Photo credit:  Everett Collection/Alamy

Balto Movie at Mt. Rainier

By:  Lance Jensen

Gunnar Kaasen accepted the proposal for the movie role at Mt. Rainier National Park.  From there, the group would go to Los Angeles.  When the team was enroute from Nome, Alaska to Seattle, Washington, Sol Lesser took out a $50,000 insurance policy on Gunnar Kaasen, his dogs and his equipment.  Most of the policy covered the life of Balto.  Both Kaasen and Lesser were concerned about how the great differences in climate between Nome and southern California might affect the dogs.  In addition, Lesser was concerned about the great distance and some of the dangerous terrain Kaasen and his dogs would have to travel between Nome and Seattle.  Lesser wanted to protect the money he had already invested in the making of the film.

Gunnar Kaasen and his dog team arrived in Seattle, Washington on the evening of March 21, 1925.  Most of Sol Lesser's film crew had arrived in Seattle earlier that day.  A few others were waiting at Mt. Rainier Park. 

Kaasen and Balto attended a welcoming ceremony and reception at Pier 2 in Seattle at 9:30 AM the next morning.  When the ceremony was over, Kaasen and his team left for Mt. Rainier National Park, a distance of about 85 miles.  The film crew made the trip with them.  Some of the Principal Pictures Corporation film crew personnel who went to Mt. Rainier were:

W. H. Ely - Production Manager

Colin Campbell - Director

Fred Tyler - Assistant Director

Ray Leek - Publicity Agent

Harry Perry - Cameraman

Bob Martin - Cameraman

The Rainier National Park Company (RNPCo) was founded in 1916.  The first National Park Inn was built in 1906 and was located at the Longmire Springs area of the park.  The name of this geographical area was later shortened to just Longmire, and it remains that way to this day.

The RNPCo bought the National Park Inn in 1918.  They also built and owned the other lodge in the park - the Paradise Inn.  The Paradise Inn was constructed in 1916 and 1917.  The Rainier National Park Company had a fleet of vehicles that were used to haul supplies and to transport visitors to and from the park.  They modified one of their trucks with a special cage to transport the dogs to Longmire Springs.

When the group arrived at Mt. Rainier on the afternoon of March 22, the project was already running a couple of days behind schedule.  The production company had been granted a permit from the park superintendent to film the movie at the Paradise Valley area of the park starting on March 20 and ending on March 28.

The first day of filming took place on Monday, March 23.  The director wanted to replicate the snowy and windy conditions that had existed during Kaasen's leg of the serum run, but there was no guarantee that the weather at Mt. Rainier would cooperate.  Accordingly, the film crew had brought a large wind machine with them from Hollywood.  As it turned out, the wind machine was not needed as a couple of strong storms came in over the Paradise Valley area on March 23 and 24.  Mr. Ely reported that "they had plenty of cold and snow, with some blizzard thrown in" during the week of March 23 - 27.

Harry Perry wrote about his experiences during his long career as a motion picture photographer.  This is what he wrote regarding his involvement in the filming of the Balto's Race to Nome movie:

"While we’re on the subject of animals, there was another interesting experience with a sled dog in the Spring of 1925.

A short while before, there had been an epidemic of diphtheria in Nome, Alaska and there was no serum to combat the disease.

Serum was vitally needed, so this man named Gunnar Kaasen, who had a dog team with a wonderful lead dog named Balto, brought this serum to Nome through several hundred miles of terrible winter weather.

Kaasen’s deed was widely publicized in the newspapers throughout the country. Sol Lesser, an independent Hol1ywood producer (who produced the Jackie Coogan pictures after Chaplin's The Kid), decided to make a short subject from this event. He decided to have it photographed on Mount Rainier in Washington State.

Lesser made arrangements with Gunnar Kaasen to bring his dog sled down to Seattle by boat, then he hired an old time director named Colin Campbell to direct his picture, and me to photograph it.

Colin Campbell is noted for having directed the first of five versions of Rex Beach's novel, The Spoilers ('14), for the Selig Polyscope Company. This picture featured a now famous "fight" between William Farnum and Tom Santschi. It was probably the best picture the Selig Co. ever made.

We went by train to Seattle and met Gunnar Kaasen, and, he and his dogs and sled were put into a truck, along with another dog team we had hired, and sent up to Longmuir.

Longmuir was about five miles from the Paradise Inn where we planned to stay while making the exterior scenes for the picture.

We all met at Longmuir, which was as far as we could go with the cars. Here we hitched up the dog teams, put in the cameras and other things we needed, and the two drivers drove their sleds the remaining five miles to Paradise Inn. The rest of us, Campbell, my prop man assistant, and I, had to tie on snowshoes and walk the five miles. It was a very long, cold walk, as none of us had used snowshoes for years.

We finally arrived at the Inn, where we found the snow level with the third floor, or about thirty feet deep. A cook and a couple of helpers had been provided to dig out the snow for access to the kitchen and to open up several rooms for us to sleep in while we were there.

We worked nearly a week to get the needed scenes; some with good weather and some in almost a blizzard. What we wanted were scenes of Kaasen's dog team driving through deep snow drifts, with wind and snow blowing wildly, travelling up and down hills of snow and through crevasses, then stopping at times from sheer exhaustion.

We photographed these scenes by panning along with the camera, on some of them. Others were made from a second dog sled and team, as they raced along beside Gunnar's team getting long and close shots as we moved along.

I also got individual shots of the lead dog, Balto, and of Gunnar, shooting them running, walking, and resting. We even dug a pit in the snow and buried a camera, all but the lens.  I cranked it by an extension from the side as the team ran right over the camera.

This whole job was a lot of work, very cold and miserable at times.  The camera often got so cold that the film would break. But, we enjoyed it and came back feeling strong and healthy. We also made interiors in Hollywood.  I regret to say that I didn’t see this picture when it was released."

"From: Harry F. Perry with Oscar G.Estes, Jr.: 40 Years Behind a Motion Picture Camera: The Autobiography of Harry F. Perry, A.S.C. (unpublished)"  By permission of Bruce Perry.

A section of Paradise Valley at Mt. Rainier National Park, ca. 1925.  Photo credit:  University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, UW26821z.

Ray Leek left Mt. Rainier and arrived in Tacoma, WA on Thursday evening, March 26.  He was going back to Hollywood.  Mr. Leek told the local press that he was delighted with the progress of the movie and that he anticipated the filming would be complete by the first part of the following week.

Gunnar Kaasen, the dogs, and the film crew left Mt. Rainier on Monday, March 30.  They arrived in Tacoma that afternoon.  Mr. Ely announced that the group would go to Hollywood to work on the post production of the movie.  They had gotten everything they wanted at Mt. Rainier.  He also said that the dog team had been sold to Sol Lesser's film company by "the owner in the North."

Mr. Ely told a story to the local press about how the week of filming at Mt. Rainier had almost ended in tragedy.  Here is the report of that incident from The Tacoma News Tribune paper:

"The dogs showed their mettle on the last day when they were coming out with the sled with all the valuable films and cameras loaded.  The smooth snow led the sled to slip over a high embankment and it looked for a moment as if the entire work of the week would be destroyed.  The dogs held like a rock, however, and prevented the sled from dropping to the bottom of the gorge while attendants assisted in unloading it and getting it back on the track for a safe trip down."

One of the myths that has been reported by some sources is that the sled dog Balto, made famous by the 1925 serum run, also appeared in other movies.  One example of this is found in the listing for Balto on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) website.  The filmography section lists him as having appeared in a total of nine films, starting with the 1925 production, Balto's Race To Nome.  The other eight movies were made in 1927, 1928, 1929 and 1933.

The seven movies listed from 1927 to 1929 were all part of The Smith Family comedy series.  The Smith family consisted of a husband and wife, their child, and a dog.  In real life, and for the first eight episodes of this series, the name of this dog was Cap, and he was a Harlequin (black & white) Great Dane.  Other dogs were used in subsequent features, but none of them were the real sled dog Balto.

The 1933 movie short starred W. C. Fields.  In one scene, Fields is supposedly driving a sled dog team.  There were some rather primitive special effects used in this scene, and one of the dogs was just a silhouette of a small dog inserted into the team.  This scene is similar to some of those in old western movies.  A person is made to look as if they are riding a horse, when in fact the supposed horse is actually stationary, and the scenery is just scrolling across a screen in the background.  This is what the dog team scene looked like in this movie.  Fields just calls out the name BALTO a couple of times, giving the impression that he is urging the team on, and that the lead dog was named Balto.  But the real sled dog Balto did not appear in this movie either.  The only movie he was involved with was Balto's Race To Nome.

©2012 Lance Jensen

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