It's hard to tell, as you start watching this old B&W film, whether it's really so poorly preserved or if it's just the amount of cigarette smoke the actors are puffing into the air that makes the images so indistinct.
The female star of the show, Thelma Todd, in real life died under mysterious circumstances when she was at the height of her acting career and much was made of it at the time and even today--entire books and documentaries have been made on whether or not her death was accidental or deliberate. But, going by this movie, the amount of carcinogenic smoke she was inhaling on film sets, odds are good she might have died early in any case. (Ironically, her death was due to carbon monoxide poisoning from inhaling the fumes of a running car in an enclosed space.)
Despite Todd's fame and the fact that she acted in 120 pictures between 1926 and her death in 1935, KLONDIKE is in terrible condition. The sound is particularly bad, making the dialogue hard to hear. On the other hand, some of the best scenes of the movie have no dialogue at all.
During the climactic moral scene, when the main character has a do-over moment, doing the same dangerous surgery on a man that he'd done on another patient who died under his knife--a man that's engaged to the woman he loves--there's almost no talking at all, just the clock ticking.
These are actors who came out of the silent era so it's probably not surprising that they can maintain the suspense for literally minutes of no dialogue and almost no action simply by their expressions alone. Thelma Todd, in particular, is wonderful thanks to how strikingly large and expressive her eyes are.
But let''s start at the beginning--which is actually quite slow, focusing for far too long on the doctor-hero's scandal of the patient dying under his knife, long before he heads for Alaska. There is a lot of scurrilous gossip about his relationship with the patient's wife, though when he's tried he's found innocent of all wrongdoing. Still, we're shown him losing many, if not all, of his patients.
Here enters a female journalist who is told by her boss that if she doesn't get an inside exclusive on the doctor she'll lose her job. She goes undercover as a patient. I think the movie should have started with the two of them meeting, because they have excellent, platonic chemistry. I would have loved to have seen much more of the journalist (she returns briefly at the end) and not just because of her connection to my family.
The actress playing the journalist is Priscilla Dean, a popular silent screen star who became famous as the female lead in the comedy series of Eddie Lyons and Lee Moran. She achieved bonafide stardom in "The Gray Ghost"(1917) and went on to have a successful career until the dawn of sound. For reasons that escape me--there's nothing wrong with her voice that I can tell to prevent her from making the switch--"talkies" killed her career and KLONDIKE was her last film.
At the height of her popularity, my great grandparents (on my mom's side) were so taken with her that they named one of their daughters Priscilla Dean. Life likes to have its little jokes and the name Priscilla really did not suit my grandmother so she came be known as Pat, or as we kids liked to call her, "Grambo."
So it was fun for me to see my memorable grandmother's namesake. Interestingly, my grandmother also worked at a newspaper, in Chicago, in the 1940s. She was always a strong supporter of my desire to be a writer.
Back to the film.
Our hero visits a former patient, a pilot who was actually a famous airman of the day, Frank Hawks (who had, 12 years before this film, given Amelia Earhart her first plane ride). The upshot of this conversation is the doctor flying to Alaska with the pilot to escape his scandal-bedeviled life.
The adventures begin immediately when, deep over the interior of wintry Alaska, they run into weather problems. They crash and the pilot is killed. (In a case of life imitating art, six years later Frank Hawks was killed in a plane crash--one year after Amelia Earhart disappeared.) Our doctor hero stumbles out of the wreckage into a blinding shredded-soap storm blown by giant fans.
At a nearby plywood lodge painted to look like its made of logs, locals hear about the crash of the infamous doctor and set out on a dogsled rescue mission. They find the two men, one dead and one alive. The quick-thinking doctor, when he wakes up to Thelma Todd's beautiful face looking down at him in one of the lodge's beds, allows her to think he is the pilot and that the disreputable doctor has died.
The film from there on becomes fairly predictable: Thelma Todd's fiance is revealed to have the exact same condition as the man who died under the doctor's knife; the doctor and Thelma fall fathoms deep in love; the doctor is outed; the doctor is guilted into doing the same dangerous surgery on her fiance in order for the man to have a normal life and marry Thelma.
Things get a bit Flash Gordon, though, when the saved fiance turns into a mad scientist tinkering in the basement with devilish plans to kill off the doctor, since it's obvious Thelma is in love with the surgeon. After tying the doctor up, the mad scientist tells him of his diabolical plans: "This is a better way of killing a man than operating on him, Doc." He adds, pleasantly, "You like to experiment on people--now I'm going to experiment on you." All that's missing is the classic insane laughter.
There's quite an exciting and suspenseful, if a bit outlandish, climax and Thelma and the doctor live happily ever after, shaking the Alaskan soap flakes off their boots to head back to civilization.
But how Alaskan is the movie, you ask? Let's do the math.
1. The lodge is operating full scale deep in winter. Fail.
2. The lodge is operating full scale deep in winter, with huge, spacious ceilings and wide open rooms. Fail.
3. The lodge is operating full scale deep in winter, with huge, spacious ceilings and wide open rooms which they're heating with small armloads of small sticks of wood in a small stove. Fail.
4. The lodge is operating full scale deep in winter, with huge, spacious ceilings and wide open rooms which they're heating with small armloads of small sticks of wood in a small stove as the heroine drifts about the place in thin, short dresses and skimpy negliges. Fail.
5. The lodge has a basement full of crazy gizmos complete with a mad scientist who doesn't balk at "experimenting" on and even killing the guests of said lodge, even a guest who just restored him to health and mobility, in order to get the girl. PASS!!!
You might think that failing four out of five points would make the movie utterly un-Alaskan, but you'd be wrong. The final point makes up for all the rest and completely sells the Alaskan-ness of this film.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)