Film and TV

Obscure but beloved 1933 film 'Eskimo' now available on DVD

A cinematic classic that helped launch the career of the state's first movie star -- complete with wife-sharing, whale-hunting and an Inupiat cast -- is getting a shot of publicity.

Organizers hope the extra attention will lead to a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for the late actor Ray Mala.

Released in 1933 and long beloved by Alaskans, "Eskimo" featured Ray Wise, an Inupiaq who would later change his last name to Mala after starring as "Mala the Magnificent," a hunter who kills an unscrupulous ship captain with a harpoon.

The first full-length major studio picture ever shot in Alaska, it contained Inupiaq dialogue with English subtitles. It also won the first Oscar for best film editing.

But despite its huge success, copies of the film have been almost impossible to find for years -- it had never been reproduced on videocassette or DVD.

Until now.

This summer, Warner Brothers digitally remastered the film as part of an effort to release important works from its archive of old MGM movies and other classics. Now it's available for purchase by the general public for the first time.

DVDs of the "riveting Arctic adventure," as Warner Brothers calls it, can be found at online retailers such as Amazon or at Warner Brothers' wbshop.com (for about $20), with a cover showing Mala and his wife in an Eskimo kiss. It's not on Netflix, but fans hope it will one day appear there, too.

"It's a miracle," said Ted Mala Sr., the actor's son, of the recent release.

For decades, the film existed only on old projector reels, with a few copies circulating around Alaska, Ted Mala said. Occasionally, the movie aired on TV, but not enough for rural audiences eager to see it. In the 1970s and later, Ted Mala often visited villages at their request, providing background on his father and running a projector in makeshift movie houses for entertainment.

"It seemed like every month or week someone would come to me and say, 'Where can I get a copy?' So this is big news," Ted Mala said.

The Anchorage movie rental business Pictures Inc. used to distribute the movie on reels around the state, but the film began to erode from overuse. As new technology came into play, MGM eventually required that the old reels be destroyed because of copyright issues, Mala said.

Filmed in Teller and Nome, the film mixes drama and documentary, with traditional hunting and butchering by fur-clad Inupiat actors -- many had arrived in skin boats from nearby villages after the Hollywood crew arrived by ship.

Not all the details are correct.

The story is based on books set in Greenland, so igloos had to be made for the set. But not by Alaskans -- they'd never seen them.

Cultural anthropologist Ann Fienup-Riordan said she loves to watch the movie for its historical accuracies and inaccuracies.

"That is very cool news," Fienup-Riordan said of the DVD. "It is one of my all-time favorite movies."

The Eskimo kissing in the movie is rooted somewhat in fact, she said. Nuzzling a nose against a neck or face was a sign of affection usually shown to children. Hollywood turned it into a romantic nose rub, said Fienup-Riordan, author of "Freeze Frame: Alaska Eskimos in the Movies."

The wife-sharing had some truth too. It happened on rare occasions in Inupiaq culture, and in the Yup'ik culture of Southwest Alaska that Fienup-Riordan specializes in, she said.

"It's Hollywood. There's some truth and some fabrication, but it's fun because it's well done," she said.

Other parts are very accurate. "Eskimo" is a "time capsule" for such things as traditional fur clothing and the oomiaks, or skin boats, said Lael Morgan, author of "Eskimo Star, From the Tundra to Tinseltown: The Ray Mala Story."

In 2011, Morgan coordinated the Ray Mala Film Festival that toured Alaska. She convinced Warner Brothers to make two DVD copies for the event. They were the only ones in existence, as far as she knew.

But Morgan and other "howling Alaskans" prevailed on the studio to make more, so they could be sold to the general public.

George Feltenstein, who oversees the Warner Brothers library for home entertainment, said he's answered many letters and emails from people seeking the film's remastering, with many citing its cultural importance.

He said the studio six years ago began remastering and selling -- on-demand -- old and important movies that had a specialized audience.

"Eskimo" fit the mold, and it was released in late July.

"It's a very important film in the history of motion pictures because of its enormous success when initially released. No major studio had done anything quite like it, especially in the sound era," Feltenstein said.

He said "Eskimo" was remastered from a backup copy of the original nitrate film that was destroyed in a fire in the 1970s. On the DVD, he saw hard-to-notice white lines in a few scenes and was concerned they were a mistake.

But experts confirmed those lines existed in the original, he said. They occur because the film froze in Alaska's subzero cold, he said.

"It's only in a few shots and the film for the most part looks tremendous," he said.

That cold weather helped Mala get his break in Tinseltown.

In the 1920s, filmmakers who had discovered the far north hired Mala, from the village of Candle, as a laborer, then as a cameraman. He caught their attention with his sharp eye and because he could operate the equipment in brutally cold temperatures, something their own crews could not do because their hands went numb, said Morgan.

In 1925, Mala filmed the last musher coming into Nome bringing serum to stop the diphtheria outbreak. That led to a job in Hollywood as a cameraman, where his good looks helped him land acting roles.

About five years later, a filmmaker hired Mala to play the lead role in "Igloo," a silent, independent movie filmed in Alaska that Mala helped pay for, Morgan said. It became a success after Universal Studios picked it up.

But it was "Eskimo" that made Mala a matinee idol. Now, Mala, who died in 1952 at the age of 45, is getting a little more attention in Los Angeles.

In an effort unrelated to the DVD release, a six-movie film festival, "Mush to the Movies," featured "Eskimo" this weekend as its finale.

Adam Hyman of the Los Angeles Film Forum, a co-organizer, said "Eskimo" was the rarest and most special of the classics shown in the festival that focused on early Arctic and Antarctic films.

To show the film, he had to track down Morgan in Alaska to borrow a DVD copy. But he said he planned to used the newly remastered DVD now that it's out.

Speaking at the screening in Los Angeles will be Ted Mala Jr., 37, the actor's grandson.

He said he just received one of the new DVDs he'd ordered online. "I know what I'm getting everyone for Christmas this year," he said.

While in Los Angeles, he said he intends to visit with the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce that selects personalities for the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He, Morgan and others have been trying to get a star for Ray Mala.

Ted Mala Jr. said he hopes the extra publicity helps.

"It's the beginning of what I hope is a robust year of events that leads us to a star," he said.

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