Claudia Gorbman on Eyes of the Totem and the Silent Film Era

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Claudia Gorbman, emerita professor of film history and one of UW Tacoma's founding faculty members, answers questions about filmmaking in Tacoma during the silent era and Eyes of the Totem.

Q: Why was there a movie studio located in Tacoma? Was it the only one?

A: Silent films were in general a whole lot more economical to make before the coming of sound, when the cost of new equipment, new lighting, voice coaches, new sound stages, became so prohibitive that literally hundreds of smaller and regional film companies closed in the late 1920s.

While it's extraordinary to know now that H.C. Weaver Productions was a pretty ambitious film making studio in our own home town, it's not as strange a thing to find a movie studio outside of Hollywood in the 1920s.

There were whole circuits of filmmaking, for example: what was called "race cinema" or the "race circuit," which were films with all black casts. There were Jewish movies made mostly in NY and NJ - lots of those. These were tailored to specific audiences. So, there's vast amounts of filmmaking in the 1920s that doesn't necessarily surface when we go and see the same old classics over and over again.

Q: Do many of the films from those studios still exist?

A: Some of them do, yes. If you go to Scarecrow Video in Seattle, you can watch Jewish movies galore, both silent and into the 1930s. There's quite a few African-American films that survive, largely by some comics and some dancers. The great auteur of the black cinema was a guy named Oscar Micheaux, who didn't really have a studio. He would film in people's living rooms and exteriors and things like that. So it was much more on-the-fly filmmaking in his case than what you see in the pretty polished studio production of Eyes of the Totem.

Q: Will we find other Weaver studio films from Tacoma?

A: It's always possible, but it gets less possible year by year. You still hear the stories of 20 reels of well-preserved film in somebody's attic or garage in Texas or Montana. But, now that we're approaching the century mark it's pretty extraordinary to find things.

This one was sitting in the Museum of Modern Art, so it was well archived. One wonders how many other silent films remain to be "discovered" in MOMA and in the Cinematheque in Frnace, which houses thousands of movies in a rather haphazard way. This wasn't a garage find. It was a beautifully preserved print of the film that nobody happened to have opened up in a long time.

It's possible that these huge archives like MOMA and the Cinematheque in France and the Royal Belgian Film Archive--they have so many films, its like the vast unconcsious -- something may rise to consciousness now and then if somebody is specifically looking for it.

Thanks to the persistence and ingenuity of a couple of Tacoma historians, this one came to light.

Q: Is this rediscovery notable in the wider world of filmdom and film history, or is it just of local interest?

A: I think if the DVD is made and distributed of it, it's pretty interesting. It's an example of a nicely made melodrama that makes use of Northwest urban and mountain settings, and there are a lot of fun things and wonderful moments in it. While it's not one of the great classics of the art of 1920s cinema, I think it can find a market, certainly in the NW and certainly among academics and silent film enthusiasts.

Q: The actors in Eyes of the Totem seem obscure today. Was the film made before the widespread development of celebrity culture?

A: Not at all. There was wild celebrity culture by the 1920s. There were fan magazines galore. It's the era of Valentino and Garbo, Louise Brooks, Lillian and Dorothy Gish. The first star, Florence Lawrence, was someone that, in the early 1900s, fans started noticing who kept appearing in films made at the Biograph studios, and before anyone even knew her name she was being called the Biograph Girl. It was really by public adulation of the movies and starting to identify actors and actresses that the star system developed. The movies saw a good marketing thing, and by the late teens there were movie stars: Tom Mix, William S. Hart - so many of them.

Q: Did this film have any big stars in it?

A: Big stars - no. It has medium stars. The woman who plays Mariam Hardy (Wanda Hawley) and the guy who plays Philip La Rue (Tom Santschi) had been in big movies. There were no mega-stars in the movies.

Q: Beyond the period-costumes-and-scenery interest, why is the preservation of Eyes of the Totem so notable?

A: Only something like 10 percent of the movies made in the silent era have survived. At each change in format from video tape to DVD to Blu-Ray to streaming, fewer films are being brought over from the previous formats.

It got better with the advent of video tape, before it started getting worse again. When I started out as a film person, you could only see films in the theater or in 16-milimeter celluloid prints. The first article I wrote I was in Paris where a cinema was playing the movies I was studying over and over and over. So, I just went and paid my francs many times to watch the movies.

So, video tape was a great boon for being able to see older films especially.

Q: Do you have a big collection yourself of video tape?

A: I did - I got rid of them, because who plays videotape anymore? I have a few hundred DVDs. But, mostly I rely on great archives like Scarecrow Video, which itself is struggling, libraries and things like that.

Q: Do you have a favorite moment or moments in the Eyes of the Totem?

A: I have several! Yes! You know what I love is the boarding house of petty criminals and beggars led by that Ma Kettle-type tough, spinster woman. There are a couple of shots that show all these misfits: I think there's a dwarf, and a very tall guy--there's just a marvelous collection of eccentric types. I wish the film had given us more close shots of them, because it's really a wonderful scene.

Another one is the Chinese-themed speakeasy. When we first see the dancing girls come out, we look through a beaded curtain that has recently been disturbed, so it sort of undulates. We're seeing inside this forbidden place that served alcohol--this was during prohibition--and is no doubt a stand-in for a house of prostitution as well, which is something filmmakers didn't tend to explicitly state. The mise-en-scene, the visuals of that place--wonderful.

I love the point-of-view shots on a few occasions as Mariam is sitting at her bench where she begs under the totem. You really get this amazing pang in your soul as the POV shots show her seeing her own daughter, who doesn't recognize her. Other moments like that happen from her bench at the totem.

I love the shot of the girls at their exclusive girls school - which is Annie Wright School. You're seeing them all do their dance excercises - it just look so '20s, it's marvelous.

There are a lot of visuals that are very compelling and wonderful in the film.

Q: Was most of it shot on location?

A: All the exteriors were shot on location. All those shots of downtown Tacoma, the Annie Wright School, shots of mountains probably somewhere nearby in the Cascades. I'm sure that was one of the reasons the Weaver studios opened in the northwest--to have that proximity to locations that looked like the frozen north.

Q: What about bloopers?

A: I don't want to single this movie out, because a lot of silent films were made in relative haste compared to sound movies. There are plenty --lots of holes in the plot.

For example, what's the villain, LaRue, doing up in the frozen north leering through the window in the beginning? How is Mariam in a ladies’ club that does social good if she's a beggar? She has this completely unexplained double-life near the end of the film. So there are a few plot contrivances that we are urged to forget about being swept up in the emotion of the adventure.

But, it's a pretty darn competent movie, pretty well done.

(Read the companion feature story about UW Tacoma's connections to Eyes of the Totem.)

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Written by: 
John Burkhardt / September 11, 2015
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or johnbjr@uw.edu