In the prologue to her biography of Ray Wise Mala, "Eskimo Star," historian Lael Morgan tells how she kept seeing a photo of the same man in house after house while doing research in the Kotzebue area in the 1980s. Who was that handsome man? she asked.
"Cousin Ray, the movie star," she was told.
After years of work, Morgan has produced the first biography of the only Alaska Native to make it to the big time in Hollywood. Subtitled "From the Tundra to Tinseltown: the Ray Mala Story," the book will be officially released this week. Appropriately, the release coincides with a statewide Ray Mala film festival -- probably the biggest screening of films by Alaska's best-known movie actor ever planned.
Mala was born in 1906 in Candle, on the north side of the Seward Peninsula. His father was a Jewish trader from Russia who wouldn't show any interest in his son until the boy started making big bucks in the movies. His mother was an Inupiaq who left the child with her mother and married a Swedish bar owner.
Bullied by the village kids on account of his mixed blood, Mala got tough fast. His grandmother, Nancy Armstrong, raised him very traditionally. She couldn't afford a gun, so he learned to bring home game with bows and spears, enduring arctic blizzards in hand-sewn furs. At the same time he took full advantage of the local school, learning everything he could about the outside world -- English, writing, math and machines -- during the few years of education available in Candle.
At 14, with his extended family devastated by the flu epidemic, he strapped on snowshoes and walked 100 miles to Nome. There he supported himself with odd jobs requiring brutal physical work. His youth on the tundra had given him a rock-hard physique.
By the early 1920s, adventurous movie-makers were bringing their new-fangled cameras into Alaska for shoots in exotic remote locations. Mala was hired, initially as labor. But it was quickly discovered that he had natural-born camera skills.
Mala could crank the handle or rotate the lens smoothly in freezing temperatures that left other men incapable of moving their fingers. His hunter's eye helped him capture precisely focused images. When the footage was processed and reviewed back in Hollywood, producers and directors wanted to know the name of the artist who had shot it.
By the end of the decade, he was in California as an assistant cameraman for Fox Studios. Management noticed his good looks and took some head shots. In the early 1930s, he scored his first acting success in "Igloo," a staged documentary shot in Barrow. Universal Studios' press machine dubbed him "The Eskimo Clark Gable."
In 1932 MGM sent an army of production people to Nome to film Peter Freuchen's fictional drama "Eskimo." It was billed as "the biggest picture ever made" and was, in fact, the first full-length major studio picture ever shot in Alaska.
Mala was suggested for the lead but the director rejected him because the cameraman from Candle was half-Jewish. He only changed his mind when the original lead actor walked out in a dispute involving his wife and a member of the crew.
It turned out to be a lucky break for everyone else. Mala wasn't just handsome, he had a face that the camera adored. There was no "bad" angle.
He also knew the language. "Eskimo" used Inupiaq dialogue, but bilingualism also came in handy for translating between local Natives and Hollywood people. He was comfortably familiar with the traditional gear he wielded in the script. But, most importantly, he had considerable acting instincts honed by years of close observation of stars while working with them on the set.
Even before it debuted, "Eskimo" generated national industry buzz. Mala's many friends in the business chatted it up enthusiastically. Awesome raw footage had been beautifully edited. (The film would win the first Academy Award for editing.) Rave reviews poured in from critics in both America and Europe. "Eskimo" was an instant classic -- and Mala became a matinee idol.
The roles that followed were largely, though not exclusively, those of indigenous characters -- including more Eskimos, a lot of Polynesians and the occasional "bad Indian" in westerns. But he played a number of other characters, including an extraterrestrial in "Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe." Mala acted side by side with performers like Charles Laughton, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Vincent Price, Ray Milland, Dorothy Lamour, Jane Wyatt, Barbara Stanwyck, Anthony Quinn, Robert Preston and Ralph Bellamy.
But within the business, he was most admired as a cinematographer. He worked camera for Howard Hawks, Otto Preminger and Alfred Hitchcock, among others. Big names on the other side of his lens included Betty Grable, Carmen Miranda, John Wayne, Joseph Cotton, Merle Oberon and, yes, Balto.
Morgan -- who is probably best known as the author of "Good Time Girls of the Alaska-Yukon Gold Rush" -- provides details about Mala's movie career, his friendships with people like Stan Laurel and Johnny Weissmuller of "Tarzan" fame. (Weissmuller envied Mala's ability to land roles that required real dialogue and real acting.)
But she also documents the history of his Alaska years, his relatives and friends in the villages. She follows the lines of parents, siblings, stepparents and, finally, his own wife and son, recounting private stories while searching out the personality -- somewhat obscured by studio hype and legend -- of a man who led, she concludes, "an unusually lonesome life."
Morgan will be signing copies of her book at screenings of the Mala films planned over the next month. Movies scheduled will include his first credited film, as the cinematographer in the 1925 Pathe News recreation of the Nome Serum Run, "How Death Was Cheated in the Great Race to Nome," and his last on-screen work, the Cold War thriller "Red Snow," released in 1952, the year of his death.
Still regarded as classics, "Eskimo" and "Igloo" are also to be featured in the festival, but fans may be especially delighted by his role as a tropical islander in "Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island," the campy 14-part serial in which he shared top billing with Rex the Wonder Horse -- one of the best-paid and most nasty-tempered stars of the time.
No actor in his right mind would take a job that included Rex, Hollywood pros said.
The fact that Mala did so reveals one facet of his personality that comes out again and again in the book. He understood the studio system better than a lot of Hollywood folks whose rising fame splattered against their own egos. He worked past or overlooked indignities with the same grace as he handled a harpoon or finessed the most technically complicated mechanical camera.
"He knew there was nothing to be gained by reacting harshly," Morgan writes with regard to one occasion that roused anger in others. "A naturally quiet man, Ray just let it slide."
He may have let his health slide too. He died at age 45 of heart problems exacerbated by a strenuous shoot in the steaming jungles of Mexico.
He had recently run cameras for "Les Miserables" and was being considered for a role in "The Ten Commandments" among other parts. Television, in its infancy, needed adroit cinematographers and photogenic actors who did not look their age.
In Mala's case, the cliche is fact: He really did die too soon.
Reach Mike Dunham at email@example.com or 257-4332.