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Author Brings Inupiaq Movie Star Back to the Light

March 15, 2011

Steve Heimel, APRN – Anchorage

Movie theaters in Fairbanks, Juneau, Anchorage and a number of other communities are featuring a largely forgotten Inupiaq movie star named Ray Mala – thanks to the efforts of an Alaska author who has been researching his career.  The Ray Mala Film Festival is touring the state.  Born Ray Wise, in the gold rush town of Candle, north of Nome, Mala moved to Hollywood during the silent film era.

According to Lael Morgan, a longtime Alaska journalist and publisher, movies set in the Arctic were all the rage in the Lower 48 states by 1915, and Ray Mala had some skills that were very helpful for those early film makers – he knew the country, the weather, the wildlife, and he could turn the hand-crank on a camera at low temperatures.

Mala was soon in front of the camera, playing roles as Eskimo men, and made it big when he starred in a 1932 movie made by Woody Van Dyke, entitled “Eskimo.”  Morgan says Mala was a genuine movie star.

This discrimination drove a number of other so-called “exotic” stars out of the business entirely, but, because of his skills and his personality, Ray Mala had a career in Hollywood that spanned decades.

The Mala family and Morgan are still unearthing movies in which Ray Mala was involved – both in front of the camera and behind it.  The festival is only able to offer a sampling.  Among them “Eskimo,” an earlier film “Igloo,” and a travelogue Mala shot with his first mentor in the industry, Frank Kleinschmidt.

Lael Morgan’s book “Eskimo Star,” is being released along with the film festival.

Photo courtesy of Epicenter Press

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