Metro's (Deadly) Trail Of '98
Untold stories are seldom really that. Especially when they involve Hollywood. I’ve had an ongoing curiosity about on-set incidents where lives were lost, especially ones that took place during the silent era. My imagination conjures accidents and bodies carried off with everyone agreed to say no more about it. Crews were smaller then and unions toothless or non-existent. What we actually know about casualties on Noah’s Ark or the 1927 Ben-Hur might fill a thimble. A few participants talked many years later, well after a point of worrying over lost jobs for doing so. I've not heard of anyone brought to account for negligence or indifference to safety. Surely these factored into risk taking we associate with much of early filming. Metro’s fatality list from The Trail Of ’98 was the last thing they wanted publicized. I’m still trying to figure numbers lost on that misfired 1928 epic. Three we can be sure of. That many more was suggested by a reliable source three decades on. Did that make MGM's a record? Here’s a trivia question maybe not so trivial. What movie did claim the most lives in its making? I’ll stand on The Trail Of ’98 for now, remaining open to other candidates should anyone submit them.
The Trail Of ’98 was conceived to surpass Ben-Hur, with even more cast/extras promised and delivered. Production units were dispatched to seemingly every inch of frozen ground between California and Alaska. Chief ramrod was Clarence Brown. This would be the second feature he’d direct for Metro. Brown said the ordeal lasted a year and was ungodly harsh, but crews were tougher then and stood hardship better (my impression of silent movie-folk in general). Actual shooting days as indicated by records total 116, from March 7 to July 13, 1927. For director Brown, half that time spent in below zero conditions must have seemed like a year. One of several crews was sent to Cordova, Alaska to get footage of stuntmen shooting the rapids. At least five of them were set upon the treacherous Copper River in primitive boats. The idea was to replicate conditions during Gold Rush days. Three of the group were killed, one in an effort to save the others. There was brief coverage published in The New York Times on July 1, 1927, their first mention of The Trail Of ’98 and the last time the accident would be mentioned, despite a number of later NYT articles focusing on MGM’s project. Another contemporary account mentioned assistant director Harry Schenck as having been in charge of the Copper River shoot. Schenck would later be mentioned in studio publicity for second unit direction in Skagway, Alaska and Lake Bennett, but no mention was made of his participation in the Copper River mishap. Metro-generated publicity for The Trail Of ’98 omitted any reference to the deaths, emphasizing safety measures taken by the company and perilous situations where accidents were avoided. Those early mentions of Harry Schenck intrigued me. I’m guessing he was related to Loew’s boss Nick Schenck. A sometimes actor, writer, and assistant director (according to imdb), Harry died in 1953, presumably taking the truest account of what happened on the Copper River with him.
Metro was intent upon The Trail Of ’98 doing Big Parade business on Broadway. The latter had played 96 weeks at the Astor Theatre. With even greater investment in Trail’s negative ($1.538 million), MGM devised a roadshow policy with tickets selling for two dollars. Irving Thalberg told reporters in February 1928 of Trail’s Astor premiere set for late March and his enthusiasm for the company’s newest SuperSpecial. Well-known manager of high-profile attractions J.J. McCarthy would take charge of the opening. He had guided past roadshows Way Down East, The Ten Commandments, and The Big Parade. This kind of exhibition was strictly boom or bust, however. Overhead to maintain roadshows could be ruinous. Only one out of four broke even. Less than twenty percent saw profit. The Trail Of ’98 had Dolores Del Rio for marquees, but little else. Its epics scale was bolstered by the Astor’s installation of a Fantom screen, yet another variation of Magna-scoping Paramount tried on specials down the block. Variety described the Fantom as a device on rollers where the picture can double its size by moving down front and then reduce to normal as it retreats up stage. The stunt was used twice in The Trail Of ’98, both times filling the entire proscenium as audiences marveled at snow slides and raging rapids. Astor’s live orchestra performed a score which was later recorded for music and effects versions made available on general release prints. A love theme, I Found Gold When I Found You, was compensation for human-interest qualities that Variety felt were lacking. Sheer size, it seemed, left characters on the margin. Several reviews mentioned this as a possible barrier to a public’s embrace needed to sustain extended runs. Also, it was long. Variety referred to a running time of 127 minutes, minus intermission, on the Astor’s two-a-day schedule. Length was later trimmed to under two hours. What’s left today is 87 minutes with several obvious story gaps and chunks missing.
Variety prophesied The Trail Of ’98 would roadshow through Fall 1928, and did not foresee disappointing returns on two-dollar admissions at the Astor. Motion Picture News reported Trail going at a brisk pace as of April’s first week and predicted it would continue to pile up gratifying grosses for some time to come (MPN also ran, and was compensated for, weekly multi-page MGM ads). Harrison’s Reports filed a positive review and initially saw bright numbers for The Trail Of ’98, but was apparently unaware of what had taken place on the Copper River: It seems as if those who rode the rapids did so at the actual risk of their lives … one can see fully the danger to the lives of those in the frail boats. By early July, Harrison amended placement of The Trail Of ’98 among safe two-dollar admission bets and warned exhibitors that roadshow prospects were shaping up grim. Not that the picture is bad, but … there are many things that work against it, he said. For instance, pictures with Alaska as locale have been done to death. Indeed they had. Numerous Klondike actioners based on James Oliver Curwood stories were in circulation, and Universal's Grip Of The Yukon nibbled at potential playdates. Even MGM’s own Tide Of Empire appeared to offer a too-similar bill of fare. It began to look as though the company was in agreement that The Trail Of ’98 would play better as a program picture at regular prices, per Harrison’s tip from showmen’s grapevine: I understand that Metro-Goldwyn have abandoned the idea of of roadshowing it. Going forward minus special handling meant MGM could save considerable amounts in promotion and weekly theatre overhead. Now came the challenge of selling The Trail Of ’98 to doubtful exhibitors aware of its having stumbled as a SuperSpecial. Would they agree to advanced rentals MGM sought for the film’s general release?
Paid special price for this and it wasn’t worth a cent more than program, said Avard J. Sloat of the Roseland Theatre in Pleasant View, RI. Metro hooked me plenty on this … don’t let them tell you it’s a world-beater because it isn’t. Didn’t draw film rental, was A.L. Lighter’s Orpheum Theatre experience in Mellen, Wisconsin. Such were realities behind puffed-up trade ads like ones shown here. MGM salesmen promised the moon, but results were closer to parched earth. You could charge more armed with the perception of a hit off Broadway, and the Astor’s ultimate letdown with The Trail Of ’98 was well concealed by fact it had played there to much hoopla and promotional noise. January 1929 proved to be less than ideal time for this silent film to go into general release. Urban and first-run curiosities were better satisfied with talking screens. Consequent avalanche of failure for The Trail Of ’98 was as ruinous as those that swept away characters therein. Domestic rentals of $839,000 came nowhere near replacing moneys spent, and foreign was worse ($739,000). MGM’s loss of $756,000 was surpassed only by disaster that was Mysterious Island of the same year. Like so many final season silents, The Trail Of ’98 faded into memories retained by increasing few. Looking back from 1940, director Clarence Brown maintained that his crew suffered a good deal more than original Gold Rushers that swarmed Alaska. Was he smarting yet over Metro’s abandonment of roadshowing efforts? Story rights complication kept The Trail Of ’98 out of circulation for years to come. We can probably be thankful that it survives at all. A big reveal came in the mid-sixties when Kevin Brownlow went to interview Brown for The Parade’s Gone By, which was published in 1968. Maybe enough time had passed for the director to fess up as to full extent of casualties from The Trail Of ’98. We went to Alaska to do the rapids scenes, he remembered, an interesting departure from 1927 accounts that placed traveling units at Klondike locations, including the one supervised by Harry Schenck where the three deaths occurred. Most startlingly, Brown referred to other crew members that perished on the film’s Colorado location: When I left Denver, part of the company stayed behind. A large section of snow fell and two or three more men were killed. That’s a total of five, maybe six, people lost on The Trail Of ’98. All for a picture that wasn’t too hot, according to Clarence Brown. Storywise, directionwise, and actingwise, I was never too happy with it, he said, It was just one of those conglomerates. Whatever his indifference to The Trail Of ’98, Brown put enormous effort into researching for authenticity. When I visited the University of Tennessee’s Clarence Brown Collection in Knoxville, there were banker boxes filled with vintage photographs he’d collected of Alaskan scenes and Gold Rush participants taken in the 1890’s. At least for that year Brown spent preparing and shooting The Trail Of ’98 (and losing twenty pounds in the laborious process), this director was as committed as he would ever be to a project. The film endures today as his most spectacular and evocative of a vanished time and place, one of the silent era’s great unsung epics.