Eskimo (1933)

Toronto Film Society presented Eskimo (1933) on Sunday, January 27, 2019 in a double bill with Trader Horn as part of the Season 71 Sunday Afternoon Special Screening #7.

Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.  Director: W.S. Van Dyke.  From the books by Peter Freuchen, “Der Eskimo” and “Die Flucht ins weisse Land”, translated to the screen by John Lee Mahin.  Producers: Hunt Stromberg, W.S. Van Dyke, Irving Thalberg.  Cinematographers: Clyde De Vinna, George Gordon Nogle, Josiah Roberts, Leonard Smith.  Music: William Axt.  Film Editor: Conrad A. Nervig.  Release Date: November 14, 1933.

Cast: Mala (Mala, aka Kripik), Edgar Dearing (Constable Balk), Peter Freuchen (Captain), Edward Hearn (Captain’s Mate), Lotus Long (Iva), Joe Sawyer (Sergeant Hunt), W.S. Van Dyke (Inspector White), Harold Seabrook (minor role).

It was probably about ten years ago now when I woke up very early one morning, turned on the TV and began watching a film that had already started and where the spoken language wasn’t English.  It caught my interest immediately.  The debate appeared to be:  Should Native men have to follow the laws of  men from another nation in his own land; White men bringing their laws from another culture, living elsewhere?  Alaska, since 1884 was a legal district of the United States, but the people who lived there had their own “moral code” from well before that time.  Unfortunately, I fell back to sleep but what was unusual was that I continued the story in my dream.  When I woke up, I found the film had ended but I realized how much it had affected me since I never dream about film stories, even though I have fallen asleep hundreds of times while watching them.

That film was today’s Eskimo [Mala the Magnificent] (1933), again directed by W.S. Van Dyke. I bided my time seeing this film in full but looked forward to getting my hands on my own copy.  Even if the opening title leads the audience to believe the cast is played by amateur actors, the main Native cast are not, although the extras are.  And since there are no acting credits in the titles at the beginning or end of the film, we may be led to believe that all the White men weren’t professional actors either.

Eskimo was translated to the screen by John Lee Mahin from the books Der Eskimo and Die Flucht ins weisse Land by Peter Freuchen, a Danish explorer, notable for his part in Arctic explorations, and who later on was involved in the film industry, both in his home country and in Hollywood.  In Eskimo, he plays the role of the despicable Captain, who has no qualms cheating the Native traders or treating their women as sex objects.  From what I read about Freuchen, this character he portrayed was his polar opposite.

The majority of the film was shot on location (by no less than four cinematographers) but there are definitely studio shots as well.  You can instantly recognize when the background is projected on a screen so that’s proof enough to know that the main actors, whether White or Native were brought back to Hollywood for the final shooting of details.

The main character, and hero of the story is Mala, acted by the beautiful Ray Wise (aka Ray Mala).  This was Mala’s first feature film, but he wasn’t such a novice as people would like to think.  He was born in the small village of Candle, Alaska to a Russian Jewish immigrant father and a Native Alaskan (Inupiat) mother.  He actually made his acting and cinematography debut at the age of 14 in the film Primitive Love by explorer Frank Kleinschmidt.  By 1925 he made his way to Hollywood and got a job at Fox Film Corporation as a cameraman.  (Wikipedia)

Up against Cleopatra and One Night of Love, Eskimo was the first film to win an Oscar for Best Film Editing at the seventh Academy Awards ceremony.  And mentioning Cleopatra takes me off on a tangent; when I had finished reading Scott Eyman’s biography on Cecil B. DeMille, I watched several of his films including Pacific Union (1939) where Ray Mala had a small role (possibly two) in DeMille’s big production, playing that of a Native Indian.

But back to the cast of Native Eskimos in Eskimo, Mala’s first wife, Aba, was played by Chinese Lulu Wong Wing who just happened to be Anna Mae Wong’s older sister!

His second wife, Iva, was played by American actress Lotus Long (nee Lotus Pearl Shibata—who also went by the pseudonym Karen Sorrell in a couple of films) and whose father was of Japanese ancestry with her mother being Hawaiian.

Unfortunately, I don’t know who played the roles of “the Stranger”, his “Wife #1” nor the Interpreter.  I feel that of those three main characters, Wife #1 had to be a professional actress. With regard to the other two, although they were perfect in their roles, I’m on the fence.

There are some very authentic hunting moments, stunning and fearsome nature scenes and beautiful animal cinematography.  There’s nothing boring here.  Although the thought at the time would be how uncivilized and child-like the Natives were, I think nowadays when watching Eskimo, we actually think they are more insightful and genuinely inquisitive about other cultures.  They might have been laughing amongst themselves in private about the wacky things those White men do, but unlike the White men who laughed at them even when their backs weren’t turned, they certainly showed great manners when they learned a Western man’s way of doing things.   There’s a little scene where Mala and his family are eating at the Captain’s table.  Not only are they trying foreign foods, but they are attempting to use cutlery, something they have never laid eyes—or hands—on before.  Which reminds me, earlier on there is a scene where Mala is eating at home and he is looking for a “napkin”.  All I can say is when having a dinner party, I would love to have those same washable and reusable “napkins” too!

There’s a scene that moved me with one of Mala’s children.  At this point guns weren’t a common tool used by the villagers.  But when a gun is fired, the noise, and possibly what it implies, scares the youngest child and he reacts the way any child in any part of the world would when he is frightened.  Very touching and unifying.

When the Canadian aspect of the movie takes over with the Canadian Mounted Police sent out to look for Mala, I fleetingly wondered why.  After all, Alaska, even though we wanted it, was not ever part of Canada although ownership was disputed first between the UK and Russia and then the dispute was continued with the US when it inherited the land from Russia through the “Alaska Purchase” in 1867.  But who cares, since it was fun to see Canadians represented in this wondrous film.  So, as I’m watching the two Mounties in action, I notice that one of them looks strikingly familiar.  Is that Joe Sawyer, I ask myself out loud?  Yes, it is Joe Sawyer, but not a Joe Sawyer character I’ve ever seen before.  Joe Sawyer has played over 200 roles starting as a pool player in the 1931 film The Public Enemy.  And that’s a typical Joe Sawyer role, a gangster, a mug, a cop, a brute, and at many a times just a dumb boor.  Even, in one of his later roles, It Came From Outer Space (1953), he still looked like an older Joe Sawyer pugilist.  But in Eskimo, Joe is actually, well, close to handsome!  And he spoke eloquent English.  I was dumbstruck!  And that’s why I love actors.  Good actors always amaze me.  And he got to play against the person who played the character Inspector White.  And who might that be?  The director himself, W.S. Van Dyke.  I think they had a hoot.  Especially all four actors in the scene where both Mounties brought Mala in to be arrested by Inspector White.  It’s a funny, charming moment where the Mounties are laughing behind their hands, watching rigid Inspector White trying to deal with an exuberant, childlike Mala.  But knowing what they have in store for Mala, the scene also feels quite sad.

In one vivid scene, Mala has been chained to his cot and during the night when everyone is asleep, he attempts to slide his hand out of the metal cuff.  It’s such an excruciating moment and we feel the tenseness of it by the powerful cinematography and the length of the scene.

The thing that director Van Dyke got very wrong, the only aspect of the film that really didn’t work, was the musical score.  The music director is composer William Axt, but since he wasn’t officially credited with a score, I feel that the studio just used music of his that I recognize from some other movie and literally struck it into the film!  For instance, there’s a scene where Mala is in mourning and the music is, in my humble opinion, well, ridiculous because it sounds too carefree.  I find every time I hear the ending bars of the tune, it’s just on the “tip of my tongue” as to what other film I’ve heard it in.

The ending, although uplifting, also doesn’t feel quite right.  And it’s not because of what has happened, it’s because of the hokey lines given to my favourite Mountie, Joe Sawyer, although I have to say it didn’t strike me quite same way seeing it for my fourth time and on a large theatre screen. No matter, you will decide for yourselves.

But even with these little flaws, don’t let that stop you from allowing this film to fill you with awe.  An amazing film.

Introduction by Caren Feldman

You should have been with me at the party just to see that Eskimo leading man! His name is Ray Wise, and is he handsome and has he IT? But, girls, he has a bride, an Eskimo girl, whom he lately married in Nome. So your sighs will be in vain, I’m afraid, those simple hearted Eskimos not knowing much about divorce. But they’re in Hollywood, now. W.S. Van Dyke, director of Eskimo, taken from Dr. Peter Freuchen’s books, was giving the party at his big, hospitable house in Brentwood. You might think that Ray Wise’s bushy hair, standing out all over his head, would make him look too wild, but somehow it adds just a touch of audacity that women like. And then, his lovely courtesy; his fine, sensitive, mobile face, rob him of all hint of the savage. Ray’s bride is a lovely girl, born in Nome, educated at the high school there, smart in dress and cultured in manner. But is she thrilled at the big cities and their sights! “I had never ridden in an elevator before,” she said. “Our highest building in Nome is three stories high. I’m like a kid about riding up and down in the apartment house where we live! And I’ve never seen a stage play, either! Imagine that! We have pictures up there in Alaska, but no real flesh-and-blood drama.”

Dr. Freuchen and his wife were at the party, too, and much devoted. Nevertheless, I heard that when his wife met him at the station, after his absence of more than a year in the frozen north, he merely shook her by the hand and, in laconic Norse fashion, said, “How do you do?” Jean Harlow was present. She came with Ray Hallor, whom you may remember in pictures. Jean wore a black knitted skirt embroidered with gold, with a white blouse of crepe, also embroidered in gold, and a little white hat. She also wore a red sash, which gave a saucy tone to the Jean Pateau model. Mrs. Wise wore a conventional, tight-fitting evening gown, princess style, revealing her lovely figure. The dress was of flowered taffeta, in soft, pastel colors. Lotus Long, the Chinese girl, who played one of the leading rôles in Eskimo, wore black and white crepe. She is beautiful. And Anna May Wong came with her sister, Ying Wong, who also played a leading role. Anna May wore a handsome and unusual gown—black taffeta skirt, with real Irish lace, very old—made into a long, tight-fitting blouse. Her sister was gowned in a conventional, tight-fitting evening dress, very becoming. We told Jean she looked lovely, but she said, “Oh, you ought to see me in the morning! My hair is done in hairpins to make it crimpy, and my face is smeared with cold cream. The first morning after I engaged my butler, he came up to my room to take my orders. He took one look at me and fled!” Ruth Elder was there with Buddy Gillespie, art director for Van Dyke. Eddie Hearn, who used to be a star, but is now Van Dyke’s assistant, and his wife, were present; and Charlotte Woods, scenario writer; Gregory McIssacs and his wife; and many others.

The New Movie Magazine: Are You Ready? How Hollywood Entertains, July 1933

With the last film in our current series, we come full circle by returning to W.S. Van Dyke, the director with whom we started this series, and a film from his 1928-33 period (White Shadows in the South SeasTrader Horn; and Tarzan the Ape Man), in which he was still very much of a specialist in the location-filmed semi-documentary film. Our notes for Manhattan Melodrama surveyed his subsequent prolific commercial success and expertise, so we need not cover that ground again here. Eskimo is also an appropriate companion film to Congorilla in reflecting the then tremendous movie and audience interest in films of exploration and discovery, an interest sparked not only by the Lindbergh and Byrd exploits (which created a new enthusiasm for individual contemporary heroes), but also by the ability of the still new talking film to bring to the screen the authentic sounds, languages, and music of far-off places and peoples. Universal’s Igloo (a notable, if more melodramatic, film; one that we hope to show a couple of seasons hence) had preceded Eskimo into release by a year, but its production was probably spurred by the interest surrounding Freuchen’s books, and the knowledge that the MGM film based on them would take some time to produce.

Eskimo is a remarkable film, though it has its flaws. The first half is such a fascinating recital, in largely documentary fashion, of Eskimo life, not only the rigorous struggle for existence and the constant hunting of food, but also in its detailed commentary on Eskimo morality and codes of honor, that the second half—in which plot takes over—inevitably seems a let-down. There is a certain amount of racial comment and some biting reference to white exploitation of the Eskimo, but this is used to bolster plot motivation and does not become the end in itself, as in White Shadows in the South Seas. As always with Van Dyke, the authenticity is helped along by Hollywood know-how: there is nothing faked about the marvellous caribou stampede sequence, but it is certainly enhanced by overhead and pit camera positions. Today, the intrusion of some back projected scenes (especially into the walrus hunt) strikes a note of artifice—but in 1933, back projection was not widely understood or recognised by audiences, and they would have been less jarring then. Too, the back projection scenes are not inserted to create phoney thrills, but instead to build up and punctuate already first-class sequences. Perhaps the only real criticism one can make is of the musical score, and again, the art of scoring for movies was still a young one in 1933. The use of “Night on a Bald Mountain” at one point rather takes one “out” of the picture, and the repetition of a lyrical love theme, belonging far more to the Rose Marie genre, works against the starkness of it all. Incidentally, it seems fairly obvious that Nicholas Ray’s The Savage Innocents was much influenced by this film. The cast is largely Eskimo, with dialogue handled via subtitles. Mala and Lotus, then total unknowns, soon became familiar faces. In similar roles, Mala enjoyed limited stardom for some 20 years—aging not one whit in all that time. Lotus added “Long” as a surname, and specialised in Oriental villainy. Director Van Dyke and author Freuchen are, if not subtle, at least effective in their dual chores as actors.

New School by William K. Everson, December 15, 1972

Notes Compiled by Caren Feldman

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