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The polar bear logo

The hunt for the polar bear

An extract from 'The hunt for the polar bear', published in Film #8, 2000. By: Lisbeth Richter Larsen/DFI

He holds his head high and proud atop the globe. The Nordic countries take up a fair amount of space in the European 'half' of the world, and the word 'Copenhagen' stretches out like a belt across most of Central Europe. The name, 'Nordisk Films Kompagni' orbits the planet, written in bold, capital letters. The polar bear dominates, and his tracks lead in every conceivable direction. Ole Olsen made his mark with this legendary trademark from the very beginning. He was ambitious and had a keen business sense, and his film studio quickly grew beyond the confines of Valby Mose, throughout the world - making the trademark a necessity.

Rights and recognition value

In 1905-1906 cinema owner Ole Olsen acquired a recording apparatus from Pathé in Paris. Within a few months he had established an effective film factory. On September 15th, 1906, he showed a program in his cinema that consisted only of his own productions. Within a relatively short time his films were exported. The trademark had - and still has - two functions:

  1. 1) To legally protect company property
  2. 2) To help profile the company for those who watch films and those who buy them.

Copyright laws had little meaning at the start of the 20th century. Film copies were sold, and the buyer could treat them as he pleased, i.e. cut out the dialogue titles and replace them with his own! Yet although a trademark could not establish copyright or prevent illegal copying, it was very important in terms of recognition. The American film historian Richard Abel writes in his book 'The Red Rooster Scare' (1999) about the French studio Pathé's trademark: "...the Pathé red rooster travelled as a kind of super salesman, promoting the excellence and dependability of the company's films to countries anywhere in the world." Nordisk Film's productions were of an equally high standard, and the polar bear served as a guarantor of this standard.

The first polar bear

One might easily assume that the Nordisk Film trademark was based on the early film 'Isbjørnejagt' (The Polar Bear Hunt). The feature premiered on February 15th in 1907 and became a huge success, selling nearly 200 copies. But as film historian Marguerite Engberg points out in 'Dansk stumfilm, bd. 1' (Danish Silent Film, vol. 1), the bear also appears in 'Anarkistens svigermoder' (The Anarchist's Mother-in-law) from 1906, where a sign showing the painted trademark is seen casually placed up against the back wall of a set. Since only a few of the early films are preserved, there is no solid foundation upon which to establish whether this was an isolated incident or not - but this film sees the introduction of the trademark.

Letterhead featuring the trademark

Following in the footsteps of the bear through the archives at the Danish Film Institute, the trademark appears in a document in the Nordisk Film special collection: an original invoice, from 'Nordisk Films Kompagni' to 'Kinografen' on official stationery, dated April 16th, 1907. The paper is produced by Martius Truelsen's printing office in Copenhagen, and in one of the earliest files, there is a letter addressed to the printing office, in which Ole Olsen enquires as to the price "... of 5,000 sheets of notepaper with the enclosed alteration. Please respond by telephone tomorrow, Monday, as we are short of writing paper." The letter is dated January 12th, 1907. It is not clear whether a trademark appears on Nordisk Film's notepaper prior to this order, but the invoice was most likely printed on notepaper from the same order, including a letterhead featuring the trademark.

Nordisk Films Kompagni

The company name 'Nordisk Films Kompagni' appears for the first time in correspondence on September 25th, 1906, but the company is referred to as 'Nordisk Films Kompagni' earlier, on September 15th, in an article in the newspaper 'Dannebrog'. It's possible to work out that the company had already taken the name of Nordisk Films Kompagni on September 15th, 1906; that the idea for the trademark came before October 25th 1906, which is the date of the premiere of 'Anarkistens Svigermoder', and that the official trademark was drawn and printed prior to January 12th 1907, the date when a letterhead with the trademark was ordered from the printer Truelsen. In the spring and summer of 1907 the trademark appears in many contexts - accompanying film synopses and programs, imprinted on still photographs, etc. The polar bear quickly forged ahead, crossing one border after another. Not even the Atlantic was able to halt its progress. While establishing a New York affiliate in 1908, Nordisk Film promoted its trademark with prominent advertisements in the American trade magazine 'Moving Picture World'. The marketing strategy was aggressive, with slogans like "No expense frightens us," and "Don't let your competitors get ahead of you."

Patents on the trademark

As Nordisk Film was established as a world-wide film company, it became necessary to take out a patent on the trademark. A comprehensive registration of the trademark began back in Denmark. The registration publication, 'Registrerings-Tidende nr. 15', from 1909, reveals that Nordisk Films Kompagni registered its trademark on April 23rd, 1909, at 10:50 a.m., with effect from the 1st of May. A couple of years later this process is continued abroad. With either the 'International Patent Bureau' or 'Lehmann & Ree' acting as middleman, the trademark is registered and patented in the following countries: England, 1912; Spain, 1912; Germany, 1912; Canada, 1914; France, 1914; Italy, 1914; Russia, 1914; Switzerland, 1914; Sweden, 1914; Hungary, 1914; Austria, 1914; USA, 1914; Holland, 1915; Czechoslovakia, 1919; Poland, 1919; Belgium, 1920; Finland, 1920; Greece, 1920; India 1920; Romania, 1920; Turkey, 1920; Egypt, 1920; and Argentina, 1925. The years listed do not necessarily indicate the year of the trademark's introduction in each country. It had been in use for several years before being officially registered (in Denmark since 1907, USA since 1908).

The living trademark

Nordisk Films Kompagni also produced a living trademark for film premieres. A few stills in the Nordisk Film special collection show a live polar bear being filmed climbing atop a globe. The pictures are reproduced in Erik Nørgaard's book 'Levende billeder i Danmark' (Moving Pictures in Denmark) from 1971. Nørgaard claims the footage is made in 1909, but he offers no evidence upon which to base his supposition. It is therefore impossible to establish when the footage was shot, and when the living trademark was put into use. However, Nordisk Film's first photographer, Axel Graatkjær (Sørensen), was most likely the photographer. In two interviews ('Politiken' 6.15.1953 and 'Jyllands-Posten' 1.10.1960) he claimed that Nordisk Film received a prize for the polar bear trademark at the first international film festival in Hamburg in June, 1908. Although this statement could be an old man's lapse in memory, Nordisk Film did actually win a gold medal at this festival (possibly for The Polar Bear Hunt) as well as an honorary award in the form of a handsomely decorated silver trophy. These prizes appear in photographs in Ole Olsen's memoirs, "Filmens Eventyr og mit eget", written in 1940.