Jul 5, 2014

Ray Mala: Eskimo Sex Symbol of the 1930s

In an era where nonwhite actors were typically portrayed as sexless sidekicks and villians, Inuit actor Mala, aka Ray Mala (1906-1952) found himself a sex symbol.

Which is a problem.

It's easy to find gay subtexts in the work of Sabu the Elephant Boy, the Indian actor spent the 1930s and 1940s playing androgynous teens in love with white male leads; or Keye Luke, the Chinese actor who spent World War II walking onto the set, waiting for the gasps of horror to subside, and explaining that he was Chinese, not Japanese; or even in Yul Brynner, who played a variety of "ethnic," that is, "asexual" types.

But Mala was somewhat different.

After working as a cinematographer in his native Alaska (then still a territory), and appearing in the ethnographic film Igloo, he came to Hollywood in 1925 and got a job as a cameraman.  In 1933 he starred in Eskimo, aka Mala the Magnificent, about an Eskimo and his wife who run afoul of treacherous Americans.

The film was a box office success and propelled Mala to stardom.  He went to the South Pacific for Last of the Pagans (1935), about a man and his wife fighting off evil Europeans and a volcano.

Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Isle (1936) was a movie serial starring Mala as an American secret agent investigating foul play in the South Pacific, and incidentally falling in love with a woman.

But at least he took off his shirt a lot, a rarity in the 1930s.

In Hawk of the Wilderness (1938) Mala finally got a gay-subtext vehicle. Herman Brix as a Tarzan clone raised on a tropical island in the Artic (don't ask). Mala plays his sidekick, who unfortunately dies at the end, so there's no "walking arm in arm into the sunset" scene.

Mala continued to act during the 1940s, playing a variety of servants and sidekicks, but none that I am aware of have the intensity, passion, or exclusivity of homoromance.  He also worked as a cinematographer.

He died of a heart attack at age 52.

According to wikipedia, his grandson, Ted Mala Jr., is also an actor.

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