By Review by Colin Roshak
This past weekend, past and present paired together for a night at the movies in the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra’s performance of the 1923 silent film, The Cheechakos.
The film follows ‘Horseshoe’ Riley and partner Bob Dexter as they make their way in Alaska as early gold prospectors. Along the way, they take in a young orphan named Ruth. Little does she know, her mother Margaret is alive and is being held captive by Richard Steele under the false pretense that her daughter was killed in a shipwreck.
The Cheechakos was the first feature length film to ever be filmed in Alaska. Filming took place all over the territory, and the movie highlights the Alaskan wilderness and features calving glaciers, raging rapids and dog sled teams. The final set pieces were the most audacious. The town erupts into flames as Steele makes his escape and, in a time long before computer-generated imagery (CGI), the flames were very real. After a long chase, Steele meets his untimely demise at the hands of a calving glacier and mother and daughter are finally reunited.
The story was easy to follow and allowed for the orchestra to be the center of attention. Save a few awkward silences, which are likely authentic for a silent film, music director Randall Craig Fleischer kept the orchestra right on cue. Pianist and education consultant Susan Wingrove-Reed anchored the orchestra through much of the music and played with a jaunty rhythmic precision that perfectly accompanied the action of the film. Principal cellist Linda Ottum and clarinetist Karl Pasch also deserve a nod for their various solos, which ranged from quirky and humorous to intense and daring.
Playing along with a film like The Cheechakos presents some unique challenges. Unlike playing along with a John Williams’ score, for example, the musicians aren’t already familiar with the music. In addition, the conductor was the only one who knew what was happening on the screen, and even then, he had to trust that his monitor was synchronized correctly. There are countless variables and logistics that go into a performance like The Cheechakos and was only possible thanks to expert playing and attentive direction.
Despite being over 90 years old, and from a time in which so many films were lost because of the fragility of film, the movie looked excellent for its age. This is due to the many restoration efforts since its revival in the early 2000s and the work of ASO musicians Chris Beheim and Corinne McVee who were instrumental in bringing the film to the Atwood stage.
The Cheechakos is undoubtedly a piece of Alaskan history and both the orchestra’s performance and extensive research that went into the production were no less than world class. However, I would be remiss not to talk about the anachronistic nature of the film itself.
Some of the olde-tyme charm of the film was delightful, but much of it was unsettling. For example, the fatherly turned lover relationship between the ‘orphaned’ Ruth and Riley (talk about power imbalance), or the forced partnership and sexual molestation of Maragret by Steele. The film perfectly captures the long held tradition of women in the roles of helpless bystanders; objects of desire awaiting their male saviors.
The content of the movie was by no means egregious, but it doesn’t need to be in order to contribute to the normalization of abusive behavior. This is the very same behavior that has been most scrutinized, ironically enough, in the music and film industries.
It would be easy to say that this movie is from “another time,” when we weren’t so sensitive to such abuses of power and privilege, but this implies that these problems have been fixed — which they haven’t. Trying to separate antiquated gender roles and sexism present in films like The Cheechakos from this sort of destructive, abusive behavior that pervades modern society indicates an incomplete and misguided understanding of the complexity, nuance and ubiquity of sexism. A piece of history, yes, but not one worth celebrating.