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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.