Image: B1999.14.1210D, Hilscher Collection, Atwood Resource Center, Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, Anchorage, AK.
James Bartlett found himself in Fairbanks, Alaska and learned about the single most powerful businessman in the Territory of Alaska and its richest resident, Austin “Cap” Lathrop, who would have a role to play in the territory’s film history.
Ireland may be famous for its weather, but it struggles to hold a candle to the freezing extremes of Alaska. Fairbanks is the second-largest city in Alaska, and, due to its location right in the center of the state, is nicknamed “The Golden Heart.”
Alaska is enormous, too. Twice the size of Texas, I was surprised to learn that it only became a US state in 1959. Until the discovery of gold (and later oil), the purchase of this frozen, largely-uninhabited landmass was famously derided as a folly.
Hollywood rarely comes to Fairbanks, though a number of its landmarks did feature in the Oscar-nominated 2007 film Into the Wild. Directed by Sean Penn, it looked at the life of Christopher McCandless, a young man searching for adventure who died in the Alaskan wilds he had made his temporary outdoor home.
On a recent visit to Fairbanks I saw several of the locations that featured in the film, including a couple of evenings in the shamrock-friendly Big I pub (you just can’t get away from Irish pubs, no matter where you are).
Inside I heard stories of fur trapping, driving across the ice on the frozen Chena River (there was only one two-way steel bridge), and how travel by small plane is still as common as ever. I also learned that Fairbanks was once home to a film mogul named Austin “Cap” Lathrop.
Lathrop first made inroads into Alaska in 1895, when his steamship bought supplies – and prospective miners – to the territory. He later invested in mining and oil, and in 1911 he converted a clothing store into his first Empress film theatre in the city of Valdez.
He opened other Empress-named cinemas, including the all-concrete one in Fairbanks (1927), where he also bought out the owners of the rather forlorn-looking Lacey Street Theater (both now long replaced by a multiplex).
He had radio and newspaper interests in Fairbanks and beyond too, but in 1924 he was the driving force behind adventure-drama film The Chechahcos (the title meaning “tenderfoot” or “new arrival”).
Many Alaskan stories had been seen on the big screen, but they didn’t shoot on location. Lathrop, as president of the Alaska Motion Picture Corporation, wanted to change that. They announced plans for the production of a 12-reel picture – three of which were to be shot in Alaska – as a co-production with Oregon-based American Lithograph. A large studio was built in Anchorage, and the crew from Hollywood, New York and Oregon flew in to work on the melodramatic story of gold-rush days.
Every effort was made for full authenticity, and actors and crew alike faced the challenges of shooting on location, including a final chase involving mushing, a frozen river and a glacier – all of it real. Many local actors were hired, and others lined up to help and to work as extras (a story familiar to the countless hundreds or more who picked up work on the many years that “Game of Thrones” shot in Northern Ireland). Pathe-International bought the rights, and it was screened at the White House for the President before being released across America.
Hopes were high and reviews favorable, but audiences weren’t impressed (and the unusual title probably didn’t help either). Some, however, noticed that Charlie Chaplin’s 1925 comedy The Gold Rush might have been influenced by it, and in 2003 it was selected by the National Film Preservation Board.
Lathrop died in an accident in 1950, but he did live on in perhaps Fairbanks’ most famous film. Released in 1960, Ice Palace was partly shot in Fairbanks, and featured a cast that included Richard Burton and Robert Ryan.
Based on the 1958 novel by Edna Ferber, it saw rich businessman “Czar” Kennedy (played by Burton) and Thor Storm (Ryan) as two friends and rivals living in “Baranof,” a growing city looking towards statehood. “Baranof” was greatly inspired by Fairbanks, and Czar was based on the life of “Cap” Lathrop.
In 1950 a new, swish, eight-story apartment complex called the Northward Building had been built in Fairbanks. It was home to the city’s elite, and a very-similar building was Czar’s home in the pages of the book. Writer Edna Ferber was fresh off the success of her previous novel Giant (and the subsequent James Dean film), but this movie version was a flop.
Though it has lost almost all its lustre, the Northward Building still pays tribute to its moment in the spotlight: the hallway is lined with posters, newspaper articles and copies of the book. Locals still call “The Ice Palace”.
Perhaps the best show in Fairbanks is the Aurora Borealis, which can be seen – weather conditions permitting – on many nights of the year here, thanks to that central location. I was lucky enough to catch a pre-winter glimpse….
Currently based in Los Angeles, James Bartlett is a story analyst for the Sundance Institute, the Nicholl Fellowships, the UCLA Professional Screenwriting Program, the PAGE International Screenwriting Awards and National Geographic Films. He also reads for several UK regions, is the US consultant for Euroscript, and lectures across the UK and Ireland.
He’s available for private consultation at firstname.lastname@example.org