The Consul and the Director

This is an article about two things you may not have realized CBRM once had: an American Consul and a a film industry.

Charles Freeman

Charles Freeman (Courtesy of Cape Breton Regional Library)

From 1911 to 1924, the US State Department operated an American Consulate in Sydney (prior to this, Sydney was home to a lesser, Consular Agency). Very detailed reports, primarily dealing with local economic progress and the labor situation in Industrial Cape Breton were sent at quarterly and annual intervals from consul staff in Sydney to their American counterparts to facilitate trade opportunities to and from the United States.

Charles Freeman joined the American Consular Service in 1898, when he was appointed the Commercial Agent to St. Pierre and Miquelon. At the time, the US had consular services in over 700 cities and towns worldwide and employed over 1,900 people. Freeman was transferred to Durango, Mexico in 1907 as US Consul and was there during the turbulent early days of the Mexican Revolution. In 1911, he was promoted to American Consul for Sydney and arrived with his wife, Susan, and two daughters in November of that year.

Freeman soon recognized the Dominion Iron & Steel Company (DISCO) was responsible for the majority of imports to Sydney and one of the biggest importers in Canada. The growth of imports from the United States to Canadian industries led Freeman to say:

In this growth, the different Consuls at this post have had no small part.

Freeman was an avid sportsman, belonging to the Royal Cape Breton Yacht Club, the Lingan Golf Club and the Sydney Tennis, Curling and Cricket Clubs, so it’s not a stretch to imagine that when a new ice rink opened in Sydney in the winter of 1912, he and his wife and daughters spent time there — as did many other citizens of Sydney. The rink in question, the Arena Rink, was a covered, indoor ice surface located at the corner of High and Inglis Streets.

The rink operated until 1919, by which year motion pictures were becoming popular and being made in many larger centers, including Halifax. Sensing opportunity, Sydney resident Wallace W. MacDonald and a board of directors made up of local business people took over the Arena Rink and started the Maritime Motion Picture Company (MMPC), selling shares at $25 apiece (about $350 in today’s dollars). Freeman was somewhat skeptical of the venture, noting in his extensive ledgers that the MMPC’s “principal industry seemed to be selling its stocks.”


But by 1920-21, MacDonald’s gamble had paid off and the company was making movies out of the Sydney studio. Most MMPC productions told Maritime stories and were filmed in Cape Breton and Atlantic Canada. Because there were few local film actors, the company imported most of its casts, crews and directors from the United States or occasionally Ontario.

In 1921, the company produced a short travelogue, A Ten Day’s Trip Through New Brunswick, and began production of its first major film, Big Timber. That year, Freeman reported that the MMPC had exported 46,000 feet of exposed film, valued at $35,000 ($500,000 in today’s dollars) to US production labs for development.


Production seems to have stopped at that point, as Freeman reported to the State Department:

[T]he company (MMPC) is not at the present time actively engaged in at work, and, as nearly as can be ascertained, resumption depends upon the sale of the film[s] made in 1921, which are on the American market.

In his fourth quarter report for 1921, Freeman observed of Sydney’s economy, “the one peculiarity of the general business depression and lack of employment is the very large patronage of all the moving picture houses.”

Elsewhere, he notes: “The motion picture theatres are well patronized, and automobile dealers are making sales, the activity of business in these two lines in the midst of such a sharp decline in all other industries cannot be satisfactorily explained.” (One hundred years later this great irony is still hard to explain, with the number of vehicles sold in Cape Breton — especially trucks — still defying reason.)

Still from silent film "Big Timber"

Still from Big Timber outdoor scene (Courtesy of Beaton Institute, 93-540-24514)

The 1921 films apparently met with some financial success because in 1922, MMPC produced two more feature-length films, a Newfoundland travelogue, Port aux Basques and a drama filmed in Northern Cape Breton with a few local extras about fishermen and lobster poachers called Sea Riders.

That year, the company also finished production of Big Timber, a drama about northwoodsmen in which: “Local men were invited to appear as burly lumberjack extras, providing they supplied their own axes.”

Unfortunately a dispute arose between the film’s makers/director and an American company. In March, the film’s director John Winthrop Noble sued the Americans for breach of contract. A receiver was put in charge of the film’s future distribution.


Noble was a director of note by the time he arrived in Sydney. Born Winfield Fernley Kutz in Pottsfield, Pennsylvania on 24 June 1880 (although one source gives his place of birth as Albemarle County, Virginia), he used the name John Noble professionally. His first film job was in 1912, as an assistant to director Lucius Henderson, reputed to be the first person in the film industry to recognize the potential of movie heartthrob Rudolph Valentino. In 1913, Noble worked with the legendary and controversial American filmmaker D.W. Griffith.

In 1914, Noble directed his first film, The Three of Us, based on the highly successful play by American playwright and theatre director Rachel Crothers, known for her well-crafted, often feminist- themed plays. In 1915, Noble directed his second film and one he wrote himself, Black Fear, which begins with Satan bemoaning the old-fashioned methods he must use to attract humankind to his realm. He then sends Miss Cocaine to go to Earth and lure people into evil ways. What develops is a dark, twisted tale of one family caught in both the drug’s hold and the grip of a ruthless businessman.

Director John Noble and others on set c.1918 (Wikipedia)

Director John Noble and others on set c.1918 (Wikipedia)

Over the next three years, Noble directed 18 silent films for a number of different studios, including 1918’s The Birth of a Race, a film originally intended as a rebuttal to D.W. Griffith’s 1915 Birth of a Nation.

Griffith’s film was controversial in its day — and will remain so forever — for its overt racism and portrayal of the KKK as heroes. The three-hour epic was based on a 1905 novel (and subsequent stage play) called The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan by Thomas Dixon Jr. Griffith changed the name to reflect his belief that his film version presented the true story of American reconstruction.

Set during the Civil War, Birth of a Nation portrays black men as unintelligent and sexually aggressive and the KKK as heroes protecting innocent white people. Protests broke out in cities where it was shown and the recently formed National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), led by Harvard graduate and Guardian newspaper editor William Trotter, tried to have it banned.

According to Shadow and Act contributor Sergio Mims, the NAACP briefly considered the idea of a film rebutting Birth of a Nation, but soon dropped the idea leaving Emmett J. Scott, a former personal secretary to Booker T. Washington, to champion it. Scott’s initial vision of a 15-minute short highlighting black accomplishments soon grew, as Mims wrote, “larger and grander in scope, to eventually become a 3-hour black film epic that would out-rival Nation.”

Sydney’s connection to the Birth of a Race story may be only tangential, but it’s too interesting a tangent to resist.


The Selig Polyscope Company shot fully half the movie as Scott envisioned it but, as RH Greene reported for NPR in 2015, “with production only half complete, all that footage was thrown away.” Trouble with financing led Scott to seek white investors who watered down the whole black experience story.

Newspaper ad for "The Birth of a Race"

Newspaper ad for “The Birth of a Race”

According to a 1918 Variety review:

The Selig Company, which had arranged to produce the picture dropped out due to the character of its propaganda, whereupon the character of the picture was altered. A large quantity of film, depicting certain phases of the advancement of the Negro race, was dropped.

A new name, The Story of a Great Peace, was even entertained.

Other stories in Variety explain how Noble became involved in the production: the Frohman Amusement Corp. agreed to produce the film in their Tampa, Florida studios and Noble was named director-in-chief. But in Feb 1918, officials of the fiscal agents for the Birth of a Race Photoplay Corp. were arrested and charged with failing to take out a state license to sell stock. According to Variety, most of the stock was sold to blacks in Chicago. (One can only surmise they were sold a bill of goods in regards to what the film was meant to be about.)

In March 1918, Frohman Amusement turned over their staff (including Noble) and Tampa facilities to the promoters to finish the project. In the end, the film became a sort of Biblical epic fused with vignettes of American history and a story of two German-American brothers fighting on opposite sides in WW1, no doubt inspired by events in Europe. When the film debuted in December 1918, it featured almost no black characters and died a quick box office death.

Birth of a Race as Mims notes, could have been one of the most important black films ever made; instead it was a travesty. The film’s white backers retained the original title but interpreted it to mean the American people. According to the American Film Institute, the changed film was meant to show “all the factors in the life of America which have contributed to making the American people almost a race in themselves.”

It’s an odd footnote to my story that a film of such potential was directed by someone who later worked in Sydney, a city that owed much of its industrial success to black Americans who helped build the steel plant in 1899. 


According to film historian Peter Morris, an alternate name also existed for Noble’s Sydney production, Big Timber — it was to be called, Clansman of the North. (Where he found this reference I don’t know; perhaps in a motion picture industry trade magazine.) Were Noble and company attempting some rebuttal or pun with the use of the term “Clansman?” (After all, Birth of a Nation was originally going to be called The Clansman.) Or was it just a Scottish reference?

"The Stranger of the North" poster (IMDb)Whatever the case, Big Timber/Clansman of North does not ever appear to have been shown although in 1924, a film called Big Timber, directed by George Melford, was released in the US. And an IMDb search turned up a poster for a 1924 movie called The Stranger of the North, made by Maritime Pictures, directed by John Noble and starring the cast from the Sydney production. IMDb shows a release date of 1 February 1924 in New York City, but whether it was actually shown remains a mystery.

In her 1999 book Doris Ewart, Wallace MacDonald’s daughter, says her brother saw Big Timber in the 1930s on a double bill with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). But was it his father’s film or Melford’s version?

By that time, MMPC had closed, having ended operations in 1924 and Sydney’s burgeoning movie making industry was over. (Money invested in a film that seems never to have been shown probably contributed to its demise. Completed films need to turn a  profit to finance future projects.)

Yet for three years, Sydney was part of the movie-making world, and even had a tangential connection to a movie that (by Mims’ reckoning) could have been one of the most important black films ever made. (According to NPR, only one copy of Birth of a Race exists, at the Motion Pictures, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division of the Library of Congress.)

John Noble went on to finish three more films after his time in Sydney. Of his 31 silent films, most  of which have been lost, the majority were dramas, though his second-last film, His Darker Self (1924), was a “blackface comedy.” The outrageous, racist nature of “blackface” needs little explanation.

Al Jolson was originally cast as the lead but dropped out to protect his stage career. Jolson would later use blackface while starring in the first talking picture, 1927’s The Jazz Singer, which signaled the end of the silent era of moviemaking. Noble’s last silent film was released that same year.

As for Charles Freeman, the American Consul, he retired on 1 July 1924 at the age of 69 and moved to Maine with his wife. His two daughters remained in Sydney and their parents often visited in summer. Freeman died in 1936. Neither daughter had children so the family line died with them. I wondered if Freeman and Noble had ever crossed paths, but could find no evidence of any such meeting, although Freeman was well aware of the goings-on of the MMPC and indeed, reported on them.

As for Sydney, the good citizens continued to go to the movies throughout the Depression years, into WWII and beyond. The Arena Rink building where the MMPC was housed was used for various industrial purposes over the decades. In 1979, it was destroyed by fire, its heyday as a motion picture company long forgotten.

(For more information on the MMPC listen to local historian Vanessa Child-Rolls discussing it here. Information Morning – Cape Breton with Steve Sutherland: Ahead By A Century:  The Maritime Motion Picture Company.)

Paul MacDougall


Paul MacDougall’s first movie without his folks was 2001, A Space Odyssey in 1968. He went with his late friend Billy MacNeil and neither understood it. He still goes to the movie theater and, over time, has come to appreciate Stanley Kubrick.