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Themes - Film

Judith Rosemary (Sparks) Crawley

Photograph of Judith Crawley in the studio with her husband and five of their children


Judith Crawley in the studio with her husband and five of their children

Considered a pioneer in the Canadian film industry, Judith (Sparks) Crawley was a remarkable woman who was well known nationally and internationally for her many contributions to this thriving industry. Over her long career, which spanned close to fifty years, Judith Crawley wore many hats mother, writer, editor, director, producer, camera operator, sound recordist and actress.

She was born in Ottawa on April 21, 1914 to Roderick Percy Sparks, a prominent tariff counsel and Rheba (Fraser) Sparks. Educated at the Ottawa Ladies' College, she subsequently attended McGill University in Montréal studying English and economics from 1933 to 1936, earning a Bachelor of Arts.

On October 1, 1938, Judith Sparks married Frank Radford (Budge) Crawley, a senior partner in his father's accounting firm. Frank Crawley was also a champion long-distance swimmer. A few years earlier, his father, Arthur Crawley, had bought him a movie camera in order to help Frank improve his swimming style. This led to making films for family and friends at every available opportunity, turning an enjoyable hobby into a life-long passion.

Judith's foray into the film industry began innocently enough with a colour 16-mm film that she and Budge shot on their honeymoon in the charming Île d'Orléans near the city of Québec. She edited and wrote the script for this film, which won the Hiram Percy Maxim Award in New York for the world's best amateur moving picture of 1939. It was the first time a Canadian film had ever received a distinction of this kind.

As a result of this success, the Crawleys continued to produce films on a part-time basis; first out of their small apartment, then from the attic of Frank's childhood home.

Judith also worked for the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) as a camera operator and on a free-lance basis from 1941 to 1943.

In 1943, as their business kept prospering, Budge and Judith Crawley co-founded Crawley Films. They bought the abandoned St. Matthias Church Hall at 19 Fairmont Avenue in Ottawa, which they used as their new studio. Their clients over the years included government and many segments of the private sector — business, education, industry and television. During the Second World War, for example, Crawley Films made training and recruitment films for the National Film Board of Canada.

Crawley Films quickly became known for its quality productions. The Crawleys were extremely proud of their work, making films all over the world. As the company became more successful, a modern film studio was built next to the church hall studio. Besides the head office in Ottawa, Crawley Films also established branch offices in Toronto and Montréal. Over the years, their films have been translated into 22 languages.

During this hectic time, as the company grew, so did the size of the Crawley family. By the time Judith and Budge had their third child, Roddy, Judith was becoming more and more interested in child-rearing practices. She knew she had made mistakes with her first two children and wanted to help other families avoid these same mistakes. Using her filmmaking expertise, she wrote, directed and starred as the mother in the 10-minute film Know Your Baby. Starring Baby Roddy, this short film provided practical instruction on the basics such as bathing, burping and feeding. This film was sold to the Department of National Health and Welfare for $3,000 — a loss for the company. But it became so popular with audiences that more films were commissioned and the company started gradually breaking into the United States educational film market. New York-based McGraw-Hill Text Films was one American company that recognized the company's talent, commissioning two series on child and adolescent development.

Judith was an exacting director. In the article by Alan Phillips there is an excellent description of the skills and process employed by Judith while making these educational films with children.

"The kind of movies Judith makes calls for immense patience and large supplies of cookies and fruit juice. While she waits for that fleeting, all-important expression on a child's face, she has part of her mind on the camera, the klieg lights, the overhead boom that holds the sound mike, on every detail of background, costume and cast. A mistake in any detail means a retake. Often the hero will lie on the floor and say 'I won't do it again, I won't, I won't!' and the camera crew must start packing up, until the child, afraid of losing the centre of attention, comes around. Judith directs her pictures exactly according to script. Each scene has a carefully thought-out point — which has been okayed by six of North America's most critical child-care experts."

(Phillips, p. 54)

Another popular series on child care that Judith directed was the Ages and Stages series (1949-1957) that included such titles as The Terrible Twos and the Trusting Threes and The Frustrating Fours and the Fascinating Fives. The films in this series were also issued in French. This project was a family affair, with Judith directing and the Crawley children starring in many film roles.

Crawley Films, Frank R. Crawley and Judith Crawley were the recipients of numerous national and international awards over the years. Highlights of their various achievements are listed below.

  • The Loon's Necklace (1948), a film based on a West Coast Native legend that Judith adapted to film and edited, was voted the Canadian Film of the Year for 1948. It was also named best North American Film at the First International Art Film Festival in 1950.
  • In 1957 at the Ninth Annual Canadian Film Awards, Crawley Films Limited received a special award recognizing the company's distinguished production program in the field of educational films. Frank R. Crawley and Judith Crawley also received a separate award for their unique contribution to Canada's filmmaking art and industry at this award ceremony.
  • At the 10th Annual Canadian Film Awards in 1958, the Crawley film Legend of the Raven, with Judith Crawley as producer, won one of the awards for the Arts and Experimental category. A second film, From Ten to Twelve, again produced by Judith Crawley, also won one of the awards in the Training and Instruction category that year.
  • A special Canadian achievement occurred at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences annual ceremony in 1976. A Crawley film entitled The Man Who Skied Down Everest, narration written by Judith Crawley, won the Academy Award for the best feature-length documentary film of 1975.
  • At the Seventh Annual Genie Awards ceremony in 1986, the Air Canada Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Canadian Film Industry was presented to Judith Crawley, Frank R. (Budge) Crawley and Graeme Ferguson.

In the latter part of her career, Judith Crawley also served as president of the Canadian Film Institute (CFI) from 1979 to 1982.

On September 16, 1986, Judith Rosemary (Sparks) Crawley died peacefully at home from respiratory illness. She was survived by her husband Budge (from whom she was separated), their six children Michal, Patrick, Roderick, Alexander, Jennifer and Mariah and also several grandchildren. Judith Crawley will be forever remembered for her many accomplishments and awards in the film industry, leaving behind an indelible legacy that will influence aspiring Canadian filmmakers for many years to come.


"Biography: F.R. (Budge) Crawley, President, Crawley Films Ltd." The Monetary Times. Vol. 123, no. 2 (December 1955), p. 59-60, 62.

"Crawley, Judith." In Creative Canada: A Biographical Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Creative and Performing Artists, Volume 2. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, ©1972, p. 67-69.

Crawley Films Limited. (Accessed January 29, 2004).

Downey, Donn. "Judy Crawley: Canadian Film Pioneer Made Documentaries, Won Academy Award." The Globe and Mail. (September 17, 1986), p. A19.

Draper, R.A. "How a Canadian Movie-Maker Stays in Business." Canadian Business. Vol. 26, no. 11 (November 1953), p. 48-50, 98.

"Helped Found Canada's Biggest Independent Film Company, Judy Crawley Dies at 72." Ottawa Citizen. (September 17, 1986), p. C8.

"Judy Crawley was Pioneer in Film." Cinema Canada. No. 135 (November 1986), p. 63.

Loosley, Elizabeth. "Success Story - Canadian Style." Food for Thought. Vol. 16, no. 3 (December 1955), p. 113-117.

Mackay, Betsy Mosbaugh. "The Woman Behind the Camera." Saturday Night. Vol. 65, no. 6 (November 15, 1949), p. 36-37.

Phillips, Alan. "The Home Movies People Pay to See". Maclean's. Vol. 67, no. 8 (April 15, 1954), p. 21, 51-54.

Starr, Cecile. "Ideas on Film : Movie-Making Mother." The Saturday Review. Vol. XXXVI, no. 32 (August 8, 1953), p. 36-38.

The Crawley Films fonds can be consulted at Library and Archives Canada. MG28-III99. They were donated in 1984 and cover the years from 1926 to 1989.

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