The arrival of the stars of “The Totem Pole Beggar” on March 5, 1926, was front page news in Tacoma.
A photo in the next day’s Tacoma Daily Ledger shows the stars of what was later renamed “Eyes of the Totem” arriving at Union Station along with producer H.C. Weaver and director Woody Van Dyke.
Actor Garrett Hughes is wearing knickers. The women are in fur coats.
They were driven to their lodging at the Winthrop Hotel on Broadway in Chrysler Imperial 80 five- and seven-passenger sedans.
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Van Dyke immediately began scouting locations for the film, quickly selecting Mount Rainier, or Mount Tacoma as The Ledger called it, to stand in for the film’s opening sequence, set in the Yukon.
The newspaper also reported that on the Rainier visit he visited the Ashford home of his father-in-law, just outside the park’s entrance, to “renew old acquaintances.”
Records show Van Dyke married Zina Ashford, the daughter of the town’s founder and namesake, Walter Ashford, on June 16, 1909, in Pierce County. 1910 U.S. federal census records show the young couple were living with the Ashford family a year later.
Within a week of the actors’ arrival in 1926 filming was underway.
An elaborate Asian-themed jazz club was built at the Weaver Studios by art director Gaston Lance. Featured prominently in the club was an incense burner as tall as Lance.
The Tacoma Sunday Ledger noted many prominent Tacoma social and business leaders were extras in the film.
On March 19, the action moved to the 83-foot-tall totem pole next to the Tacoma Hotel. There, Hawley, in the title role, wears dark glasses, a shawl and holds a tin cup as she pretends to be blind.
The Ledger noted that most of Tacoma turned out to watch the filming.
“All those not working and some who should have been watch actors do their stuff at totem pole,” the paper reported.
While the interior scenes were shot in the Weaver studio many outdoor scenes were shot outside the Winthrop Hotel downtown, Thornewood Castle in what’s now Lakewood and around Tacoma.
By early April filming had wrapped and Weaver changed the name of the film to “Eyes of the Totem.”
“Totem” was released in 1927. In Tacoma it premiered at the Broadway Theater De Luxe in June.
The former vaudeville Tacoma Theater had just reopened as a movie theater in January in a celebration that Weaver Studios had provided lighting for. The theater, renamed the Music Box, burned in 1963 during a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.”
But before the official premiere of “Totem” in 1927, Weaver and his crew had held a secret screening of the film across the street at the Rialto Theater in 1926.
The Tacoma News Tribune reported on April 12, 1926, that the studio screened the film for “the powers that be.” It received the “heartiest praise from all who attended,” the paper reported, including the audience for the theater’s late show who had stuck around.
The story “Totem” tells is a classic melodrama, Gorbman said. The theatrical form evolved directly from 19th-century stage drama in which dialogue is light and the action and emotions are heavy.
“Its purpose is to wring the heartstrings of audience members to appeal to their emotions to the maximum degree,” she said. The stories seldom are complicated and usually involve a heroine in danger, a hero to the rescue and a nefarious villain.
Other aspects include hard-to-believe plots, swift reversals of characters’ fortunes and mistaken identity.
“They might be rich one minute and completely destitute because of some improbable thing that happens, Gorbman said. “There are preposterously impossible coincidences in the plot.
“A common feature is affliction. The main character might be cast into poverty, illness or living with a cruel relative, or widowed.”
“Totem” fits most of those plot points.
In the film, Hawley’s character and her husband are living in a small Yukon cabin with their young daughter. Inside the cabin the husband announces he’s sold his mining claim and they will soon move south to the promised land.
Just then Hawley’s character sees a pair of evil eyes watching them through a window and she faints. Later, when their ship lands in Tacoma, the villain returns, murders the husband and steals the couple’s money.
Again, Hawley sees only the villain’s eyes.
Hawley, now a penniless widow, is taken in by a misfit gang that run various scams.
Masquerading as the blind totem pole beggar, Hawley collects enough money to put her daughter through school (Annie Wright School provided the outdoor set). When she’s not begging, Hawley leads a double life as a high-society woman.
She also continually looks for her husband’s killer who, unbeknownst to her, runs the Golden Dragon Club, the Asian-themed speakeasy inside the Winthrop Hotel.
The killer has ungentlemanly intents for Hawley’s daughter. Hawley must reunite with and save her daughter and nab her husband’s killer.