W.S. Van Dyke – Eskimo (1933)

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Plot Synopsis
The remarkable location-filmed Eskimo was adapted from two books: Die Flucht Ins Wiesse Land and Der Eskimo, both written by naturalist Peter Freuchen. Director Woody Van Dyke, in the tradition of his White Shadows on the South Seas and Trader Horn, took his cast and crew on location to the Arctic, arriving by whaling schooner at the topmost settlement in Alaska with author Freuchen as his guide. Van Dyke, Freuchen, and cinematographer Ray Wise also played prominent on-screen roles in the film. Eskimo Ray Mala (billed only by his last name) essays the title role, speaking in the tongue of his ancestors (even though his English was excellent). Rather than use superimposed titles, Van Dyke resorted to old-fashioned silent-movie subtitles in several dialogue sequences. The story concentrates on the more exotic aspects of Eskimo life, notably the race’s (alleged) casual approach to sex. Though tribal leader Mala has, by his own admission, slept with 20 women without benefit of clergy, woe betide anyone who tries to steal his current sweetheart — as a rapacious trader discovers when he’s harpooned to death by the cuckolded hero. Mala is ultimately undone by the Canadian Mounties, whose efforts to civilize the Eskimo community result in a sudden and tragic shift of the balance of power. Editor Conrad A. Nervig won an Oscar for his Herculean efforts to bring cohesiveness to the story. Performing respectably at the box office, Eskimo inspired another location jaunt in 1935: Last of the Pagans, which also starred Ray Mala. by Hal Erickson

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