Dear Guelda, Part 2: Julian Roffman Rediscovered in Print + Film

February 9, 2018 | By

In Part 1, I posted a lengthy podcast interview with Peter Roffman, who edited and published Dear Guelda: The Death and Life of Pioneering Canadian Filmmaker Julian Roffman, a new ebook that chronicles his father’s life from the early 1940s through the mid-1950s using the letters the elder Roffman sent to his wife Guelda.

Julian Roffman is best-known as the director and producer of The Mask (1961), the classic 3D shocker that still boasts some of the best 3D effects of the era, and a film that’s just plain fun in dramatizing a psychiatrist’s attraction and use of an ancient mask with mystical powers as a metaphor for drug addiction. It’s a more than plausible theory opined at the 2015 premiere of the film’s new restoration by André Loiselle, co-editor of The Canadian Horror Film: Terror of the Soul. (His full intro, with hippy-trippy-zippy imagery, can be seen & heard in a separate podcast on’s YouTube channel.)

If you’ve already heard my conversation with Peter Roffman on assembling the book and reflecting on some of they key events and associations in his father’s career, then you’re ready for Part 2 which is comprised of a review of Dear Guelda, available from Amazon as a Kindle ebook…



… And a batch of related reviews to contextualize some of the titles mentioned in the book and podcast. Now as I stated in our conversation, a lot of CanCon productions and co-productions are unavailable for viewing, and the same holds true for Roffman’s Canadian-American co-productions. What is available consists of (quite frankly) shitty TV or videotape rips posted on YouTube, some floating in a grey zone of unconfirmed public domain, and others straight bootlegs.

You could argue we’re not as bad off as the pre-DVD era when local stations would program titles from assorted film packages for late night viewing, sometimes from edited 16mm TV prints, but what we’re often dealing with isn’t just the edited / censored / shopworn prints, but copies massively compressed that give the worst possible presentation of films originally shot in widescreen, colour, or striking B&W.

Unlike a VHS or Betamax copy off the TV, the rips aren’t even at 640×480, and you’d think catalogue owners would make even old fullscreen transfers available on a streaming YouTube channel. Not so, it seems, for many of the titles I’ve picked out and reviewed give an impression of the challenges Roffman faced as an independent producer-director.

More often than not, he was a producer, and as his letters in Dear Guelda reveal, he was hired for delivering a production on time, on budget, in spite of whatever insanity was tossed his way. He could direct – son Peter reveals another life as an uncredited director for TV, NFB documentaries, and commercial ads and industrials most likely too numerous to itemize.

It probably wasn’t until the late 1980s that ad agencies started to treat their roster of directors as stars, and both made efforts to keep track of who did what, but 20 years before that blossoming, I can’t imagine anyone ever thought the inherent ephemeral nature of commercial work would have any after-life; even today, most of it’s forgotten, except for rare demo reels floating on Vimeo and YouTube, or retro channels assembling themed collections of ads, shorts, and whatnot.

I may have pointed this out in one of the related pieces, but Roffman writes of the frustrations in convincing Canadian companies to hire local teams instead of flying in expensive Americans – a denigrating 1960s and 1970s mindset where companies felt we just didn’t have the skills to pull off slick, professional work. Roffman managed to bargain and convince the naysayers of the talent that existed in Toronto and the fiduciary logic in hiring experienced locals, thereby diminishing their skepticism.

Vince Vaitiekunas. Cranky, gruff, but he did have a heart. His bluster was inimitable.

Back in university, a favoured film school graduate of my second year prof was invited to show us what was possible in Toronto, circa 1988-1989. At that time Bronwen Hughes was a new member of the Partners Film team, and she brought samples of her work and explained how she managed to pull off several small miracles to add gloss and value to straight TV ads and music videos. Former NFB filmmaker and later film professor Vince Vaitiekunas – yes, that Vince Vaitiekunas – stood silently, beaming with pride as Hughes repeated a mantra that working one’s ass off would in time generate results.

I’d like to think that Hughes represented one of several subsequent generations of new filmmakers who furthered the pioneering work by Roffman and his colleagues in not only reinforcing the viability of Canadian commercial houses, but the possibility that producer-directors could also dip into feature films that would not only get made, but enjoy real distribution, free from that mossy stigma of ‘looking Canadian.’ (Hughes made several films, but her best is still 2003’s Stander, a tough, kinetic crime drama set and shot in South Africa.)

Now that I’ve completed a lengthy preamble, lets get to the reviews in Part 2. First off is a book review of Dear Guelda that isn’t spoiler-laden, but hopefully conveys the book’s importance in offering personal, often witty glimpses as life of a frustrated Canadian filmmaker, circa the 1940s and 1950s.

Prior to The Mask, Roffman directed an unknown trove of short films, and I’ve picked out a quartet and cover them in one piece unofficially branded Selected Short Films: the marvelous And So They Live (1940), co-directed by John Farno; the NFB WWII propaganda shorts Up from the Ranks (1943) and The Proudest Girl (1944); and Nahanni (1962), which according to Peter had some ghost directing by elder Roffman. These four shorts are available online, with the first and last in excellent HD transfers.

In the realm of feature films, I tracked down the miserable, hysterical debacle that became Sarumba (1950), where Roffman kept the production together as its pickled director / co-producer crafted scenes baffling in their dullness and bizarre camera placement. The dancing is rather good; its coverage utterly bizarre.

Next comes Roffman’s first feature as producer and director, the beatnik crime drama The Bloody Brood (1959), shot during they heyday of his highly successful commercial years at Meridian Films. A restoration is reportedly underway, which will hopefully bring out the beauty of Eugene Shufftan’s cinematography and quash unauthorized, poor quality releases.

Last comes Spy in Your Eye (1965), an example of Roffman working as producer and probably logistical whiz for this AIP Italian-French-American co-production. The print on YouTube is utter garbage, the story ridiculous, and director Vittorio Sala, a former documentarian, seemingly sleepwalked his way though a mishmash of pseudo-scenes that waste poor Pier Angeli, clearly cast for marquee value from prior Hollywood triumphs.

I’d loved to have covered Explosion / The Blast (1969), the draft-dodger drama shot in B.C. starring Don Stroud and Gordon Thomson (later to play slimy Adam Carrington on TV’s trashy Dynasty), but the film is nowhere – another classic orphan production no doubt awaiting a release, perhaps by Shout Factory or KINO, given the AIP co-production is likely owned by MGM.

Some of Roffman’s later work as producer does exist on DVD, so I’ll save Part 3 for include Explosion (if that ever pops up) along with the occult Karen Black thriller The Pyx (1973), and the oddball The Glove (1979).

Coming next: revisiting two older reviews as new Blu-ray editions arrive – the Dutch marine bio-drama AdmiralMichiel de Ruyter (2015), and the creepy, original version of My Cousin Rachel (1952) from Twilight Time.


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