BluRay/DVD Reviews

DAWSON CITY: FROZEN TIME

By • Jul 5th, 2017 •

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It’s not unusual for cinema to mine itself as a subject. There have been wonderful movies about movies, from Keaton’s THE CAMERAMAN to Altman’s THE PLAYER. However, Bill Morrison’s documentary DAWSON CITY: FROZEN TIME takes this more literally than others. It is genuinely about movies dug out of the ground. In 1978, an excavation in Dawson City, Canada, unearthed a trove of silent films that had been buried for half a century.

Dawson City, up toward the Arctic Circle, in the Yukon, displacing the ousted native aboriginal tribe, was suddenly in the spotlight with the discovery of gold in 1896. The ensuing Klondike Gold Rush triggered a stampede of prospectors flooding in, hoping to strike it rich, the population of under 1,000 spiking to 40,000. The stampeders struggled laboriously up through the icy winter snow, each man required by law to carry 2,000 pounds of supplies. Of the 100,000 who set out, 70,000 perished or abandoned the quest. But then the adventure began in earnest.

The heyday of the gold rush itself was brief, a “twelve-month fever dream.” In one year, more than a billion dollars worth of gold was shipped out. After the Dawson City frenzy petered out by the turn of the 20th century, the population declined, but some of the newcomers not only stayed but sent for their families. Saloons and whorehouses gradually gave way to a library and a movie theater.

Like everywhere else, movies were widely popular, even though the new releases could take years to reach Dawson City. But once there, the films stayed. As far as the studios were concerned, the movies were disposable. Dawson City was the last stop on the distribution circuit, and the studios didn’t want to pay to have the movies shipped back. So the town started storing them in the empty remains of a burnt-out library building, hundreds of films, both features and newsreels. The town moved on, and the movie stash was disregarded. Some were jettisoned into the Yukon River, some were consigned to a bonfire (the silver nitrate films had already proved to be highly flammable), and some were dumped as landfill in an abandoned indoor swimming pool.

It wasn’t until 1978, during an excavation in preparation for a new building, that workers noticed remnants of film and film cans poking out of the ground, preserved in the permafrost. Prudently, work was halted until an expert could come in for a closer look. And the silver nitrate film was excavated from the ground as gold ore had been in the past.

Luckily, among the early adventurers was the young photographer Eric Hegg, on hand to catch it all, chronicling not only the prospectors, but everything that sprang up in their wake–saloons, casinos, real estate speculators–to “mine the miners,” as director Morrison has said. The images of the Gold Rush years document all the activity–the men piled onto the incoming ships, crowding into the small town, but soon displaced by massive corporate machinery. Some familiar names appear as people arrived in the hopes of making their fortunes: Alex Pantages, who later presided over a movie palace empire; Sid Grauman, now most associated with the famous Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood; Fred Trump, who opened a brothel, the source of the family fortune.

Bill Morrison, perhaps best known for his 2002 film DECASIA, also focusing on silent film, was intrigued when he first heard about the Dawson City cache while still a student in art school. The documentary shows this whole chronology, with the archival stills and newsreel footage, interspersed with informal home movies and snippets of the silents themselves.

The trove of lost silents is riveting. The titles are unfamiliar, but vivid: POLLY OF THE CIRCUS, A SOUL FOR SALE, THE SILVER GIRL, GLORIANA, THE EXQUISITE THIEF, CHICKEN CASEY, IF MY COUNTRY SHOULD CALL, THE UNPAARDOABLE SIN. (Frustratingly, however, none of the participants is identified.) The newsreels include, for instance, the 1917 silent ‘Parade for civil rights’ and the ‘1919 World Series’, which caused a considerable stir among baseball historians.

It presents an overview of the march of time: The indigenous tribe giving way to the settlers, the rough frontier town giving way to the respectable middle class, the adventurous individual prospectors giving way to the corporate overlords — and the silents which will be giving way to the talkies. It’s a wonderful pairing of the unadorned vintage footage and the hidden cinematic art of the time, a tantalizing window into the past.

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