Lights, Camera, Action! Moviemaking in Alaska Historical Newspapers

New Features In Motion Pictures Presented Yesterday

Image credit: The Alaska daily empire. (Juneau, Alaska), 02 July 1917. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84020657/1917-07-02/ed-1/seq-3/>

Greetings, all!

With the plummeting temperatures and snow showers here in southeast Alaska, it’s that time of year to stay indoors, get warm, and watch movies.

Millions of people around the world have only seen Alaska through movies. In its earliest days, silent films such as the groundbreaking 1922 documentary Nanook of the North and Charlie Chaplin’s landmark 1925 comedy The Gold Rush (of which the Alaska State Library Historical Collections has a 16 millimeter copy) were the only glimpses of Alaska. Fewer people know that filmmakers have worked on location in Alaska for nearly a century. This week we’ll be looking at the Alaska film industry from its earliest days.

Given the remote nature of Alaska, and the influx of miners arriving during the birth of motion pictures, historic newspapers contain a valuable chronicle of the extent to which the motion picture industry ventured up north to film on location, and to distribute their films. Two films in particular receive special attention: The Girl Alaska and The Cheechakos.

seward gateway 11-22-17

Image credit: November 22, 1917 issue of the Seward Gateway

Billed at the time as “The First and Only Photoplay Ever Made on Alaskan Soil”, The Girl Alaska filmed on location for the first time to add a degree of authenticity to the picture- including an Alaskan cast (minus principal actors). The film premiered in Juneau at the Palace Theatre and screened for two days before the cast and crew returned to the Lower 48. Based on the following news items, The Girl Alaska resonated with audiences eager to see familiar locations on screen:

girlalaskamovie

Image credit: The Alaska daily empire. (Juneau, Alaska), 07 Nov. 1919. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84020657/1919-11-07/ed-1/seq-3/

Palace Theatre; John T. Spickett, Manager; Juneau, Alaska; OPEN LETTER TO THE PEOPLE OF GASTINEAU CHANNEL: Mr. and Mrs. John T. Spickett request your presence at the opening performance of their "GIRL ALASKA" Sunday evening. This feature is distinctly Alaskan, having been filmed on Alaskan soil, and through our efforts and acquaintance with those who make the films, was secured for the first release in Alaska, to be shown at the Palace Theatre. Hoping to see you present, we remain, Yours very truly, Mr. and Mrs. John T. Spickett

Image credit: The Alaska daily empire. (Juneau, Alaska), 08 Nov. 1919. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84020657/1919-11-08/ed-1/seq-3/>

"The Girl Alaska is Sunday Night Feature at the Palace. Among the August releases by World-Pictures is "The Girl Alaska", the first and only photoplay every made on Alaskan soil. Nothing quite the same as this, from several standpoints, has ever before been seen on the moving picture screen. This will be seen Sunday and Monday nights at the Palace. The girl's father has gone to the Yukon in the big gold rush and had never returned. The people with whom he had left his daughter have brought her up to be their servant. Early one morning, after having slept in a barrel all night, she picks up a dirty newspaper and in it reads of the wonderful opportunities awaiting ambitious young men in the Alaskan gold country. She appropriates a suit of boy's clothing and, shoving all her gorgeous blonde curls up under her cap, she saunters down to the dock where a passenger vessel is about to leave for the north country. When discovered she, always in her boy's clothes, is set to work cleaning up the decks. To her rescue comes a young chap who is also on his way to Alaska to seek his fortune among the snowy fastness of the land. In the north country, they buy their camping paraphernalia and engage a native guide to take them out to the gold region. One day, as they are passing down stream, along the foot of a monstrous glacier part of the face of the mountain of snow and ice crumbles, with a frightful roar, down upon them. The girl, her pal, and guide are overwhelmed by the sliding mass, and their boat is crushed as though is were made of paper. The guide is killed. After they have buried him, the two pals again travel toward the gold country, this time on foot, for they no longer have a boat. Day after day they climb mountains, descend into valleys, skirt around rivers, until at length the young chap is taken ill with fever and is unable to move forward. The girl is wild with anxiety and at a loss as to what to do. At last she falls on her knees and prays, and then as though in response to her prayer she sees a thin, just visible stream of white smoke coming up from amidst the tall trees in the valley at her feet. It is the cabin of an old miner and adventurer who has spent many years in this wild, alluring north country. He shelters the two pals and finally, after a terrific struggle of weeks and weeks, the old man and the girl manage to restore the young fellow to health. It is then arranged for the two of them to remain with the old man and work his claim. The last act of the old man's life is to leave his entire claim to the girl and her pal. The young man is dumbfounded to learn his pal is a girl, but she is such a charming and beautiful child that he cannot resist falling in love with her and then marrying her. The old man's claim is soon found to contain an immensely valuable gold mine, and soon everything ends happily for the young fellow and "The Girl Alaska."

Image credit: The Alaska daily empire. (Juneau, Alaska), 08 Nov. 1919. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84020657/1919-11-08/ed-1/seq-3/>

Palace: Last time tonight: "The Girl Alaska" The unique picture of the gold country: Ask those of the packed house who attended last night. We told you we had 640 seats, which were nearly filled two times. Don't miss this opportunity to see an All-Alaskan picture.

The Alaska daily empire. (Juneau, Alaska), 10 Nov. 1919. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84020657/1919-11-10/ed-1/seq-3/>

While The Girl Alaska marketed itself heavily as an Alaska-filmed production, the first movie entirely filmed in Alaska used the working title The Great White Silence, which was later released as The Cheechakos (sometimes spelled The Cheechahcos) in 1923.  The digital archives at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks contain a collection of production stills that document filming locations and cast members. Additionally, Alaska newspapers chronicle the making of the film:

great white silence

Image credit: The Cordova daily times. (Cordova, Alaska), 12 Feb. 1923. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86072239/1923-02-12/ed-1/seq-5/>

great white silence a

The Cordova daily times. (Cordova, Alaska), 07 March 1923. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86072239/1923-03-07/ed-1/seq-8/>

Word spread quickly about the production cast and crew arriving in Anchorage. The film needed extras, and the Anchorage Daily Times published a call idea of appearing in a major motion picture thrilled a great many Anchorage residents, and a call for extras appeared in the Anchorage Daily Times:

Free Excursion, Thursday, 8:00 AM Stage Set for Typical Alaskan Picture Featuring Golden Days; All Aboard for Mile 52, the scene of the million-dollar picture which is destined to make Alaska famous. Watch The Times for definite date. Weather alone prevented the excursion last Sunday when everybody was primed to go. Weather reports today advise small flurries of snow and a falling barometer. The thirty members of the troupe, together with a small army of attendants are on the ground taking pictures between squalls. Advices from Mile 52 report some splendid pictures have been taken, but the big thing comes of when the 250 Anchorage people arrive on the scene to take part in the mad gold rush of '98. Captain A.E. Lathrop, in charge of local affairs, invites the public to take part in the scene that so aptly shows Alaska during the olden, golden days. This is a free-for-all, and everybody is welcome. Hot coffee will be served on the trail, but guests are asked to take their own lunches. This scene will appear prominently in the production of the "Great White Silence" being filmed by the Alaska Moving Pictures corporation, owned and managed by Alaskans. Captain Lathrop also asks the guests to dress in the manner of the typical stampeder. Wear old clothes, mackinaws, boots or mukluks or rubber pacs, flannel shirts of brilliant colors, fur caps and other clothing featuring the mad rush of the gold stampedes. These articles of clothing are not absolutely essential, but the idea is to wear old clothes and not white collars. It is up to Anchorage to assist in this pictures and at least 250 men and some women are needed to furnish the local color. Take a day off and make the trip and at least see how moving pictures are made. Women, of course, Captain Lathrop says, are more than welcome. But they too are asked to dress accordingly. According to present plans the free excursion train will leave Anchorage depot at 8 o'clock Thursday morning and return the same day. Definite announcements will be reported in Wednesday's Times. In the meantime, make preparations to participate in the moving picture; take a day's vacation and at the same time assist the management in producing a typical Alaska Picture.

Image credit: April 17, 1923 issue of the Anchorage Daily Times. Alaska State Library Historical Collections.

Despite efforts on behalf of director Austin Lathrop, who even built a studio in downtown Anchorage, The Alaska Moving Pictures Corp only ended up producing The Cheechakos. The cost of shooting on location was simply too great, even though the film opened to positive reviews and widespread distribution. Fortunately for future audiences, the National Film Preservation Foundation selected The Cheechakos for preservation in 2000, according to John Combs, Alaska Railroad enthusiast.

alaska motion pictures corp

Cast and crew of The Cheechakos on location outside the entrance to Denali Park c. 1923. Courtesy of the Alaska and Polar Regions Collections, Elmer E. Rasmuson Library, University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Many Hollywood productions used Alaska as a backdrop for stories of adventure, romance, and survival. Movies, then and now, provide visibility for Alaska and give filmgoers an opportunity to see the Great Land.

Special thanks to Damon Stuebner, Chris Beheim, University of Alaska, Anchorage Special Collections and Archives, and University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Archives.

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