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.
When I was a kid "Movie Night" was a big deal. Each kid got a turn at choosing a movie from our small library of VHS tapes one night out of the week when we ran the generator to charge the radios' battery. More often than not, I let one of my brothers, or my sister, take my turn. I was known for giving movie night a pass in favor of cuddling up to a good book, ruining my vision reading by kerosene lamp light.
To this day when the topic of movies that the rest of the family know by heart comes up, I am heard to say, "I never saw it." They just shake their heads. The funny thing is, because my bedroom was right above the game room where the movies were watched, I can quote from these movies I've never seen almost as well as they can. (No one tops my brother Robin who is a master at wittily inserting movie quotes into any conversation.)
So, I've never been a big movie person, but thanks to certain friends determined to wise me up, I've been receiving movies through the mail. I have to admit I'm enjoying them far more than I thought I would and find myself getting a thorough education in the history of cinema from Buster Keaton to Star Trek. And then there are movies I receive that purport to being set in Alaska, or having pivotal scenes in Alaska. More often than not, "Alaska" is anything but Alaskan.
I've decided to put up a new category titled "The Alaskan Movie Review," in which I will review movies with Alaskan settings--of both the faux and the real Alaska. I hope you enjoy them as much as I'll enjoy reviewing them.
My first review is of "The Hell Hounds of Alaska" starring Doug McClure. My dad is a big fan of westerns so I'm familiar with McClure in well-written TV shows like "The Virginian." I'm sorry to report that "Hell Hounds" is not his best outing.
Apparently, like the spaghetti westerns Clint Eastwood starred in, set in Italy, there was another subset of westerns filmed in Germany, in the 1970s, called schnitzel westerns. "Hell Hounds" is a schnitzel.
Before we get to the review, let's start with a true or false quiz to test your AQ (Alaskan Quotient) to see whether you know more about Alaska than the producers of this movie did.
1. Totem poles are often found in Alaska's frozen interior.
2. Totem poles look like Fisher Price toys on a stick.
3. Eagles often attack children in Alaska for no reason.
4. Alaska Natives look exactly like folks in the greater Mediterranean area.
5. You can go from deep snow in an Alaskan winter to leafy streams in only hours.
6. All dogs in Alaska are named Buck.
7. Wearing fur in the middle of summer is uncomfortable.
On to the movie: It has a highly forgettable plot about a gold shipment robbery with typical good guys and bad guys and mob and "Indian" violence and a painfully rehearsed barroom brawl with laughable sound effects (mostly women half-heartedly wailing). On the other hand, it has some weirdly matter-of-fact, surreal moments that made me marvel and/or laugh out loud.
Take for instance an early scene where Doug McClure comes across an injured friend who's built his cabin next to the lamest, most Fisher Price on a stick, lollipop looking totem pole ever produced. Let's not forget this is supposed to be deep in the snow-locked interior of Alaska where totem poles were not indigenous. We're told that this is"sacred ground to the Indians," which is apparently what the weird, Dutch-milkmaid totem pole is marking.
Later on, Doug McClure finds the Alaskan Natives, who are dressed and are acting exactly like the so-called Plains Indians in most westerns filmed during this time (and are very obviously European, much like in American westerns), torturing his friend whom they've tied to the lollipop--I mean, totem pole. In order to free his friend, Doug McClure challenges the leader of the tribe to the time-honored, Hollywoodesque knife fight--this time in the snow.
This is the most amazingly surreal scene in the entire movie. As I watched it I imagined what it was like to be a member of that German film crew trying to keep warm, watching some actors pretend to be in Alaska, with fake "indians," below a fake totem pole, with the beautiful Alps in the distance.
Throughout the movie the scenes, supposedly only hours apart, go from deepest snow and ice to canoe rides or horseback rides into leafy green woods, and to some desert dry areas, which is an obvious impossibility even during Alaska's warmest winters. Some of the actors, to maintain the illusion that they're in snowbound Alaska rather than in the middle of a German summer, retain a fur-trimmed vest, or hat, or gloves while leaving their shirts unbuttoned. In Doug McClure's case, he tenaciously hangs onto his fur-trimmed moccasins right to the bitter end no matter how hot and sweaty his feet must have gotten in the summer heat.
There is the usual pretty young innocent maiden, actress Angelica Ott, but she doesn't bother with the pretense of being in the frozen north, preferring to run around amongst her fur-bearing fellow actors in a short-sleeved, pink and black gingham dress. She chucks this outfit in favor of pants and a fur-free hide vest when her father the sheriff is killed and she declares her intent, as she straps on a pistol, to avenge him. That's as far as her vengeance goes, but it's another surreal moment how everyone in town just accepts this change of attire as perfectly reasonable in a gently bred girl of the time.
In addition tall this, there is some bizarrely off-hand racism. To modern ears the racist, inane dialogue is bad enough, but when you add in the fact that these actors are speaking German and the racism is dubbed in? That puts it over the top into awe-inspiringly awful.
Doug McClure, acting with people he apparently can't understand, who are speaking German, gives a bemused, hurried performance. He speaks superfast, as if that will get him through the scenes faster, and perhaps even get the movie over more quickly. While he "phones it in" acting-wise, I have to say that it looks like he took the role of mountain man seriously enough to not have shaved or washed during the entire production. Or maybe he was just depressed? It's hard to say.
But what is certain is that there were no "hell hounds" (whatever those are, and whatever they have to do with Alaska), as advertised. The only canines are some cheerful sled dogs and a pet who makes the ultimate sacrifice and is, of course, named Buck. Because all dogs in Alaskan literature are named Buck. (Just for the record, I have actually never met a dog in Alaska named Buck.) However, there are some bizarrely brutal eagles who attack a boy for no obvious reason, except that apparently this is a thing in "Alaska."
The cover of the dvd promises "savage action in the Far North" but I would say it was more accurate to call it "surreal action in the Faux North." Watch it if you must, but don't say I didn't warn you.
How did you do on the quiz? (Answers: 1-6/F; 7/T) For bonus points, name the Alaska movie on the TV screen in the first photo.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)