This week, Alaska celebrated the return of its biggest movie star. Ray Mala’s remains were reburied in a central Anchorage cemetery on Monday, the result of a 65-year campaign by his son, later joined by his grandson.
Ted Mala, Sr, said that it never felt right that his father was buried in Hollywood. Now all of Alaska can be happy that their most recognizable movie star has returned home.
A Bright-Burning Star
Mala is most known for his breakout role, Eskimo. In this 1933 tale of cultural clash, Mala played a hunter whose life is changed for the worse when he starts trading with Europeans. It was the first leading role played by a nonwhite actor.
The film won an Oscar for film editing, and was widely praised by critics. It also became a cultural touchstone here in Alaska. Generations of Alaskans watched the film in theaters and in school on reel-to-reel, or on videocassette once that became available. Then in 2016, his fame was revived by a new biography that called out attention to his groundbreaking status, an Inupiaq man who became a star in an industry that was more comfortable painting faces than hiring minorities.
Mala went on to star in 24 movies and serials. Because of Hollywood’s race ignorance, Mala was asked to play everything from a Mexican to a Polynesian to a “rock person” in Flash Gordon. But he also found many rewarding leads. He had his own serial in which he played a detective tracking saboteurs on a Polynesian island, ridiculously called Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island. In his final role, Sgt. Koovuk in the 1952 Cold War thriller Red Snow, he heroically foils a Soviet plot to test a new secret weapon.
In addition to starring in 24 films in his 20-year career, Mala became a cameraman, and was well-respected as part of the production team on another six movies. In fact, he was discovered as a cameraman, mostly because he could hand-crank a camera in conditions that made Hollywood cameramen falter.
Mala died of complications related to a heart attack at the age of 45. His short life was not uncommon for Native Alaskans during that era, when rural areas had poor access to nutrition and medical care.
Despite being so short, his career was full of bright points, and it’s good to remember and recognize this local hero who continues to inspire fans and aspiring actors in Alaska today.
A Hollywood Smile
Mala’s role as a dramatic actor and, especially, playing natives, meant that he often had a brooding expression onscreen. However, Mala also had a great smile that he could show off when he chose.
It’s likely that as he moved into starring roles, he got veneers. In most of the promotional stills for Eskimo, he has a brooding expression, but a few show him smiling, and this reveals a prominent gap between his central incisors. Later pictures show him with a classic Hollywood smile, with no gap, good evidence of cosmetic dentistry.
As these veneers were probably truly made of porcelain, he may only have worn them on camera. They were truly fragile. Modern veneers are actually made of advanced ceramics, even though we sometimes still call them “porcelain veneers.” This makes them very durable for everyday wear, and they can last 10 or 20 years, sometimes more.