Cast & Crew
The Nuwuk, one of the rapidly vanishing Eskimo tribes, live above Pt. Barrow, Alaska in an ice-locked land. The tribe emerge from their igloos at the end of winter, as the temperature warms to thirty degrees below zero. The women prepare seal skins for clothing, while the men make harpoons and the children play. Kyatuk, the daughter of Lanak, the crippled chief, looks for food, but finds no seals to capture. Luckily for the tribe, Chee-ak, a hunter from a neighboring tribe who hopes to win Kyatuk, arrives with plenty of food. After the unmarried hunters make Chee-ak their leader, the tribe dances in his honor. Chee-ak gives Kyatuk a puppy, but she runs off. After the tribe have their feast of seal, Kyatuk joins a group playing a game, and she is tossed high in the air in a walrus-hide blanket. As a storm brews, Lanak appoints Chee-ak to lead the tribe, and he has them tie down their boats and get into their igloos. The storm lasts for weeks. On the verge of starvation, a man blows out his family's oil lamp and eats the seal oil from it, before giving some first to his dog and then to his sons, according to the tribe's ancient law, because of the importance of the leader and dog for the survival of the group. A mother nurses twins, one at each breast, but the father knows that only one can survive. The man takes one baby and wraps it in a blanket where it dies, then brings the corpse to the dogs, who devour the body. When Chee-ak sees that a hunter is about to kill a dog for food, he takes the man's knife away because dogs are more valuable than men. Despite protests, Chee-ak leaves the igloo in search of food, and when he returns, he tells the tribe they must move South. Before they leave, the medicine man invokes the tribal law which states that the helpless must be left behind. The oldest hunter is given a farewell and then sealed up inside an igloo. Lanak also is sealed up, but Kyatuk runs back, opens the igloo and refuses to leave her father. Chee-ak then carries Lanak to a sled in defiance of tribal superstition and provokes the anger of the tribe, who think he is offending the gods. Lanak's sled tips over as they travel, and after he falls down an embankment, he is covered by a small avalanche. Although Chee-ak digs him out, Lanak begs to be left to his fate. Kyatuk, however, clings to her father, and he is taken back to his sled. The others rebel, but Chee-ak, knowing the best way to the sea, prevails and continues to lead. At the sea, Chee-ak spies a whale and the tribe gives chase, but the whale escapes unharmed. As the ice melts, dangerous mountains of ice collapse killing some of the fleeing tribe. Chee-ak finds Lanak's canoe empty and sees Kyatuk chased by "Nanook," a hungry polar bear. Chee-ak harpoons the bear and kills it before rescuing Kyatuk. He then climbs a mountain of ice to ask forgiveness of the gods. Soon, schools of walruses appear, and Chee-ak leads the hunt. After the hunters kill a number of walruses and drink blood from their severed arteries, they celebrate the coming of Spring with a feast. Chee-ak taps Kyatuk's shoulder, she nods to him, and they walk to their kayak and paddle off.
A note in the opening credits reads: "An authentic story based upon incidents in the life of the Primitive Eskimo in the Arctic Circle. Living among these people as a member of the tribe, Ewing Scott was able to faithfully record the courageous struggle for existence of those forgotten people." According to Motion Picture Herald, director Scott and his camera crew shot this film in the Arctic region north of Point Barrow, AK, between March and September 1931. According to a International Photographer article on the film, assistant cameraman Ray Wise, who was an Eskimo, played the lead role using his tribal name of "Chee-ak." Wise later played the lead role as a Polynesian in the 1935 M-G-M production Last of the Pagans (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40; F3.2386) using the name "Mala." Reviewers commented on the natural acting style of the "all-native" cast and noted that scenes showing details of every day Eskimo life were woven into the drama. According to Variety, the film was shot silent but had added sound effects and narration. Although Scott is credited in reviews with the film's story, he did not receive screen credit.
The film was approved by the New York State censors on May 6, 1932 in a seven-reel version, submitted by Edward Small, who is listed as the manufacturer. The film was then reduced to six reels according to NYSA records dated July 12, 1932, which was two days before the film was released by Universal. It is not known if Small distributed the film in the longer version before July 14, 1932. Although Variety credits Universal for both production and release, it is doubtful that they were involved in its production. In 1952, producer Boris L. Petroff turned the majority of Igloo into Red Snow in which Ray Wise (now using the name "Ray Mala") reappeared in a leading role. This is probably why, in 1952, the title of Igloo was changed to Chee-ak.