B.C. gets Klondike Fever

London-born producer a London buff

Published: Oct 19 2014, 01:01:am

Sunday, April 15, 1979.
IT COULD HAVE BEEN a race. In Montreal, the newly founded partnership of Denis Heroux and Joseph Beaubien announced that their 1979 production schedule would include a picture called Smoke Bellew, a three-nation co-production based on Jack London's account of his adventures in the Canadian North during the Klondike gold rush.
    At about the same time, B.C.'s provincial film officer, Justis Greene, was listing a picture called Jack London's Klondike Fever among the "possibles" for production here in B.C. this year. Its $4-million budget would come from CFI Investments, an Ottawa-based company under the chairmanship of former federal finance minister John Turner.
    It could have been a race but, says Harry Alan Towers, the executive producer of Klondike Fever, "if it is, the winner is a foregone conclusion." Though the Montrealers are still planning their picture, Klondike Fever is now on location here. Principal photography finishes in mid-May, and the film will be in theatres by September.
    Towers, the dapper British-born producer of more than 50 films, says that the Montrealers are courting disaster by entering into a co-production agreement. Their project, as announced, will involve Canadian, French and German partners.
    "The one thing you cannot do with Jack London is use an international cast," Towers says. "I know that because I've done that. Alas."
    Seven years ago, Towers was involved in a German-French-Spanish-Italian version of London's Call of the Wild. The picture starred Charlton Heston and a mixture of Europeans. It was shot in Norway and post-produced in England.
    It was not a huge success. The closest that it got to Vancouver was a two-week run in Burnaby's Lougheed Drive-in. Its North American distributor tried to sell it as a nature movie, rather like Grizzly Adams.
    This time, Towers says, he knows how to do it right. Klondike-bom author Pierre Berton has been hired as "project consultant" and the the financing is all Canadian.
    "Our film tells the story of a man and his journey," Towers told me. "It traces London from San Francisco through the Yukon to Dawson City. It shows how he develops from a gangling seaman into a man who knows what he really wants to do with himself.
    "We'll see the characters that he encountered, and the incidents that made him decide to pan gold out of his experiences rather than from the ground," said Towers, a long-time London buff.
    An American, Rod Steiger, is playing the part of villainous Alaskan Soapy Smith. A Canadian, Lorne Greene, is Sam Steele, the legendary North West Mounted Policeman who kept the Klondike clean.
    After some agonizing, the role of the San Francisco-born Jack London, who was 21 at the time of his Northern journey, went to an American, 21-year-old Jeff East. (East can currently be seen in Superman: The Movie, playing the teenaged Clark Kent.)
    Towers has East under option for a possible TV miniseries involving the London character. He emphasized that, the TV possibilities notwithstanding, Klondike Fever is not being shot as a series pilot.
    With the exception of Steiger, East, actress Angie Dickinson and a performing dog, Towers's cast is Canadian. Gordon Pinsent, Barry Morse, Lisa Langlois, Robin Gammell, Sharon Lewis, D.D. Winters and Michael Hogan are among the principals. Canadian Peter (The Rowdyman) Carter is directing.
    The picture is being shot entirely in B.C. A snow-blanketed Barkerville is doubling for Dawson City, while Three Valley Gap, the Fraser Canyon and the Vancouver waterfront will stand in for such places as Skagway, the Chilkoot Pass and San Francisco, all circa 1898.
    "Our race is not with another company, but with the weather," Towers says. "London made his journey in the summer, autumn and early winter. We have to get all of that in eight weeks of filming.
    "So far we have been very lucky," he says. "But, then, I think that (B.C.) is probably the best place in Canada to make movies."

The above is a restored version of a Province interview by Michael Walsh originally published in 1979. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: I can find no indication that the Smoke Bellew feature mentioned above was ever made. In 1981, the CBC was involved in the production of something similar, the six-episode miniseries Tales of the Klondike (also known as Jack London's Tales of the Klondike), that featured narration by Orson Welles. In 1996, Jack London's memoir was the basis for a Franco-Canadian co-production called The Adventures of Smoke Bellew, a four-episode mini-series. (The Towers-produced Klondike Fever was released in 1980, not 1979.)  
    When I met Towers, he was already a Canadian citizen, with his corporate base in Toronto. As Britain's The Independent newspaper delicately put it in his 2009 obituary, "credit problems with American Express obliged Towers to remove himself to Canada" circa 1971. The man's life, full of dodgy business dealings, brushes with the law in several countries, as well as involvements with figures both great and notorious, contains enough material for its own sensational mini-series. Some 20 of his more than 90 feature films are either Canadian or Canadian co-productions, beginning with the 1975 science-fiction adventure The Shape of Things to Come. In most case, the connection to Canada was corporate rather than cultural, with only seven titles involving any actual filming in this country. "Active to the end," The Guardian noted, Towers "died during post-production of Moll Flanders, directed by Ken Russell, with whom he co-wrote the screenplay." What the British newspaper neglected to mention was the place of his death: Toronto, Canada.