Saturday, July 23, 2011

Film's Greatest Fan: Elwy Yost (July 10, 1925-July 21, 2011)

Elwy Yost (July 10, 1925-July 21, 2011)
Without Elwy Yost, I doubt if I would ever have become a film critic. This is why the news of his passing yesterday hit me with a moment of sadness –  a sadness for the passing of my youth, perhaps, because he was such a big part of it. On February 23, 2011, I wrote a piece on Critics at Large about his son Graham’s fine TV series, Boomtown (2002-2003). But, as a way of an intro to the piece, I had composed something of a tribute to Elwy. The piece obviously wasn't intended to be an obituary, but reading it again the other night, it inadvertently reads like one now. Here is what I wrote:

Growing up in small-town Ontario north of Toronto, I didn't have much to do when it came to the arts. In the 1960s and 1970s, except for some regional theatre, the only way to gain exposure to the arts was through movies or television. In my early years, most of my 'education' came from the movies because in Parry Sound in the 1960s we received only one television station (the CBC affiliate in Barrie, now part of CTV). That education was rather slight: Disney flicks, James Bond double-bills, the latest Don Knotts comedy, plus the occasional interesting picture, such as Patton (1970) and Woody Allen's Take the Money and Run (1969). By the time my family moved to the nearby town of Bracebridge I had yet to see any of Hollywood's great films from the so-called Golden Era. When we finally got cable in Bracebridge (about six months after we moved there), I began to discover the history of Hollywood films. My education really began thanks to TV Ontario (aka, TVO, a Canadian version of the US's PBS) and the shows Magic Shadows and Saturday Night at the Movies. Hosted by Elwy Yost, Magic Shadows was a Monday through Friday show that presented classic movies, uncut, broken into thirty minute chunks. In this pre-video/PVR era you either made sure you were in front of the set by 7:30 or you would miss a segment.

On Saturday nights, Elwy returned with a two-complete-movies theme night. Again showing the films uncut, Yost would offer two movies connected by theme or director or actor. Between each film, he would offer interviews he'd conducted about these films with the stars or directors or critics. To say that Yost was an enthusiast was an understatement. His questions were often simple, never probing, but I didn't care. I was filling my head, finally, with some of the great films of Hollywood and seeing interviews with the people who had made them. I know that thanks to Elwy Yost my appreciation of films developed. At first, I reacted like he did: a fan grooving on Hollywood. It was only later that I understood movies were an art form and I began to develop a critical voice. Yost turned his son, Graham, into a film fanatic too. Elwy told the story on more than one occasion that he let his son stay up late to watch Citizen Kane (1941) for the first time. Elwy even let Graham skip school. The day after, Graham showed up at school with a note explaining that Graham had missed school because Elwy kept him up way past his bedtime watching what many still consider the greatest film ever made.

Elwy Yost retired from TVO in 1999, so he’s been off the air for quite some time. (Appropriately, his final show broadcast Speed (1994), written by his son Graham. Graham was his interview subject that night. Elwy being such an enthusiast, I can just imagine how proud he was of that.) But I never forgot how he was film’s greatest fan. Elwy was never a critic, true, but I guarantee there are more than me out there who were set on that road because of Elwy and his shows. He will indeed be missed.

David Churchill is a film critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information.

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