Arts & Entertainment

Rediscovering One of Tacoma’s Oldest Silent Films

In 1924, Hollywood film producer Harvey C. Weaver came to Tacoma’s Titlow and established a silent-film studio called H.C. Weaver Productions Inc. Weaver Productions was the largest film studio in the United States outside of Hollywood. This movie studio produced Hearts and Fists (1925), Eyes of the Totem (1926), and Hearts of the Yukon (1927). According to King 5 News, once sound came to film, Weaver Productions shut down and was burned down in 1927.

Eyes of the Totem was lost for 88 years until 2014 when local historic preservation coordinator Lauren Hoogkamer rediscovered a complete copy of the film at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA).

Eyes of the Totem is a melodrama about a mother who sacrifices everything she has for her daughter’s welfare and is under the watchful eyes of Tacoma’s Totem Pole. According to the Tacoma News Tribune, viewers will be introduced to a blind Totem Pole beggar and young girls being lured into an immoral lifestyle by villain Tom Santschi and his lover Violet Palmer.

Initially the task to restore the film seemed impossible because of the high cost involved. Stephanie Stebich, the executive director of the Tacoma Art Museum and a member of the UW Tacoma Urban Studies Advisory Board contacted the executive director of MOMA and requested the film. MOMA informed Stebich that they were unaware of its condition and estimated that transferring the delicate film to a digital copy would cost close to $40,000. Stebich convinced MOMA archivists to agree to sell the film for $4,300, which was contributed by UWT History lecturer Michael Sullivan.

A group called Team Totem formed a Kickstarter campaign to pay other costs associated with restoring, scoring, and presenting the film. Former UWT student and local filmmaker Mick Flaaen got involved with Team Totem and gained 400 supporters and raised $27,187. UWT Film studies lecturers Joanne Clarke Dillman and Jennifer Myers are both planning to incorporate the film into their classes this autumn quarter.

Anyone who is taking Myers’ “Introduction to Film Studies” class this quarter will be examining its filmmaking techniques, storytelling process, characters, pacing/editing, cinematography, acting styles, and its reliance on melodrama.

Myers says, “Many students are often apprehensive about having to watch black and white films, let alone ones that are not ‘talkies’ (i.e. sound films)! So I’m betting that the familiar locations and the compelling backstory of H.C. Weaver’s Tacoma film studios will help offset the unfamiliar.”

Myers further explains that older movies give classmates the chance to discover transformations in aesthetics and technology, while reflecting on cultural history and the human condition (emotions, fears, anxieties, and social problems).

The copy of Eyes of the Totem had minimal damage. Flaeen slowed down the film speed from 24 frames to 19 frames per second to create a more natural movement. Initially, the film did not have any music, so Team Totem hired Tacoma composer John Christopher Bayman to create a score for the movie. Claudia Gorban, former film studies professor at UWT, formed a critical analysis of the music in the movie, published as Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music.

In late 2014, the film was digitally transferred to a DVD. According to the Tacoma News Tribune, Eyes of the Totem was shown on September 18th at the Rialto Theatre, the same place it was first screened in 1926. There is a short exhibition trailer shown before the film starts that explores the making of the movie and its historical context. This film will also be playing at The Grand Cinema this November and will be screened on campus on December 7th in Carwein Auditorium (KEY 102) at 7 pm.

Flaaen is preparing to release the movie on DVD next year and plans to complete his documentary by June 2016. His documentary introduces Weaver Studios and the re-release of Eyes of the Totem.

Eyes of the Totem is a historical artifact and a lost piece of art. This movie title took its name from Tacoma’s 110-year old, 80-foot tall totem pole that remains today in Tacoma’s Fireman’s Park.

Flaaen states, “Tacoma is the only place that made films, not in Seattle or Olympia but Tacoma.” Eyes of the Totem is more than just an old film, it’s something that the city of Tacoma can take pride in.