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Quote of the Week
"We were pretty tough by the time we went over. Out of a bunch of kids, they made men."
- Henry Planger  
   
   

 

Looking Back - John Kinnear Today's Hollywood movie productions achieve their impact with the use of powerful music and spectacular special effects. In the early 1920's these tools were unavailable to producers who were forced to use very visual but silent drama to give the viewer a thrill.
Hollywood moguls were ever on the lookout for a new and interesting action plot to achieve this effect and went to great lengths to keep their audience on the edge of their seats whilst the theater piano player reinforced the action by rolling the ivory's in crescendo after crescendo.  So I guess it wasn't all that surprising when they showed up at the Bull River in the Rocky Mountain Trench near Fort Steele, B.C.
Story 1
Submitted photo
Anna Nilsson-Swedish Silent Filmstar and lead in the movie "Hearts Aflame".

The Bull River bursts from a gap at the south end of a picture perfect four mile long series of eight peaks east of Cranbrook, B.C. known affectionately as "The Steeples". Its sixty miles of drainage driving ever westward is forced through a spectacular canyon there that is as narrow as sixteen feet in places. From 1910 to 1928 millions of hand hewn railroad ties and logs were run down this turbulent river and through that narrow gorge each year to a CPR mill at the river's mouth. Most years the log jams in the canyon and up the river were horrendous with as much as a million and a half board feet of lumber hopelessly jammed up in a porcupine-like pile. In 1924 it took over 30 tons of dynamite to loosen one of these twisted messes of ties and logs. Apparently half a hand-hewn tie was found floating a mile and a half way in Murray Lake some time later! 
Movie-makers eventually discovered this wild and woolly world of CPR imported Swedish and Norwegian tie-hackers and log drivers and found its annual log drive to be a perfect backdrop for two classic silent film scenarios. So it was that in July of 1921 Universal stars Miss Priscilla Dean and Herbert Rawlinson arrived at Camp 21 on the north fork of Galbraith Creek, a tributary of the Bull, to begin filming the $200,000 feature entitled "Conflict" . It was a Universal Jewel Film production whose plot involved two rival timber barons fighting for supremacy. Priscilla, who was to be the heroine in the movie, was stuck with the wretched stage name of "Dorcas" and it was her job in the movie to rescue one of the lumber barons by the name of Jevon whom she was in love with. His rival planned to destroy him by blowing up a huge log dam full of logs upstream from a cabin alongside the river where he was being held prisoner. In this classic silent flick Dorcas rides pell-mell downstream on her horse to try and beat the rush of logs and ties to the cabin but arrives too late and finds her man floating unconscious in the middle of the river on a section of the cabin floor. Can't you just hear that theater piano reaching a crescendo right about then as Dorcas stands hand pressed to her brow at the river's edge? Abandoning her trusty steed she jumps from log to log and in-between until she reaches her lover and pulls him to safety.
The July 28th, 1921 issue of the Cranbrook Herald reported that: "A good size crew of men have been busy for some time back, building a dam across the river and last week while the camera man cranked hard, (no battery-operated movie cameras at that date) the dam and log jam caught behind it went up with five or six hundred pounds of dynamite under it."
Conflict was advertised as having five big thrills never before shown on any screen. They quoted the New York World as saying-"For ten breathless minutes last night we prayed the dear girl would come out of the log jam intact-- and she did."
 
Of course we all know that Priscilla was shot in close-up at the water's edge. The real risky business of running over logs in a torrent was done by local river men like Slim Miller who seemed at times to be able to walk on water.
The second movie done up the Bull was a B. Mayer Company production that starred a then-famous Swedish actress by the name of Anna Q. Nilsson. It was based on the Harold Titus novel "Timber" and was essentially an educational-action film that dealt with carelessly lit forest fires and the reforestation problem they presented. The Cranbrook Courier said the film was: "very appropriate to conditions in the East Kootenay where thousands of dollars worth of timber were being carelessly destroyed by fire each year."
Kootenay author Edward Affleck gave this summary of the film is his book "Kootenay Yesterdays: "Cranbrook and district really felt that they were in the center of exciting events when some Hollywood players arrived one day to screen a picture "Hearts Aflame" in which Anna Q. Nillson starred. Scenes were shot in a park in Florida, then the action was filmed with such British Columbia background as a forest fire at Yahk, Otis Staple's logging engine in action(at Wycliffe), the old hotel at Perry Creek, Fort Steele (known in the film as Pancake Town) and even Monroe Lake. A dam for the occasion was built on the Bull River. Sixty men were required to build it and the most sensational part of the film was the blowing up of this dam and the sequestration of one thousand logs."
When the film ran in Cranbrook one night in March of 1923 the theater was full to capacity. Even some of the First Nations Indians(Ktunaxa)from the area that appeared in the movie showed up to glimpse the familiar country side and participate in the thrill of watching a local movie unfold. Allfeck went on to say: "That was the day of the silent film when a small orchestra played during the show and added verve to the performance. How we blessed the crass character that sat near the screen and would insist on reading aloud whatever captions appeared on it."
Hollywood wasn't the only one to benefit from all that business of blowing up dams. Ed Home, CPR manager of lumbering operations up the Bull was sharp enough to make this movie business work to his advantage. The dams built for both movies were constructed so that they could be used later as flush dams during log drives. Only the center portion of the dam was blown out for the scenes and with the main foundations left intact were easily rebuilt afterwards.
Story 1
Submitted photo
Blast during the filming of "Conflict".
Conflict and Hearts Aflame were shown in large and small towns alike all over the East Kootenays. Cranbrook's Star Theater was jammed both Friday and Saturday nights plus the Saturday matinee where the kids no doubt cheered for Dorcas as she leapt from log to log to save her man. When the movies were to be shown in places like the hall in the old logging town of Waldo where there was no electricity the projectionist has just the ticket for that problem. He merely jacked up the back end of his Model T Ford and ran a belt from the back wheel to a generator and then starting the car's motor, the show was on! 
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