Eskimo — The Story of “Igloo” (1932) 🇺🇸
The actual account of the filming of a grim drama in the Far North.
Meet Chee-ak, the “Clark Gable of Eskimo-land” — his love-making causes the icebergs to melt for miles around!
by Alma Whitaker
With “Igloo” bursting upon us in all the majesty of its grim arctic drama, made on a shoe-string expedition by young Ewing Scott, and with W. S. Van Dyke setting forth for the same ice-bound location, with a half-a-million budget, to make Eskimo for M-G-M, another world’s fastness is opened up for screen fans.
The Van Dyke expedition, leaving as it does with every modern equipment and generous funds, for that remote blizzardous place 500 miles within the Arctic Circle, is under no illusions. Van Dyke expects a thousand hazards and frustrations to beset his valiant company.
“It’ll be cold, uncomfortable, often dangerous, and the company will probably come back fed up on each other,” says Van Dyke.
“You bet it will,” grins young Ewing Scott, who achieved “Igloo,” now a Universal picture, on painfully meagre funds, in the face of soul-searing hardships, bitter physical pain, sullen natives, an influenza epidemic, three appalling blizzards, a missionary-storekeeper right out of fiction, and an assistant who wept and moaned, cursed and whined, directly the little heroic expedition was beyond civilization.
Ewing Scott is a Los Angeles boy who broke into the picture game as a technician when a mere kid in 1920. But it was his good luck to work with the late F. W. Murnau on three pictures, thus firing his desire for the remote and unusual. Murnau himself was to have made an arctic picture in 1928 called “Frozen Justice.” Ewing was sent ahead to prepare the way. But three of his companions, Capt. Jack Robinson, Charlie Clark and Virgil Holt were lost for four hideous weeks.
“We hunted for them by plane twenty-four hours a day,” remembers Scott, “and when we finally rescued them they had been without food or shelter on the ice for 22 days. So the Fox studio recalled us all, after $45,000 had been spent, rather than risk more lives.”
Which, however, did not prevent Ewing dreaming of an arctic picture. He tried to sell the idea, but was turned down by every producer. He had kept in touch with Chee-ak, however — and saved his pennies.
Now Chee-ak is a full-blooded Eskimo hunter, young, and Apollo-like in physique. He was educated in a missionary school at Kotzebue, Alaska, and spoke English.
A newsreel man had discovered him, and he was to have been the hero of that frustrated “Frozen Justice.”
So when Ewing Scott had $5000 saved up, he sallied forth with one assistant and Chee-ak to materialize that arctic dream of his. He had written a corking good story. He had an unquenchable faith in the dramatic and adventurous lure of such a picture. So February, 1931, saw them leaving civilization behind.
Ewing has kept a remarkably intimate diary — a little too recklessly frank for publication. It is the record of a tremendous personal struggle against diabolical and well-nigh insurmountable odds.
Arrived at Fairbanks, Alaska, Fate started its knavish tricks. Airplanes were essential to cover the last 1200 miles. The only available ones were out-dated types and the owner didn’t want to hurry, anyway. Likewise $3000 was his lowest estimate. Consider the hole that would make in $5000 capital — before they’d even got started!
“I beseeched, haggled, dickered. Almost wavered in my resolve, especially as my assistant lost his grit about now and wept for home. But the Governor of Alaska wanted some diphtheria anti-toxin taken to Point Barrow — the farthest north settlement. That decided me to risk it — humanity on the side of my own desire. That anti-toxin assured us some sort of a welcome. We arrived alive in spite of the ancient planes, but not without the lash of fear and mortal anxiety on the way.
“Our welcome was short-lived,” sighs Ewing. “Because you see, there was a little dictator, whose authority was almost absolute in that bleak and barren settlement. He was the missionary, who also kept a store. Directly he discovered we were not a rich Hollywood subsidized expedition — that, in fact, there was a pretty drastic financial stringency — his interest in us changed. It appeared there would be no room for us at the warm mission.”
But a dark angel was to rise upon the horizon to ward off despair.
“He was the whitest man we found up there — and he was a negro! He had lived up in that God-forsaken place for 24 years. He had had three Eskimo wives and regiments of children. He found its a warm shack at a nominal rent, and even loaned us an old stove left behind by Amundsen several years before. Several times after that, when we were in desperate straits, this fine black man gave us cheer and encouragement,” tells Ewing.
“Another one of my worst aggravations was that the whales and walrus and seals seemed to have an uncanny instinct for keeping out of sight all the week and showing up in gorgeous photographic array on the Sabbath. But that missionary absolutely forbade the natives to work on Sunday. He made them all go to church, and us, too — hinted that would be an inevitable lack of co-operation if we failed. We went.”
Finding a beauteous arctic maiden to play opposite Chee-ak was another confounding experience. It seems that femininity in Eskimo-land is not Garboesque!
“They look at you with absolutely expressionless faces,” says Ewing. “How we worked on them, just to get the glimmer of an intelligent smile. It was Chee-ak’s charms which finally won one girl into a near-smile. So I changed the story to give her things to look wooden about. I was always changing the story!
“There were those awful blizzards! Three times we built an igloo village out of ice blocks, and three times it was swept away by a snow blizzard. I got sort of dogged about it after a while, even if I was burning up with the flu, with my temperature around 105.”
One day the whales elected to run on a week-day. Such a chance dare not be missed, so he sallied forth with Chee-ak and some other Eskimo and got some gorgeous sequences — but came back twenty pounds lighter.
There was a terrible day on which the ice began to melt ahead of the scheduled season. Would the igloo ice-village melt and be demolished for the fourth time? And some of those crashing, breaking, astounding ice scenes must be secured.
“I was getting on a bit better with the natives by then,” relates Ewing Scott. “I think they had begun to understand me, to half-wav sense what I wanted, even to like me a little. So enough of them went out with me with the sleighs — and we secured those precious sequences.”
You bet they did! When you see “Igloo,” you will get some vague idea of what Scott was up against: great mountains of ice tossing angrily in the ocean, moving relentlessly, melting ominously — and at times sending them all into the bitterly cold water, with the temperature 40° below zero.
At Scott’s darkest, bitterest moment, the mail came in — and it was to make Ewing, who had borne so much with grim, dogged perseverance, nearly break down and weep, so great was his reaction. For good old dad, back in Los Angeles, had slapped a mortgage on the old home and sent him some more money. Ewing’s emotions were almost more than he could endure, and he dropped to his knees in an agony of thanksgiving, such as God’s good man could never have engendered.
“So I was able to get an old captain with an unprofitable boat and set forth in search of walrus and bears. He charged us $300, gave us good food, warm beds, comfort, for the first time in seven months!”
When Scott finally sailed for home and Hollywood, having endured all things, it was in an ecstasy of triumph.
Er, well, yes! But Hollywood was coy and reluctant. After all he had suffered and survived, no one seemed interested in “Igloo.” Marketing it seemed even more agonizing than making it. But Edward Small believed in it, financed the promotion, and finally Carl Laemmle came, saw — and bought. It is a Universal picture now.
And Uncle Carl was later to hear the critics go into rhapsodies over it at previews, to know that young Ewing Scott had now taken his place with Murnau, Schoedsack, and Cooper, as the maker of amazing pictures in remote places.
Chee-ak with Kyatuk, his charming leading lady. The Eskimo lasses, says director Ewing Scott, are no Garbos or Dietrichs, but they’re undeniably real!
Where icy winds sweep the frozen landscape, and 60 below is hot weather, Scott built his igloo village amid terrible hardship and suffering.
Below, Chee-ak, the Great Lover of the Frigid North. It is through his torrid personality, some say, that the Aurora Borealis derives its warm colors.
Collection: Screenland Magazine, September 1932