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Evergreen Playland: A Road Trip through British Columbia

By Dennis J. Duffy

Review By Ben Bradley

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 162 Summer 2009  | p. 203-5

Evergreen Playland is the dvd version of the movie of the same name that was part of the exhibition “Free Spirits: Stories of You, Me and BC,” held at the Royal British Columbia Museum (RBCM) in 2008. Marking one of the museum’s first forays into multimedia publishing, it draws on the extensive collection of moving images held at the British Columbia Archives to give viewers a sampling of colour travelogue films from the early 1940s to the late 1960s.

The dvd is accompanied by an illustrated twelve-page booklet in which Dennis Duffy traces the provincial government’s historical involvement in travelogue production. In the first four decades of the twentieth century the government would commission these films, but the growing importance of tourism and automobile travel in the late 1930s led it to establish an in-house production service. The task was assigned to the BC Government Travel Bureau in 1939, around the same time that sixteen-millimetre colour film was becoming readily available. Duffy calls the following thirty-year period the “golden age of the BC government travelogue,” and this is certainly true in terms of quantity, if not originality (3). Travelogue films made during this period were characterized by a “linear structure” due to the fact that so many of them took the perspective of a motorist travelling along the province’s improved and expanded highway network, driving past sites and sights in a relatively predictable sequence.

The booklet provides a succinct, thoughtful, and humorous contextualization of the images contained on the dvd, but a key topic that goes overlooked is the audience for these travelogues. Duffy hints at “ambitious programs … of distribution” and “markets beyond North America” in the late 1950s, but the fact that copies of these films were held by the National Film Board and at Canadian consulates does not explain by whom and under what conditions they were watched (7). Without more information about the viewership for these films, it is difficult to get a sense of their larger social, cultural, and economic significance.

There are seven “chapters” to the  dvd, plus a bonus feature. The bonus track is actually the oldest piece in Evergreen Playland, a silent film from 1940 that shows the Government Travel Bureau engaged in the production of a tourism promotion campaign. Staff members are shown selecting photographic images for inclusion in brochures, shooting and editing films, and engaging in routine activities like answering visitors’ inquiries.

Duffy describes the seven chapters that comprise the main part of the dvd as “composite travelogues,” indicating that they have been stitched together from multiple original travelogues (9). Each ten-to-twelve-minute-long chapter is actually made up of excerpts from between two and five films, edited so that they form a relatively coherent journey through a region of the province. Viewers can take a “road trip” around Vancouver Island, the Fraser Valley, the Boundary country, the Kootenays, the Okanagan, the Fraser Canyon and Cariboo, and northern British Columbia. In a few instances the date of a clip is indicated. For example, one showing Barkerville in 1955 is followed by another showing it in 1969, thus illustrating the BC Parks Branch’s transformation of the sleepy ghost town into a bustling tourist attraction.

As Duffy points out, these travelogues are interesting not only because they provide views of bygone people and places but also because they suggest the existence of an unreflexive enthusiasm for pleasure travel that seems distinctly foreign in the present era of limited-access highways, resort condominiums, and environmental consciousness. Eye-catching attractions were latched onto indiscriminately, the ultramodern jumbled together with the ancient, the fantastic with the mundane, the faux with the real. One sternwheel steamboat provides a vital transportation link, another is beached to serve as a historical attraction. Grimy coalminers in the Crowsnest Pass and the lake monster Ogopogo are equally symbolic of a region’s identity. Idyllic parks and sunny beaches go hand in hand with enormous hydroelectric dams. Agriculture is appreciated through roadside fruit stands, First Nations people through souvenir sweaters. The province’s history gets streamlined into “wild west” themes like gold rushes and cowboys and Indians. All this with nary a whiff of irony or trace of concern about authenticity or contradiction. In a period said to epitomize the “high modern,” these travelogue films offer a decidedly postmodern perspective on the province’s landscape.

How much have things changed since the golden age of the government travelogue? The over-the-top enthusiasm is absent from today’s tourism promotion campaigns, and some of the places seen in these films have changed radically. Yet, an aspect of Evergreen Playland that will strike most viewers is the consistency in what has constituted a tourist attraction in British Columbia. There are spaces, places, images, and activities in each of these travelogues that will be immediately familiar to anyone who has driven around the province, suggesting that these films contributed to the production of real and symbolic landscapes that are still very much with us.

Evergreen Playland can be appreciated not only as a popular history of travelogue films but also as an ironic or nostalgic trip through the postwar years. The dvd case invites viewers to “chuckle at the overstated (and sometimes wacky) period narration,” and there certainly are instances in which the viewer can’t help but shake her/his head and wonder what on earth led the BC Government Travel Bureau to include some utterly bizarre or perfectly banal scene in a travelogue. However, the obvious shifts between film stock and narration in each composite travelogue do help to remind viewers that these films are historical artefacts in and of themselves.

Evergreen Playland will likely prove a hit in the provincial museum’s gift shop, and it also has a place in the library of anyone interested in the cultural history of twentieth-century British Columbia. This is especially so for those interested in consumption, tourism promotion, and the construction of recreational space. The dvd’s production values are excellent, and the viewer is left hoping that the RBCM will be able to share more of the province’s moving image history in the near future.