In honor of Admiral Peary’s birthday, today we pay tribute to several classic comedies set in or near the Arctic Circle. Shame on you if you don’t know who Robert Peary (1856-1920) was. Peary was the explorer who claimed to have reached the North Pole in 1909. For 8 decades he was widely believed to have been the first to reach that coveted destination. His primacy was debunked in 1989 through a careful study of his logbooks. Today, the credit for “first to the North Pole” is widely believed to belong to Roald Amundsen, who reached it in 1926. Yes, he is the same guy who was the first to reach the SOUTH pole in 1911. Glory hog! Anyway, Amundsen was Norwegian and Peary was American. We understandably enjoyed having the distinction for awhile. At any rate, the frigid regions captured the public’s imagination for a number of years. Here are some of those cool (nay, freezing) comedies. Just follow the links to learn more.
The Soilers (1923) Stan Laurel
In the years prior to his team-up with Oliver Hardy, Stan Laurel was particularly given to parodies of famous movies. The Soilers was his send-up of the perennially remade The Spoilers, an Alaskan Gold Rush story. This one features his common-law wife Mae Laurel as well as Laurel’s frequent foil James Finlayson. Like many of the films on this page, it is available on Youtube.
Yukon Jake (1924) Ben Turpin
A hilarious Ben Turpin comedy, directed by Del Lord, who was ater responsible for many a Three Stooges short, this movie goes right for the funny bone, making full use of the comedy potential of Turpin’s famous cock-eye, western genre conventions, fur hats, snow, and bears. Yukon Jake made have also influenced the W.C. Fields short The Fatal Glass of Beer, which repeats the gag of having a tiny sled dog dangling from its traces.
Commentators usually write about Chaplin’s masterpiece The Gold Rush (1925) as though it had happened in a vacuum, his inspiration coming primarily from stereopticon slides he saw of Alaskan prospectors. But I frankly find it difficult to believe that he was unaware of the three movies mentioned, all by major comedians, listed above. At all events, this is one of my favorite movies — my first silent comedy, and pretty life changing for me. My full tribute to The Gold Rush is here
A favorite among Fields fans, which gave us the immortal line “T’aint a fit night for man nor beast!” this parody of Northwest melodramas is an adaptation of a comedy sketch which the Great Man had performed in Broaday revues. Read my full tribute here
This is one of of favorite and very best Mae West comedies, in which the wayward woman is forced to disguise herself as a Holy Roller and convert the wild hellions of the frozen north. More on this classic is here
Road to Utopia (1946) Hope and Crosby
Lost in Alaska (1952) Abbott and Costello
Abbott and Costello’s period piece set against the Alaskan gold rush is one of their few movies with a halfway decent plot, and it features several other well known stars: Mitzi Green, Tom Ewell, Bruce Cabot, and Iron Eyes Cody.
North to Alaska (1960) Ernie Kovacs & Co.
I fudge a little by privileging Kovacs here; he was actually third in the billing behind John Wayne and Stewart Granger. The ensemble also has no less than two one-name actors: Fabian and Capucine. But it is a comedy nonetheless, if not a precisely hilarious one, and it is a joy to see Kovacs get to stretch his legs as a con man in the boom town of Nome.
For more on classic film comedy, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube