Part of a continuing weekly series on Alaska history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage or Alaska history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
Many aspects of early Anchorage have been forgotten over the years, at best reduced to dry details in newspapers and books. Famous residents, popular restaurants and local trends were all ground into oblivion by the passage of time. The population booms of the 1940s and 1970s not only transformed the city but overwhelmed the longer-term townfolk under waves of new arrivals. The way things had been was largely forgotten. For example, by the early 1950s, far more people knew “Russian Jack” Jacob Marunenko as a colorful old exemplar of illusory pioneer days than as a convicted murderer.
In this way, the first movie at least partially shot in Anchorage was not “The Cheechakos,” also known as “The Chechahcos.” That film was filmed in 1923 and first shown in Anchorage that December before a wider release the following year. Instead, the first movie shot in Anchorage was filmed in 1917 and released in 1919. But few things about early Anchorage have been more forgotten than “The Girl Alaska,” with its cross-dressing lead and reliance on Alaska scenery as a narrative crutch.
A note about terminology: “The Girl Alaska” does not feature the first moving images captured in Anchorage. Though the town had been established only two years before “The Girl Alaska” crew arrived, an unknown number of reels had already been recorded here, footage intended for travelogues, documentaries or personal enjoyment. However, as used here, a “film” tells a story other than that captured by simply pointing the camera at scenery. A film, or movie, offers a narrative, typically fictional. Following this definition, the Greta Gerwig-helmed “Barbie” is a film; the footage of your pets on your phone is not.
The most notable of these non-movies filmed in early Anchorage is an educational newsreel called “Alaska Wonders in Motion.” It was released around 1917 and includes footage likely shot in the summer of 1916. Among the featured Anchorage landmarks is the Alaska Labor Union Hall log building that burned down the night of Oct. 15-16, 1916, likely arson by local anti-union elements.
Albert Ira Smith directed “Alaska Wonders in Motion,” and he was obviously taken by the experience. A novice filmmaker — the newsreel was his first credit — Smith was desperate for a project that would establish him as a credible, major filmmaker. Yet, he lacked the experience, connections, bankroll and troupe of performers that would have furthered his endeavor. He needed a shortcut, something that would paper over his personal and professional shortcomings. So, he decided to shoot a film in Alaska, the first such film. The natural grandeur of Alaska would be his hook. No matter what theater patrons thought of the direction, script or performances, they would at least enjoy the scenery.
Released in 1919, “The Girl Alaska” is a romance set amid the gold rushes of the 1890s to early 1900s. The silent film opens with several title cards extolling both literal and mythic aspects of Alaska for the “first and only photoplay ever made on Alaskan soil.” Alaska is not merely a distant territory but a “realm of romance and gold, land of long chances and great rewards.” In addition, “Several times the actors missed death by a narrow margin. One of these hairbreadth escapes is shown on the screen as an incident of this play,” presumably when the lead actors swam in frigid water near Childs Glacier.
Lottie Kruse plays Molly McCrea, daughter of “one of the lost gold-seekers of Alaska, who has inherited his love of adventure.” After her father disappears, she endures the stereotypically unhappy life of the orphan, beaten by her caretaker and hiding in an outside barrel to avoid attention. She reads an article about “great opportunities for young men” in Alaska, and “For the first time in her life Molly is sorry she’s not a boy.” Declining a gendered defeat, she disguises herself as a boy with stolen overalls and a cap to hide her long hair, then stows away on a steamship bound for Alaska, “empty of pockets, but an unconquerable spirit.” The cross-dressing is more of a featured aspect than a short-term trick, as Molly spends all but the last few minutes passing as a boy.
Sailors soon find her and demand to know where she thought she was going. She replies, “Alaska,” and the men incomprehensibly take that as her name rather than destination. Thus renamed, she befriends another prospector bound for Alaska named Phil, who pays for her passage.
From there, Molly and Phil battle thieves, wolves, illness and an unforgiving terrain across a sightseeing tour of Alaska that does more to sell Alaska itself than the meager plot. In Skagway, they meet a bearded prospector, the sourdough Sandy Allen, played by actual Alaska prospector-turned-poet Charles Edward Cone. Together, Molly/Alaska, Phil and Sandy work a claim until Sandy takes ill and dies. In his last moments, Sandy confesses that he left a daughter behind in California, not knowing that Molly, of course, is that girl now grown. Convenient, unsurprising twists in movies are nothing new.
Meanwhile, Phil becomes depressed when news of his fiancee marrying another makes its way north. While staring morosely into the distance atop a rocky outcropping, he happens to see Molly/Alaska strip to frolic in a lake. Realizing that Molly/Alaska is, in fact, a woman, his sadness is suddenly forgotten in a transition that happens quicker than it takes to read these words. They marry and use gold left to her by Sandy to buy some new dresses. The end.
Shooting for the film, originally titled “The Silent North and Number Four,” began in 1917. Smith would later promote the film with the tagline: “Every foot of ‘The Girl Alaska’ was made in Alaska.” While not true, the far majority of the film was indeed shot in Alaska. Early scenes of Molly were filmed in Pasadena, California, and some additional footage was captured in Seattle.
The rest of the film is mainly as advertised, filmed as they journeyed across Alaska. Footage aboard a steamship was captured on the SS Alaska of the Alaska Steamship Co. during the voyage north. The crew reached Juneau in late July and the Cordova area in early August, including shooting along the Copper River and at the Miles and Childs glaciers. On Aug. 9, they landed at Seward. A couple of days later, they were in Anchorage.
Primary shooting in Anchorage was conducted in early September 1917, with the railroad town standing in for gold rush Fairbanks. Some shots seemingly of Seward are also marked in the film as Fairbanks. Smith took advantage of an influx of visitors for a fair to film large crowd scenes and a street fight. Most of the shooting in Anchorage was outside the Panhandle pool room on Fourth Avenue near C Street. As throughout the production, convenient Alaskans filled roles beyond the two leads. For a dry town, liquor bottles evident in the Anchorage scenes appear rather authentic.
After their time in Anchorage, the four-person crew departed for the Interior with suggestions that they would be filming additional scenes at Fairbanks and the Aleutian Islands, though these settings are not apparent in the film.
Upon the film’s release in 1919, critics gave it minimal attention despite the lure of authentic Alaska scenery. The most prominent, and unfortunately scathing, review came in the Aug. 22, 1919 issue of Variety, the longstanding observer of the motion picture industry. Straight to the point, the anonymous author declared “The Girl Alaska” the “severest bore ever perpetrated.” Moreover, “whoever is responsible for the direction, did not know whether the production was to be an educational scenic or a story. As a result, it’s a cross between the two, and the hybrid is nothing to brag about.”
The unnamed reviewer saw through Smith’s efforts to blind moviegoers with Alaska landscapes, as “about the only redeeming feature of the whole shooting match is the excellent photography, even the scenery being the cause of that end of it.”
The critic praised Kruse’s “pretty screenable face and figure” that deserved “some attention with the ‘big time’ film producers.” The review also noted, “Discounting her feminine voice, which to the screen is hidden, her actions and her full form through her boy’s overall should have given her away.”
While the film may seem unexpectedly modern and feminist with a title card that trumpeted “The Independence of Pants,” cross-dressing protagonists were familiar enough to be an acknowledged trope in silent American cinema. Film historian Laura Horak identified more than 400 such films in her 2016 text, “Girls Will Be Boys: Cross-Dressed Women, Lesbians, and American Cinema.” While this trend cannot be attributed to any single cause, the presentation of women dressed as men in film then was common and overwhelmingly wholesome.
The most vociferous objection to the film came from the most unexpected source, the son of notorious and long-deceased gangster Jefferson “Soapy” Smith, who had been killed in Skagway back in 1898. After the movie was released, Smith’s son threatened to sue the producers for libel unless they removed an undefined “libelous reference” to Smith.
The film did include footage of Molly/Alaska and Phil visiting Smith’s heavily vandalized grave marker in Skagway. Title cards described him as “notorious gunman Soapy Smith” Another card declared, “This fellow tried to shoot up Skagway. They buried him with his boots on.” Per a Smith family blog, there is no evidence of a settlement, and more objectionable material may or may not have been removed from the surviving print of the film. Director Albert Ira Smith was also apparently unrelated to gangster Smith.
“The Girl Alaska” passed into and out of theaters with some minimal fanfare in Alaska and much lesser note elsewhere. For Alaskans, the film is a fascinating bit of trivia and a rare window into life more than a century ago. In this way, it transcends the low expectations of its origin into something genuinely historical.
This article would have been impossible without the assistance of Angela Schmidt, film archivist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Alaska Film Archives. The Alaska Film Archives possesses one of the largest collections of archival films in and about Alaska, ranging from pre-statehood home movies to modern commercial productions.
Schmidt obtained a copy of “The Girl Alaska” cleaner than any previously available, a version now available to watch for free on their YouTube channel along with more than a thousand other Alaska films and clips. A more extensive collection of their digitized films is available online via the Elmer E. Rasmuson Library.
“Daily Doings Around Town.” Anchorage Daily Times, November 22, 1917, 10.
“Fairbanks to be Shown in Picture.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, August 20, 1917, 3.
“The Girl Alaska.” Variety, August 22, 1919, 77.
Horak, Laura. Girls Will Be Boys: Cross-Dressed Women, Lesbians, and American Cinema. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2016.
“Movie Company in the North on Production.” (Juneau) Alaska Daily Empire, July 28, 1917, 9.
“Movie Stars in Action Here.” Seward Gateway, August 9, 1917, 1.
“Screen Drama Scenes Laid in Anchorage.” Anchorage Daily Times, August 25, 1917, 2.
“Smith Company Plays Motion Picture Scenes Near Childs Glacier.” [Skagway] Daily Alaskan, August 1, 1917, 2.
Smith, Jeff. “Artifact #92: The Girl Alaska and Soapy’s Son’s Legal Suit Correspondence.” Soapy Smith’s Soap Box, January 14, 2022.
“‘The Cheechakos’ Shown Here For First Time Today.” Anchorage Daily Times, December 11, 1923, 5.