That Cold Day in the Park

A cold day in the park. Park bench in Tatlow Park, Vancouver. Photo: C. Hagemoen

A cold day in the park. Park bench in Tatlow Park, Vancouver. Photo: C. Hagemoen

One of Vancouver’s oldest parks, Tatlow Park (at Point Grey Road and MacDonald), was the central location of one of the first Hollywood features filmed in Vancouver; Robert Altman‘s often neglected 1969 film, That Cold Day in the Park.

A newly restored 35mm print of the film is screening this weekend (March 8th & 9th) part of the the UCLA Festival of Preservation. This biennial festival is making its only Canadian stop at The Cinematheque in Vancouver. The UCLA Festival of Preservation reflects the “broad and deep efforts” of UCLA Film & Television Archive to preserve and restore America’s national moving image heritage.

The historical sweep and technical wizardry of UCLA Film & Television Archive’s preservation projects—from early silent films and Golden Age classics, to fascinating rarities and contemporary gems—are showcased in our biennial UCLA Festival of Preservation.

Hosting this Festival allows the Cinematheque to showcase “the important preservation and restoration work being done by other cinema archives, film studios, and specialty distribution companies around the globe”. The preservation of Altman’s first feature, That Cold Day in the Park (1969), was funded by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and The Film Foundation.

Movie poster for 'That Cold Day in the Park' (1969).

Movie poster for ‘That Cold Day in the Park’ (1969).

That Cold Day in the Park, based on a novel by Richard Miles, tells the story of a woman (a lonely spinster, named Frances Austen played by Sandy Dennis) whose well-appointed apartment [Killarney Manor] overlooks a park [Tatlow Park] in Vancouver.  From her window, one cold day, she observes a rain-soaked young man (Micheal Burns) on a park bench whom she assumes is homeless. Hoping to repress her loneliness, Frances invites ‘the boy’ inside her home to get warm and ends up encouraging him to stay. The young man, apparently mute, “accepts her every hospitality—food, clothes, profuse conversation, and a room of his own”. Little does she realize that her guest is not the person he appears to be. Nor, for that matter, is Frances the woman that she appears to be. Without giving the film plot away, this is the point when things start to get a little creepy “as Frances’ loneliness takes on a ferocity that drives the story to a harrowing conclusion”!

Killarney Manor (built in 1956) beside Tatlow Park was the location for Sandy Dennis' apartment in the film "That Cold Day in the Park". Photo: C. Hagemoen

Killarney Manor (built in 1956) beside Tatlow Park was the location of Sandy Dennis’ character’s apartment in the film “That Cold Day in the Park”. Photo: C. Hagemoen

The film was initially a critical and box-office disaster. [You can read film critic, Robert Ebert’s 1969 review here – he gives the film 1.5 stars]. In recent years, with the breadth of Altman’s work in clear view, the film has received some critical acclaim as an important film in Altman’s oeuvre. (The Hollywood Foreign Press Association would certainly agree). Altman’s other shot in BC film, McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) , is generally more critically acclaimed.

Personally, That Cold Day in the Park is not my favorite Altman film. Which isn’t saying much as, save for a few exceptions, I generally don’t like Robert Altman’s films – a little too ‘quirky’ for my tastes. What I do like about the film is that it was shot in Vancouver, and more importantly is actually set in Vancouver – neither of which it had to be. Too often Vancouver stands in for other cities in the motion picture and television productions filmed in the city.

In 1968, other than television, there was no film industry to speak of in Vancouver (or British Columbia). The breadth of film production facilities, technical production crews and talent available in B.C. today, simply did not exist. According to an interview in the book Altman on Altman, the production team for That Cold Day in the Park had to build the entire set inside an old warehouse.

The cast is comprised of mainly American actors, however, the film does feature a few local actors – Frank Wade (who appeared in several local CBC television dramas), Edward Greenhalgh (a pioneer in local theatre and in various CBC Vancouver productions including Tidewater Tramp), Doris Buckingham (who also appeared in local stage and CBC produced dramas) and Rae Brown (also featured in several CBC productions most notably as Molly on The Beachcombers).

This fantastic, rare CBC Vancouver footage from October 1968 features an interview with actress Sandy Dennis, Robert Altman and Producer Donald Factor. Most noteworthy in the interview is the reason why Altman chose Vancouver for his film – the cold, grey weather. The perfect backdrop for his psychological horror film. The footage also features a behind the scenes look (silent) at the making of this picture. On location (somewhere in the city, possibly on Georgia Street) to shoot a scene, we get a glimpse of Robert Altman, Sandy Dennis, Laszlo Kovacks (Cinematographer) and the rest of the crew in action.

▶ “That Cold Day in the Park”, a look behind the scenes, (B&W), 1968 – YouTube.

That Cold Day in the Park may not be a historic film per se, as it will never make the list for The Top 100 Greatest Films of All Time.  It is, however, an important part of the audio-visual heritage of British Columbia and for that reason deserves our respect.

More historic milestones for BC film:

According to The History of Metropolitan Vancouver, the outdoor scenes in the 1936 movie, Rosemarie (starring Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy) were shot on North Vancouver’s Seymour River. Making Rosemarie the first sound feature filmed in British Columbia.****

The prize for the oldest feature length film to be shot in British Columbia belongs to Edward Curtis’ 1914 silent film In the Land of the Headhunters (also known as In the Land of the War Canoes). The film, a portrait of the Kwakwaka’wakw (formerly known as Kwakiutl) people of B.C.’s northern Vancouver Island and central mainland coast, celebrates its centenary this year.

That means the BC film industry is also celebrating it’s 100th anniversary this year. Here’s to 100 more! This is why the preservation, conservation and public access of cultural heritage is so important. Let’s hope that in 100 years we are still able to view all the fruits of BC’s abundant film industry.

****Update: Apparently, Rosemarie was not the first sound film to be shot in BC. A reader, Randolph Jordan, sets the record straight:

“Producer Kenneth Bishop started his Commonwealth Productions company in Victoria in 1932, working out of studio space he leased at the Willows Exhibition Grounds in Oak Bay. Between 1932 and 1937 they produced 14 sound features shot in studio and on location around Vancouver Island. These have become known as the “quota quickies” because they were low budget films shot expressly for the British market, which, at that time, had a quota in place for exhibiting films produced within the Commonwealth. Bishop cashed in on the quota system by working in BC and hiring mostly British nationals as crew – until England changed the rules in 1938 and the quota market dried up. For some great info on these films see Chapter 6 of Peter Morris’ excellent book Embattled Shadows, and Chapter 2 of Mike Gasher’s also excellent book Hollywood North.”

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4 thoughts on “That Cold Day in the Park

  1. ROSEMARIE was not the first sound film to be shot in BC. Producer Kenneth Bishop started his Commonwealth Productions company in Victoria in 1932, working out of studio space he leased at the Willows Exhibition Grounds in Oak Bay. Between 1932 and 1937 they produced 14 sound features shot in studio and on location around Vancouver Island. These have become known as the “quota quickies” because they were low budget films shot expressly for the British market, which, at that time, had a quota in place for exhibiting films produced within the Commonwealth. Bishop cashed in on the quota system by working in BC and hiring mostly British nationals as crew – until England changed the rules in 1938 and the quota market dried up. For some great info on these films see Chapter 6 of Peter Morris’ excellent book EMBATTLED SHADOWS, and Chapter 2 of Mike Gasher’s also excellent book HOLLYWOOD NORTH.

    • Thanks for setting the record straight Randolph. I’m glad to hear that it was local films productions that were the first. I will check out the resources you have suggested.

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