On June 10, 1927, the silent film Eyes of the Totem premiers at the Broadway Theater in Tacoma, the city where the film was made by H. C. Weaver Productions. It is the second feature film made by the production company, which at the time operates one of the largest studios in the United States, located near Titlow Beach on the Tacoma Narrows. Directed by W. S. Van Dyke (1889-1943), who will soon go on to Hollywood fame, Eyes of the Totem follows the struggles of a young woman -- Miriam, played by popular silent-film star Wanda Hawley (1895-1963) -- who with her husband and infant daughter leaves the frozen Klondike with a small fortune, headed for Tacoma.
Charlie Chaplin's 1925 film The Gold Rush was just that -- the story of a prospector searching for gold in the Klondike became the largest-grossing silent comedy in film history. Washington was much closer to the Klondike than Hollywood was -- the state had been the primary jumping-off point for prospectors headed to the Klondike in the 1890s, greatly boosting the local economy -- and it made perfect sense to H. C. Weaver, a young man with slender ties to D. W. Griffith who also hoped to make movies featuring the frozen north, to build his own movie studio there and begin producing major motion pictures. Weaver incorporated his company in Seattle but soon moved south to Tacoma in Pierce County, where local investors like Chester Thorne, William Rust, and James Ashton helped assemble the finances and real estate needed to launch the enterprise.
In a grand quixotic venture, Weaver in 1924 developed a massive studio complex on five acres near Titlow Beach, not far from where the Tacoma Narrows Bridge would be built in 1940. He constructed a colony of Hollywood-style bungalows around a central 105-by-180-foot studio building and started making major movies with big-name casts and elaborate sets and location shoots. Between 1925 and 1928 H. C. Weaver Productions made three feature-length films -- Hearts and Fists, Eyes of the Totem, and Heart of the Yukon -- all of which used Tacoma and Mount Rainier as backdrops for location shots.
The most ambitious and mysterious of the films was Eyes of the Totem, which featured 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 films before finding fame in Hollywood and directing the Thin Man series, based on the novel by one-time Tacoma resident and detective novelist Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961).
Rediscovered and Restored
Unfortunately for the little Hollywood on the Tacoma Narrows, technology and timing was not on its side even if cinematic drama was. The advent of sound movies crushed the market for silent films and Weaver Productions folded in 1928. The massive studio building became a dance hall during the Depression and then burned in a spectacular fire on August 24, 1932.
The story of Weaver Productions is told in a rich collection of period photographs and papers at the Tacoma Public Library's Northwest Room left by Gaston Lance (1877-1964), the studio's art director and later a local architect. Until recently no film from Weaver Studios was known to exist but then, in 2014, a complete copy of Eyes of the Totem was found among W. S. Van Dyke's papers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The film was restored with a newly composed score and as of 2017 was being shown in film festivals and art houses around the world.