FILMING "ESKIMO" ON LOCATION: The Michael Philip Collection; 1932-1933.
[This exhibit was mounted in the lobby of the UAA Consortium Library from August 1999 to January 2000. The materials used in it were selected by Jeffrey Sinnott, a member of the staff of the UAA Archives and Manuscripts Department.]
Original Exhibit Text
The movie "Eskimo" (M.G.M. Studios, 1934) was an important milestone in the history of movie making. It was most likely the first feature film with a soundtrack centered around Native Americans speaking their own language. The film was based on two books on Eskimo (Inuit) culture by Peter Freuchen: Storfanger (1927) and Die Flucht ins weisse Land (1929). A statement after the onscreen credits claims that the only actors were those playing the Canadian police. This certainly was the original intent of director W.S. Van Dyke. For practical reasons, however, actors were brought in to play some of the principle native parts. Ray Wise (later known as Ray Mala ), a cameraman and actor of Inupiaq heritage then living in Teller, Alaska, played the lead role of Mala, the great hunter. The Asian actresses Lotus Long, Wong Ying, and Iris Yamaoka played the principle native female characters. The main plot of the movie involves Mala's betrayal by an evil white trader captain, his subsequent arrest for the captain's murder, and then his escape into the wilds. The most intense and interesting scenes, however, revolve around native hunts for arctic game. The sequences for walrus, caribou, and bowhead whales are particularly exciting. Although considerable time and effort was expended to try and capture hunts for polar bears, little footage was used in the final version of the film.
This exhibit focuses on the scenes behind the camera, especially those that resulted in the exceptional footage of arctic natives engaged in daring hunts for the game necessary to sustain themselves in an unforgiving environment. Michael Philip, the man who created or collected the material on which this exhibit is based, was a sailor on the schooner Nanuk, whick was chartered and later bought by M.G.M. Studios to provide locations and suppport for the film crow of the movie "Eskimo." He thus became a member of the film crew. Philip was engaged in assisting the cameramen and other crew members in getting the needed footage to complete the movie, including building sets and camera houses, and participating in arctic hunts. He was actively involved in the making of the movie from at least July 1932 until August 1933. In the photographs of the collection, supported with clippings of his letters home published in a local Coos Bay, Oregon newspaper, Philip documented the rare adventures of a major studio film crew shooting on location in the arctic some sixty-five years ago.
This exhibit presents a selection of the over four hundred photographs in the Michael Philip Collection. It is divided into sections on the film crew; the sets and camps in and around Teller; a walrus hunt of Herald Island in the Chukchi Sea north of the Chukotsk Peninsula; a polar bear hunt near Herald Island; living quarters and polar bear sets on the ice five miles off Cape Lisburne; and whale hunts in the waters off Point Hope in Alaska, and Cape Serdsti on the Chukotsk Peninsula. Michael Philip's original captions for the photographs are presented within quotation marks. Some of his letters home, his personal copy of the film crew's newspaper in Teller, the M-G-M Eskimo News, and a promotional photograph from a Portland, Oregon newspaper are also included in the exhibit.
Selected Photos from the Exhibit
Portrait of Michael Philip leaning against a whale bone in the Point Hope cemetery; ca. 1933.
"Believe it or not, this is me." Philip is in his everyday work clothes. In the background is an extended line of such whale bones.
Directors, cameramen, and assistants in jackets and caps in front of ship's mast; ca. 1932.
Identified are assistant director Frank Messenger and director W.S. Van Dyke (standing at far left), and cameraman George Nogle and his assistant William James "Jimmy" Knott (seated at far left).
Christmas Greetings from Alaska; Dec. 1, 1932.
Group photo of the cast and crew of the movie "Eskimo" in their winter best in front of the schooner Nanuk wintered over in Grantley Harbor near Teller, Alaska. Michael Philip is standing at the far left. Author Peter Freuchen is kneeling in the white snow shirt in front. Also note the three Asian actresses standing in the middle left of the group. The Nanuk was used there as the set of trader ship in the movie.
Skinning walrus on the ice next to the Nanuk near Herald Island; ca. July 1932.
Left to right: "Geo.[rge] Nogle, cameraman, myself [Mike Philip], and Sig Jensen, and the natives skinning some of the walrus." Some of the walrus carcasses were brought on board for later use as dog food and bait to attract polar bears. Herald Island is located in the Chukchi Sea north of the Chukotsk Peninsula.
"[Radio operator Orland] Reese and a few dogs at Lisburne, an Eskimo and our home sweet home up there." ca. Mar. 1933.
Dog team and sled in foreground. The crew's ice bungalow was located five miles from shore on the ice off Cape Lisburne. This was the location of the polar bear set, complete with camera houses and tunnels to and between them.
Dog team and film crew's boat on journey out from Point Hope; Apr. 24, 1933.
"Taking our wooden whale boat out on the lead and the string of dogs we had to pull it." The film crew was preparing to shoot whaling footage.
Natives dozing on top of dog sled while waiting for whale; ca. May 1933.
"Here is the way the natives do all their sleeping while the whaling season is on. [Cameraman Josiah] Roberts taking a nap under the camera too." In the background is a protective wind screen. Rifles are piled in the center. The location was a lead in the ice off Point Hope.
"Part of the gill bone [baleen] in the last whale they got at Point Hope. [Al Blackman and [Jimmy] Knott in foreground." ca. May 1933.
The film crew captures the very end of the butchering process.
Siberian Natives beginning to butcher whale; ca. July 1933.
Rear view with Nanuk in the background. The location of the hunt was Cape Serdsti on the Chukotsk Peninsula.