“You still have a thrill coming:” July 1-15, 1922

Allakariallak, aka Nanook

One hundred years ago this month, Grace Kingsley had the rare opportunity to review a respected film:

Having seen Mack Sennett’s bathing girls, Pola Negri, Charlie Chaplin’s walk, Gloria Swanson’s duds, Foolish Wives, and The Four Horsemen, you think probably that you’ve seen everything in pictures. But you haven’t. Not by a jugful. You still have a thrill coming.

That thrill, high-powered, you’ll get from Nanook of the North at the Kinema. It’s the real life story of an Esquimeaux family, with all their primitive fight for life. I must even admit there were moments when it got on my nerves. That was when Nanook, the papa Esquimeaux, killed things, and the way he did it.

To me there was vastly more thrill in the lonely Nanook, hunger-driven, tripping alone but sure-footedly from one treacherous ice-block to another in a great dreary, solitary sea, in search of food; in the titan fight with the huge walrus; the battle of the Esquimeaux family with the storm, than in the whole kit and bolling of most so-called “great moments” in the cinema drama. And there is more actual drama, more vivid, hopeless pathos in that fight for life than in all the weepy Pollyanna stuff the screen has to offer. You can fairly hear the gale howl outside when the Esquimaux family, having stripped naked in its icy igloo, crawls under the sleeping skins. The wind sweeps a great, lonely, white world. And the dogs, after a little despairing howling, settle down outside to sleep with the snow drifting over their sinewy bodies.

She wrote about it in a way it usually isn’t written about now: she thought it was entertaining, not medicinally educational. Her review was also unusual, because most of the time she got sent to watch mediocre movies and had to find new words for adequate. So this was a treat.  

Her editor, Edwin Schallert, usually went to the well-regarded films.  I suspect he missed the bus on this one because Frederick James Smith, the L.A. Times man in New York City, wrote one of the few dismissive reviews of it. He thought Nanook was merely “an interesting novelty” even if “the glimpse of the high wind steadily sweeping over the plateau of ice makes the usual movie stuff look like a mere confetti party at Coney Island.” Instead, this week Schallert saw The Storm, a now-forgotten melodrama, and wrote that “despite its obvious faults, the picture can be recommended as exceptional…You may be disappointed. But most of it is worth the watching.”*

The rest of the reviews from New York were glowing. Fritz Tidden in Moving Picture World was already calling it a screen classic. Film Daily’s review was typical:

The film is wholly unlike anything that has ever been presented and for those who are continually crying for something new in pictures, Nanook of the North fills a long felt want… You will never know how much you don’t know until you have seen Nanook of the North.

Schallert did later join almost all the other critics in the United States in putting it on his top 10 list for Film Daily Yearbook, so he must have caught up with it later (Kingsley didn’t get asked to submit her top ten list). He had plenty of time to see it: it played in Los Angeles until August 11th.

After its four week run at the Kinema, it spent two weeks at the Alhambra. 

Kingsley’s review is also interesting because it gives some perspective on the context Nanook came out in: it didn’t play in college auditoriums, it was on a bill with a jazz ensemble, Sherwood’s Band, that she thought were very good, and a Mermaid comedy with “a laugh to the second or thereabout.” It was part of an evening’s entertainment. In addition, her list of memorable thrills from the movies has stood up pretty well: silent film fans still remember and admire Chaplin and Foolish Wives.

Allakariallak

Her piece also documents that the audience did believe that everything they saw was real. She wasn’t the only one; Film Daily said “it is not merely acted for the camera. They are really going about their regular routines.” Actually, Allakariallak was reenacting scenes for Robert Flaherty’s camera, and that’s the chief criticism of the film now. However, according to Robert Sherwood who was writing in 1923, Flaherty didn’t keep it a secret that it was restaged. For instance, the walrus hunt was a recreation of an earlier practice, and he said that the younger locals were fascinated when he showed them the footage, because they’d never seen it done before. This kind of reenactment didn’t bother Sherwood at all; our standards for documentaries have changed. I like what Joel Bocko pointed out, blogging at Lost in the Movies:

The Inuit subjects were delighted to be photographed, especially after Flaherty showed them some early footage. They are enthusiastic collaborators in Flaherty’s process and the film is always at least half true, because even if the actions are pre-determined, the people are real, in their attitudes and appearances.

Even with the controversy, Nanook of the North has continued to be highly regarded.  It was among the first group of 25 films added to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1989. Film critics ranked it as the seventh best documentary ever made in the 2014 Sight and Sound poll. Finally, it is the only movie Kingsley ever wrote about ever to be parodied on the TV show Documentary Now.

*When Kingsley announced that The Storm was playing for its third and final week, she delivered her opinion on it without actually saying her boss was wrong: “The Storm is a story of two men and a woman snowbound in the fastness of far northern mountains for four months. One of the men hates women because he has never met any. He greets the girl’s arrival with open fear. The other knows the sex from a score of affairs. He has been hidden away in the mountains to escape all women. And within a week both men, friends at the beginning of their encampment, decide this particular girl is the most desirable person in the world, and become bitter enemies.”

 

Grace Kingsley, “Flashes,” Los Angeles Times, July 17, 1922.

Grace Kingsley, “Flashes,” Los Angeles Times, August 4, 1922.

Robert Sherwood, The Best Moving Pictures of 1922-23, Boston: Small, Mayard & Company, 1923.

Frederick James Smith, “Salome Slips Cog at Preview,” Los Angeles Times, June 18, 1922.

“The Ten Best Pictures of 1922,” Film Daily Yearbook, 1923.

Fritz Tidden, “Nanook of the North,” Moving Picture World, June 24, 1922, p. 735.

“A Totally Different Picture of the North that Shouldn’t Be Missed,” Film Daily, June 18, 1922, p.2

4 thoughts on ““You still have a thrill coming:” July 1-15, 1922”

  1. What an excellent write-up! I’ve heard about Nanook of the North for what seems like forever, but I never read a review on it, or had any idea what critics thought of it. Interesting!

    Like

  2. I found Nanook of the North a fascinating film. (I can’t imagine how gruelling it would have been to lug camera equipment, etc.) I laughed out loud when you said, with brilliant understatement, Grace K. wrote about the film in a way it isn’t written about now.

    Liked by 1 person

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