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Ray Mala Film Festival to feature historic films, new book on Inupiat movie star

March 6th, 2011 | Alaska Newspapers Staff Print this article   Email this article  

From the Tundra to Tinseltown, the Ray Mala Story, by Lael Morgan, a biography of Alaska's first and only movie star, will kick off the Ray Mala Film Festival this spring with screenings planned in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, Kotzebue, Nome, Point Hope, and Bethel, a press release said.

The festival is part of a statewide celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Alaska Native land claims settlement and recognizes emergence of an Alaska movie industry.

The new biography from Epicenter Press tells the story of Ray Mala, an Inupiat Eskimo from Candle, Alaska, who in 1933 at the age of 27 became the first non-White actor to play a leading role in a Hollywood film. He became a matinee idol after the release of Eskimo from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), the first major studio film made in Alaska.

The charming, handsome Mala had a long career, appearing in 25 Hollywood films over three decades, but he never forgot his roots on the tundra of Alaska. Mala was also an accomplished cinematographer. Yet Mala is little known in Alaska today. He died in 1952 at age 46.

A book-launch for Eskimo Star will take place the evening of Tuesday, March 29, at the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, featuring a star-studded guest list, paparazzi, and a traditional red carpet for dramatic entrances. Screenings will include excerpts from Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island, the delightfully entertaining 14-part serial in which Mala starred in 1935, and How Death Was Cheated in the Great Race to Nome (Path? News).

Lael Morgan will sign copies of her new book. The film festival begins in Anchorage with a gala premier at the Bear Tooth Theater on March 30-31. Movies to be screened include Eskimo, Red Snow (Columbia Pictures), Last of the Pagans (MGM), and Igloo (distributed by Universal Pictures). Admission to Igloo will be free, compliments of Universal.

On April 1, a benefit screening of recently discovered Mala footage will be held for the Alaska Moving Image Preservation Association at the Consortium Library in Anchorage.

Festival events planned elsewhere:

Fairbanks: A sneak preview will take place at the Festival of Native Arts March 3-5 with a screening of Igloo, filmed in Barrow and Point Hope in 1931, and Eskimo, filmed in the Nome-Teller region in 1932. The casts of both films drew heavily from the local population.

Elders at the Fairbanks festival will be asked to identify Native actors, who were not credited in the films, so the local cast members finally will receive recognition for their unique performances eighty years ago. Bob Huntsman of Chugach, who interviewed and photographed many of the local actors while stationed at Tin City in the late 1970s, is assisting with this project.

The Fairbanks Arts Association will screen other Mala films in April, the date to be announced.

Juneau: The Jump Society plans a screening April 29.

Kotzebue: The National Park Service will screen Mala films at the Northwest Arctic Heritage Center every Tuesday night through April introducing each showing with a special presentation. The program will include Igloo, Red Snow, Mala: Secret Agent of the South Seas (Republic Pictures), Eskimo, and How Death Was Cheated in the Great Race to Nome. Mala's grandson Ted Mala, Jr., will make a special guest appearance courtesy of NANA Regional Corp.

Bethel: The Kuskokwim campus of the University of Alaska offer screenings April 25-29.

Barrow: Tuzzy Consortium Library plans to show Igloo and Eskimo April 14-15, with introductions by Morgan and Mala's grandson, Ted Mala Jr.

Point Hope: Tikigaq School Community Library will also screen these films in April with Ted Mala Jr. as a guest; details to be announced.

Nome: Screenings are planned by the Carrie M. McLain Memorial Museum April 16 and again June 14 for a convention of museum and library professionals. Showings will include Eskimo, Primitive Love, and How Death Was Cheated in the Great Race to Nome.

In Anchorage, additional screenings will take place April 29 at the Alaska Native Heritage Center at a conference of library, archive, and museum workers.

Those making available Mala films without charge include Paul Ginsburg of NBC Universal, who rescued the Mala classic, Igloo, from oblivion; Eric Stedman, who edited one of Mala's most amusing films for Serial Squadron; and the UCLA Film and Television Archives, which owns the first professional footage Ray Wise Mala ever shot—documentation of the diphtheria serum run to Nome, which Mala sold for worldwide distribution to Path? News. This work, shown in uncut form, ultimately landed the Inupiat a job as a cameraman at Fox Studios in Hollywood.

Warner Brothers Classics will transfer Eskimo and Igloo from 35 mm to DVD for easy showing in rural Alaska, making it available at a reasonable price for the festival.

Morgan has been working on the Ray Mala biography off and on for more than 30 years. In 1980, while interviewing villagers in Northwest Alaska for a book about the Kotzebue Basin, she kept seeing photographs of a handsome young Eskimo man prominently displayed in the homes of the people she visited.

"Who is that?" Morgan finally asked.

"That's Cousin Ray, the movie star," they replied, meaning Ray Wise Mala, who was born and raised traditionally in northwest Alaska before becoming a Hollywood movie star in the 1930s.

Later Morgan decided to write a book about Alaska's own movie star.

"Not until I came to understand the depth of the struggle he faced for early survival and the guts required to follow his genuinely improbable dream did I begin to realize that Ray Wise Mala really qualified for hero status beyond the celluloid stereotype," Morgan writes in the prologue.

She credits Mala's family with a considerable assist on the project. Ray's son, Dr. Ted Mala, serves as director of tribal relations for the Traditional Healing Clinic operated by the Southcentral Foundation in Anchorage. Dr. Mala's daughter, Galina Mala Liss, is a businesswoman and actress/producer in Los Angeles who has worked on several productions both in front and behind the camera. Ray Mala's grandson, Ted Jr., who also has appeared before the camera, works for NANA in Anchorage.

Morgan is an award-winning writer, historian, teacher, photographer, and journalist. Born and raised in Maine, she moved to Alaska in 1959 where she worked for many years as a photojournalist. Morgan has authored more than a dozen books, including Good Time Girls of the Alaska Yukon Gold Rush, which in 1998 won her the title of Historian of the Year from the Alaska Historical Society.


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