Trail of '98
To duplicate the famous Chilkoot Pass, through which prospectors had to make many grueling trips with supplies, Brown filmed in Colorado at an elevation of nearly 12,000 feet for five weeks. Problems included intense winds that could blow snow overnight from one mountain peak to the next, and frigid temperatures -- sometimes as low as sixty below zero -- that required cameras to be rigged with little oil lamps to prevent freezing and control static, which occurred when the film moved through the metallic camera gate and built up electricity. Still, said Brown, "some of our scenes were just streaked with static." The altitude also proved difficult for the personnel. Brown said he "had to send a number of people down; they just couldn't take it. We couldn't walk fast, we couldn't run -- we could hardly do anything at that altitude."
Another challenge was in wrangling the nearly 2000 extras for this sequence. The production went to Denver "and picked up derelicts off the streets -- tramps, people who were broke, people who were starving." They transported them by train overnight to the location, feeding them along the way and clothing them "just as they would have been at the time of the Gold Rush," said Brown, "with rubber boots, heavy underwear, heavy socks, mackinaws." Upon their arrival, they were given packs and directed to climb up the mountain, with multiple cameras mounted on sleds to follow along with them. At the end of the day, they were returned to Denver. Two days later, they did it all over again. "It was my toughest assignment," said Brown, "but we got it... Old sourdoughs who saw the picture thought it was the real thing."
Unfortunately, this came at great cost. Brown reported to author Kevin Brownlow that when he left Colorado, part of the company stayed behind to get some extra footage, and "a large section of snow fell and two or three men were killed." In Alaska, where Brown took a unit to shoot a rapids sequence, three more men were lost. "It was a tough picture. Oh God, it was tough."
Trail of '98 was released amid a brief but significant vogue for "Northern action stories," according to film scholar William K. Everson, alongside other titles like The Michigan Kid (1928) and Tide of Empire (1929). Westerns were at a low ebb in the late 1920s, and these films filled the gap.
Trail of '98 was criticized by Variety as being "more spectacle than story," an assessment Clarence Brown seemed to agree with: "Story-wise, direction-wise, and acting-wise I was never too happy with it," he said. But The New York Times found it "highly exciting" and was especially impressed by the Chilkoot Pass sequence, which it called a "startling vision... The black dots of humanity are perceived slowly ascending the height, and on the other side every now and again a sledge skims down over the blanket of snow. This particular episode is made all the more dramatic by having the screen increase to thrice its size. The picture approaches the audiences and enlarges as it does so, giving a gripping idea of what's happening. It adds to the splendid drama of the instant."
What The Times was talking about there was a widescreen device called Fantom Screen, MGM's answer to -- and improvement upon -- Paramount's recent Magnascope process. (There were many widescreen processes developed in the 1920s, including an early 70mm method.) With Fantom Screen, a special wide-angle projector lens was adjusted to enlarge and reduce the image size without requiring a changeover to a separate projector (unlike Magnascope). At the same time, the theater screen itself moved forward on rollers, so as to compensate for the new proportions and ratio of the image. Variety called it "a tremendous effect."
By Jeremy Arnold
Kevin Brownlow, The Parade's Gone By
David Coles, "Magnified Grandeur: The Big Screen 1926-1931," article at www.in70mm.com
William K. Everson, A Pictorial History of the Western Film