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 Alaskas
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 wouldnt 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
Bullied by the village kids on account of his mixed blood, Mala got tough
fast. His grandmother, Nancy Armstrong, raised him very traditionally.
She couldnt 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 hunters 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 Freuchens
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
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 wasnt 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
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
Even before it debuted, Eskimo generated national industry buzz. Malas
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 Malas movie career,
his friendships with people like Stan Laurel and Johnny Weissmuller of
Tarzan fame. (Weissmuller envied Malas 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
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 Malas case, the cliche is fact: He really did die too soon.
Mike Dunham. Mike is the arts and entertainment editor at the Anchorage