Serum Run Filmmaker


Sled Dog TalesThis story is excerpted from the book Alaskan Sled Dog Tales, by Helen Hegener, published May 14, 2016, by Northern Light Media. $24.95 plus $5.00 shipping & handling. 320 pages, 6′ x 9″ b/w format, includes maps, charts, bibliography, indexed. Click this link to order.


How Alaska’s very own movie star filmed one of the state’s most historic and famous mushing events:

Ray Mala, the first Alaskan and Native American film star and the focus of Lael Morgan’s book Eskimo Star: From the Tundra to Tinseltown, the Ray Mala Story, published in 2011 by Epicenter Press, is in the news again with efforts to add a star in his name to the famous Hollywood Walk of Fame. An article for Alaska Dispatch, Alaska’s Fight for a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame,  details how fans and supporters of the Alaskan movie star are redoubling their efforts to have his name added to the well-known Tinseltown landmark. (Update on that effort.)

EskimoStarCoverLReferred to in his heyday as the ‘Eskimo Clark Gable,’ Ray Mala also played a role in mushing history. During the 1925 serum run to Nome, also known as the “Great Race of Mercy,” 20 intrepid mushers and about 150 sled dogs relayed diphtheria antitoxin several hundred miles across Alaska, from Nenana to Nome, in just five and a half days, a record which has never been broken. During the relay many Americans were transfixed by the story as it unfolded almost in real time via the marvelous new invention, radio. The story gripped the imagination of the entire nation, both the mushers and their dogs were portrayed as heroes, and the story received headline coverage in newspapers across the United States.

RayMalaFIlmmakerThe famous newsreel of the Serum Run to Nome was filmed by none other than Ray Wise Mala. Because it was too dark for photos when the antitoxin arrived in the early morning hours, Mala borrowed a camera, then staged and filmed a re-enactment later that morning of the final musher, Gunnar Kaasen, arriving and delivering the antitoxin to Dr. Curtis Welch. Sale of that valuable historic footage to Pathe News brought Ray Mala to the attention of Fox Studios in Hollywood, where he eventually landed a job as cameraman, and later became a film star in his own right.

Pathe News footage filmed by Ray Mala in 1925 (from several sources):

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Ray Mala’s biography at Wikipedia:

Eskimo-FilmPosterRay Mala (December 27, 1906 – September 23, 1952) was the first Native American movie star and is the most prolific film star that the state of Alaska has thus far produced. Ray Mala was recently named a “Top Ten Alaskan” by TIME Magazine. He starred in MGM’s Academy Award-winning Eskimo/Mala The Magnificent, produced by the legendary Irving Thalberg and directed by Woody Van Dyke. Louis B. Mayer was the Executive Producer. “Eskimo/Mala the Magnificent” won the very first Oscar for Best Film Editing at the Academy Awards.

RedSnowRay Mala was born Ray Wise in the small village of Candle, Alaska to a Russian Jewish immigrant father and a Native Alaskan mother. He was born during a unique period in Alaskan history. At that time Alaska was still a territory of the United States and still a mystery to many Americans. In 1921 an explorer named Captain Frank Kleinschmidt went to Alaska on an expedition to film a picture called Primitive Love in which Mala makes his film debut at age 14. Not only does Mala act in front of the camera but he serves as a cameraman as well for the picture. From here young Mala accompanied Knud Rasmussen, the Danish Arctic explorer and writer on his trip called The Great Sled Journey from 1921 to 1924 to collect and describe Inuit songs and legends as the official cameraman.

RayMalaParkaMala is the first non-white actor to have been the lead role in films. In 1925 Mala made his way to Hollywood and got a job as a cameraman withFox Film Corporation (this was before the creation of 20th Century Fox). Not long after Mala landed his first lead role in the silent film Igloo forUniversal Pictures. Igloo was a success and led to his being cast as the lead in MGM’s Eskimo/Mala the Magnificent. Louis B. Mayer sent director Woody Van Dyke to Alaska to film with an all Alaska native cast. Eskimo was produced by the legendary Irving Thalberg. Eskimo/Mala the Magnificent premiered to much fanfare at the famed Astor Theatre in Times Square, New York in 1933 and was a huge success. Eskimo was billed as “The biggest picture ever made” by MGM. Eskimo won the first Oscar for Best Film Editing at the Academy Awards.

MalaHeadshotMala gained international stardom following Eskimo and as a result MGM cast Mala as the lead in Last of the Pagans (1935), written by John Farrow and directed by Richard Thorpe. Last of the Pagans was filmed entirely on location in Tahiti and performed respectably at the box office. Mala’s next big role came in The Jungle Princess (1936), which launched Dorothy Lamour’s career (she went on to co-star with Bob Hope andBing Crosby in the wildly popular Road to… movies). According to the book The Paramount Story, “The Jungle Princess was a huge success and was a whopping money maker for the studio.” He also starred as himself in Republic Pictures’ Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island (1936) which was one of the first serials the studio had ever made. Mala co-starred with Herman Brix in Republic’s Hawk of the Wilderness (1938) which many consider one of the top 10 best serials ever made. Other notable films include Green Hell (1940) starring Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.,Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940), Cecil B. DeMille’s Union Pacific (1939), Son of Fury (1942) starring Tyrone Power, The Tuttles of Tahiti (1942) starring Academy Award winnerCharles Laughton, and many other films of Hollywood’s golden era.

MalaRedSnowMala also spent a considerable amount of time behind the camera as a cinematographer. He worked with Academy Award winner Joseph LaShelle on many pictures including the Oscarwinning Laura (1944) starring Gene Tierney, Les Misérables (1952) which was directed by Academy Award winner Lewis Milestone, and many other films. One vintage photograph shows Mala working on location in Santa Rosa as a cameraman on Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Other films include Meet Me After the Show (1951) starring Betty Grable, The Fan(1949)), and many more. Mala was also very close to director Henry Koster and worked as a cinematographer on several of his pictures with Joseph LaShelle.

In 1952, Mala reappeared in front of the camera to star in Red Snow opposite Guy Madison and according to the American Film Institute, Red Snow is the first film to deal with the cold war and the atomic bomb.

The Los Angeles Times June 2, 1937 – “Into his Hollywood igloo Mala, Eskimo film actor, took as his bride yesterday Galina Kropotkin, Russian Princess, sometimes known as Galina Liss.” Mala and Galina had a very happy personal life together. They counted such luminaries as Johnny Weissmuller, Bob Hope, and Stan Laurel as personal friends. They had one son whom they named Ted Mala. Ted Mala grew up to become the first male Alaska Native doctor. Dr. Mala served as the first Alaska Native Commissioner of Health and Social Services on GovernorWalter J. Hickel’s cabinet (1990–1993). Dr. Mala has two children: Ted Mala, Jr. and Galina Mala Liss.

Shortly after the release of Red Snow, Mala died on the set of his last film at the age of 45 from heart problems, after working in Hollywood for almost 30 years.

Sled Dog Tales

This story is excerpted from the book Alaskan Sled Dog Tales, by Helen Hegener, published May 14, 2016, by Northern Light Media. $24.95 plus $5.00 shipping & handling. 320 pages, 6′ x 9″ b/w format, includes maps, charts, bibliography, indexed. Click this link to order.