Charlie Chaplin’s 1925 film the Gold Rush was just that,
becoming the largest grossing silent comedy in film history. Since Tacoma was closer to the Klondike than Hollywood it made perfect sense to H.C. Weaver to build his own movie studio and begin producing major motion pictures in Tacoma. In a grand quixotic venture he built a massive studio on five acres near Titlow Beach (second in size only to the main stages at MGM), constructed a village of Hollywood style bungalows for his film colony and started making major movies with big name casts and elaborate sets and location shoots.
Between 1925 and 1928 H.C. Weaver Productions made at least three major films, all of which used Tacoma as a backdrop for location shots and none of which were thought to survive today. Maybe the most ambitious and mysterious of the films was “The Eyes of the Totem” which used the Tacoma Hotel totem pole as a namesake set device in its gothic story of Klondike gold, murder, seduction, and lurid villainy. The dashing young director of the film was W.S. Van Dyke who would complete two Weaver film before finding fame in Hollywood and directing The Thin Man written by former Tacoma resident Dashiell Hammett, but that’s a tangent for another time. Unfortunately for the little Hollywood built under the shadow of a short lived suspension bridge that was yet to be built, technology and timing were not on their side even if cinematic drama was. The advent of sound movies crushed the market for silent films and Weaver Productions folded. The massive studio building became a dance hall during the Depression and then burned in a spectacular fire on August 24, 1932. This story is told in a rich collection of period photographs at the Tacoma Public Library Northwest Room left by Gaston Lance, the studio’s art director and later local architect. Until recently no film was believed to exist from Weaver Studios and then, unexpectedly a complete copy of Eyes of the Totem was found with W.S. Van Dykes papers in New York.
This whole improbable story along with the events that followed here in Tacoma are the subject of a soon to be released documentary called Totem Tale, directed by Mick Flaaen and released by Mariposa Productions. As the 90th anniversary of the Eyes of the Totem release approaches both films, the silent and the retold versions will be shown downtown on June 9 & 10. Watch for details.