The key film in this week’s intriguing "Freeze Frames" series at the Harvard Film Archive is surely this 1933 museum-piece rarity of on-location Robert Flaherty–school ethnography from the most unlikely of places: MGM. How and why did the most opulent of Hollywood studios become involved in telling a rugged tale of Eskimos in the Northwest Territory, with a non-professional cast of Native Americans speaking in their own language? And how did dapper in-house director W.S. Van Dyke, famous for Tarzan of the Apes and The Thin Man, get assigned to this project? Did he actually travel to wintry Canadian locales, or did he merely take charge once the footage arrived at MGM?
However it was made, Eskimo is a fascinating work. Although the walrus hunting, igloo building, and frequent crossing of icy terrain are all reprised from Flaherty’s 1922 Nanook of the North, Eskimo goes farther in developing a story line about a good-natured Eskimo man, Mala, who’s taken advantage of by brutal white men (they make his wife drunk and then have sex with her). The film was made just before the Hays Code was developed, at a time when Hollywood was at its frankest, so there’s also an amazing scene in which Mala gives his wife to a lonely friend for the night, this time with her permission. Even more amazing: no judgment is passed on this act of generosity. Eskimo will be introduced by travel writer Lawrence Millman, who curated the "Freeze Frames" series.