Category Archives: Film

In Love with Nanook: Eskimomania

Amoureuse de Nanouck (Oogie-Oogie Wa-Wa)’ by Archie Gottler. French Lyrics by Léo Lelièvre & Henri Varna. Published by Francis-Day (Paris, 1923) and illustrated by Dorothy Dulin.

The Parisian flapper dressed in her fashionable fur-trimmed winter coat is obviously infatuated with Nanook, an Inuk hunter. We can imagine that she travelled so far up North to meet the subject of her fancy, after having seen him in a Paris cinema. Nanook of the North, a docudrama filmed by Robert Flaherty in 1922 was a world-wide sensation that prompted an ‘Eskimo craze’ in the Western world.

From 1910 Flaherty had made a few explorations to the North. At one moment he started shooting film of the Inuit life. In 1916 he had collected enough footage for a movie, but he lost almost all of it by dropping a cigarette onto the highly inflammable film. Flaherty returned to the North and this time concentrated on one Inuit family. His cinéma-vérité tour de force is considered a masterpiece even if most of it was staged. Nanook wasn’t the real name of the protagonist and his children were not his real children, nor were his wives his real wives. During the filming these ‘wives’ even became Flaherty’s mistresses. And with one of them he had a child that he later abandoned.

Promotional poster for the 1922 docudrama Nanook of the North. Wikimedia Commons.

Since it would have been impossible to film inside the dark interior of an igloo, a special set was built consisting of half an igloo. The film was meant to give impressions from the far north of the Polar Regions. In reality Flahertys shots conveniently came from the north-eastern part of Hudson Bay. But at that time there were no rules for filming a documentary.

Nanook of the North was a kind of advertising film distributed by Pathé. It was financed by the Parisian fur traders Revillon Frères. They were the largest fur company in France with branches in London, New York and Montréal, and 125 fur trading posts. Nanook of the North was filmed near one of their trading posts at Inukjuak, Quebec.

Oogie Oogie Wa Wa‘ by Archie Gottler, Grant Clarke & Edgar Leslie, published by Mack Stark & Rubey Cowan (New York 1922). Cover illustration by Rosenbaum.

After the release of the film, Margaret Young introduced the humorous song Oogie Oogie Wa Wa in vaudeville, a song with the usual double entendre. Quickly the song became one of the popular tunes of the day and was translated in French as Amoureuse de Nanouck. It was one of Al Jolson’s greatest hits. At one point it was banned from being played at local music pavilions until it had been analysed by the Morals Committee.

Girls like simple things,
Beads and ten cent rings,
They kiss you for a chocolate drop,
Imagine if a fellow had a candy shop…

Around the same time, Salabert published the song South Sea Moon. I don’t know what got into Roger de Valerio when he illustrated the cover for this song with a couple of Inuit resembling Nanook and one of his ‘wives’. One normally associates the South Sea with tropical Islands and blue lagoons.

South Sea Moon‘ by Louis A. Hirsh, Gene Buck & Dave Stamper, published by Salabert (Paris, 1922) and illustrated by Roger de Valerio.

Maybe he confused it with the Southern Ocean? But then again, in his drawing de Valerio combined penguins (living in the Antarctic region) with the happy-looking Inuit couple (living in the Arctic).

Still from the mockumentary ‘Qallunaat: Why White People are Funny’.

In the mockumentary ‘Qallunaat: Why White People are Funny’ a man from the Book Correction Division is crossing out with a marker all the penguins in drawings where they are pictured together with polar bears. The film is written from the Inuit perspective on the oddities of Qallunaat, the Inuit word for white people.
Quite Humoreskimo!

Humoreskimo‘ by Alfred Bryan, Pete Wendling & Henri Berchman. Published by Sam Fox (1928, Paris), unknown illustrator.

I have to end this post with one of my favourite songs from the seventies: Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow by Frank Zappa, about a man who dreams that he was an Eskimo named Nanook.

And my momma cried:
Boo-a-hoo hoo-ooo
And my momma cried:
Nanook-a, no no (no no . . . )
Nanook-a, no no (no no . . . )
Don’t be a naughty Eskimo-wo-oh
(Bop-bop ta-da-da bop-bop Ta-da-da)

An’ she said
(Bop-bop ta-da-da bop . . . )
With a tear in her eye:
Watch out where the huskies go
An’ don’t you eat that yellow snow

Even damnation is poisoned with rainbows (Leonard Cohen)

valerio-regenboog
Where’s that rainbow‘ by Richard Rogers & Lorenz Hart, published by Salabert (Paris, 1928). Illustration attributed to Roger de Valerio.

The song Where’s that Rainbow was originally written in 1928. Much later it was sung in the film Words and Music, a fictionalized story about the songwriting duo Rodgers and Lorenz. In this clip of the 1948 film, it is not the song but the rainbow-coloured petticoats that steal my attention!

Chasing rainbows in our collection, I found these two similarly inventive illustrations. The right one is by Würth for There’s a Rainbow round my Shoulder (1928). He may have been inspired by André de TaKacs‘ drawing of 1918 for the song I Found the End of the Rainbow.

regenbogen
Left: ‘I Found the End of the Rainbow‘ by Mears, Tierney & Mc Carthy, published by McCarthy & Fisher inc. (New York, 1918) and illustrated by André De TaKacs. Right: ‘There’s a Rainbow round my Shoulder‘ by Jolso, Rose & Dreyer, published by Francis-Day (Paris, 1928) and illustrated by Würth.

Another imaginative cover places the woman in a less glamorous role, although she seems content to knit her own fantasy.1

Celanese', by Howard Flynn and John P. Harrington
Celanese’, by Howard Flynn and John P. Harrington (The St. Giles Publishing Company, London, 1923). Illustration J. W.

All these rainbow images are but a preamble to share with you a gem of a short film by Len Lye.
In 1936 Lye, born in New Zealand, made an experimental film in England promoting a Post Office Savings Bank. It was called Rainbow Dance and ended with the words: “The Post Office Savings Bank puts a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for you. No deposit too small for the Post Office Savings Bank.” The film is an experiment with colour and rhythm. In it Lye uses abstract backgrounds, collage effects, live footage and direct-to-film animation effects. The psychedelic film starts with purple rain avant la lettre. Then we see a city dweller morphing into coloured asterisks, a musician, a hiker and a tennis player. When the tennis player makes a leap, he leaves behind a trace of colourful silhouettes like a futuristic painting.

Be patient please, we’ ll show the film at the end. But first this.

Copyright Doncaster Museum Service
Left: Rupert Doone, woodcut by Edward Wadsworth (1921). Right: Rupert Doone, by Nina Hamnett, Copyright Doncaster Museum.

The silhouetted dancer in Lye’s Rainbow Dance is Rupert Doone, a one-time lover of Jean Cocteau. While Doone whirled his moves before a white screen, a gramophone played Tony’s Wife, a wonderful rumba by Burton Lane. Lane would later compose the score for the musical Finian’s Rainbow: a story about an Irishman who has stolen a leprechaun’s pot of gold.

finians-rainbow
When I’m not near the girl I love‘ from Finian’s rainbow by Burton Lane and E. Y. Harburg, published by Chapell & C° (London, 1946) and illustrated by Don Freeman.

I’ll let you decide what to think of Francis Ford Coppola’s attempt to turn the musical into a film. In the clip Tommy Steele plays an obnoxious leprechaun and Barbara Hancock a dancing nymph. It was filmed in 1968, but even then must have looked outdated.

And now the long-promised Rainbow Dance, the phantasmagorical 1936 film by Len Lye. Feast your eyes !


  1. Actually the lady is knitting with celanese, a combination of ‘cellulose acetate’ and ‘ease of care’, referring to the easy wear of acetate fabrics, as promoted by the chemical company Celanese.

Oh! Asta, you hot thing!

'Oh! Asta!',
‘Oh! Asta!’, by Herre De Vos, published by De Nieuwe Muziekhandel (Amsterdam, 1917) and illustrated by H. Meyn.

Asta Nielsen is the first actress who became an international star. It’s true. The Deutsches Filminstitut hosted the 2011 conference Importing Asta Nielsen – Cinema-going and the Making of the Star System in the Early 1910s, at the Film Museum in Frankfurt. A result of this international gathering is the Importing Asta Nielsen Database accessible for cultural researchers all over the world.

Photographic portrait of Asta Nielsen, s.d.
Portrait of Asta Nielsen (German postcard, s.d.).

According to this database ‘Asta Nielsen was the first international film star who made her name a brand, nearly unrivalled in many countries in the years 1911 and 1912’.

The sheet music cover we started with (Oh! Asta!) is from 1917. It tells, no it sings about a young man who –in the darkness of a cinema– falls for the wild charms of Asta. And who wouldn’t? Look at how charming and natural Asta is in the 30-seconds opening scene of the 1910 silent film The Abyss (Afgrunden in Danish) filmed by Urban Gad, who she would marry two years later.

Nielsen was born in 1881 in Copenhagen. At eighteen she followed classes at the Royal Danish Theatre and… got pregnant. She gave birth to a daughter, Jesta, who would in the 1960’s, when her mother was already 83 years old, commit suicide. Asta Nielsen never revealed the identity of the father. She graduated when she was twenty-two, and became a stage actress in Denmark, Norway and Sweden. In 1909 she started her film career with ‘Afgrunden’, in which she wisely adapted her acting to the demands of the film media: she performed naturally and avoided theatrical dramatization.

But above all her undisguised and shameless sexuality must have propelled her films and her career. Oh my! She’s really hot in what must have been the first ‘Gaucho Dance’ in cinematography (it heralds the craze of the Argentine tango that would offend Europe right before WWI). Look how she wriggles in her tightly stretched dress. See her wiggling her hips and pushing her bottom against that poor cowboy. Please, stop the torture!

We have added the music of the great Martha Argerich playing the Danza Del Gaucho Matrero by the Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera. For the unedited, 37-minute silent movie Abgrunden, click here. While researching we found a different iconographic representation of the Gaucho dance, somewhat less erotic, uh…

Liebig chromo 'La danse des Gauchos'
‘La danse des Gauchos’ – Dans la République argentine, Liebig chromo, s.d. (source www.alamy.com).

The dancing Argentine cowboys and girls conquered the covers of many European sheet music. Here are two examples from our collection.

The Argentinian cowboys and girls conquered many sheet music covers.
Left: ‘El Gauchito’ by Emile Köhler, illustrated by Clérice frères (published by Librairie Hachette, Paris, 1915). Right: ‘Gaucha flor’ by Pedro Palau, unknown illustrator (published by Ildefonso Alier, Madrid, s.d.).

Asta Nielsen developed most of her film career in Germany until the mid-Thirties, when sound took over the silent era. The success of what was known as ‘Asta Nielsen films’ was immense, from Russia to the United States, where her films were heavily censored. Called the first international movie star, Nielsen earned a staggering salary. In 1925 she co-starred in the Pabst film Die freudlose Gasse with the next Scandinavian diva, Greta Garbo. Nielsen was portrayed on many film posters by artists (such as Ernst Deutsch-Dryden and Robert Leonard) who we also know as designers of sheet music covers.

Poster by Ernst Deutsch-Dryden
Poster by Ernst Deutsch-Dryden for the Asta Nielsen film ‘Komödianten’ (1913).
Poster illustrated by Leonard
Poster illustrated by Robert L. Leonard for the Asta Nielsen film ‘Hamlet’ (1921).

In 1935 Nielsen returned to Denmark where she continued acting on stage, wrote her biography, had a creative hand in visual arts, and travelled a lot with her third husband. She died in 1972.

Oh, Asta! You’re still hot and beautiful.

Photo of Asta Nielsen in 1966.
Asta Nielsen in 1966 (photography Tage Nielsen-Scanpix).