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That time when Toronto television did the movies right

Posted by Ed Conroy / August 30, 2013

Toronto movie historyLong before time-shifting VCRs, DVDs, Pay-TV and Netflix allowed movie lovers to mainline with all the ease of turning on a tap to get water, TVOntario treated Toronto denizens to double helpings of film classics on Saturday nights, doled out generously by the most perfectly employed man in the history of television - Elwy Yost, the movie host with the most.

Originally christened "Saturday Afternoon at the Movies on Saturday Night" before being shortened to the eminently more memorable "Saturday Night at the Movies" (SNATM), Elwy's show premiered on March 30, 1974 with a cold slab of European nihilism - Ingmar Bergman's Through a Glass Darkly, then went on to thrill viewers over the years with an eclectic mix of 5 star classics, foreign fare, and often neglected and forgotten b-movies from the golden age of Hollywood.

Elwy truly loved movies with the perennial joy of a proud parent, championing even the most questionable titles and never allowing the kind of cynicism so rampant in modern film discussions to blight his magical picture show. Famously, Elwy adored every movie he ever saw, except one title in particular (being a proper gentleman, he never named the movie but rumour on the street is that it was Porky's II: The Next Day).

As TVOntario reported to the Ontario legislature through Minister of Education Bill Davis in accordance with the Ontario Educational Communications Authority Act, all programming was expected to contain at least a modicum of educational content. SNATM brilliantly achieved this by airing interviews with film makers, set designers, stunt men and actors discussing the art and science of the movies, predating the concept of DVD bonus materials or Director Commentaries which are so commonplace that we're all movie experts now.

Not only would you get a double barrel blast of quality films on a Saturday Night, you also got all the trimmings - interviews from such luminaries as John Ford, Howard Hawks, Greta Greer, George Stevens, Vincent Minnelli and Frank Capra to name a mere few.

Elwy would also invite local guests ranging from Toronto Sun film critic Bruce Kirkland to the late great John Candy onto the SNATM set for lively debates on hot topics often raised by the themed double bills, such as alcohol or drug abuse, adultery, and juvenile delinquency. For a screening of The Ox-Bow Incident, Elwy's guests were a rabbi, a priest, a police officer and a lawyer, who all engaged in a discussion about the rights of individuals to take matters into their own hands.

As if the 4-5 hour Saturday night slot was not enough, Elwy also fronted the weekday movie show Magic Shadows, which chopped up vintage films into bit sized 30 min chunks, and also had a memorably psychedelic/terrifying into that anyone who saw will likely never forget. Elwy often ran his favorite film of all time - Nanook of the North - along with King Kong and Flash Gordon serials.

Elwy retired from TVOntario in 1999, but SNATM weathered on, first with Shelagh Rogers and later Johanna Schneller as hosts, and then a number of years completely host-less although thankfully Elwy's vintage interviews cropped up from time to time. Thom Ernst took over hosting duties in 2008.

Sadly, tomorrow night's installment of SNATM (The Live of Others and Black Book, bookending the whole enterprise nicely with more European nihilism) is the series' curtain call, the end of the line. Written off as a casualty of the rise of Netflix and dedicated movies channels, and no doubt impacted by the reduced operating budget of TVOntario, SNATM - the longest running film series in Canada and probably the world according to Ernst - seemed like an obsolete relic from a different time.

The sad truth is that since 1999 the show has had an Elwy shaped hole in it. With no offence intended to the subsequent hosts - they were all excellent - SNATM will be remembered for Elwy's infectious sunshine disposition and his positive celebration of movies. He loved them, and knew more about them than anybody else. It may be easier to watch things like Through A Glass Darkly nowadays, but it is nigh on impossible to find anyone to talk about them with the kind of exuberant relish Elwy Yost always brought on Saturday nights.

Farewell, Saturday Night at the Movies.

Retrontario plumbs the seedy depths of Toronto flea markets, flooded basements, thrift shops and garage sales, mining old VHS and Betamax tapes that less than often contain incredible moments of history that were accidentally recorded but somehow survived the ravages of time. You can find more amazing discoveries at www.retrontario.com.



Pess / August 30, 2013 at 08:55 am
Ahhhh memories.
This was my Saturday night for years. Eating popcorn, watching old black and white movies with my mom.
Malcolm / August 30, 2013 at 09:27 am
Ely was a treasure. A whole generation of filmmakers and film lovers grew up to SNATM and Magic Shadows and in the pre-special edition DVD world, his interviews were the gold standard.

Running into him outside the Varsity was a highlight of my college age years. Of course, he was there to see a movie, but he talked with a bunch of us anyway and was as warm and friendly in person as he was on TV.
Cody / August 30, 2013 at 09:32 am
More articles like this please!
tommy / August 30, 2013 at 10:40 am
I miss when television was more engaging and less robotic than it is now. It was more local, and added to the community - people would talk about it. Now we're left with the MBA-driven drivel from the likes of Bell Media and Rogers. No wonder television is dying.
CanCan / August 30, 2013 at 10:53 am
The new host of Sat Night at the Movies is smarmy and scruffy, typical left wing Tvontario employee.
Lazar replying to a comment from Pess / August 30, 2013 at 11:01 am
Same with me. Saturday nights watching the double bill was one of the only times my mom ever allowed me to stay up late.

One of my best memories was when they played The Bad and the Beautiful, and we talked about how great a film afterward.
Steven / August 30, 2013 at 12:23 pm
SNATM taught me a lot about film (not movies). It will be missed.
qzh / August 30, 2013 at 03:05 pm
of course, let's remind blogTO that the network was TVOntario, not TVToronto...
Welshgrrl / August 30, 2013 at 03:15 pm
I thought I was the only one who found the "Magic Shadows" intro to be spooky/bizarre
Kate / August 30, 2013 at 10:15 pm
Sad to see this go; this was still our go-to station on Sat nights....don't understand why they ended it, surely it was one of their draw throughout the week.
Albin / August 31, 2013 at 11:22 am
Yost's show was always too Hollywood blockbuster focused for my taste. What I miss the Jay Scott / Geoff Pevere Film International series that was on in the 1990s. It introduced me to films I hadn't known of, and some art house classics I'd never seen. Some of that trickled into the more recent SNAM, but certainly Yost was the host with by far the most.
Fiona Williams / August 31, 2013 at 01:23 pm
I used to LOVE watching Saturday Night at the Movies when Elwy Yost was hosting it. Magic Shadows, too. It wasn't the same after he retired. The replacements, while adequate, just didn't have his passion.
Chris / August 31, 2013 at 02:46 pm
elwy Yost was THE man. I don't think there was anyone who knew the movies and revered it as much as he did on a weekly basis. He was a guy who was engaging and was able to impart knowledge without being intimidating. I also used to love watching him do interviews with personalities from the Classic Hollywood Era.

Saturday Night At the Movies was never the same after he left.
Bogs Dollocks / August 31, 2013 at 04:31 pm
Saturday Night At the Movies hosted by the incomparable Elwy Yost was brilliant.

Many films that are still my favourites were introduced to me by Mr. Yost during SNATM.
Zi / August 31, 2013 at 10:48 pm
I've missed SNAM for years now. It was my favourite Saturday night show growing up and it was the only time I was allowed to stay up late. Great movies and great interviews.

Once the show started showing and re-showing lousy 90s movies, the gig was up. And in what universe is a Jennifer Aniston movie considered interesting?
Risa Shuman replying to a comment from Albin / September 1, 2013 at 01:58 pm
Thank you for remembering FILM international which I created in 1983 to introduce viewers to films from other countries. I was very lucky to program the series and work with critics Will Aitken, Jay Scott and Geoff Pevere for many years.
Brent / September 1, 2013 at 07:00 pm
Ms. Schumann, i'd like to let you know your show changed my life forever. I became a projectionist and film archivst for 30 years thanks to SNAM. God bless.
Risa Shuman replying to a comment from Brent / September 2, 2013 at 04:05 pm
To Brent
Thank you for sharing this with me. It's always very heartening to know that we had such a positive impact on people's lives.
It was an honour to have worked there for 33 years on SNAM & Film international.
Risa Shuman / September 23, 2013 at 12:13 pm
Just a slight correction, Ed. The pilot series of Saturday Night at the Movies had a number of sub themes...Through a Glass Darkly and 2 other Bergman films were under "3 Films In Search of God"...Saturday Afternoon at the Movies was another sub theme which replicated the experience of going to a matinee with a cartoon, newsreel, and chapters of a serial...I think it was "Nyoka vs the Tiger Men".
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