Spawn of the North (1938) Directed by Henry Hathaway. George Raft, Henry Fonda, Dorothy Lamour. (114 min).
A brawny, brawling, bawdy Western, transplanted to Alaskan salmon fishing waters, Spawn of the North features incredible documentary footage of the artic wilderness. Ostensibly a love quadrangle with rough and tumble hotelkeep Lamour, and an old sweetie returned (Louise Platt) the real heat is between boyhood pals Raft and Fonda, leading one writer to describe this as perhaps the most homoerotic film of 1930s Hollywood. There is a trained seal (Slicker) a wicked salmon hijacker (Akim Tamiroff) and a surprisingly respectful look at the traditions of Northwest Coast Indians. “Gripping entertainment” (John Reid).
The bromance. It’s been a prominent film genre since the beginning of cinema. Whether rivals at work or play, driving chariots in Ben Hur, fighting in war, working a manly job or even pitted as rivals for the same girl, the bond between male friends is a theme in countless movies. Sometimes, there is a frisson of homoeroticism, but rarely as boldly as in this movie from classic Hollywood, with its shared beds and naked swims.
Spawn of the North transposes Western frontier conflicts to the Alaska coast. Rather than cattlemen vs ranchers, the battles between North American fishing boats and Russian fish pirates come between two old friends, played by George Raft and Henry Fonda. The film had first been envisioned with Cary Grant and Randolph Scott, two friends who were currently living together in a real life “bachelor pad” that occasioned some mild comment in the press, and possibly part of the reason the film was recast.
Director Henry Hathaway went to Alaska, hoping to persuade Paramount to allow him to film there on location, an expensive prospect that he couldn’t possibly have expected would be allowed. He dispatched Richard Talmadge and a second unit crew to film background footage, 75,000 feet of film over six months. The scenes depicted native animals, including bear and salmon, indigenous peoples, the Northern Lights, local architecture and vegetation and dramatic footage of ice and glaciers. The company also filmed at Lake Tahoe, Lake Arrowhead and on the Southern California coast, as well as in a 375,000-gallon tank on the back lot. Paramount built an entire fishing village to match the footage that had been shot on location in Alaska as well as an indigenous village for a strikingly respectful scene of native traditions.
As the commenters on the DVD remark, director Hathaway really gives the indigenous people “room to breathe” and the respect they deserve, but don’t always find in classic Hollywood. In a way, it is almost a precursor to the revisionist Westerns of the 1970s that tried to right the racist wrongs of earlier movies.
The spellbinding special effects, sound and visual, won a special Oscar at the 11th Academy Awards, given to the teams of effects artist Gordon Jennings, transparencies artist Farciot Edouart and sound effects master Loren Ryder. The team pioneered the use of a massive 36-foot-wide rear projection screen for a convincing depth of image. The backgrounds are convincing even today, as the blend of documentary footage, back lot action, matte paintings and other techniques create the adventures occurring in a remote Alaskan fishing village. The cinematography of the superb Charles Lang should certainly be considered as part of this team. Even with our modern, sophisticated eye, it’s not always possible to decide how certain effects were obtained.
George Raft was a New York City boy who grew up on the streets of Hell’s Kitchen. He taught himself to dance and toured in vaudeville and clubs. He got to know gangsters Arnold Rothstein, Bugsy Siegel and Dutch Schultz, and when his boyhood friend Owney Madden got out of Sing Sing after serving a sentence for murder, Raft often rode shotgun on his bootlegging trucks. He danced on Broadway, and in clubs, but also worked protection for cabaret hostess Texas Guinan, and she took him to Hollywood with her when she was signed to shoot a film. He was soon cast in small parts as a gangster, a role he knew pretty well. He was cast opposite Paul Muni in Scarface to great acclaim. He made over 80 films and was particular about the parts he played. Luckily for Humphrey Bogart, Raft turned down The Maltese Falcon, High Sierra and Casablanca. In Spawn, he does seem a little out of his element in the outdoor rough and tumble.
Here is a fan magazine photo of George Raft from the late 1930s.
Here he is in costume as Tyler Dawson
Paramount had wanted to cast an Argentine actor named George Rigaud opposite him, because they hoped to make him a star. The studio, undeterred by his accent said, “Just call him Frenchie” (Behlmer 153). Hilariously, this is the same strategy Paramount used for Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again, also called Frenchie, only with a German accent. Hathaway had no intention of doing anything of the sort. He’d worked with Henry Fonda on Trail of the Lonesome Pine, and as the actor was freelancing was able to join production on a day’s notice.
Henry Fonda was from Omaha, Nebraska. He started his stage career there, under the mentorship of Marlon Brando’s mother who ran the Omaha Playhouse. He acted on Broadway, and when one of his plays was bought for the movies, he came with it, beginning his distinguished career. Fonda is a relaxed and rugged foil, this was before he was cast as a series of noble characters whose behavior was more restrained, although some critics found his hearty laughter in this film unconvincing. Hathaway wanted Fonda and Raft to showcase the limits of personal loyalty as it scrapes against community responsibility in a remote frontier community.
This fan magazine photo has been carefully cut out around the shape of Fonda’s head by the scrapbooker to highlight it.
Here is Henry Fonda in character as Jim Kimmerlee
Carole Lombard had been cast as Niki Duval, and considerable pre-production had been done with her in mind when she dropped out. She was replaced by Dorothy Lamour. Lamour (her real name was Lambour with a “b”) was born in New Orleans and began her career in beauty pageants. She became a band singer for Herbie Kaye (and married him) and then was cast as a South Seas beauty in The Jungle Princess, which was the first of many roles in which she had minimal dialogue, a nonsensical name, and a wardrobe that consisted of a form fitting sarong, which became her trademark.
This film was towards the beginning of Lamour’s career, and her tough hotel keeper (perhaps “bad girl” although I wouldn’t categorize her so) was a vivid characterization. Also most noticeable was Hathaway’s insistence that she wear a sweater without a bra, which caused a minor sensation, and I had to wonder how Paramount ever got it past the Production Code. And what did Edith Head have to say? She says nothing about it in “The Dress Doctor” although her fondness for Lamour is obvious. Head became top designer at Paramount just as Lamour was beginning her career, so perhaps she had no veto power over the director at this point. Lamour’s wardrobe is deglamorized, but Head designed a black lace gown for publicity photographs that she did not wear on screen. Her good girl opposite is played by Louise Platt, who had a relatively minor career before retiring from the screen.
I think this is the lace dress in a Spanish style that Edith Head designed for Lamour to wear for publicity photos.
One of the most distinctive stars of the film is Slicker the Seal, used for comic relief, but he is also a real character who is part of the plot, representing the joy and playfulness that Raft and Fonda shared as boyhood pals. Slicker was a star of stage and film, trained by Harold W. Winston, a noted vaudeville seal trainer. Slicker could high dive from 25 feet, a trick which you’ll see him perform here. He was promoted as the smartest seal ever to gulp a fish. He had been purchased from a halibut fisherman and was considered a topflight actor; he only needed a single take for each shot. Is he the same seal as in Stand In? I am unable to confirm or deny. His filmography is incomplete.
Lamour was not fond of her animal co-star. “One of my most literally pungent memories of Spawn of the North is of the scene I had to do with a seal. Trained seals are as cute as children, they applaud, roll over, and do many tricks. But they have an odor all their own, and it isn’t Chanel. To get rid of it, I’d sometimes have to scrub myself raw” (Lamour 79).
Lamour complained about her smelly co-star, yet chose this adorable photo to include in her autobiography.
Akim Tamiroff had his first big break with Hathaway in Lives of a Bengal Lancer, and (had been nominated for an Oscar for his role). Hathaway wanted him in this film, as well, and he makes an affable but menacing villain.
At first, Hathaway was pleased to be working with John Barrymore, considered by many the greatest stage actor of his generation. By this time, Barrymore was deeply in the throes of his alcoholism, unable to remember lines and actions. He had to be carefully nursed in order to extract a performance of any kind from him.
Spawn of the North is a rip-roaring adventure yarn. The unusual setting and characters set it apart from the run of the mill.
DVD Commentary track by Lee Gambin and Rutanya Alda, Henry Hathaway: The Lives of a Hollywood Director by Harold Pomainville, Henry Hathaway by Rudy Behlmer, Award Winning Films of the 1930s by John Reid, “George Raft” by Jim Beaver in the April 1978 Films in Review, “Henry Fonda” by John Springer, in the November 1960 Films in Review, The Dress Doctor by Edith Head, My Side of the Road by Dorothy Lamour, The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years by David Shipman, portrait photos from anonymous movie star scrapbooks.