Trader Horn (1931) and Eskimo (1933)
TRADER HORN (1931)
Alfred Aloysius “Trader” Horn, who was an ivory trader in central Africa, was born Alfred Aloysius Smith in Preston, UK in 1861 and died in his 70th year in 1931 in Whitstable, England. He told his story, Trader Horn: A Young Man’s Astounding Adventures in 19th-Century Equatorial Africa detailing his journeys into jungles teeming with buffalo, gorillas, man-eating leopards, serpents and “savages” to Ethelreda Lewis in 1927. The book also documents his efforts to free slaves, meet the founder of Rhodesia, Cecil Rhodes, and liberate a princess from captivity. The biography, Tramp Royal: The True Story of Trader Horn was written by Tim Couzens and published in 1992.
The film based on his life, Trader Horn, had begun shooting as a silent in 1929 but since the talkie era had begun, sound equipment was soon brought to Africa.
Harry Carey plays Trader Horn and at the age of 53 he is not what anyone in any time period would consider a young man. However, his protégé, Peru, was. He was played by Duncan Renaldo an actor I had not heard of or seen before although he’s been in 73 productions and was best known as TV’s Cisco Kid from the mid-50s.
Since I hadn’t read either of the books above, I can’t know how much of the following observations had either been found in the original memoir or had been written into the script.by MGM.
The racism is not subtle. Trader Horn knows more about Africa then the Africans do. I like Harry Carey generally as an actor, where I’ve mostly seen him in Westerns, but I found his demeanour here rather overbearing. Perhaps we can even accept that he knows more about the different terrains and tribes collectively than each tribe knows about what goes on outside his own domain. But it strikes us that, as a White Man, he thinks he knows best about Africa than any of the men who work for him.
And speaking of the men who carry his equipment, you can’t help but notice that they aren’t treated much better than cattle. Even Horn’s guide, Rencharo, played by Mutia Omoolu, treats the men under his watch not much better; in fact, it’s rather discouraging to see his unkindness. I can only surmise that’s to show “who is boss” under the head boss, the White Man. And certainly, these men have no dialogue and just do what they are told to do. If death occurs for any one of them, it’s no great loss—except perhaps to those who must carry the extra equipment.
And equally disturbing is how the wild animals are shot for sport. I’m not sure you can even call it “sport”. Heck, they stumble among a whole group of some wild species and shootin’ seems to be a-called for. You feel that if this attitude wasn’t the norm only 86 years ago, then we would have a lot less endangered species. However, in current documentaries, it’s still a known fact that ivory has continued to be a much-coveted commodity for people who can afford it. In this film, as in the Tarzan films of the 30s (speaking of which, the first one, Tarzan the Ape Man, was also directed by W.S. Van Dyke in 1932) killing elephants for their tusks appears to be readily accepted.
Although these moments appear unbelievable, there are as well many wonderful authentic African scenes. It will also be obvious when any inserts into these scenes were shot at the MGM studio.
The actress, Edwina Booth, who plays in the latter part of the film was also someone I had never heard of before. She played in very few films, the only one that I’d seen where she had an “undetermined role” was the silent 1929 Our Modern Maidens. And she’s quite a beauty, if a very bossy one; yet when she joins the White Men, her female Hollywood wiles take over.
Reading about Edwina Booth, although she had a long life—she lived until the age of 86—she had a very short film career, and was exclusively known for her role here in Trader Horn. Apparently, when she left for Africa, she already had a fever of 104. In Africa, she had to cope with heat and insects and getting cut by elephant grass while wearing clothing made of monkey fur and lion’s teeth. On top of that, she contracted malaria along with suffering from sunstroke. Being scantily clad likely increased her susceptibility.
After returning to Hollywood, it took her six years to fully recover physically. She sued MGM for over a million dollars, claiming she had been provided with inadequate protection and inadequate clothing during the shoot. She claimed she had been forced to sunbathe nude for extended periods during filming. The case was eventually settled out of court and although the terms were never publicly disclosed, the Brigham Young University archives indicate that she settled for $35,000, which would be about $600,000 in today’s money. (Wikipedia)
One interesting point is that there’s an odd scene, at least in my opinion, of a woman, Edith Trent, wandering around the African terrain, looking for her lost daughter. The actress, Olive Golden, is actually the real-life wife of Harry Carey. She was his third and last wife, while he was her one and only.
And lastly, at the fourth Academy Awards ceremony, Trader Horn was nominated for Best Picture but lost to Cimarron.
So now, please enjoy your trip to Africa.
Saturday, April 22, 2017
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Directed by W.S. Van Dyke. Based on the book by Alfred Aloysius Horn and Ethelreda Lewis, Adapted by Dale Van Every and John T. Neville, Screenplay by Richard Schayer and Dialogue by Cyril Hume. Produced by Irving Thalberg. Cinematography by Clyde De Vinna. Film Editing by Ben Lewis. Sound by Douglas Shearer and company. Second Unit Director: Robert A. Golden. Released: May 31, 1931. 122 minutes.
Harry Carey…………………………………………… Aloysius ‘Trader’ Horn
Edwina Booth……………………………… Nina Trent – the White Goddess
Duncan Renaldo………………………………………………………….. Peru
Mutia Omoolu………………………………. Rencharo – Horn’s Gun Bearer
Olive (Carey) Golden……………………………………………… Edith Trent
C. Aubrey Smith…………………………………………. St. Clair – a Trader
Riano Tindama…………………………………………………. Witch Doctor
NO DOUBT ABOUT IT
Hollywood – Cedric Belfrage, the verbal dirt digger, describes the reactions of the two Trader Horn cannibals to cinemaland in this manner:
“I am profoundly impressed by the innate wisdom of the two cannibals who are Hollywood’s honored guests just now. You know whom I mean, of course—the two chappies brought all the way from British East Africa to play in Trader Horn.
“After they have been shown the wonders of Hollywood, and the glory thereof, an expression of great gloom was on their faces. In order to cheer them up, somebody said: But think of the wonderful things you will have to tell your friends about when you get home!’
“One of the cannibal gentlemen, horror-struck, replied: ‘If we tried to describe this place, they would think we were possessed of devils and would kill us.”
Motion Picture News, April 26, 1930
THE HORN WAS SILENT
Hollywood – Arriving on location without a sound head for the camera may be comedy to some, but it was near tragedy in the case of the Trader Horn company, which found itself in far-off Africa, without the required sound head, although with thousands of dollars worth of other sound equipment.
As the daily overhead was high, picture was started in silent form—with the sound equipment necessarily remaining idle. The necessary sound head for the camera arrived about three months after the company had been on location. A silent film was retained so that sound could be spotted in at the studio later.
Motion Picture News, May 10, 1930
Thrilling realism is spliced cleverly with rugged fiction in the film of the book, “Trader Horn,” which was offered last night at the Astor Theatre. This shrewdly fashioned jungle melodrama proved to be thoroughly exciting to the spectators last night and it seemed as though many of them were a bit nearer than they ever wanted to be to a big game hunt. For not only were the wild beasts perceived in their full fierceness, but their cries and growls and roars were heard from the screen as they never have been before.
Although some of the scenes were made in Hollywood, the exciting ones were photographed in Africa, where W. S. Van Dyke, the director; Edwina Booth, Duncan Renaldo, Harry Carey and a native, named Mutia Omoolu, spent several months. Granted that the men had their share of adventure, it is safe to say that no motion picture actress ever tackled a part with the hazards confronted by Miss Booth, who goes through the many scenes in which she figures without speaking a word of English. She is presumed to be the “white goddess” of the Isorgi, the daughter of Edith Trend, a widowed missionary, who had been snatched from her mother in a raid some twenty years before.
While the story of this picture is melodramatic it is none the less effective. The sequences showing the persons making their way through the jungle and the sound of the beating of the black man’s drums are emphatically stirring. Mr. Carey impersonates old Aloysius Horn. Mr. Renaldo appears as Peru, the son of a South American friend of Horn’s. Renchero is the faithful native, played by Mutia Omoolu.
The drama in this production begins with the tom-tom signal of the savages for their fanatical dances. And after that the adventurers, Horn, Peru and Renchero, make haste to get away. Soon they encounter the safari of Edith Trend, who still believes that her child is living. She tells Horn that she has heard that a white girl has been made the tribal goddess of the Isorgi, and she believes this girl to be her daughter.
As Horn cannot persuade Mrs. Trend to abandon her search for her daughter, he decides to follow her at a distance. Eventually, Horn and his colleagues are captured by the mad Isorgi and it looks as though the traders’ end is near. They see the “White Goddess,” but while she is fair she is quite as ferocious as any of the blacks. She is clad in skins, and dangling from her waist is an animal’s skull. Peru, a foolish young man, thinks that a look of admiration may possibly enlist the “White Goddess’s” sympathy but all he gets for his pains is a severe lashing with a native whip. He takes the beating without flinching and this show of courage has its effect on the “White Goddess.”
The wild dance begins, and when everything is in readiness to torture Horn and the others the “White Goddess” takes it into her head to save them, which results in this feminine chieftain having to flee with Horn and the others. Their guns have been taken from them and therefore it is no easy matter, after having paddled across a river in a bark craft, to make their way through the jungle.
Mr. Van Dyke has succeeded in conveying a keen sense of danger in these scenes, what with ravenous beasts, large and small, slimy snakes and yawning crocodiles, it is a sleepless nightmare in the dark and the days are full of blood-curdling experiences.
During an encounter with lions, Miss Booth is called upon to lie down while a big beast steals up to her. How this was done matters not, for the scene made spectators last night move to the edge of their seats and not a few of them voiced their excitement. The lion reaches Miss Booth and then leaps in the air and suddenly Renchero digs a sharpened big stick into the lion’s throat and the animal, springing back and forth, finally succumbs, all the noises of its fury and agony being emitted from the screen.
There are moments in this production when the banks of a small lake appear to move forward into the water, so alive are they with crocodiles, and in the course of one sequence one of these amphibians is presumed to swallow one of the pursuing Isorgis. In other scenes one observes the pent-up fury of a wounded rhinoceros, and it looks very much as though the animal injures a native badly.
In several instances there are lions and leopards sneaking through the jungle growth after their prey and a zebra saves itself with its hoofs. The roars of the lion are heard mingled with the screams of its victim when the former is successful in its kill.
For the sort of excitement there has been nothing like it seen on the screen and in picturing the incidents this film has the latitude offered it by fiction, or borrowed truths.
Mr. Carey gives a capital impersonation of his rôle, never overacting. Mr. Renaldo also serves the production well. Miss Booth may be more fictional than real in her appearance—with her flowing blond tresses invariably caught by the sun—but she never falters in her work. And the ebony-hued Mutia Omoolu appears to understand thoroughly the meaning of the jungle melodrama.
As Renchero he is supposed to be killed with a spear intended for Horn, but, as Mutia Omoolu, he arrives from Hollywood tomorrow on the same train with Charles Spencer Chaplin.
The New York Times Review by Mordaunt Hall, February 4, 1931
TROPIC MOON TROUBLESOME
Home-breaking and expeditions. What is their peculiar relationship? Twice now it has happened that players on far journeys have been sued for alimentation of affections.
…The case is not unlike that of Duncan Renaldo and Edwina Booth who some time ago were on tour with Trader Horn in Africa. They, too, came home to face a suit to be filed by Renaldo’s wife, who is even more ambitious in her demands for soothing sirup for her feelings.
Incidentally, both Miss Booth and Renaldo have left Metro-Goldwyn. Their contracts were allowed to lapse shortly before the première of the jungle picture. Hereafter, it will probably be safer if the girls stay at home than to venture under the luring tropic skies.
BATTLE OVER HUSBAND
Edwina Booth, the Trader Horn girl, and Mrs. Duncan Renaldo, are probably soon to carry into court their argument over Dunca, if they haven’t done so already. This is a heart-balm matter, involving $50,000 asked by Mrs. Renaldo of the golden-haired luminary of the African story. The wife accused the actress of stealing away the affections of her husband under the tropical moon. Edwina, through a suit she lately filed, denied everything.
Picture Play Magazine: Hollywood High Lights by Edwin and Elza Schallert (Jan-Jun 1931)
IS ROMANCE SYNTHETIC IN HOLLYWOOD?
Whether or not Edwina Booth and Duncan Renaldo imagined themselves in love while they were on location in Africa for Trader Horn seems to be a question for the courts, but after seeing the picture, I should think that if there were any members of the company, the crew or the denizens of that continent who were not smitten with the gorgeous blonde they ought to have theirheads examined.
Screenland by Ruth Tildesley (June 1931)
THE SCREEN IN REVIEW
A critical estimate of the latest pictures brings to light notable achievements and reveals old favorites and newcomers in performances that cause the rafters to ring with applause.
The best of all animal pictures and by far the superior of all pictures filmed in Africa or purporting to have that locale. It’s interesting, unusual, and legitimately exciting. It shouldn’t be missed, especially by those who want to get away from the Hollywood product. They will see one of the genuine performances of the year from a man they have never heard of and probably will never see again—Mutia Omoolu, a native, who plays the loyal gun bearer to Trader Horn. He also contributes the most thrilling moment in the picture, when he spears a charging lion, and his death is the most poignant. But for that matter our old friend Harry Carey, as the trader, is capital.
To him falls the lost of answering the ingenuous questions of his protégé, Peru, and thus acting as guide who speaks the language of the spectator. This he does splendidly. Never didactic, always colloquial, he is entertaining and informative. Then, as the picture progresses, he becomes a brave and lovable old scout whose occasional tenderness always veers away from the sentimental.
The film begins as a travelogue, but don’t let that cause you to think it is merely a scenic. It is gripping in the variety of animals, backgrounds, and natives encountered. And when Horn and Peru rescue a white girl kidnaped by tribesmen and worshiped as their goddess, a semblance of the plot adds, further interest. It is their flight from the infuriated savages that causes the big thrills until all danger is past and Nina, the ex-goddess, and Peru, in the throes of juvenile love according to civilized cinema, leave the white man’s country while Trader Horn remains in the wilds he knows best.
With human interest given its due, Trader Horn must, however, be classified as an animal film. As such it has no equal. Herds of giraffes and kangaroos are seen where only few have been photographed before; crocodiles swarm instead of appearing in twos or threes, and every animal of the country is caught offguard. A fight between leopards and hyenas, the slaughter of a gazelle by a lion and a battle for its carcass by a group of beasts; the killing of a rhinoceros—these are startling glimpses of wild life au natural, and they are made terrifying by sounds not of the earth as we know it. All this is a tribute to the director, W.S. van Dyke, and that unsung hero, the cameraman, Clyde de Vinna, whose sense of beauty is capturing the strangeness and remoteness of the African interior is as great as his bravery in recording the realism of its animal life.
Duncan Renaldo is attractive as the accented hero and old fans will be gratified by the brief, though effective performance of Olive Fuller Golden, who is Mrs. Harry Carey. The surprise of the cast is Edwina Booth, as Nina. Her role is difficult because it is frenzied and incredible. For a newcomer she does extraordinarily well, though she forces an indulgent smile at her ease in emerging pearly white after weeks of hardship in the jungles.
Picture Play Magazine by Norbert Lusk (Jan-Jun 1931)
HOOTS AND HORRAYS
Tell us what’s right or wrong with the films! It’s the fans’ opinions that count!
First Prize Letter
There is something new and very favorable to be said for talking pictures. A few nights ago I attended a showing of Trader Horn. Next to me, having chosen her seat with evident thought, sat a blind girl—totally blind. She enjoyed the performance as much as I. She heard the lion’s roar, men’s voices, a woman’s scream—knew the hush of the audience—knew, indeed, that a lion was attacking a woman in the picture, though her eyes saw nothing.
Certainly no one can deny that talking films have opened a broad and thoroughly enjoyable field to the countless “shut-off” blind people that live somehow in our large and uncaring cities.
Mrs. Chas. Brown
342 West 88th St.
New York City
Screenland (June 1931)
CRAZY ABOUT RINGS
Whether for Sentiment or for Luck, They’ll Not Part with Them.
…Edwina Booth, of Trader Horn fame, was given an elephant tail-hair ring and a zebra hair bracelet by a native chief when she was in Africa. The chief gave her a number of presents and admonished her particularly to wear the hair ring and bracelet as long as they hung together, as they would preserve their owner from evil.
He also warned Edwina that if she were to take off such a charm after it had been worn, some disaster would overtake her.
Edwina thanked the old chief and forgot about the superstition. When the tail-hair ring began to irritate the skin between her fingers, she took it off. The following day she was laid low with jungle fever and barely escaped with her life. She still suffers from intermittent spells of the fever.
She lost or threw away the ring. She doesn’t remember what became of it. But she still has the zebra bracelet, which she wears with her street and sport…(rest of text missing)
Picture Play Magazine by Mary Sharon (1932)
Cooper and Schoedsack’s epic animal picture Chang, distributed by Paramount, was a silent film. The introduction of sound gave a rival Hollywood studio—and director W.S. van Dyke—a shot at another milestone: the chance to let filmgoers hear exotic animals in the wild.
At M-G-M in early 1929, Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg knew that the book Trader Horn, to which they had the film rights, was the sensation of the day. “Why not send W.S. van Dyke to Africa to make it?” studio executives asked. To which the easygoing van Dyke responded: “That’s a fantastic idea. Nobody but an adventurer could dream of such a thing…no one but a clown could get away with it.”
But van Dyke was no fool. In a career than spanned a quarter century, he directed more than 100 films. He’d begun working in Hollywood as an assistant director on Intolerance (1916). For that one he called himself “just one of D.W. Griffith’s 10,000 messenger boys.” Thirteen years later he was one of M-G-M’s ace directors. Yet he abjured the notion that directing was an art, a matter of genius, inspiration, or creation. In mid-career he called it “just a technical job. You have to possess some power of visualization, imagination, but that’s not genius.” At the same time, he acknowledged Griffith’s legacy:
Modern directors still are doing the things Griffith discovered and forgot. He taught us all we know about making pictures—and that goes for deMille…von Stroheim and all the others. They know it, too. That’s what burns me up when I hear about certain directors putting on the long-hair, temperamental act. If I tried to get away with that, some one would crown me—and I’d deserve to be crowned.
Speed and economy of storytelling were van Dyke’s trademarks. He became known as “One Take” van Dyke. Now here he was about to lead one of Hollywood’s largest—and most nonchalant—expeditions abroad. In February, the director and a company of 35 Hollywood pros—cast, cameramen, crew, technicians—left the haven fo the West Coast. On March 29, they departed New York. Heading for East Africa, they were heading basically into unchartered waters—none had ever even been near Africa—to film a fictionalized account based on a real-life adventurer nicknamed Trader Horn. Harry Carey would star as the big-time game hunter and explorer; Duncan Renaldo would play his companion; and Edwina Booth a white queen of an African tribe. Filming was going to take money.
Unlike Schoedsack and Cooper, van Dyke had resources to burn—and he was not about to set foot abroad unprepared. Thus, a small-scale Hollywood made its way east. The expedition did not forget a thing: generators, medicine and first-aid, razor blades, fans, insecticide, tools, bicycles, typewriters, flypaper, soap, baseball bats, handcuffs, and rubber-quoit, a hundred cases of cigarettes and tobacco, and safety pins; also, dehydrated foods, stoves refrigeration plants, pistols, elephant guns, lanterns, guitars and ukuleles, and of course, sound film, 1000-watt incandescent bulbs, and a portable lab to develop the film. It all came to 90 tons of equipment and supplies.
By May, this Hollywood monster of a film team landed in Mombassa in British East Africa. Away from the film capital of the world, director and company ere about to “make the best of their last taste of civilization,” as van Dyke wrote in his diary, which he aptly titled Horning into Africa. Van Dyke increased the size of the expedition when he added 192 Africans as supporting cast, guides, and safari members. Then he took his first steps into the unknown: a 500-mile trek inland in search of locations.
Near the seat of government of the Uganda Protectorate in Entebbe, van Dyke realized he would have to head even further inland. But he needed the permission of the British authorities to shoot film (and, as it turned out, animals) at a game reserve out of bounds to most travelers and visitors. He was going to take all of them to the heavily secluded region of Murchison Falls. Along the way, the director felt free enough to give big-game hunting a try. He took out his elephant gun and aimed at his quarry. He failed to “bag” it. Then they moved further inland.
On the move much of the time, van Dyke and company began to get a taste of the difficulties of working abroad. Said van Dyke, “Carting a movie troupe around Africa may have its romantic side, but I’ll be damned if I’m going around on that side of it to find out.” That still did not deter van Dyke and a few others from looking for a bit more sport when they could. In short order they’d managed to kill their first crocodile and a couple of water buffalo. Van Dyke also tried his hand at killing a hippopotamus, but could not quite bring down the larger, and deadlier, game. Then they got down to work.
In the restricted area of Murchison Falls, van Dyke was well rewarded: The protected animals seemed unafraid of the filmmakers. Van Dyke proceeded to film dozens of animals rarely seen, let alone heard of, by most people in the United States. At the same time, the situation presented a paradox. “The people at home,” he realized, “will never believe we made these pictures in the jungle.”
The jungle was the setting for the thin story line of big-game hunter, missionary, and “white queen” in a world beyond civilization. That sense would give credence to his daring shots of charging rhinos, animals fighting one another, crazed and dancing Africans, white hunters. Again, none of this stopped the filmmaker and crew from killing a few more animals in sport, lions included, to get the right effects. But a guide had warned van Dyke of the consequences of failing to make a kill: “When the lion strikes, there is only one thing to do to save your life—drop and remain absolutely motionless, as though dead—and let the lion do as he pleases because the part of your body that moves in the part the lion will grab.”
Fortunately for van Dyke and crew, that did not come to pass. Other things did. The going got rough, what with avoiding tsetse flies, malaria, scorpions, black mambas, cobras, puff adders, and army ants. No matter where they were, the water was usually undrinkable. And the film stunts and action shots were almost by their very nature dangerous. At one point, a charging heard of Cape buffalo had director and crew fleeing for their lives when the animals picked up their scent.
After seven months abroad, van Dyke called it quits. He had crossed the equator 18 times, trekking more than 9,000 miles through Kenya, Uganda, the Congo, and Tanganyika. He had chartered trains, boats, and autos for a company of over 200 and their possessions. More important, he had shot nearly 500,000 feet of film that included scenes of 15 African tribes and dozens of animals, from the known (elephant, zebra, hippo, rhino, cheetah, lion, leopard) to the heretofore unseen by most Americans: the hartebeest, gernuk, duiker, grant, eland, dik dik, hyrax, topi, tommy, and oribi. Only the noise of the new technology of sound had interfered with the shooting of close-ups. But van Dyke was prepared. He had shot additional background footage and planned to reshoot the close-ups in the quiet confines of Hollywood.
Van Dyke got everyone safely back to M-G-M by early 1930. Then executives previewed his 100,000 feet of developed film. As van Dyke had surmised, the studio officials groaned, “Those lions look too peaceful. The public will never believe that shot was made in the jungle.” Thalberg took charge of the film and sent a film crew down to Mexico to produced more “realistic” animal scenes.
Trader Horn remained in limbo while the reshooting went on. For the next year or so, “exclusive” stories suggested that Trader Horn was being remade entirely. When the crew returned from Mexico emptyhanded, van Dyke stepped forward. At a preview of Trader Horn at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, the breezy, off-handed director had this to say:
One adventure writer was so bold as to tell me there are no more jungles in Africa than there are in Missouri, and another…says African lions don’t have manes. And I read in the papers that the whole thing was made in Hollywood. So I’m going to give it to you straight. We didn’t go to Africa at all! The lions were photographed at Gay’s Lion Farm in El Monte; the elephants in the San Diego Zoo; the monkeys and the hippo at Central Park in New York; and the crocodiles at the alligator farm in Florida.
Trader Horn, running more than two hours, was released in February 1931. Variety backed up van Dyke, finding “The animal stuff will speak for itself.” The publication quoted one moviegoer who said, “I don’t mind animal pictures when they’re silent, because it’s still just a picture. But when you hear them it’s terribly realistic.” Another review declared Trader Horn the best film of the year—even though there were still 11 months to go in 1931. It set box-office records and proved to be one of M-G-M’s biggest hits of the early days of sound—and assured van Dyke a place in the studio system that was then Hollywood.
Van Dyke ventured abroad only once more in his career. Ironically, his trip abroad after making Trader Horn would recall the time he went abroad in 1927. Both efforts would bring in the name of filmmaker Robert Flaherty.
Beyond Hollywood’s Grasp: American Filmmakers Abroad, 1914-1945 by Harry Waldman (1994)
CONSTRUCTING THE JUNGLE
The interchangeability of images of jungle pictures exists not just at the narrative level. When MGM assigned contract director W.S. Van Dyke to direct Trader Horn (1931), the enterprising director went to Africa to film most of the motion picture’s key sequences. While there, Van Dyke shot literally miles of footage of tribal ceremonies, animals in their natural habitat, landscapes, and African people. Because Van Dyke completed his films so quickly (his nickname was “One Take Woody”), he completed filming on the “A” unit of Trader Horn (some pickups were later shot to complete the film) in record time, while his “B” (or second) unit was out shooting hours of background material. When Trader Horn was finally assembled, there were so many outtakes of indigenous people and wildlife that MGM was able to establish a stock footage library from Van Dyke’s outtakes alone. At first MGM used these library shots exclusively in their own films (notably early entries in the long-running Tarzan series), but by the 1940s and 50s MGM was willing to sell the Trader Horn outtakes to any independent producer who wanted to use them. In this manner, Van Dyke’s scenes of African life in the early 1930s were used and reused, in film after film, so that American audiences as late as the 1950s (in the Jungle Jim Films, the Bomba films, or the teleseries Ramar of the Jungle) accepted these images as the authentic talisman of the African experience.
But “authenticity” was one of the least important aspects of the ethnographic lens of the Plantocracy of Hollywood, which fed off the simulacra of images that merely suggested the likeness of the phantom jungle. What mattered most to producers was that the directors of these jungle narratives delivered packageable exotic narratives to their audiences/consumers. Like package tours, audiences desired above all the familiar: to travel to exotic places which are virtually all the same, because you never have to leave the resort hotel once you get to the jungle. At a resort hotel one doesn’t interact with the “natives.” Instead, the “natives” stage constructed narratives of indigenous customs that have been coproduced by the Plantocratic imagination. In this way, the tourist industry and the tourism of images supports and maintains a steady stream of narratives that are simultaneously safe and yet provocative. But the faux performances of the “natives” are often marked by the Third Eye that reflects the realities of Colonial subjectivities. The real subject of the Plantocracy of images is always ultimately the Plantocrat, be it in the guise of the captive wild woman, the witch doctor, the lost White jungle goddess, the sultry “mulatto,” or the great White hunter. Where are the Africans in jungle films? They are outside the hotel, out of the range of the camera.
Captive Bodies: Postcolonial Subjectivity in Cinema by Gwendolyn Audrey Foster (1999)
In the fiction/adventure genre, there is often a white male who travels to an exotic locale and serves as the protagonist of the film—thus making the Western perspective more obvious. In Hell Harbor (1930), Bob Wade (John Holland) sails to the Caribbean in order to buy pearls. In Trader Horn (1931), the title character (played by Harry Carey) travels through Africa to acquire ivory. A similar quest motivates Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton) in Tarzan and His Mate (1934: directed by Cedric Gibbons and Jack Conroy). Clearly, the men who voyage to remote locales are not imply Westerners, but businessmen who intend to exploit the natural resources of foreign locations. In fact, many of their prized acquisitions (pearls, ivory, animal pelts) are precisely the coveted materials of Art Deco jewelry, coats, or chryselephantine sculptures. In rare cases, it is a woman who arrives in alien territory. In East of Borneo (1931), Mindy Randolph (Rose Hobart) voyages to the Orient to find her lost husband; and in Trader Horn the hero encounters a woman, Mrs. Trent (Olive Carey), who is looking for a lost white girl. These are different situations from what we found in Hula and Venus of the South Seas, where white women have been born into an exotic culture.
As with Bird of Paradise, most Deco-era Hollywood adventure films are shameless in their racism and ethnocentrism. In East of Borneo, one Westerner refers to a local potentate as “moderately civilized.” In Trader Horn, a Westerner claims that the Africans are “happy, ignorant children.” Also in that film (as in Tabu), native women are shown bare-breasted, like illustrations from National Geographic magazine.
Designing Women: Cinema, Art Deco, and the Female Form by Lucy Fischer (2003)
…Even more constructed are such exoticizing films as Virgins of Bali (1932), designed solely “to flaunt the bodies of a pair of beautiful Balinese teenagers” (Doherty, Pre-Code 234), and the spectacularly fraudulent Ingagi (1930), a complete faked jungle film. Ingagi was supposedly shot in the “darkness” of Africa but was in fact composed of a plethora of staged footage shot in California, hastily and sloppily intercut with material from the 1914 documentary The Heart of Africa. An MGM house director, W.S. Van Dyke, who later created Eskimo (1933) using a combination of location and studio footage, also created perhaps the most ambitious African “safari film” of the period, Trader Horn (1931). Van Dyke was something of an expert at manufactured exoticism, having taken over the direction of White Shadows in the South Seas  on location in Tahiti for Robert Flaherty (creator of the stage-managed “documentaries” Nanook of the North (1922) and Moana ). Van Dyke originally signed on as Flaherty’s assistant, but Flaherty was unable to reconcile himself with the creation of a wholly fictional narrative using native actors—although he had been perfectly willing to recreate and simulate much of the material in Nanook and Moana, both of which was publicized as “pure” documentaries (Cannom 1959-72). Van Dyke took over the production of White Shadows and brought it in on time, even ahead of schedule; in it he empahsized the more exotic and sensual aspects of the material. White Shadows in the South Seas proved a great success when released with music and sound effects by MGM, and almost immediately Van Dyke found himself typed as the studio’s foremost expert in cinematic exoticism. In February 1929, Van Dyke’s camera crew went to Africa and shot 450,000 feet of 35mm film on location (Cannom 227), but upon his return, the studio decided to photograph additional material in Mexico to cover up technical gaffes, improve sound quality, and allow for slicker, studio-quality close-ups of the principal actors. What emerged was the template for the jungle film that became a popular subgenre, lasting well into the present era. Trader Horn tells the story of a lost white princess (Edwina Booth) and her return to “civilization” under the auspices of white hunter Trader Horn (Harry Carey) and his assistant, played by Duncan Renaldo. This material would be recycled, both thematically and physically, for several decades.
Straight: Constructions of Heterosexuality in the Cinema by Wheeler Winston Dixon (2003)
…Similar to Heart of Darkness is Alfred Aloysius Horn’s 19th-century novel, Trader Horn, which also details his experience as an Ivory trader in Central Africa. Trader Horn (1931) marked the first presence of a major feature film production, on location in Africa. It is an example of another truly vicious anti-Africa film. It espoused just as much cannibalism as Heart of Darkness. Trader Horn was made three times (1931, 1970, and 1973) in the 20th century.
Handbook of Black Studies, edited by Molefi Kete Asante and Maulana Karenga (2006)
In contrast to contemporary viewers’ inclination to interpret King Kong according to codes of the horror genre, audiences of the 1930s were probably more sensitive to images and themes culled from the classic jungle film tradition. Trader Horn, for example, offered a number of visual elements that evidently influenced the makers of King Kong: Nina’s Edwina Booth) scanty animal skin clothing, her pale white skin, and long blonde wavy hair apparently established the precedent for Fay Wray’s jungle “look” in King Kong. Trader Horn’s trio of white characters—the experienced older trader Aloysius Horn (Harry Carey), the young romantic lead (Duncan Renaldo), and the “wild” white woman (Booth) worshipped by African natives as a fetish—set the terms for the similar trio of lead characters in King Kong.
Tracking King Kong: A Hollywood Icon in World Culture by Cynthia Erb (2009)
Through Trader Horn I also believe that we can see Greek drama finding its way, not in direct cinematic recording but in a more subtle and influential manner, into that most quintessentially North American modern mass-market medium, the Hollywood talkie. In 1931 MGM released the movie version of Trader Horn under the tagline ‘WHITE GODDESS OF THE PAGAN TRIBES. THE CRUELEST WOMAN IN ALL AFRICA!’ Directed by the soon-to-be prolific Woody S. Van Dyke, and running to an extremely long 122 (?) minutes, it was one of the first great talkies, and received a nomination for an Academy Award. Today it makes an impact so excruciatingly racist that it is almost impossible to watch. Yet it remains impressively spectacular, since MGM went to the huge expense of sending the entire company to Africa. Filming took place in the Territory of Tanganyika (now Tanzania), the Protectorate of Uganda, the Colony of Kenya, the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, and the Belgian Congo. The hippos and crocodiles in the rivers make for some tense moments during the safari’s canoe crossings as the party races for safety from pursuing natives.
Adventures with Iphigenia in Tauris: A Cultural History of Euripides’ Black Sea Tragedy by Edith Hall (2013)
The mightiest of jungle thrillers, Trader Horn ventured into Africa at dawn of movie sound and came back with miles of bracing footage, which they’d use for not only this film, but Tarzan, The Ape Man and sequels to come. Trader Horn was promotion’s dream, a once-in-lifetime chance to boast every superlative in the kit and be at least half accurate as to each. Audiences really were amazed by this show, and said so in terms of landmark box office for theatres running it.
Best of selling angles was the “White Goddess” pitch, she being alternately “a princess of paganism” or “the cruelest woman in all Africa!”—ad makers taking pick from generous selection. These ads represent the Los Angeles-Hollywood premiere. A first (above left) was prepared by Fox West Coast Theatres for the Grauman’s Chinese open, being nude depiction of blonde savage Edwina Booth. The next (above right) is what actually got in print, Ms. Booth with hair splayed decorously to conceal breasts, but compensating in terms of wanton cruelty Trader Horn promised. Newspaper advertising had boundaries, and exhibitors would need alternate—as in more discreet—layouts to accommodate local policy.
The Art of Selling Movies by John McElwee (2017)
Blogs written by other film enthusiasts:
Best Picture Derby by De, February 16, 2009
A March Through Film History by Ryan McCormick, February 13, 2011
Mondo 70: A Wild World of Cinema by Samuel Wilson, February 20, 2012
Cinema Genovés by Fernando R. Genovés, December 10, 2012
Michael May’s Adventureblog by Michael May, January 9, 2015
Unseen Films by Steve Kopian, January 31, 2016
Pre-Code.Com by Danny, February 6, 2017
Let’s Misbehave: A Tribute to Precode Hollywood by Emma, March 16, 2017
TRADER HOUND (1931)
I couldn’t help but show one of those truly weird Dogville shorts, the Trader Horn story told in 15 minutes. Pictures are worth a thousand words:
To read a write up about these shorts, click on Cinema Misfits by Nancy Louis Rutherford, August 10, 2010.
To read about the making of these shorts, there’s quite a fascinating book that includes information on the Dogville shorts in Susan Orlean’s 2011 Rin Tin Tin: The Life and Legend. It’s available at Amazon.
I don’t subscribe to television at home, so It was probably about seven years ago now when I tuned into TCM while I was sleeping over at someone else’s house. When I woke up very early that particular morning, I turned on the TV and started watching a film that had already started and where the spoken language was not always English. It caught my interest immediately. The main question appeared to be: Should a Native man have to follow the laws of White men from another culture, living elsewhere, in his own land? 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 asleep again 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 when I fall asleep watching them which has happened to me, oh, once or twice!
The film is tonight’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. The cast is mainly Native, although the main characters are not played by amateur actors, only the extras, even if that’s what the opening title leads the audience to believe. And since there are no acting credits in the titles at the beginning or end of the film, we aren’t made to realize that all the White men were actors as well.
The author of the books Der Eskimo and Die Flucht ins weisse Land (which ESKIMO was translated from to the screen by John Lee Mahin) was 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, he must have enjoyed playing so opposite a character to his real self.
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 and played by the beautiful Ray Wise (aka Ray Mala). This was Mala’s first 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 off on a tangent, sinceI mentioned Cleopatra, 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, 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 I would have loved to have provided you all with the same washable and reusable “napkins” this evening 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 was 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 wonder if the studio just used music of his from other movies 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. At some points I recognized it (I think) as “…me and my gal.” Yeah, I’m sure that’s an Aboriginal favourite, especially for funerals.
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. Cringe-worthy in a happy sort of way.
But even with that little flaw, don’t let that stop you from allowing this film to fill you with awe.
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Directed by W.S. Van Dyke. From the books Der Eskimo and Die Fluchtins weisse Land by Peter Freuchen, Translated to the Screen by John Lee Mahin. Producers: Hunt Stromberg, W.S. Van Dyke and Irving Thalberg. Cinematography by Clyde De Vinna, George Gordon Nogle, Josiah Roberts and Leonard Smith. Music by William Axt. Film Editing by Conrad A. Nervig. Released: November 14, 1933. 117 minutes.
Mala…………………………………………………………….. Mala, aka Kripik
Edgar Dearing………………………………………………….. Constable Balk
Peter Freuchen………………………………………………………….. Captain
Edward Hearn…………………………………………………… Captain’s Mate
Lotus Long…………………………………………………………………….. Iva
Joe Sawyer………………………………………………………. Sergeant Hunt
Harold Seabrook…………………………………………………….. Minor Role
W.S. Van Dyke…………………………………………………. Inspector White
It is an exciting and often grim melodrama that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer launched last night at the Astor under the title of “Eskimo.” It was produced by W. S. Van Dyke in Northern Alaska with a cast composed chiefly of Eskimos, and the dialogue, which except for occasional lines spoken by white men, is recorded in the language of the natives and translated for the benefit of the audience by the old-fashioned subtitles. The various incidents are greatly enhanced by the recording of vocal and incidental sounds and noises.
The story of the picture is attributed to two books by Peter Freuchen, who also portrays a villainous captain of a trading ship. Mr. Freuchen was among the audience.
Although Mr. Van Dyke has dramatized his episodes very cleverly, quite a number of them are reminiscent of those depicted in other productions of this type. There is the walrus hunt, with the monsters grunting as they slide, sometimes, to safety in the water. There is the polar bear which is speared by the alert Eskimos, the caribou hunt with thousands of the denizens of the north tearing along and being steered into the water by the natives.
There are occasional marvelous close-ups of the stampeding caribous, and one of the outstanding glimpses is that of two of these animals with horns locked, struggling to free themselves. As in Robert J. Flaherty’s old silent work, “Nanook of the North,” the early flashes are concerned merely with the hunters, their wives, their children and their customs of living.
Walrus meat is a delicacy eaten raw and thoroughly enjoyed. Summer is beautiful, but when Winter comes there exists the fear of starvation, and the hero of this tale, Mala, always succeeds in saving his people. Igloos are built and the old, the middle-aged and the youngsters pile into the ice structures.
The melodramatic incidents begin with the arrival of a “house that floats,” the captain of which not only cheats the natives in trading but takes advantage of their women. He gives one Eskimo girl drinks until she giggles and staggers, and Mala’s vengeance is stabbing the captain to death with a harpoon. Later one perceives an outpost of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and two of the sergeants are ordered to go in search of Mala, who, after saving them from death in a blizzard, is tempted to go back with them.
When the Inspector of the Royal Canadian Mounted reaches the post to question Mala he learns from the sergeants that the prisoner has not been put in irons and is at the moment out hunting. The Inspector, incidentally portrayed by Mr. Van Dyke himself, orders Mala to be handcuffed to his bench when he returns, and one of the most harrowing episodes is where this Eskimo struggles to pull his hand out of the iron bracelet until he frees himself.
Mala’s escape is also punctuated with gruesome scenes, for he discovers that the cartridges he has brought with him do not fit the rifle, and therefore the weapon is useless. He must eat, so he kills one of the huskies for food. Dog after dog serves to keep him and the remaining huskies alive during the arduous trek across the snow and ice. Then there is the struggle between the exhausted Mala and the last dog. How Mala cheats the Royal Canadian Mounted men in the latter scenes is another tragic note, with which the picture ends.
Although the film is very lengthy, the interest in the different incidents is adroitly sustained, and there are even moments in which there is some genuinely effective comedy.
Besides the excellent scenes of the caribou herd, the spearing of salmon, the killing of birds and the attack on the walruses, there is a thrilling episode devoted to the harpooning of a whale.
It is a remarkable film, one that often awakens wonder as to how the camera men were able to photograph some of the scenes and record the impressive sounds. The acting of the Eskimos, or their ability to do what was asked of them by the director, is really extraordinary. The Eskimo in the leading male rôle actually gives one the impression of the moods and feeling of the character. Several of the girls are very good looking and deliver performances which are wonderfully natural.
The New York Times Review by Mordaunt Hall, November 15, 1933
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 Freunchen’s book, 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 t ouch 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. Freunchen 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 even dress, very becoming.
We told Jean she looked lovely, but she said, “Oh, you out 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
Advises Peter, the Viking King of Eskimo-land
Bored? Fed up? Tired of everything and everybody and looking for some new experience? Then read about my free-as-the-air Viking.
He’s Peter Alfred Freuchen, the man who wrote Eskimo for M-G-M and who is now up in the northern part of the Hudson Bay country in Canada writing another epic of the North for the movies. Director Van Dyke calls Peter “the most fascinating and adventurous male I’ve ever met.” And Jean Harlow, after one look at Peter’s he-man blondness, his deep blue eyes and two hundred and forty pounds of manliness, let Peter call her “Sweetheart.”
Peter is a man’s man. He is rough and boisterous and gruff, and he frets at idleness. He’s everything that Hollywood is not, yet Hollywood capitulated to him in a moment. Peter is not young; he is forty-seven. He is not handsome, judged by modern standards. He has a bushy, blond beard and a wooden leg and a way of calling a spade a spade that shakes the hearts of the weak.
When I met Peter he was angry—made because he didn’t want to be interviewed. “Leave me alone!” he said, just like that. “Leave me alone! Go talk to your handsome movie stars. They’re the ones people like to read about. I’m not even good looking. Leave me alone!”
I have a violent temper of my own. When Peter got made, I got madder. We sat and glared at each other.
What is the matter with you?” I asked, trying to keep the lid on my temper. “You spent twenty-seven years exploring in the Arctic. You mapped the last piece of unmapped land in the world. You gave up a medical and business career so you could be free as the Arctic winds. I want to know why? I want to know if it is possible for anyone else, bored and fed up with their ordinary life, to do the same thing?
That soothed the savage in him. He became as tame as a cub bear and patted my back and said, “Sure, sure. O.K. Now I see what you want. You want me to tell others how to go adventuring. Well, that’s easy. I’ll just tell you how I did it.”
His father was a grain and whale oil merchant in Copenhagen, Denmark. He wanted Peter to go into the business. Peter hemmed and hawed and, looking around for escape, hit upon the idea of studying to be a doctor. He knew this would please his father—and he also knew that he hadn’t the slightest interest in business. As proof of the fact that he still is a poor business man, he tells how he came to sell the movie rights to his novel Eskimo, for a little more than $700. He was in Denmark when an agent wired him the movie offer. Immediately Peter wired back, “Sold.”
Later he discovered—and he laughs at it as if it were a great joke on him—that the movie rights were re-sold to M-G-M for $10,000.
“It serves me right,” Peter says. “I should have had more sense…. But that’s getting away from the real purpose of this story. I want you to tell it in such a way that other men and women will see how wonderful it is to get away from the stuffiness of civilization. It gives you a chance to breathe, see?”
The longer Peter talked, the more easily I saw his meaning.
While he was studying medicine and dogging the footsteps of famous hospital surgeons, he came across the case of a man who was brought back to life by a miraculous cure. He was almost dead when the doctors began to work on him. A few weeks later this man—saved by almost a miracle—was run over by a street car and killed.
“I said to myself then,” said Peter to me, “’why should I save people who are going to die anyhow.’ See?”
So, having adopted this unique philosophy, Peter looked around him. Everything seemed an endless circle. People worked, they married, they had children, they got sick, they were saved, then they died, anyhow. And what had they got out of living?
Peter wanted more out of life. He gave up medicine and studied surveying. Then he got a job with an exploration expedition when he was twenty. He went to Baffinland, that drear stretch north of Hudson Bay, and mapped it. It was the last piece of unmapped land in the world.
“I want you to say this,” he begged me, “that I knew adventuring meant hardships—but I preferred hardships to a soft, dull life. I was big and strong and I wanted to spend my strength, not let it waste away.”
He spent his strength—and he almost lost his life—in one of his first explorations. With a party of scientists he went to Greenland. The hardships, particularly the lack of food, killed three of the men.
“That was living,” said Peter, throwing back his enormous shoulders, his eyes gleaming with remembered thrills.
He saved money and bought several whaling vessels. Whaling is an industry that takes courage and the ability to stare death in the face and laugh. Peter had both in plenty. But even that sort of adventure was not enough. He went to the northern part of Greenland where there were no white men, only Eskimos, and established a trading post.
One white man among two hundred and forty Eskimos—that was Peter. He was like a king. He was the Trader Horn of the Arctic.
Then the war broke out—and Peter, up in the northern part of Greenland, was one of the peculiar victims of that conflict. His supply ships could no longer make the trip to Greenland. For five long years he didn’t see another white man.
“And,” said Peter, “I determined to remain a white man, not to go native.”
Gradually his supplies dwindled, until he was out of canned fruits and vegetables. He had to live, like the natives, on meat—bear meat, walrus meat, whale meat and birds. There was no bread. There was nothing left, after a while, but a few boxes of matches and some toothpaste.
“No matter how I disliked a lot of things about civilized life,” said Peter, “I still retained a fondness for it. And that toothpaste was my last contact with civilization. I saved it. I brushed my teeth once a week—on Sundays—a sort of celebration. And I used only half a box of matches a year—saving the fire from day to day.”
The loneliness of Greenland, the lack of anything but casual contact with the natives, was driving Peter mad. He began to brood. Was he to be cut off from civilization forever? Was he to live and die alone? He lessened his loneliness by entering more and more into the social life of the Eskimos. The he fell in love—with an Eskimo woman, and married her.
They had two children, both of whom are living. The daughter is attending school in Denmark. The son is like Peter; he dislikes the weakness of civilized persons. He prefers the wild life of the country where he was born, so he spends most of his time in Greenland, among his own people.
Not until 1919 did Peter get back to Denmark, taking his family with him.
“Were you glad to get away?”
Peter shook his head. “Not glad,” he answered, “not even eager. I had learned to look upon the Eskimos, as my own people. They are the richest people in the world—not by your standards, of course, but by mine. Their wants are few and simple. They can all be obtained at the trading posts. When an Eskimo wants something, he catches fox until he has enough skins to pay for what he desires. Wouldn’t you call such people rich?”
Peter, though married, and with children, looked around for more adventure. He found it in 1921, a scientific expedition to Hudson Bay. There, in that bleak country, Peter found the last Eskimos extant who had never seen a white man.
“When the children saw me, with my beard, they thought I was a devil,” he rambled on. “You see, their mothers used to put them to sleep by telling them that, if they opened their eyes, an evil spirit with a beard would get them.”
The Peter, who had been laughing loudly at being thought of as a devil, became solemn. He pointed to his wooden leg. “It was on that expedition that I became a cripple. It was that expedition which was my last—for a cripple cannot be exploring in wild country. Not in snow country, anyway.
The expedition ran short of supplies, Peter went for help. A snowstorm came up but instead of stopping to build himself a snow house for protection, he went on and on until he was worn out. When he decided to stop and build himself a snow shelter, the sow was too hard packed to dig—and he lay down on it helpless. His leg and face became frostbitten.
“That is why I wear a beard today,” said Peter. “Since then my face has been too tender to shave.”
Frostbite or no, I’m glad Peter doesn’t shave. With that beard he looks like a figure from a Scandinavian legend. He hasn’t been affected by Hollywood nor polished to its standards. He still wears his old blue serge suit and his high-topped shoes and a blue peaked sailor’s cap. And his ties are still hand knitted in beautiful greens with little red designs in them. I forgot to ask him, but I’ll wager that Peter’s second wife (his first wife died), an actress in Denmark, knits them.
“What do you plan to do with your life now?” I asked. “And do you believe, even though you suffered so much and became a cripple, that adventuring was worth it?”
Peter threw back his mighty head and roared a laugh that no one in Hollywood could duplicate.
“Worth it?” he shouted so that the beams in the ceiling shook. “I say to every man and woman with a spark of adventure in their souls. Give up everything. Forsake everyone. Go exploring. Get some fresh air into your spirit.”
Then he became subdued. “Its nice, in Hollywood,” he said wistfully. “All the beautiful, fragile women and the handsome men. I like it there, too.”
So, though I didn’t press Peter with questions, I took it for granted that a man may become as fed up with exploring as he may become fed up with a routine life at home.
The New Movie Magazine by Doris Rand, December 1933
This department deals with new product from the point of view of the exhibitor who is to purvey it to his own public
Eskimo is a geographical-adventure-melodrama of life, some real and some alleged, in the Arctic, all seen as Hollywood sees the world.
The lengthy production strives for bigness and epic sweep by immense perspectives of storm-swept ice and snow as the interspersed background for the story action. The pictorial content is about equally divided between the Arctic and the West Coast production plant, with the application of many processes adequate for the illusion of audiences under the spell of emotional attention.
The exhibitor will likely find it of profit toward audience acceptance to make adequate and suitable reference to earlier expeditionary dramas, including Trader Horn also directed by W.S. Van Dyke, the director of Eskimo, to establish a category of entertainment in the consumer’s mind.
In character of material the story, which is made of a narrative brew from two novels by Peter Freuchen, an Arctic adventurer, with sundry Hollywood embellishments, belongs to the school of the Leatherstocking tales of James Fenimore Cooper (note: a prolific and popular American writer of the early 19th century). In Eskimo we have the saga of the intrepid hunter hero, a noble native, pitted against forces of evil personified by wicked white traders. Like his screen forebear, Nanook, the hero of Eskimo, one “Mala,” is also concerned vastly with the eternal struggle against starvation, with arrow and harpoon.
But it was with no James Fenimore Cooper touch that Hollywood’s technique laid on the sex coloration of this Eskimo piece. Native women are very considerably bounced about between natives and white traders with expository emphasis on alleged and generous mores of the Eskimos. There is that about this aspect of the production which will make it perhaps not entirely discreet for the exhibitor to see much of enthusiastic cooperation from the clubwomen, the churches and the schools. The Hollywood version of a pretty native and her naivete might be considered too educational and slightly calculated to send the yearning adolescent off on dream errands more concerned with igloo than the bears and seals.
Justice, official and unofficial, in the drama is represented by those imperishable wonder men, the Royal Northwest Mounted. They, as usual, “get their man,” who is, of course, the heroic “Mala” who killed for love and righteousness, and having got him let him go again for a tragic-happy ending. The action appears to be laid in Alaska and one is to be a bit puzzled as to what jurisdiction the Mounted Police may have had—but that’s a mere detail of no importance.
The high points of the story and picture are hunting scenes with milling masses of caribou, natives in pursuit of a whale, “Mala’s” escape from police barracks and his battle with an Arctic wolf. The escape sequence entails pulling his hand through a cuff with vast torture incident to peeling the flesh away. This is long enough to suffice for the most sadistic.
The official credits issued solemnly over that picture carries an all-native cast. One spectator, while entirely satisfied with the cast, held considerable ethnological doubtings. At least three of the “Eskimos,” including “Mala” and two of his best wives presented histrionic ability which was never nurtured on whale blubber.
Eskimo considered in its most favorable light, presents opportunity for an ambitious offering of contrast with the current run of screen fare. It takes the drama out where the winds dive across the floes and seas and forgets the namby pamby frivols of the product which derives from the Broadway stage.
Motion Picture Herald by Terry Ramsaye, November 18, 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 Seas, Trader Horn, 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
In 1933, van Dyke went to Alaska to direct Eskimo. Van Dyke took eighteen months to film an exciting and often grim two-hour melodrama of Inuit culture. Its distinguishing feature is that van Dyke, for the first time in Hollywood history, recorded the natives speaking Inuit. Despite its subtitles, it garnered praise.
The New York Times, for instance, found Eskimo to be “a remarkable film, one that often awakens wonder as to how the camera men were able to photograph some of the scenes and record the impressive sounds.” (Sorry, I don’t have the rest.)
Beyond Hollywood’s Grasp: American Filmmakers Abroad, 1914-1945 by Harry Waldman (1994)
John Charles Van Dyke (1856–1932) was an American art historian and critic.
The Secret Life of John C. Van Dyke: Selected Letters by John Charles Van Dyke (1997)
Blogs written by other film enthusiasts:
Appocalypse Later: Welcome to My Journey Through a Hundred and some Years of Cinema by Hal C.F. Astell, April 11, 2009
Ray Mala – Hollywood’s First Native American Star by Eric Brightwell, November 20, 2010
Stars in Heaven: An MGM Blog by Michael N., April 22, 2013
Cinema Sojourns: Time Tripping Through the World of Film by Jeff Stafford, August 25, 2016
adn.com by Alex DeMarban, September 28, 2016
Joining me for the film-viewing evening were Andrea, Angela, Betsy, Charles, David, Jillian, Karen, Rolf, Ronda and Susan.