The Eyes of the Totem

A still from "The Eyes of the Totem."

Lost for decades, a Tacoma silent film resurfaces.

Nearly a century ago entrepreneur Howard Weaver decided to challenge Hollywood and build his own cinematic dream factory in the Pacific Northwest. The resulting company, H.C. Weaver Productions, came to life in 1924 on a five-acre stretch of Tacoma that eventually became Titlow Beach. The studio cranked out three silent features before Weaver Productions collapsed in 1928, unable to keep up with the burgeoning technology of sound motion pictures. The three films, anachronisms in the era of the talkie, vanished and were presumed irretrievably lost—until now.

Eyes of the Totem, an action-packed 1927 melodrama about a family’s fateful adventures in Tacoma after they leave their Alaskan Gold Rush claim, re-premieres at Tacoma’s historic Rialto Theater Sept. 18. It’s taken 88 years to get this second Weaver Productions effort back on a big screen, and City of Tacoma Historic Preservation Coordinator Lauren Hoogkamer says there was little hope that it would turn up at all.

“I’d heard about the films, and I specifically wanted to bring one of them back for a film series,” Hoogkamer says. “So I began researching the three Weaver movies. There was a rumor that [Eyes of the Totem] might be at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. But no one had ever been able to access it, find it, or get a confirmation that it was even there.”

Hoogkamer ultimately hit pay dirt at MoMA by shifting her focus away from the film’s producer. H.C. Weaver, she says, “was kind of forgotten when his studio closed down. There were no archives for him and no one kept any of his films.”

Totem director W.S. Van Dyke, an Oscar nominee who directed 90 features before his death in 1943, proved a more promising lead. “I found out that Van Dyke left MoMA his artifacts, so I emailed them to ask exactly what he’d left,” Hoogkamer says. “They said that along with his papers, he’d left a full five-reel print of Eyes of the Totem, on the original nitrate film stock.” Tacoma historian Michael Sullivan facilitated MoMA’s HD transfer of the unrestored film.

Hoogkamer, Sullivan and the working collective known as Team Totem then screened the copy privately to assess its condition. Expectations were low given nitrate film stock’s renowned propensity to disintegrate, but the team was blown away by the quality of what they viewed. “It was all there except for the end credits,” Hoogkamer says. “It’s rare to find a movie from this era, not made in California, in mint condition. With this [transfer], you could see license plate numbers on cars and make out signs in the background. It was pristine.”

With its exteriors shot around Annie Wright School, the Winthrop Hotel, Union Station and numerous other familiar locales, Eyes of the Totem is an invaluable document of early 20th century Tacoma. But the icing on the cake, Hoogkamer says, is that the movie still genuinely entertains. “For the ’20s, it’s an amazing film in terms of the camera angles, the shots and the story,” she says. “It’s also progressive in that it’s sort of a feminist story. The lead is a woman, and it’s mostly about her, which is pretty rare for the time.”

A successful Kickstarter campaign, bolstered by additional help from the Tacoma Historical Society, financed a new score by local composer John Christopher Bayman, new credits, correction of the film’s projection speed and a host of events around the re-premiere, including a speakeasy party and several lectures. Another vintage Tacoma movie house, the Blue Mouse, will also screen Eyes of the Totem in October, and a DVD release could come further down the line.

Hoogkamer hopes all of the regional attention may lead to unearthing the other two films. Weaver Productions’ debut feature Hearts and Fists, a 1926 drama set in a lumber camp, is still considered lost, but rumors persist that the Tacoma studio’s final release, 1928’s Heart of the Yukon, may still be preserved somewhere.

“There are some discussions online on film forums and blogs that say it might be owned by a private collector, but there’s never been any lead as to who or where,” she says. “We’re really hoping, with all this publicity, that someone will come forth and say, “‘Hey, I have this!’”