Story last updated at 6/25/2014 - 2:13 pm
In 1972, Chuck Keen and his company Alaska Pictures began filming at Bradfield Canal, Juneau and Wrangell.
"The Timber Tramps" was the first full-length movie filmed in Alaska. Bob Pickrell, owner-editor of the "New Alaskan," asked me to join him, his wife and daughters, and artist Mark Wheeler to visit the filming at Sykes logging camp at Bradfield Canal. Many name Hollywood actors found the idea of remote Alaska and a logging film interesting and joined the cast.
We flew to Bradfield Canal, drove on logging roads to the filming site. As we arrived, an enormous tree had to be felled by Skyes' "real loggers." It came down with a resounding crash that shook the ground. Keen grabbed a chainsaw and cut the tree in two before returning to his camera. He did most of his own filming albeit assisted by a Hollywood cameraman, Ralph Thiery.
Then he began filming a fist fight between Packsack Louie (Hal Baylor) and the star Matt (Claude Akin) over sabotaging of a logging road. I watched in utter amazement at how realistically the two men fought but never touched each other. Each man reacted to the hit as if it actually hurt! On film, it looked as if they connected and were beating each other to death.
I had a chance to talk to Vince Deadrick, a Hollywood stuntman. He doubled, he told me, for every male actor in this film. In the melee filmed at Wrangell's Brig Bar, he doubled for Akin. "I get thrown over the Brig's bar and over a table and ended up hurtling through a window."
"Did you get hurt?" I asked. "Arms and leg bones heal fast," he nonchalantly answered.
He went on to tell me that he had just returned to work two months after being badly injured. He had been making a jump from a speeding Stutz Bearcat to grab a fellow on a horse.
After a sack lunch, several short action scenes were shot with the sound taken at the same time. I learned that sometimes sound was recorded on site, but sometimes not. Unfortunately I did not learn the name of the Hollywood sound man, but Dick Garrison helped him.
Dick, who helped finance the film, told me he was the electrical engineer. Other production people were Bill Young, manager and second unit director; Doris Gee, a script girl; Willette Lockwood of Juneau, assistant production manager.
Jack Durney, also of Juneau, held up a board with scene numbers at the beginning of each shot. Ford Beebee was assistant to Keen. He was the director with Keen on an earlier film, "Joniko and the Kush-ti-ka."
I was impressed that Keen had hired a famous Hollywood director, Tay Garnett. He was a scriptwriter and director and won at least two dozen Blue Ribbons Box Office awards. He also won the Champion of Champions Blue Ribbon Box Office award. That meant in five years he produced more hit pictures than any other Hollywood director.
We recognized and had seen many of his movies: "China Seas" with Clark Gable and Jean Harlow, "The Postman Always Rings Twice" with Lana Turner, and "Bataan" with Robert Taylor. With all that fame, here he was standing in the logging debris in Alaska!
We watched the shooting of dialog between Mike Hagerty, Rosie Grier, (who played six years with the New York Giants and six more with the Los Angeles Rams); Tab Hunter (who had recently finished appearing in "The Life and Times of Judge Bean"); Leon Ames, (who was in the movies "Life with Father," "Father of the Bride," and on television in "Mr. Ed").
After completing the dialog, Mike explained to me that a scene was filmed many times. This is a master, meaning an overall picture of the action. Then there are close-ups of each actor showing reactions to the situation. When the film is cut and prepared, there may be a part of the master at the beginning of the action and then a close-up of one actor and back to the master.
At dinnertime we came back to camp. We met Karen Keen, Chuck's wife who among a million other things, kept the books for Alaska Pictures. We were invited to join Keens for dinner served cafeteria-style in the camp cookhouse. There were delicious strip loin steaks, baked potatoes, green salad, hot biscuits and cherry pie. Kuy Cho was the much-applauded cook. We hear occasional groans about how easy it was to gain weight with that kind of food.
It was during this time we had a chance to talk to the actors. Rosie Grier brought his wife and eight-month-old son with him. Leon Ames said his part as the Deacon, a Bible-verse spouting reprobate, was one of the best characters he had played. "It's a once-in-a lifetime role. It was comedy, pathos. It's magnificent."
Then he told me, as Deacon, was called upon to drive bulldozer and did it personally. "I didn't have trouble learning, " he said. "I was raised on a farm in Illinois."
We had seen a tree fall on the cat as Ames was manhandling it to a new site. Keen and Beebee told me the accident was staged.
Another staged shot included stuntman Vince Deadrick as a stand -in for Stash Clements, who was queasy about the scene. The log, being yarded to the deck, hit Deadrick as he turned, carried him several yards, then crunched down on top of him. "It looks real," we were told.
Unknown to the audience, Deadrick had fallen into a prepared hole. Ironically, Deadrick sprained his ankle in a simple scene showing loggers returning to set chockers.
Though the actors may no longer be familiar to modern moviegoers, the logging scenes give a picture of what life was like for loggers and give glimpses of a real logging camp. In addition, for those who know Wrangell and Juneau, the movie shows scenes of what the towns looked like years ago. For the Pickrells, Wheeler and me, it gave us a better understanding of how movies were made.
Today, a CD version of "The Timber Tramps" is available online and in some Southeast Alaska stores. Some libraries have the movie to check out.