That time when Toronto television did the movies right

Long 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.

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1 comment
  1. I’m a Metro Detroiter who watched Elwy’s show for years. Of particular interest were his Halloween shows. Instead of the usual Universal monster fests that other stations showed [and that’s fine, not knocking it.] He made some daring low key choices & showed things like HANGOVER SQUARE, THE LODGER, NIGHTMARE ALLEY, THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER,THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE & even TOUCH OF EVIL.
    Towards the end of his run, Elwy’s Halloween film choices became more mainstream but it was all still great.
    Elwy was something to fall back upon too after WJBK Channel 2 Detroit fired Sir Graves Ghastly in the early 80’s and The Ghoul & Count Scary’s appearances became extremely rare. It was sad when Elwy stepped down but he had a good run.

    Just a honorable mention. In addition to Elwy Yost’s show there was actually another great long running Canadian film show [that no one remembers anymore even though it ran for years & years} that broadcasted on CBC Channel 9 Windsor, It was called NIGHTMARE THEATRE, It aired Friday nights at 11:30 pm and/or 12:00 am in the 70’s & switched over to Saturday nights in the late 70’s early 80’s. I watched it all the time. I always chose NIGHTMARE THEATRE over the competing late night horror films that were airing on WXYZ Channel 7. NIGHTMARE THEATRE had a better film selection the folks running the show simply did a better job. As fars as Michigan & Canada were concerned NIGHTMARE THEATRE was one of the best late nite horror film show out there. And NIGHTMARE THEATRE had this wonderfully creepy disquieting Canadian atmosphere about it too. I think Elwy would’ve applauded NIGHTMARE THEATRE. Wouldn’t be surprised if he watched it himself as he loved horror films.

    Well, I’ll let you go.

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