Saturday, February 19, 2011

Alaska at the Movies: The Chechahcos (1924)

Alaska has been the subject of a multitude of movies through the years.  Some of which are good, many that are not.   Often the common link of many of these films is that they are not filmed in Alaska.  Typically British Columbia is the most common faux Alaska, but studios occasionally get creative with filming location.  30 Days of Night substituted New Zealand for Barrow, The Fourth Kind used Bulgaria as a stand in for Nome, and The Proposal attempted to pass coastal Massachusetts for Sitka.  So when so many Alaska films are shot outside, it is a treat to see a picture filmed in Alaska.

Cap Lathrop

The Chechahcos is such a film.   Created in 1924, this silent film is the first feature length film shot entirely in Alaska.  The film was a production of the Alaska Moving Picture Corporation, owned by Cap Lathrop.  Lathrop led an impressive life as "Alaska's first home-grown millionaire."  First arriving in Alaska during the 1890s as a steamship captain, he would go on to build a media empire of movie theaters, radio stations, and the Fairbanks Daily News Miner.  Lathrop also had interests in real estate and mining, and would later be a strong opponent of Alaska Statehood.  The Chechahcos featured Alaskan actors, local jargon in the title (Chechaco or Cheechako is a term for newcomer to Alaska), and the art work in the movie is done by famed Alaskan artist Sydney Laurence.  

The plot of the movie centers around the Klondike Gold Rush.  During the steamer trip north, a young girl is separated from her mother in the confusion of the boat sinking and is taken in by two miners.  One is an old "sourdough", the other is a young newcomer.  They cross the Chilkoot Pass and set up a prosperous gold mine.  10 years later the young girl has become become a woman and has fallen for the young miner.  Gamblers, henchmen, and family reunions provide the drama.  But the best part is the great Alaska scenery.  Included is the first filming of Mount McKinley, as well as glaciers, mountains, and raging rivers.

The Chechahcos was filmed at an interesting time in Alaska history.  The year before its release, President Warren Harding had traveled up to Alaska to drive the golden spike in Nenana celebrating the completion of the Alaska Railroad.  While there, he met the crew of the film.  The Alaska Railroad of the 1920s is not featured in the movie, but has a large role in the production.  The filming locations are along the railroad route, rather than in the historic locations of Skagway and the Klondike.  The Chilkoot Pass scene was filmed on Bartlett Glacier on the Kenai Peninsula, the dog Mushing scene was filmed near Cantwell, and the first camp they come to is filmed around Portage.

Ultimately, the film was not a commercial success.  The Alaska Moving Picture Corporation never made another film.  Still, the film stands as a great look at early Alaska film making and offers a view on transformational Alaskan events that occurred just one generation earlier.

Youtube version from

No comments:

Post a Comment