By Mike Dunham
"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 Alaska's 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 wouldn't 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 bar owner.
In 1932 MGM sent an army of production people to Nome to film Peter Freuchen's 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 in Alaska.
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 wasn't 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 people. 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 set.
Even before it debuted, "Eskimo" generated national industry buzz. Mala's 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.
Below: "Ray Mala filmed Igloo in Barrow in 1931. The filmmaker did not include the names of the Native actors, including the woman seen next to Mala in this photo."