W. S. Van Dyke, MGM's peripatetic director, was responsible for this fascinating look at life in the Arctic among the Inuit. His production was on location filming from April 1932 until November 1933 (although some annoying rear projection effects show that some of the shooting took place back at the Studio). While considered a documentary at the time, we would likely term it a 'docudrama' as it is scripted with an intriguing plot & storyline.
The film shows the daily life of the Eskimo, both Winter & Summer, and in fact starts in the warmer time of the year without any snow or ice in sight. The constant striving for food is depicted, and the viewer gets to watch the exciting hunts for walrus, polar bear, whale & caribou. The native language is used throughout, with the use of title cards; the only English is spoken by the fishermen & Mounties encountered by the Eskimo. In fact, it is the arrival of White Men, both good & bad, and the change they make on Eskimo society, which is a major element in the narrative.
This Pre-Code film deals in a refreshingly frank manner with the Eskimo moral code, particularly with their practice of wife-sharing, which was an important and completely innocent part of their culture. In fact, the entire film can be appreciated as a valuable look at a way of life which was rapidly disappearing even in the early 1930's.
None of the cast receives screen credit, which is a shame as there are some notable performances. Foremost among them is that of Ray Wise, playing the leading role of Mala the Eskimo. Wise (1906-1952) was an Alaskan Native of Inuit ancestry and is absolutely splendid and perfectly believable in what was a very demanding part. As handsome as any Hollywood star, he would continue acting, using the name of Ray Mala, in a sporadic film career, often in tiny unbilled roles.
Lovely Japanese-Hawaiian actress Lotus Long plays Mala's loyal second wife; the names of the fine actresses playing his other two wives are now obscure. Director Woody Van Dyke steps in front of the cameras as a strict North West Mounted Police inspector. The two decent-hearted Mounties who must deliver Mala to Canadian justice are played by Joe Sawyer & Edgar Dearing, both longtime movie character actors. Danish author Peter Freuchen, upon whose books the film was based, has a short vivid role of an evil wooden-legged sea captain who unwisely rouses Mala's icy wrath.