The Best Moving Pictures of 1922-23

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The Best Moving Pictures of 1922-23

Nanook of the North

By Robert E. Sherwood (1923)

Produced by Revillon Freres.-Directed and photographed by Robert J. Flaherty, F.R.G.S.-Distributed by Pathe.-Released June 11th, 1922.

There have been many fine travel pictures, many gorgeous "scenics," but there has been only one that deserves to be called great. That one is Nanook of the North. It stands alone, literally in a class by itself. Indeed, no list of the best pictures, of this year or of all the years in the brief history of the movies, could be considered complete without it.

The potential value of the movies as an educational medium is frequently stressed by men of prominence and triteness; and as a result, the word "educational" in connection with a motion picture has become almost synonymous with dullness, dryness and boredom.

The screen is no blackboard, and the prime test of every film that is projected on its surface is that it shall be interesting to the spectator. It may be teeming with genuine instructive value, it may contain what is generally called a "message," but if it fails to hold the audience's attention, the value and the message will be lost.

Robert J. Flaherty realized this when he produced Nanook of the North. He wanted to make a picture of Eskimo life (and, to the average mind, there is no character that is colder or less enthralling than an Eskimo), and be wanted to record the tremendous vitality, the relentless force, of the Arctic. He knew that there was good material here, but he also knew that this material would be worthless unless he presented it in an interesting way. He appreciated the fact that mere photographs of Eskimos in their various daily activities would be hopelessly dull if he treated his subject as instruction instead of as drama.

The backbone of every motion picture is the continuity- and by this I do not mean the plot. Nanook of the North had no plot whatsoever, and struggled along very well without it, but it did have continuity. The arrangement of scenes was sound and logical and consistent.

Mr. Flaherty selected one character, Nanook himself, to serve as the protagonist of his drama. Nanook was the center of all the action, and upon him was the camera focused. In this way Mr. Flaherty achieved the personal touch. Another producer, attempting to do the same thing, would have been content to photograph A Native Spearing Fish or Another Native Building His Igloo. Moreover, he would have kept himself in the foreground, as is the way of all travelogue rollers. Mr. Flaherty made Nanook his hero- and a fine, stalwart hero he was.

Nanook of the North, however, was not all Nanook. There was a co-star in the title role, and that was the North. The North was the villain of the piece, the dread force against which Nanook and his kind must continually battle. So Mr. Flaherty showed us Nanook, fighting sturdily to obtain food, and warmth and shelter, and he showed us the North hitting back with its gales, its blizzards and its terrible, bitter cold.

Here was drama, rendered far more vital than any trumped-up drama could ever be by the fact that it was all real. Nanook was no playboy, enacting a part which would be forgotten as soon as the greasepaint had been rubbed off; he was himself an Eskimo, struggling to survive. The North was no mechanical affair of wind machines and paper snow; it was the North, cruel and incredibly strong.

The production of this remarkable picture was no light task. Mr. Flaherty had to spend years with the Eskimos so that he could learn to understand them. Otherwise, he could not have made a faithful reflection of their emotions, their philosophy and their endless privations. He had to select from among them those who were best qualified to tell the story of their race. He had to do his photography, his developing and his printing under terribly adverse conditions. He had no studio, no artificial lights and only the crudest of laboratories.

In the preface to this book, I say that the motion picture represents the combined talents of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of different people. But Nanook of the North is the notable exception to that rule; it was essentially a one-man job.

Of the difficulties which confronted him in producing Nanook of the North, Mr. Flaherty writes as follows:

"The film Nanook of the North is a by-product- if I may use the term- of a long series of explorations in the north which I carried on in behalf of Sir William Mackenzie from 1910 to 1916. Much of the exploration was done with Eskimos. I have been on long journeys for months at a time with only two or three Eskimos as my companions. This experience gave me an insight into their lives and a deep regard for them.

"In 1913 I went north with a large outfit- an exploring ship with lumber and material for a wintering base and food for eight men for two years. A motion picture outfit was incorporated. I hoped that the results from it might help defray some of the costs of what were now beginning to be expensive explorations. I had no preliminary motion picture experience, other than some two weeks with a motion picture camera demonstrator just before leaving. We wintered in Baffin Land on this expedition, which was of a year and four months' duration, and during those intervals while I was not seriously engaged in exploratory work, a film was compiled of some of the Eskimos who lived with us. Naturally the results were indifferent, But as I was undertaking another expedition in another part of the north I secured more negative and chemicals, with the idea of building up this first film.

"On this expedition I wintered on the Belcher Islands, which I had re-discovered and explored. Again, between explorations as it were, I continued with the film work and added to the first film very materially. After a lot of hardship, which involved the loss of a launch and the wrecking of our cruising boat, we secured a remarkable film on a small island ninety miles out at sea, of walrus hunting. This picture particularly, and some interesting stuff of native life, together with scenes showing the dismasting of the Laddie, our exploring ship, which owing to our condition was broken up and used for fuel, formed the nucleus of what I hoped would be a good picture. After wintering a year on the islands, the Laddie's skipper, a Moose Factory half-breed, and myself, finally got out to civilization along with my notes, maps and the above-mentioned film.

"I had just completed editing the film in Toronto when, through gross carelessness of my own, the negative caught fire, and I was minus all (some thirty thousand feet of film). The editing print, however, was not burned, and this was shown to some private groups several times, just long enough, in fact, to enable me to realize that it was no good. I knew then that the reason I had missed out was that the whole thing was episodic. But I did see that if I were to take a single character and make him typify the Eskimos as I had known them so long and well, the results would be well worth while. To make a long story short, that is what happened. I went north again, this time solely to make a film. I took with me not only motion picture cameras, negative and developing outfit, but apparatus for producing electric light so that I could print and project my results as they were being made; thus I could correct the faults and re-take wherever necessary, and more particularly still, my character and his family who lived with me through the year could understand and appreciate what I was doing.

"Though Nanook and his crowd were at first highly amused at the idea of the white man wanting to take pictures of themselves, the most common objects in all the world, as soon as I got my projection apparatus going and showed them some of the first results, they were completely won over. As luck would have it, the first picture that was made was the walrus hunt, which many of the younger generation had never seen. I shall never forget the night it was first projected, on a white cotton sheet in my wintering hut. The audience- men, women, babes and children, squatted on the floor- completely forgot that what was unfolding before them on the sheet was a picture. They yelled, screamed and shouted their advice where the four stalwarts were shown in the walrus tug of war. In the language of the trade, that first picture was a knockout. From that time on they were with me to a man. Indeed, they vied with one another to be cast in the angerooka's big aggie (picture)."

After Mr. Flaherty had completed the picture, and had brought it to New York, be encountered a new set of problems: he ran into the movie distributors. He learned that the Eskimos were remarkably tractable as compared with these important gentlemen who are empowered to decide what the public shall see and what it shall not see. He had been backed on this Arctic expedition by Revillon Freres, the furriers, but Revillon Freres could not sell his picture for him.

He took Nanook of the North to five different distributing corporations, all of which turned him down flat. They told him that the public is not interested in Eskimos; the public wants to see people in dress suits. Finally, he effected a deal with Pathe, and Nanook of the North was timorously submitted to the exhibitors. One of them, Samuel Rothafel of the Capitol Theatre in New York, decided to give it a try, although he was frankly dubious about its possibilities as a box-office attraction. The week that Nanook of the North played at the Capitol Theatre, it did $43,000 worth of business.

It was instantly hailed by every critic in New York, and the public (which wants to see people in dress suits) responded nobly. Nanook of the North has since proved to be a substantial if not a sensational box-office success.

One of the distributing companies, the Famous Players-Lasky, which elected to throw Nanook of the North back into the cold from whence it came, has made amends in an honorable and emphatic way. Jesse L. Lasky has sent Mr. Flaherty to Samoa to make a Polynesian Nanook. Moreover, he has made no restrictions as to money, time or quality- so that we may expect, eventually, to see the first real representation of the glamourous South Sea Isles on the screen.

There was a tragic sequel to Nanook of the North which did not appear in the film itself. Some time after Mr. Flaherty departed from the Arctic with his negatives and his prints, the gallant Nanook died of starvation. The villainous North finally won in its mortal combat, and Nanook became the first hero in movie history who has gone down to ultimate defeat. But his soul goes marching on. His shadowy form still flickers across the screen, to prove to distributors and other shortsighted persons that Eskimos are human beings, after all.

Robert E. Sherwood, "Nanook of the North," in The Best Moving Pictures of 1922-23, Boston: Small, Maynard & Company, 1923, pages 3-8.

© 1998, David Pierce, on editing and revisions (if any)

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