Dawson City Resurrects Silent Hollywood

Dawson City: Frozen Time  (2017)
Directed by Bill Morrison
Kino Lorber, 120 minutes, Not-rated.

What happens to a movie when its theater run is over? In our time it lives on in various other media and places: TV, Netflix, DVDs, YouTube, Redbox, film archives, libraries…. Movies are endlessly replicated, which is why the same film can open on a thousand screens the same weekend.

It was not always this way. In the early days of movies–especially the silent era–only a limited number of prints were made. Theaters had to wait their turn and hope that the print wasn’t damaged when it finally arrived. Or worse. Until the 1950s most movies were printed on highly flammable nitrate stock. Hundreds of early films disappeared because they went up in smoke. “Lucky” was defined as a nitrate fire that didn’t also take the projector and the theater with it. Hundreds (if not thousands) of films met an even less glorious end: They were simply tossed away.

This was especially true of the silent era. The Library of Congress reckons that as many as 90% of all silent films disappeared–more than 3,500 in all. It makes some sense. Movies were originally a novelty, technology was rudimentary, and filmmaking was not considered an art. This is to say that very few people were thinking about “film history.” When a “program” of silent movies–many were just a few minutes long–reached the end of the distribution line, very few studios cared what happened to them. For a time, Dawson City in the Canadian Yukon was a film’s last stop. Dawson City: Frozen Time tells the improbable story of how 533 previously lost films were unearthed from the permafrost in 1978, when the foundations of an old indoor swimming pool/hockey rink were excavated.

Have you heard of the Klondike Gold Rush? It’s the reason so many films were shipped to Dawson. Today Dawson has just 1,375 residents and there are fewer than 36,000 in the entire of the Yukon Territory. In 1896, gold was discovered in Bonanza Creek, near where it dumps into the Yukon River. Only a smattering of whites and members of the Tr’ocdëk Hwëch’in First Nations* people lived in the area at the time, but gold caused the town of Dawson to spring up overnight. Some 100,000 prospectors lit out for the Yukon, which was not easy to do in those days. (One took a boat to Skagway, Alaska, and then trudged the next 440 miles to Dawson. It would be decades before Dawson had air service.) By 1897, Dawson was temporarily home to more than 40,000 residents–mostly men and prostitutes.

Eric Hegg
Director Bill Morrison makes liberal use of Eric Hegg’s photos of the gold rush era and it doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to conclude that most of those with gold fever were going to meet with disappointment (or worse). As the film puts it–in a text panel–several entrepreneurs figured out it was more profitable to “mine the miners.” Among them was one Fred Trump, whose gambling hall and house of ill repute was the basis of the family fortune. More respectably, movie houses also separated miners from their gold dust. 

As you might surmise, films had to travel the same rugged route to Dawson as the miners. Studios wanted rental fees wired to them, but they had no use for movies that played out their circuit. Hundreds of cannisters of film piled up in Dawson theater basements and wherever else storage could be secured: the library basement, for instance, or underneath the recreation hall. When there were too many films, some were ceremoniously burned for a cheap thrill and others were unceremoniously tossed into the Yukon River. None at all would have seen the light were it not for the few souls that set aside the cache discovered in 1978. That trove is a bonanza in its own right. We see snippets of various films, some of which are in bad shape and need painstaking restoration. It remains, though, a miracle that anything survived. These 533 films have written new chapters of the film history that few considered important in film’s infancy. 

In 1899, the Klondike gold fever subsided. Dawson shrunk as quickly as it grew–instant boom, instant backwater. Dawson City: Frozen Time has a great tale to tell, but its rewards demand patience. Morrison opts for a near-silent method of revelation: stills, silent movie clips, stock footage, and intertitles. On one level this echoes and honors the silent movies that are one of the film’s two major themes–Dawson City’s history is the other–but on the other, parts of the film are akin to opening random boxes found in an old attic. That is to say, the documentary is, at turns, exhilarating and prosaic. I admired Morrison’s moxie of making a (mostly) silent film about silent films, but I wondered if a more conventional documentary would have been more effective.

Still, if you are a film buff, Dawson City is a must-see. The flickering fragments of long-forgotten actors on the screen is a form of resurrection. These grainy, time-damaged images are both a window on the past and a lament for what remains lost. Who could have imagined that Hollywood’s past would be scavenged from the Yukon permafrost?

Rob Weir    

* Canada uses the term First Nations people as those in the US might use Native Americans. The Canadian term avoids many 'authenticity' debates and acknowledges the cultural multiplicity of pre-European contact peoples.

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