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This Day in History, 1924: Cowboy Kean makes BC’s first homemade movie

Policing the Plains was the first homemade feature film in B.C., but was only shown once and is now considered lost.

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One hundred years ago, work started on the first feature film shot in British Columbia by a B.C. director.

Policing the Plains was a silent movie based on a popular history of the RCMP by Rev. R.G. MacBeth, a Presbyterian minister in Vancouver. It was directed by the colourful A.D. (Cowboy) Kean, who once ran a rodeo at the PNE. And it was only shown once before it disappeared, one of countless silent films that are considered “lost”.

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MacBeth’s book was about the early years of the RCMP, when it was called the North-West Mounted Police.

“The picture will recreate on the screen the thrilling and romantic history of the world’s most famous constabulary, the Royal Northwest Mounted Police,” said a story in the March 23, 1924, Vancouver Sun. “Scenes will be photographed throughout Western Canada on or about the exact location upon which historic activities of the RNWMP are known to have transpired.”

The original budget of the movie was $40,000, and “the expectation is to have the film finished in time for exhibition at the British Empire exposition in England this summer.”

But it wasn’t. Policing the Plains wound up taking 3 1/2 years to shoot, and the budget eventually tripled to $125,000, the equivalent of $2.15 million today.

Dennis Duffy has written a book on Cowboy Kean, which has the working title A.D. Kean’s Wild West. A former film archivist at the Royal B.C. Museum/B.C. Archives, and the author of Camera West: British Columbia on Film, 1941-1965, Duffy has been fascinated by Kean and Policing the Plains for decades.

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Duffy said there could be several reasons why it took so long to complete. One might be financing, another that Kean shot most of the action outdoors and sometimes had to stop filming when winter arrived.

Kean had been making films since 1914, but he had never made a film as long and complicated as Policing the Plains.

“He had produced almost entirely shorts and newsreels for theatrical screenings,” said Duffy. “To go from that to a feature length film with nothing in between … He was very ambitious, but also a bit naive.”

Kean also sounds like a bit of a one-man army.

“He was like a one-man film unit, he did everything,” said Duffy. “I don’t know whether he was just the kind of person that just couldn’t delegate, (but) he did everything himself. That takes a long time.”

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Filmmaker A.D. (Cowboy) Kean and his movie camera, 1924. Kean was making the movie Policing the Plains at the time. Vancouver Public Library VPL 35212. Photo by Stuart Thomson /sun

When he finally did finish the film in 1927, he couldn’t find a distributor.

“He had a hell of a time getting the film into theatres,” said Duffy. “There were all kinds of claims that the film was technically clumsy or that there were issues with the negative. But the fact of the matter is, even in 1927 theatres and theatre chains in Canada were controlled by American companies, by Hollywood. They had no interest in promoting Canadian films.”

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He was finally able to convince Famous Players to show it for a week at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto from Dec. 19-24, 1927. It got a favourable review from Augustus Bridle in the Toronto Star, who wrote “the sequence of epical scenes in the evolution of the world’s greatest frontier force is well-worked as a drama of civilization on the frontier.”

But it was never shown again.

“The negative went into the vault at the Ontario Board of Film Censors, and stayed there for 10 years,” said Duffy. “Then it disappeared.”

There was apparently only one print ever made of Policing the Plains, which appears to have been sold in a Sheriff’s Sale in Vancouver on Dec. 6, 1928. But it’s disappeared as well.

Cowboy Kean never made another movie. He left Vancouver for Toronto, where he wrote Zane Gray-type stories about the west for the Star Weekly magazine. He also did western-themed radio talks and plays for the CBC, and had a radio show called Rainbow Ranch.

“He garnered a certain amount of fame, especially in Eastern Canada,” said Duffy. “People knew who he was, he was a celebrity. Children loved him.”

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Born in Emerson, Man., Arthur David Kean was a cowboy in the Boundary Country in the B.C. Interior and northern Washington state before moving to Vancouver.

He died in Toronto on Jan. 11, 1961, at age 78.

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Vancouver filmmaker A.D. (Cowboy) Kean, with camera, and his assistant J.R. Nesbit, with tripod, pose with others while filming Policing the Plains at Buffalo National Park, near Wainwright, Alta., in October 1925. BC Archives G-08578 sun
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RCMP led by Asst. Commissioner T.A. Wroughton in one of the opening scenes of Cowboy Kean’s film Policing the Plains, May 1924. This still photograph shows the second Hotel Vancouver and the provincial courthouse, which is now the Vancouver Art Gallery. BC Archives H-01267 sun
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Miss Margaret Lougheed as Britannia in the opening scene of Cowboy Kean’s film Policing the Plains, May 1924. This scene was filmed at the provincial courthouse, which is now the Vancouver Art Gallery. BC Archives H-01225 sun
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A portion of E Division of the RCMP, who assisted at the filming of one of the opening scenes in the A.D. (Cowboy) Kean film Policing the Plains. This photo was taken in May 1924 outside the courthouse in Vancouver, which is now the Vancouver Art Gallery. sun
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Facade and marquee of the Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto, advertising the premiere of A.D. Kean’s feature film Policing the Plains, December 1927. BC Archives H-01471 sun
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Ad for the A.D. (Cowboy) Kean film Policing the Plains in the Dec. 23, 1927, Toronto Star. The lost silent film was the first feature filmed in B.C. by a British Columbian. It showed for six days in Toronto, but never was shown again. sun
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Toronto Star review of A.D. (Cowboy) Kean’s film Policing the Plains in the Dec. 20, 1927, Toronto Star. sun
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Article on A.D. (Cowboy) Kean in the Feb. 7, 1920, Vancouver World. sun
kean rainbow
After moving to Toronto, Cowboy Kean became a well-known writer and radio host. This ad for his radio show Rainbow Ranch ran in the Oct. 13, 1936, Toronto Star. sun

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