The Alaskan Native who would become a Hollywood film star, cameraman and director, Ray Mala was born two days after Christmas in the small gold mining town of Candle, 200 miles north of Nome, on December 27th, 1906. Named Ray Agnaqsiaq Wise, his mother was an unusually tall and strikingly beautiful Inupiat Eskimo named Karenak Ellen “Casina” Armstrong, and his father, Bill Wise, was a successful and well-liked trader who did not meet his son until many years later, in California.
Ray’s mother sent him to the Quaker school in Kotzebue where Ray learned to read and write and adopt the white man’s social graces. Meanwhile his maternal grandmother, Nancy Armstrong, also taught young Ray about the subsistence lifestyle, and he became an accomplished outdoorsman, skilled with the spear and bow and arrow. A natural athelete comfortably proficient in both worlds, young Ray Mala was destined for great things from a young age.
In the spring of 1920, at only fourteen years of age and with fifteen dollars in his pocket, Ray made his way to the largest town in western Alaska, the seacoast city of Nome, and secured a job as a cook on the ship Silver Wave, bound for Seattle. He met an arctic explorer and filmmaker, Captain Kleinschmidt, on the ship, and was hired to carry a movie camera on a scientic expedition to Wrangell Island. When the filmmaker’s hands got too cold to operate the hand-cranked camera, he taught the young man how to photograph scenes, and Ray proved to be a quick learner with a sharp eye for focus, producing good footage and encouraging Kleinschmidt to teach him more, including developing the film and acting in scenes of northern drama.
In her book, Freeze Frame: Alaska Eskimos in the Movies (Univrsity of Washington Press, 1995), author and anthropologist Ann Fienup-Riordan tells what happened next: “….the Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen took him on an expedition to East Cape (Siberia). The boy had a steady hand and the ability to manage a hand-held camera in the cold, skills that made him a valuable addition to exploring parties coming North. The men he worked with liked him and remembered him, passing his name on to those who followed them.”
Ray Wise was living in Nome when the 1925 diphtheria epidemic struck the town, closing the schools, cancelling social events, and triggering the epic Serum Run from Nenana to Nome. A relay series of dog teams, primarily mail carriers, covered the 675-mile trail in only seven days with the lifesaving antitoxin in what would become known as the "Great Race of Mercy.”
During the relay, many Americans were transfixed by the story as it unfolded almost in real time via the marvelous new invention of radio. The story gripped the imagination of the entire nation, both the mushers and their dogs were portrayed as heroes, and the story received headline coverage in newspapers across the United States.
Through the local newspaper, the Nome Nugget, Ray Wise realized the importance of the story and borrowed a movie camera from a friend. Because it was too dark for photos when the antitoxin arrived in the early morning hours, Ray staged and filmed a re-enactment later that morning of the final musher, Gunnar Kaasen, arriving and delivering the antitoxin to Dr. Curtis Welch, who administers it to his young patients with the assistance of his nurse. The sale of that valuable historic film footage to Pathe News, and assistance from his old friend and Pathe News photographer Merl LaVoy, helped Ray Wise gain the attention of Fox Studios in Hollywood, where he soon landed a job as assistant cameraman and became a valued member of the film crew.
Historian and journalist Lael Morgan wrote about Ray Wise’s work in her book Eskimo Star: From the Tundra to Tinseltown, the Ray Mala Story (Epicenter Press, 2011): “The assignment required focusing the camera manually by estimating the distance from subject to lens and moving the focal distance markings on the barrel. This had to be done without looking through the viewfinder, which was the domain of the head cameraman. Few possessed that skill, but LaVoy had claimed Wise was a natural, and the would-be hire quickly proved himself. In fact, Wise had already mastered the difficult ‘feather focus’ which made distance shifts unnoticeable. He was as unobtrusive as he was efficient at placing marks on the floors of sets so actors would know where to stand. And he also did well as second cameraman, shooting negatives for the European market.”
Ray Wise worked in acting roles and as a cameraman in films over the next few years, and in 1932 he landed a leading role in the silent film Igloo for Universal Pictures. When that film was a success, he was cast in the lead role of Mala—a name he would later make his own—in MGM’s blockbuster Eskimo, directed by W. S. Van Dyke and billed as “the biggest picture ever made.” The movie premiered at the Astor Theatre in Times Square, New York City, in 1933, with a blazing marquee of 70,000 light bulbs. The New York Times called it “a remarkable film,” and Ray was suddenly a star. At the Academy Awards that year the movie won the first Oscar for Best Film Editing.
The next leading role was in Last of the Pagans (1935), filmed on location in Tahiti, followed by The Jungle Princess (1936), which launched Dorothy Lamour's career. Ray played the lead in Republic Pictures' Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island (1936) which was one of the first serials the studio made, and he shared top billing with Herman Brix in Republic's Hawk of the Wilderness (1938). Over the next fourteen years Ray Wise—who adopted the last name Mala after his role in Eskimo— made films with stars such as Joel McCrea, Randolph Scott, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Iron Eyes Cody, Gary Cooper, Olivia de Haviland, Tyrone Power, Charles Laughton, Gene Tierney, Betty Grable and many others. He went on location as a cameraman on films by directors such as Cecil B. DeMille, Otto Preminger, and Alfred Hitchcock, and became Hollywood’s most famous indigenous actor and cameraman.
In 1932, near the end of filming Eskimo, Ray married a longtime friend from Alaska, but the relationship was short-lived. In 1937 he and a young actress and dancer, Galina Liss, eloped across the border, and nine years later, in 1946, a son, Theodore, was born to the adoring couple. It was a golden time in Hollywood, and the Mala family was happy and joy-filled.
Ray Mala—he often dropped ‘Wise’ from his name—continued working on films, making over twenty-five in his thirty years in Hollywood. He was working on a new film in Mexico when he collapsed, and less than a month later unexpectedly passed away in a Los Angeles hospital at the age of 45. His wife Galina died less than a year later, leaving their six-year-old son Ted an orphan.
Ray and Galina’s son would grow up, graduate from Harvard University, and return to Alaska to become a respected physician in Anchorage. In 2018 Dr. Ted Mala spearheaded the return of his parents’ remains to Alaska, for reburial in the Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery.
In 2008, to celebrate the 50th birthday of "The Last Frontier,” Time magazine selected Ray Wise Mala as one of the state’s Top Ten Most Memorable Alaskans.
• Wikipedia entry for Ray Mala
• APRN Interview with author Lael Morgan
• Time: Alaska Top Ten
• KTUU news video: Reburial