2021 Bear Expedition

BEAR in Cinema: The Brief Film Career of U.S. Revenue Cutter Bear

By Brad Barr, Mission Coordinator, NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, Maritime Heritage Program

“All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close up”

—Sunset Boulevard, 1950

There is little doubt that throughout the long and meritorious service of U.S. Revenue Cutter Bear, it lived many lives. Originally built in 1874 as a sealer, Bear later became the representative of the U.S. government in the remote Alaskan Arctic, saving lives, enforcing the law of the land, and famously transporting reindeer from Siberia to provide Native Alaskans with the opportunity to engage in their husbandry (which continues today). She protected merchant ships carrying supplies to the Allies in World War I and World War II, capturing a German Spy ship off the East Coast in the second World War, significantly contributing to the American war efforts. The still sturdy and reliable Bear was also a ship of exploration, supporting Admiral Richard E. Byrd’s second Antarctic Expedition. For brief periods of time, she returned to service in the merchant fleet, became a museum ship in Oakland, California, and was intended to return to sealing after she was decommissioned in 1944 and sold to a new Canadian owner. She was destined to yet again become a museum ship and restaurant in Philadelphia in the early 1960s when she was lost at sea on a last fateful voyage.

One of the more colorful lives of Bear, however, was her brief service as a “movie star.” The use of the ship (at the time re-named Bear of Oakland) as an at-sea film location for the 1930 adaptation of the Jack London novel, The Sea Wolf, was, at best, fleeting stardom, but a notable chapter in the long history of the ship.

While conducting archival research on Bear’s rich history, and particularly with the intent to assemble historic images of the ship to inform and support the definitive identification of the “unidentified wreck” as the goal of this mission, we dug deep into the ship’s history and discovered that it was extensively photographed. This is even more remarkable considering that most of its service was in the late 19th to mid 20th centuries, when photography was considerably more challenging, especially in the remote and hostile environments where Bear served.

Using cameras that were large, heavy, and required specialized technical skills to successfully operate, working from the polar ice pack and on small boats to capture images of Bear must have been a daunting task. As our archival research progressed, the use of Bear as a film location was discovered, and this piqued our interest. Having film of the ship at sea might offer additional information that could be useful in our current efforts to identify the wreck, and so Hollywood beckoned.

The Sea Wolf

Classic cinema is being more routinely preserved and restored using advanced digital technology to make old films once again available to the public. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York is one such archive where these restorations are being done. A few years ago, MoMA fortuitously (for us) was engaged by Fox/Disney, the company who owns the rights to the 1930 adaptation of The Sea Wolf, to restore this classic film. While not as famous as the 1941 Warner Brothers adaptation, which was directed by Michael Curtiz and starred Edward G. Robinson, Ida Lupino, and John Garfield (all “A-list” actors of the period), the 1930 adaptation was somewhat significant in film history as the last movie of noted Hollywood film director Alfred Santell, who died four days before the film was released.

The Sea Wolf 1930 production was considered a “technical tour-de-force” in the use of “Fox’s far superior” (as compared with other filming technology being used during this period…the 1941 adaptation was shot on sound stages and using miniatures to simulate the at-sea action) “sound-on-film Movietone system.” This technology “allowed filmmakers to explore difficult locations with an amazing freedom of camera movement” with “extensive dialogue sequences recorded in the open air aboard a ship at sea ”.

When we contacted MoMA, and through them Fox/Disney, to see if we could obtain access to the film — which is otherwise unavailable — we were thrilled to learn that Fox/Disney would indeed provide us with a digitized “screening version” for our research. We are exceedingly grateful to MoMa and Fox/Disney for their generosity and were given the opportunity to review the restored film.

Lobby card for The Sea Wolf (1930), with Bear of Oakland in the
                                            background of the tilted inset picture

Lobby card for The Sea Wolf (1930), with Bear of Oakland in the background of the tilted inset picture. Image from IMDB.com . Download image (jpg, 164 KB).

Unfortunately (for us), the Bear of Oakland scenes in the film occurred, consistent with the plotline of the story, at night and in fog. Being used as a stand-in not for the ship (“Ghost”) where most of the action takes place during the film, but the “Macedonia,” another ship mentioned in the story, Bear was seen, surrounded by night and fog, occasionally in just around 14 minutes of the film, which had a runtime of 1 hour and 31 minutes.

Even with MoMA’s exceptional 4K restoration, the images of Bear were not sufficient in detail to provide diagnostic features useful in our attempts to identify the wreck we have located. While we had high hopes for something that would advance our knowledge of Bear’s construction and layout, Fox’s Movietone system was just too effective at simulating vessels operating on the water at night and in fog.

Discovery Documentary

Our trip to Hollywood in our search for Bear was not entirely fruitless, however. Further digging into the film archives yielded another very interesting star turn for Bear. In 1947, Admiral Richard Byrd spearheaded the production of a documentary called Discovery, telling the story of his second Antarctic expedition.

The American Film Institute’s (AFI) Catalog  describes this documentary as a “travelogue.” Produced by notable Hollywood movie industry icons Joseph E. Levine and James R. Irwin, the documentary was a combination of both archival footage taken during Byrd’s expedition and “Hollywood-style” reenactments of scenes that were considered important to telling the story but were not originally filmed on location. While Discovery was not the first film to rely on staged reenactments (interestingly, that was another polar-focused film, Nanook of the North, from 1922), it is a period example of the use of this technique, which has been quite commonly employed, albeit with considerable criticism, throughout the years in filming documentaries.

The restored 1947 documentary of Byrd’s expedition, which included a refitted Bear of Oakland as one of the support ships, is available on YouTube (Part 1  and Part 2 ) and is worth watching both for the many images of Bear and its significant role in this historic expedition, as well as for, more generally, interesting archival footage of this very important Antarctic exploration. While Bear of Oakland was not the primary ship used during the expedition, it is featured in many scenes, and excellent images have been captured providing details of the vessel’s deck configuration and hull construction at this time in its service, just a few years before decommissioning by the U.S. Navy in 1944.

While some questioned the age and state of repair of Bear when it was selected for this mission to the Antarctic, Byrd often spoke highly of the ship before, during, and after they returned, and referred in the documentary to the ship as his “icebreaker.” The documentary highlights her many contributions to the success of the expedition, including the discovery of a new route through the ice-choked waters of the Ross Sea. After the expedition, Byrd offered this enthusiastic observation about Bear and her capacity for operating in the ice:

“There was a joy and spirit to the Bear’s attack…she was built for the ice…ice was her meat. She could lower head and bore in. Therein lay the merit of the honorable and ancient Bear of Oakland.” (P. 96, Burroughs 1970)

A Trip to the Arctic with Uncle Sam

Going back a bit farther, Bear, while not really being more of a platform for filming and a “bit player,” was used to film the 1921 silent black-and-white documentary, A Trip to the Arctic with Uncle Sam, produced for the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. The film is available online .

While the images of the ship are limited to the bowsprit as seen from the crow’s nest and some onboard deck and exterior cabin shots of Chukchi visitors to the ship during a port call in Siberia, the film contains many scenes of Native Alaskans in a number of villages around the Arctic Coast of Alaska where Bear served as the representative of the U.S. government. These scenes include filming of what appears to be the whalers’ lifesaving station (which is still there) built by Charles Brower in the late 1800s and his compound of buildings in the “Browerville” section of Barrow (now officially “Utqiagvik,” its Inupiaq name).

The film does not appear to have been restored, and the images are recognizable for what they are intended to portray, but occasionally appear to be affected by what is likely the deterioration of the print from which it was digitized and the digitization process itself. Like many silent films of the period, the scenes are preceded by what are called “title cards” or “intertitles,” which explain the action that followed. Similar to the later and more skillfully filmed Discovery (presumably using more sophisticated cameras and filming techniques), A Trip to the Arctic with Uncle Sam is a “travelogue” of the Arctic travels of Bear and the people and wildlife it encountered from another of its many lives.

Byrd 1933

In 2015, the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center at Ohio State University released Byrd 1933, another re-telling of the story of Byrd’s second Antarctic Expedition. This film used some of the same footage shot by the Paramount Studio cameramen who accompanied the expedition that was also shown in Byrd’s documentary Discovery. Byrd 1933, however, delves considerably deeper into the activities of the expedition on land, while the team was over-wintering at “Little America,” and when Byrd was occupying, by himself, the advance base further inland. The film also focused on the extensive use of aircraft during the expedition to conduct the exploration and mapping of a large area of the continent from the Ross Sea coast inland toward the South Pole.

Excellently restored with funding from the National Film Preservation Foundation, Byrd 1933 presents many useful (for us) images of Bear of Oakland, including closeups of distinctive hull and deck features. Largely silent, but employing the recorded voice of Admiral Byrd during his many lectures and presentations about experiences during the expedition, the film captures the full story in an engaging way using this restored footage and occasional explanatory notations to provide context for the activities shown.

Yet another restored film highlighting the exploits of Bear to add to its “filmography,” additional information is available about the film from the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center  at Ohio State University and from an entry on IMDB .

Iconic Figurehead

One fascinating example of what can be learned from such documentaries is clarifying the situation with the iconic figurehead. During the Byrd expedition, Bear of Oakland still had its original figurehead. While only briefly, this can be seen in some of the images of Bear in the documentary. In later photographs of the ship, the figurehead is quite different and far less elegant. Apparently, Admiral Byrd had it removed it from Bear after the expedition, which has been confirmed in the accession records of the Mariners’ Museum and Park in Newport News, Virginia, where it is currently on display. The entry in the museum’s catalog  regarding the original figurehead states: “Upon return from his Second Antarctic Expedition, Admiral Byrd had the Bear of Oakland stripped, and donated some of her ornamental work to The Mariners' Museum, including this figurehead, which is thought to be the original.”

It remains something of a mystery as to the origin of the replacement figurehead and when it was attached to the prow, but most likely it was sometime between the decommissioning in 1944 (when Bear was stripped of nearly anything of value) and the 1960s, when the first photograph was taken in Nova Scotia that shows a figurehead back in place. Also somewhat uncertain, at this writing, is whether the replacement figurehead was on the ship when it was lost at sea in 1963. From photographs taken during the sinking, it appears to have still been there, but the images are not detailed enough to confirm this.

Location of figurehead, under bowsprint/jib-boom. Vaguely suggests somewhat irregular outline from legs and head (?) of carving. Download image (jpg, 102 KB).

Without doubt, this is a potential “diagnostic feature” that would offer some important and compelling evidence — and perhaps certainty — about the identity of the “unidentified wreck” if it shows up in the underwater video collected on this mission. Bearr’s history would have been extraordinarily compelling even if it had not appeared in any movies, but the experience adds richness to the story of the ship and its many lives during its long and meritorious service. Bear’s Hollywood star shone dimly for only a few brief moments, but even there, it became part of history.


Burroughs, P. (1970) The Great Ice Ship Bear: Eighty-Nine Years in Polar Seas. Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., New York, NY.