Some would say it's fitting that Charles Vance Millar, a notorious prankster, died on Oct. 31 in 1926. On a day known for shenanigans, the wealthy Toronto lawyer kick-started a will that was, in his own words, "uncommon and capricious." Clause 9 of the 73-year-old bachelor's will caused the most ruckus; it stated that the remainder of his estate would go to the Toronto mother who gave birth to the most children in the 10 years following his death. (Millar also left Ontario Jockey Club shares to men who opposed racetrack betting, a vacation home to three men who hated each other, as well as brewery and more racing shares to several ministers.)
The "remainder" of Millar's estate was estimated between $750,000 and a million dollars, an obscene amount of money to families struggling through the Depression. The baby race that followed was reported with great fanfare across Canada and around the world, but only The Toronto Daily Star had exclusive rights to the mothers' stories. The newspaper dubbed it The Great Toronto Stork Derby and kept a running tally of the city's large families.
Six decades later, Elizabeth Wilton wrote about the baby race for her master thesis in Canadian history. She thought her 218-page report, titled Bearing the Burden: The Great Toronto Stork Derby 1926-1938, would make a great documentary and took it to her co-worker, screenwriter Karyn Nolan. Nolan, however, read great dramatic potential between the academic lines. She took the idea to friend and director Mario Azzopardi and, as she wrote the script, began the long bureaucratic process of financing the film.
After a seven-year gestation, The Stork Derby, starring Megan Follows, John Neville, R.H. Thomson, Pascale Montpetit and Eric Peterson, is being delivered. (Ironically, it was cheaper to film this fantastic Toronto story in Montreal, where two years earlier, Heart: The Marilyn Bell Story, another piece of Toronto history, was shot.)
It's a good, sprightly film that emphasizes the hard work, double standards and moral dilemmas facing women at that time. And it's heavy on the estrogen: The men in The Stork Derby are either weak, cruel or ineffectual. It's also a period film with a modern attitude: "It took place in the '30s," says Nolan. "But we still have the same issues being debated: Women are still struggling, there's still discrimination, there's still debate over reproductive rights." Equal weight is given to the tough lives of struggling Derby mothers, played by Pascale Montpetit, Ellen David and Janine Theriault, and the struggles of single, career-driven journalist Kate Harrington (Megan Follows), the only woman working in the Star newsroom.
The film's contemporary, fast-paced feel, which includes the odd bit of hand-held camera work, has a lot to do with director Azzopardi's style and The Stork Derby's broadcaster. "Certainly, Citytv wasn't going to do a Sullivan- [Road to Avonlea, Wind At My Back]type movie," says Nolan.
Also appropriate for the big city, multicultural TV station is the film's unapologetic portrayal of the derision that white-bread Toronto held for the lower-class, relief-dependent Derby families. "We wanted to show that Italians were treated horribly in this country during this period. There was definitely discrimination against Catholics, immigrants and French Canadians. Toronto was very, very, very WASP," says Nolan.
Set in an era marked by the rise of fascism overseas, the film also heavy handedly points out that both Hitler and Mussolini were interested in Toronto's baby race. Though, the film treats this clumsily with clunky close-ups of swastikas and curious shots of the Canadian Nazi Party on the steps of City Hall. Links between Hitler's master race and Toronto's baby race are important points in a thesis, but are left hanging in the 93-minutes allotted to this already rich and dense story.
Many of the names in the film have been changed. However, lead character Kate Harrington is a completely fictional person in the real-life drama. She's loosely based on American reporter Sylvia Grace, one of the few journalists not impressed with the pregnant portend of Millar's Clause 9, or the circus it spawned. "The character is a Katharine Hepburn-Rosalind Russell type from those old movies, His Girl Friday or Woman of the Year," says Nolan, who wrote the role for Follows. "[She]is a fantastic actor and has been really stereotyped with Anne of Green Gables. We've never really seen her as sexy and driven."
Well, Anne may not have been sexy, but she was driven. Follows, who often bemoans the lack of strong, leading females on film and TV, has struck it lucky again. "I've been really fortunate to play characters who were first defined by who they were before they were defined by their sex. That is very rare," she says.
Looking very un-Anne like, Follows wears a fitted black jacket over a white dress shirt, snug black slacks and dark shoes (no socks) to a day of promotional television interviews. Alternating between bottled water and a Starbucks latte, Follows laughs gustily when she talks about her real-life lover Stuart Hughes playing her on-screen squeeze: "We had a love scene that ended up on the cutting room floor. It worked for us; didn't they like it?"
It's the first time stage-actor Hughes worked on a film, but Follows, who grew up in front of the camera, didn't offer advice unless asked. "We don't give each other many tips," she demurred.
As Harrington, Follows takes her character from a women's page writer morally opposed to Millar's will, to scoop-hunting reporter when her editor has her cover the baby race, eventually moving up to city editor over the course of the Derby. "The journey for Kate is ethics versus ambition," says Follows. "Eventually she grows bigger in stature and loses sight of what was important to her."
Harrington's clothes reflect her climb up the corporate ladder. During the 19-day shoot Follows had 22 costume changes and 13 different hats. She loved every minute of it, and bought several of Kate's outfits. "I find the Thirties [clothing]so sexy, it's got a sashay to it."
The style of the era, like this entertaining film, has a strut and a swagger all its own.
The Stork Derby, Tuesday, 9 p.m., Citytv