#330) The Chechahcos (1923)
OR “Fear and Loathing in Los Anchorage”
Directed & Written by Lewis H. Moomaw
Class of 2003
The Plot: A ship headed towards the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1890s catches on fire and all onboard must abandon ship. Passenger Margaret Stanlaw (Eva Gordon) loses her young daughter Ruth (Baby Margie) in the ensuing panic, and is informed by shady gambler Richard Steele (Alexis B. Luce) that she did not survive. In actuality, Ruth is saved by prospective prospectors “Horseshoe” Riley and Bob Dexter (William Dills and Albert Van Altwerp). This new makeshift family arrives in Anchorage and almost immediately strikes gold. 15 years later Ruth is now a young adult (Gladys Johnson), who is having an inexplicable attraction to Dexter, the man who helped raise her and is essentially her father. When Margaret and Richard come into town to run the local saloon, secrets will be revealed, pasts will be confronted, and the Alaskan terrain will be filmed for the first time.
Why It Matters: The NFR references the film’s main bullet point as “[t]he first feature film produced in Alaska” and highlights the “spectacular location footage of the lonely and unfathomable Alaskan wilderness”. There’s also an essay by Anchorage film historian Chris Beheim.
But Does It Really?: Its Alaskan production claim might be this film’s sole reason for making the NFR (that, and it’s a silent movie that was presumed lost). “The Chechahcos” is certainly a step above a lot of the other silent films I’ve endured on this list, but it just didn’t grab me the way I wanted it to. I will admit, however, that the version of “The Chechahcos” I watched was without a score, and while I tried to listen to appropriate music during my screening, I definitely didn’t watch this film as completely intended. The film includes a few genuinely exciting moments and, as the NFR points out, beautiful shots of the tundra, but overall it’s the film’s novelty rather than its artistic merits that has given “The Chechahcos” noteworthy value. I can give this a very slight pass for NFR induction, but perhaps a second screening with an accompanying score would change my mind.
Everybody Gets One: Portland-based film producer George Edward Lewis joined forces with prominent Alaska entrepreneur Austin Lathrop in 1922 to found the Alaska Moving Pictures Corporation and produce the first film shot entirely in Alaska (Hollywood usually travelled only as far as Northern California to film sequences set in Alaska). Director/writer Lewis H. Moomaw was George Edward Lewis’ business partner at American Lifeograph. With the exception of Eva Gordon, the principle cast members were all stage actors with little or no film experience.
Wow, That’s Dated: There’s only one Inuit in the entire film and she’s played by a white woman. Oy.
Take a Shot: As mentioned at the beginning of the film, “cheechakos” (pronounced “chee-chaw-kos”) is a Chinook word that literally translates to “tenderfoot”, and is used to describe a newcomer to the territory.
- Full disclosure: there is not a lot of information out there about “The Chechahcos” or its creators. My knowledge of the film’s production comes primarily from the aforementioned Beheim essay. Thanks to some extensive research, Beheim knows more about “The Chechahcos” than the people who actually made it.
- Among the essay’s highlights: the citizens of Anchorage eagerly anticipated production of “The Chechahcos”, even greeting the cast and crew upon their arrival. Filming in Alaska took place over the course of three months and hundreds of miles of locations. The bulk of it was filmed in the summer of 1923, and fake snow was used for a few sequences.
- …And that’s pretty much all I have to say about this movie. Again, there are some beautiful visuals of Alaska throughout, but as a whole the film just sat there for me. Perhaps those of you with more knowledge and appreciation for Alaska (and/or not-incestuous-but-morally-unethical relationships) will get more out of “The Chechahcos” than I did.
- Associated Exhibitors purchased “The Chechahcos”, changed the title’s spelling from its original “The Cheechakos” for unknown reasons, and launched one of their largest advertising campaigns in anticipation of the surefire hit they had on their hands. After a successful premiere in Anchorage in December 1923, “The Chechahcos” played New York, where it was met with favorable reviews, but the audience never showed up. The film lost money and was the only production from the Alaska Moving Pictures Corporation.
- After its premiere engagement, “The Chechahcos” more or less disappeared until being rediscovered by the University of Alaska in 2000. The film was restored with support from the National Film Preservation Foundation, and wouldn’t you know it, they added the film to their National Film Registry three years later. What are the odds?
- While the actual film of “The Chechahcos” was found and restored, the original score remains lost. A new score was composed by Eric Beheim to commemorate Anchorage’s centennial in 2015. And Eric’s brother Chris Beheim just happened to mention this new score in his essay. Again, what a small world it is.
- I can’t prove that this film inspired Charlie Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush” (which started production a year after the premiere of “The Chechachcos”), but I can’t not prove it either.
- I will also label this film the forefather to the “tough guys with cute kids” sub-genre of movies, which would eventually be perfected with “Kindergarten Cop”.