AFI Catalog of Feature Films
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Eskimo
Director: W. S. Van Dyke (Dir)
Release Date:   10 Jan 1934
Premiere Information:   New York opening: 14 Nov 1933
Production Date:   late Jul 1932--late May 1933
Duration (in mins):   117 or 120
Duration (in reels):   12
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Cast:   Mala (Himself)  
    Lotus (Iva)  
    Joseph Sauers (Sergeant Hunt)  
    W. S. Van Dyke (Inspector White)  
    Peter Freuchen (Captain)  
    Edgar Dearing (Constable Balk)  
    Harold Seabrook    

Summary: When Mala, the best hunter in his remote Eskimo village, hears tales from other tribesmen about the White Man's ship and the guns that the White Man trades for fox skins, he is greatly impressed. Later Mala's wife Aba, who longs for the White Man's goods, suggests that Mala and their family travel to the ship, and Mala, who is concerned about providing food for the long winter, agrees. After a 500 mile journey across the frozen tundra, during which Mala graciously offers Aba's sexual services to a womanless hunter, Mala and his family arrive at Tjaranak, an inlet where the White Man's ship is harbored. Mala barters with the unscrupulous captain of the ship and trades his valuable skins for a rifle. Taken with Aba, the captain then insists she remain with him and seduces her with alcohol and useless gifts. The next day, an angry Mala forces the captain to promise to leave Aba alone while he and a group of men are away whale hunting. Later, the sailors begin to drink, and the captain orders two of his men to bring Aba to the ship. Dragged from her igloo against her will, Aba is forced to drink and is raped by the captain. The next morning, still drunk, she stumbles from the ship and collapses in the snow, where she is mistaken for an animal and is shot by a sailor. When Mala returns from the whale hunt, he is told that his wife "sleeps" and learns about the circumstances of her death. Enraged, he kills the captain with a harpoon and rushes back to his tribe with his children. Back in his village, Mala grieves for Aba but leads his tribesman in a successful caribou hunt. While staring at a slain caribou, however, Mala sees the image of the captain and consults with a Wise Old One about his vision. The Wise Old One advises him to ask the Spirits for a new name, so that the captain cannot follow him, and Mala goes to a sacred hilltop to pray. Inspired by a bird that flies overhead, Mala takes the name Kripik and begins to dance and chant. He then notices that Iva, the second wife of another hunter, has followed him and reveals to her his new name. With his new identity, Mala warms to Iva, who has always loved him and has been offered to him by her husband, and agrees to "lie down" with her. Out of respect for Mala, the other hunter offers him his first wife as well and announces that he is leaving the village for good. While Mala enjoys his new family, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police post is established in the Tjaranak inlet, and after the two Mounties in charge learn of the captain's killing, they set out to find and arrest Mala. Near his village, Mala comes across the nearly frozen bodies of the Mounties and reluctantly takes them to his igloo. After they recover sufficiently, the Mounties question Mala about his identity and, through their English speaking Eskimo guide, learn that he is the captain's killer. Although grateful to Mala, the Mounties trick him into leaving his family by telling him that they need his help in securing food at the inlet. While Mala is out wolf hunting for the post, Inspector White arrives and demands that Mala be treated like a prisoner. Reluctantly the Mounties tell Mala, who has learned that his family is alone and starving in the village, that he cannot go home and, breaking a promise they made to him, shackle him to his bed. Enduring great pain and injury, Mala wriggles his hand out of the shackle and, with his dog team, escapes before daylight. The Mounties dutifully pursue him, aware that with his injured hand his chances of a successful flight are limited. After a grueling journey, Mala finally is rescued by his eldest son near his deserted village. Determined not to be re-captured by the traitorous white men, Mala announces that he is leaving the family but is followed by the loyal Iva. As they head for an ice floe, Mala and Iva are pursued by the approaching Mounties. Unable to stop Mala without shooting him, the Mounties decide at last to give the brave Eskimo his freedom. 

Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Corp. (Loew's, Inc.)
Production Text: W. S. Van Dyke's Production
Distribution Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Corp.  
Director: W. S. Van Dyke (Dir)
  Frank Messenger (Asst dir)
  Edward Hearn (Asst dir)
Producer: Hunt Stromberg (Prod)
Writer: John Lee Mahin (Translated to the screen)
Photography: Clyde De Vinna (Photog)
  Josiah Roberts (Photog)
  George Nogle (Photog)
  Leonard Smith (Photog)
  Dale Deverman (Asst cam)
  William James Knott (Asst cam)
Film Editor: Conrad A. Nervig (Film ed)
Sound: C. S. Pratt (Rec)
  H. D. Watson (Rec)
Production Misc: Emil Ottinger (Location camp chef)
  Roy Clark (Still photog)
Country: United States

Source Text: Based on the book Storfanger by Peter Freuchen (Copenhagen, 1927) and his book Die Flucht ins weisse Land (Berlin, 1929).
Authors: Peter Freuchen

Copyright Claimant Copyright Date Copyright Number Passed By NBR:
Metro Goldwyn Mayer Corp. 9/1/1934 dd/mm/yyyy LP4413 Yes

Physical Properties: b&w:
  Sd: Western Electric Sound System

 
Genre: Drama
 
Subjects (Major): Arctic regions
  Cultural conflict
  Honor
  Murder
  Native Alaskans
  North West Mounted Police
 
Subjects (Minor): Accidental death
  Betrayal
  Chases
  Dogsledding
  Drunkenness
  Escapes
  Fur traders
  Grief
  Hunger
  Hunting
  Ice floes
  Imprisonment
  Aged men
  Polygamy
  Rape
  Rites and ceremonies
  Sailors
  Sea captains
  Ships
  Village life
  Visions
  Whales and whaling

Note: The onscreen credits contain the following statement: "The Expedition to the Arctic began in April 1932...In November of 1933, the record was complete. Excepting the characters of the Canadian Police, there are no actors in this record...entire story told by primitive Eskimos in Native tongue, in Native custom...The Books by Peter Freuchen were notable for their discussion of the Moral Code of the Eskimos...this record attempts to present that Code...a strong, primeval Creed belonging to the farthest wilderness of the endless North...." Sub-titles were used in the film to translate Eskimo dialogue. In spite of the film's "no actor" claims, the Eskimo performers appear to be well-trained and "made up" for their parts. An unidentified contemporary source in the AMPAS files states that Mala, a genuine Eskimo, came to Los Angeles a year or two before the production began to work as a cameraman. Originally hired as a guide for Eskimo , he convinced the filmmakers of his acting talent and was cast in the lead. According to modern sources, producer Hunt Stromberg was so impressed with Mala's performance in the film that he signed him to an M-G-M contract. In his later films, Mala usually portrayed Polynesian characters. Lotus also made her screen debut in this film. She later changed her name to Lotus Long and, like Mala, played Asian characters.
       A late Jul 1932 HR news item announced that location shooting for the production had begun in the Arctic. According to an informal production newsletter, which was edited by author Peter Freuchen, the film crew had its camp in Teller, AK. An Oct 1932 HR news item claimed that the Eskimo crew was "iced in" during shooting and had to be rescued by a dog sled team. FD news items indicate that Van Dyke completed the direction of the film in May 1933, and that other members of the crew, including still photographer Roy Clark, returned from the Arctic in Apr 1933, after a ten-month stay. The location camp chef, Emil Ottinger, was hired from the kitchen of the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood, according to an unidentified contemporary source found in the AMPAS files. The same source also noted that the production cost $1.5 million and employed forty-two cameramen and technicians and six airplane pilots.
       The film's preview running time was 160 minutes, indicating that a large amount of footage was cut for the final release prints. According to a HR news item, Freuchen spent several weeks lecturing throughout the country in connection with the film's opening. Conrad Nervig won an Academy Award for Best Editing for his work on the production. Modern sources add Edward Hearn as "the Captain's mate" to the cast. Hearn was an assistant director on the production. 

Bibliographic Sources:   Date   Page
Daily Variety   16 Sep 33   p. 3.
Film Daily   5 Apr 33   p. 6.
Film Daily   20 May 33   p. 4.
Film Daily   6 Nov 33   p. 6.
HH   1 Jun 33   pp. 5-8.
Hollywood Reporter   25 Jul 32   p. 1.
Hollywood Reporter   16 Oct 32   p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter   29 Oct 32   p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter   12 Dec 33   p. 2.
International Photographer   Apr 33   p. 30.
Motion Picture Daily   15 Nov 33   p. 2.
Motion Picture Herald   18 Nov 33   p. 36.
New York Times   15 Nov 33   p. 25.
Variety   21 Nov 33   p. 14.

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The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.
 
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