warm Turner had to strip to his undershorts to prevent sweating through his tuxedo.

The only print of the film remained in his possession until the 1970s when most of it was destroyed in an apartment fire. In 1979 Turner donated the surviving first reel - minus its soundtrack - to the National Archives in Ottawa. Hilda Hooke eventually abandoned her writing career so she could teach dance and music to aspiring young performers. She died in Comox, B.C. in 1978 at the age of 82. Mel Turner followed her in 1998 at the age of 90. At the time of his death he was still talking about writing his memoirs and making one more film.

In March of 1998 documentary producer Christopher Doty uncovered the only extant footage of Talbot of Canada. Using published excerpts from Hooke's play as a base, he reconstructed the film script and then had lip readers fine-tune the dialogue. The completed project was screened at Museum London for the first time on March 27, 2003.

"The most amazing thing about this film was that it was made," says Doty. "There was no government funding for Canada's private movie industry at the time so the cast and crew had to get by on a budget of about $5,000. The cost of our restoration is three times that amount."

The restoration of Talbot of Canada was funded in part by the Heritage and Museums Coordinating Committee. Partners in the project include Museum London, the City of London, CIVA Communications and Doty Docs.

Thanks to the London Regional Art Gallery and Historical Museums,
Mike Baker, the estate of Mel Turner and James Reaney Sr.