One hundred years ago this month, Grace Kingsley spoke to an adventurous and ambitious director:
Training right along with our best little traveling motion-picture companies, Norman Dawn, well-known picture director, yesterday announced his intention of taking a company to Alaska early next spring to make two pictures.
Mr. Dawn’s company will travel as far north as possible, leaving early in March, when the ice begins to break in the Bering Sea. He expects, indeed, to be able to reach Point Barrow, 200 miles north of Nome. He and his company will also visit the Probilof Islands and the Aleutians.
The company will travel in a chartered power launch, which will tow a schooner to be used in a spectacular wreck scene in the north. As an added feature, Mr. Dawn will make use of the Esquimoux and Indians of the north in many of the scenes where such natives are required.
The director will take the principals of his cast to the number of about eighteen. He says he wants no molly-coddles, however, as the work will be hard and may even be very dangerous.
Amazingly, he did quite a bit what he told her—it just took two trips instead of one.
Norman Omar Dawn’s early records are incomplete. Luckily, film scholar Raymond Fielding interviewed him in 1962 for a SMPTE article, and he rcorded some of the details. Dawn was born in a railroad camp tent in Humahuaca Canyon, Bolivia, where his father, also named Norman, was helping to design and build Bolivia’s early railroad (Fielding said it was in 1886, but Dawn’s other vital records say May 25, 1884). His American parents took him to Salta, Argentina where his birth was recorded, and when he was three months old, he was taken to Monterey, California.* He lived there until his father died when he was ten, and then his aunt in Alhambra, California took him in.
His father had been an amateur photographer, which inspired the younger Norman’s interest in trick photography. In 1905 he became a still photographer for the Thorpe Engraving Company in Los Angeles. The following year he traveled to Paris to study art. He bought a Debrie camera and he returned to California in 1907. There he made his first film, Missions of California, using matte photography to fill in missing structures and make the crumbling buildings look whole. He sold his one-reel film to Gaumont, then he spent the next three years selling travel films like Gorges of the Yangtze and The Great Barrier Reef to Pathe, Keystone, and Universal as well as Gaumont. He began making fiction films in 1911 when he made a two-reel drama called Story of the Andes in Bolivia, which Gaumont bought. He returned to Los Angeles in 1911 and he became a special effects cameraman for Selig.
In 1913 he bought a half-completed negative called The Drifter that featured Bob Koffman, Valencia Martin and Eagle Eye. He took over producing and directing it and finished the two-reel film. He sold it on a states rights basis, and began alternating independent production work with special effects cinematography work for studios. He was hired as a director for Universal in 1919 and made several features there with Edith Roberts. He also patented his composite photography process in 1918, but he lost the case when he tried to sue other inventors for infringement in 1922.
He married Katherine V. Madden on February 1, 1921 in Oakland. She was a member of the scenario department at Universal and they met when he was directing The Fire Cat (1921). She went on to appear in several of his films.
In 1921 he finished his contract at Universal and moved to Robertson-Cole, where he made two features with Sessue Hayakawa as well as The Son of the Wolf, based on a Jack London story. It was set in Alaska but probably shot in the Sierra Nevada mountains and Yosemite (though in one article Dawn claimed he was leaving for in Northern Canada), and the results were pretty good. Film Daily praised the beautiful locations and photography, then summed it up: “because the picture is so good to look at folks are sure to overlook a somewhat weak story in this instance.”
By the time he was speaking to Kingsley in 1922 he had decided to return to independent production. Perhaps because Nanook of the North was proving to be so popular, he wanted to make a film set in the North but with more authenticity than his earlier movie. So in 1923 Norman Dawn, his wife, and the rest of the company set off for Alaska. He didn’t neglect his advance publicity, writing to Kingsley in late 1923 from Cantwell, Alaska. He said he was using a herd of 10,00 reindeer and over 200 dog teams. Because the days were short, they began shooting at ten and finished at two, when the sun went down, then they rehearsed after dark. At night the temperature dropped below zero, but they got to see the aurora borealis. They lived in log cabins buried in the snow. They didn’t travel as much as he’d originally planned, and experience wasn’t quite as bad as he’d anticipated in 1922.
He was back in Los Angeles by February 1924 and Kingsley reported he was previewing The Trail of Broken Hearts for exhibitors. He did sell it on a states’ rights basis. Re-titled The Lure of the Yukon, it wasn’t widely reviewed (when it played in Los Angeles in late December 1924, it was only mentioned as a coming attraction), however, George T. Pardy in Exhibitors’ Trade Review thought it was a good buy, especially for summer months when it would contrast with the “torrid dog days.” Pardy wrote, “it is well directed, crammed full of spectacular thrills and goes top-speed from start to finish.” Even if the plot about the Yukon gold rush “follows a pretty familiar course detailing the adventures of an unsuspicious old father, pretty daughter, married villain who tries to carry off the latter, a dashing hero who always turns up in the nick of time to foil the ruffian’s plans, and the hardships of the long frozen trail vividly outlined,” it was ”a fast-moving melodrama screened amid genuine Alaskan surroundings, a hummer of thrills and romantic urge, without a dull moment in it.” Lure of the Yukon is a lost film.
As soon as he sold Lure, Dawn mentioned to Kingsley that he planned to return to Alaska and shoot another one. He did wait until after Katherine Dawn gave birth to their son Forest Emerson Dawn on March 16, 1924, but just six weeks later the whole family, plus the cast and crew, were on the boat North.
Their second shoot was more difficult than the first one. Dawn wrote to Kingsley from Alaska in the summer of 1924, and told her “we have been to the ice fields beyond Nome, and made some thrilling scenes with polar bears and dog teams in the great cracks of ice.” Then they visited a volcanic area—a valley with seven volcanoes, “truly the greatest natural wonder of the world.” Even though the scenery was spectacular, “We were seven weeks in the volcanoes and glad to get out, for we had many thrilling and narrow escapes.”
They came back to Los Angeles in early October 1924. A few months later, Kingsley interviewed the film’s star, Arthur Jasmine, and he filled in more details about the arduous shoot for an article called “Arctic Rigors Endured.” The work was as hard and dangerous as Dawn had anticipated in his 1922 interview. Jasmine said that to get to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, they had to hike over thirty miles over pumice and volcanic ash with their 3200 pounds of provisions. It took three weeks. The 19-member group included all three Dawns and a nurse–they even brought the baby along for that part of the trip. Jasmine said:
We got into the valley on the Fourth of July, and it was pouring rain. There were great columns of steam issuing from the ground. The wind from the Bering Sea was so cold you couldn’t stand up in it, yet the ground was so hot you couldn’t lie on it.
He listed some of the other hardships: the mosquitos were ravenous, on rainy days when they couldn’t shoot they had no books to read because they were too heavy to bring along, and he stayed in the same clothes for seven weeks. Furthermore: “that midnight sun certainly did get on our nerves. Some of the people went a bit looney.” (Gee but I’m glad I don’t have either filmmaking or camping ambitions—that’s a whole lot of misery!)
Eventually the film was called Justice of the Far North. It was also sold on a states’ rights basis, and the few reviews that appeared were similar to the ones for Lure. Exhibitors’ Herald said, “It may do very well as a scenic because many sequences are beautiful for their ice and snow, their mountains and river falls, their volcanic eruptions and their lava flows.” However, “the action is slow; the acting is spotty; the story is ‘get -revenge-because-she was-unfaithful’ type; and many inconsistencies appear in the continuity.” At least this one isn’t completely lost: there’s a fragment at the British Film Institute.
After that second trip to the north, Norman Dawn (very sensibly) planned to make some films on tropical islands. Once again, he carried through with his intentions, making The Adorable Outcast (1927) on Fiji. He continued to travel around the world and make movies. In 1929 he went to Australia and made his, and the county’s, first sound film Show-Girl’s Luck, a musical. His final film was an independent production called Wild Women (1951).
Norman Dawn had an amazing career. He was an important pioneer in special effects photography; as Raymond Fielding wrote:
Because of the difficulties involved in determining technological precedence, Dawn has never claimed to have been the first to employ the processes which he developed independently for his own work. The dates on which he first employed them are sufficiently early, however, to establish him as one of the first and most active in this field.
Dawn was able to make exactly the sort of films he wanted to make, and travel the world while he did it. George E. Turner in American Cinematographer called him “the most independent filmmaker in the industry’s history.” He died on February 2, 1975 in Los Angeles. His wife survived him for many years; Katherine Dawn died in July 1984 in Santa Monica.
While many of his films are lost, his papers are preserved at the University of Texas at Austin and they are remarkable. He made cards that resemble scrapbooks for many of his films, and the University has digitized them and made them available online. So if you want to be remembered, be sure to keep and organize your records and give them to a reputable library!
*Dawn doesn’t seem to have mentioned his mother to Fielding. There’s a story buried in the vital records that is the stuff of novels. Dawn’s mother, Olga De Mojean, left his father and South America fairly soon after his birth. She went to Jackson, Missouri where she married George Cundiff on January 25, 1886 (another reason I’m certain Dawn’s birth year was 1884). They had three children. By 1910 she was a divorced roomer living in El Paso, Texas but by 1914 she had moved to Los Angeles. She seems to have kept in touch with her eldest son because they shared a house in Venice, California (on the Grand Canal, no less!), and she had small parts in four of his Universal films. She later reconciled with George Cundiff: they were together in Santa Monica in the 1950’s. She died there in 1957.
“Beautiful Backgrounds and Northern Atmosphere that Interests,” Film Daily, May 15, 1921, p. 15.
“C.B.C. Buys Big Alaska Feature,” Exhibitors’ Trade Review, March 21, 1925, p.38.
“Coast Brevities,” Film Daily, November 9, 1924, p. 6.
Raymond E. Fielding, “Norman O. Dawn, Pioneer Worker in Special Effects Cinematography,” SMPTE, v.72 #1, p.15-23.
Grace Kingsley, “Arctic Rigors Endured,” Los Angeles Times, December 14, 1924.
Grace Kingsley, “Flashes: Dawn Heard From,” Los Angeles Times, August 20, 1924.
Grace Kingsley, “Flashes: Has Alaska Locale,” Los Angeles Times, February 9, 1924.
Grace Kingsley, “Flashes: Made in North,” Los Angeles Times, December 13, 1923.
Grace Kingsley, “Flashes: Producers Home,” Los Angeles Times, February 5, 1925.
Grace Kingsley, “Flashes: Shoots in Alaska,” Los Angeles Times, April 19, 1924.
Grace Kingsley, “Flashes: Tom Moore to Wed,” Los Angeles Times, February 3, 1921.
Motion Picture Studio Directory, 1921, p. 261.
“Produces Line-Up,” Los Angeles Times, August 17, 1922.
Earl Theisen, “In the Realm of Tricks and Illusions,” International Photographer, June 1934, p. 8.
“T.O. Service,” Exhibitors’ Herald, August 22, 1925, p. 53.
“Three New Stage Attractions Open,” Los Angeles Times, December 21, 1924.