Jul 22, 2011

Elwy Yost (1925 - 2011)

This post is assuredly not unique, as many movie fans in Southern Ontario can attribute their love of cinema in some way to Elwy Yost, the affable host of TVOntario's "Saturday Night At The Movies". This program not only nurtured that passion, but also showed the rich diversity of film history.

From 1974 to 1999, Mr. Yost gave viewers the best date in town (even giving CBC's "Hockey Night in Canada" a run for its money in the ratings), presenting a double bill of films from the Golden Age of Hollywood, (which were paired for similar themes or genre studies, or simply because they shared the same star, writer, or director). After each of the two films he would present his own interviews with a veritable "who's who" of Movieland, taken from his mighty archive that grew with each annual pilgrimage to Hollywood.

This weekly program took one increasingly deeper into the magic of the movies, with a substance far exceeding most of the celebrity-obsessed pap that passes itself off as entertainment journalism these days. It wasn't enough that generations young and old would know such luminaries as Bette Davis or Henry Fonda. One came away learning about Preston Sturges, Franklin Pangborn, Nunnally Johnson, Powell & Pressburger, to name only a few. Over the years, one would also go behind the scenes to learn about how the bullet holes were made for The Wild Bunch, or the stop motion animation effects of 1960's The Lost World.

"Saturday Night At The Movies" however would still not be as high-caliber a program were it not for its host. Elwy Yost possessed an "everyman" quality: with his moustache, glasses and pipe (in the older shows), he could be our neighbour or a relative. With his warm demeanour, gift for storytelling (reminding us how much learning is fun), and his trademark enthusiasm, however, he became a surrogate friend to countless people. Despite how learned he was, Elwy still nonetheless appeared as a film fan more than a scholar, and his joy was always felt in his introductions and interviews. Through him, one realized that all cinema mattered: whether he showed Ingmar Bergman or a Dorothy Lamour sarong picture, one learned how each feature that ran through TVO's projectors was in some way part of the history of cinema.

Before "Saturday Night at the Movies" even began, Elwy McCurran Yost was already a veteran in broadcasting and education. Born in Weston, Ontario, on July 10, 1925, he was a child of the depression, whose love for the movies started at an early age when his father would give the boy money to attend the matinee, and since the man could only afford to send one person to go to the cinema, Elwy would in turn regal his father with stories about what Tom Mix did that particular week. However, Yost's further association with the movie world would wait, as he graduated from the University of Toronto, had a stint in the Toronto Star's circulation department (and met his future wife Lila in the cafeteria), worked in the Avro Aircraft project until the Arrow was cancelled, and even taught English at Burnhamthorpe Collegiate in Etobicoke, before acting as a panelist on CBC's game show "Flashback" in the 1960s. In the early 1970's, Elwy Yost was hired to put together a show wrapped around the three Ingmar Bergman films that TVO had acquired rights to show, and thus "Saturday Night at the Movies" was born. (In these intervening years, Elwy did have at least one liasion with cinema, as an extra in John Huston's Moulin Rouge.)

My first encounter with Elwy Yost was during my public school years, upon discovering his sister show, "Magic Shadows", which ran from 1974 to the late 1980s.  Every weeknight at 7:30 PM, he would serialize a feature film in half-hour installments.  And since the film would likely not be long enough to fill all five nights, the duration of the week would be filled with ongoing chapters from a classic matinee movie serial.  Thus, The Adventures of Captain Marvel could take several months to see, as one would wait for it to air in the available time slots.  Over the years I had seen The Yellow Balloon, Son of Kong, Belle Starr, My Darling Clementine, The Cat People, A Night in Casablanca, as well as the great serial The Crimson Ghost in this fragmented presentation.  Such a program is lost in today's "on-demand" environment, as in those pre-VCR days, "Magic Shadows" necessitated one to be home every night at 7:30 to catch all the parts of the movie.  But like "Saturday Night....", "Magic Shadows" also made for fun viewing for its host and the guests.

The set for "Magic Shadows" consisted of a homey-looking backroom, which could have been in your house or mine (all that was missing was a fireplace and a dog sleeping in front of it).  The pipe-smoking host would welcome the viewer, and after his typically enthusiatic and knowledgeable introduction, the camera would slowly zoom in as Elwy turned on the film projector next to him, move further into the light emanating from the lens, rack focus, and we were in the land of movies.  And perhaps because the time slot for the program appealed more to youngsters, the guests on this show were more there for fun than historical posterity- which is why he was visited by someone dressed as Captain America.   One of my earliest memories of the show was in early 1978 where he showed Charlie Chaplin's The Adventurer while a bunch of kids sat around his easy chair.  (I believe they also referred to him as "Uncle Elwy").  During the Halloween 1984 broadcast of The Cat People, he even had trick-or-treaters appear at his door!  When he showed a Laurel and Hardy movie, a member of the "Sons of the Desert" fan club stopped by.  "Magic Shadows" bewitched many a young viewer during its reign, leaving an impression with its trippy animation evocative of Yellow Submarine, and memorable theme song (a fond personal memory was in finding a university classmate ten years later with whom I could sing it).

As I grew older, and stayed up later (or, more to the point, when I became old enough to no longer need a babysitter who wanted to watch "Love Boat"), I eventually discovered "Saturday Night at the Movies".  During the 1980s, as my interest in cinema increased, Elwy Yost was my surrogate teacher.  I was among countless viewers who would look forward to learning something new about film history every week while being entertained.  In smaller towns and cities during those days, one didn't have the internet, nor a well-stocked library or store on books of the cinema- Elwy Yost was a veritable institution, upon whom film enthusiasts could hungrily rely for information and entertainment.

Although he had also published a few novels, Elwy Yost only wrote one book about cinema.  Magic Moments of the Movies was a nostalgic work in which he would describe his favourite moments of cinema- through his prose one could vicariously relive the movie, and for that matter, his diction in print matched that onscreen-  this lovely little tome was a "portable Elwy Yost" that one could enjoy between the Saturday night viewings.   During the summers of 1984 and 1987, I borrowed this book from the library incessantly.  In between the lines of his reminisces, one also learned about the times in which his chosen films of affection were made, and the craftspeople who made them.

In 1989, Mr. Yost had scaled down his workload, and attempted to semi-retire to Vancouver, in his wife's home province, only presenting one film every Saturday night.  The time slot for the second film would be filled with an installment of Jay Scott's "Film International". However, in short order, he was back introducing a double bill of cinema for several more years, before finally taking his last bow in 1999, and spending his remaining years in British Columbia.  Elwy's final episode of "Saturday Night in the Movies" was an emotional affair in which he and his trusty producer Risa Shuman shared memories and clips from his 25-year legacy, and then presented the 1994 film, Speed, which was written by his son, Graham.

Yes, that is a film projector.
"Saturday Night at the Movies" continued the following season with Shelagh Rogers, whom I believe was handpicked by Elwy Yost, and did a superb job filling his shoes, until her complications with CBC forced her to leave the show.  The program continues, and even after a revolving door of hosts (and also several years without one)- it sadly has become the antithesis of everything Elwy had built it up to be.  Regrettably, the program has become cold, impersonal and pedantic.  The warmth and enthusiam has been replaced by title cards and soundbytes.

In our current age, we must contend with hipster film critics that can only speak of cinema with a detached pseudo-intellectual post-modern irony, and so-called entertainment journalism that is as light and disposable as a plastic razor.   There was none of this with Mr. Saturday Night:  like all the giants in broadcasting (most of whom are sadly now gone), Elwy Yost never talked down to his audience, and never shot for the lowest common denominator.  He understood the medium of television through which he communicated his love of another visual medium: the cathode ray tube allowed people to communicate with their viewers on an intimate level- he was a scholar, but he acted more like a good friend.  But even more than a familiar face that people allowed in their homes, he was a role model who shaped audiences young and old. Elwy Yost indeed left a long shadow in television after his retirement.  The intervening years have only further increased the need for someone of his stature to keep alive the history of the cinema.

In the next few days, I'll be posting some more memories and archival pieces about Elwy Yost, as well as a page linking to online tributes and articles.  His legacy has influenced me on such a personal level, and for that matter, has shaped much of how The Eclectic Screening Room approached film writing, that we can only repay our gratitude for having learned from this man.


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