Striking Celluloid Gold in "Dawson City: Frozen Time"

| © Kino Lorber

The haunting documentary tells the story of the old mining town in the Yukon that yielded a motherlode of silent movies. It preserved them not with TLC, or even intentionally, but with mud and permafrost.

Written and directed by Bill Morrison, the avant-garde found-footage maestro behind Decasia (2002) and The Miners’ Hymns (2010), Dawson City: Frozen Time is a teeming collage of Klondike Gold Rush photos and silent film clips.

It’s also a paean to resurrection—and to the ghosts of thousands of dead people who have walked and emoted again thanks to the magic of film.

Director Bill Morrison

In 1978, a Dawson City alderman and Pentecostal minister called Frank Barrett was helping to break up the planked space behind Diamond Tooth Gertie’s casino for the building of a new recreation center when he unearthed a number of 35mm film cans and loose fragments of celluloid. Shot on nitrate stock, and thus dangerously flammable, these films had been used as landfill to level out an uneven ice rink.

Much of the story Morrison drolly tells is stitched together from the Dawson City finds, some of them phantasmically blotched with water damage. Old movie characters share the frames with ectoplasmic black and white stains. In some, such as Decasia, the rot is weirdly lovely.

Australian actress Louise Lovely in “The Social Buccaneer” (1916), one of the Dawson City “finds”

Sometimes Morrison uses scenes from films that were shown in Dawson City in the 1910s to comment on the town’s subsequent demise. A settlement with as full a complement of chancers and rogues as Deadwood (2004-06), it inspired Morrison to insert a bravura montage of movie clips showing various intriguers surreptitiously opening and shutting doors, spying or eavesdropping on their enemies.

The lust for wealth, perhaps mingled with adventure, was the universal ore. Eric Hegg famously photographed gold miners making their way in single file up the Chilkoot Pass, which crosses from British Columbia into Alaska.

Gold miners in the Chilkoot Pass during the Klondike Gold Rush

In one Hegg photo, the men are almost doubled by their 200 lb. (90kg) packs as they stand immobilized while climbing a 35-degree gradient. Morrison’s camera comes so microscopically close to them, you can almost see the strain on their faces as the wind bites. (Charlie Chaplin’s re-creation of the Chilkoot trek in 1925’s The Gold Rush was no less formidable for being filmed at an elevation of over 8,000 feet, or 2,440m, in Mount Lincoln’s Sugar Bowl, near Truckee, in the Sierra Nevada.)

Fewer than 1,500 people currently live in Dawson City, which sits close to the Alaska border. During the 1896-99 gold rush, the arrival of an estimated 100,000 ‘stampeders’ to the Klondike region had swelled Dawson’s population to 40,000. They included storekeepers, landlords, brothel keepers, and prostitutes—all there to “mine the miners,” as one of Morrison’s titles says.

Charlie Chaplin in “The Gold Rush” (1925)

Dispensing with voices, Morrison allows Alex Somers’s mournfully majestic score to set an elegiac tone for the decent little town that struggled out of the morass, for all those rascals and hustlers, and for the many nitrate movies that were lost for good, consumed by fire, the earth, or wilfully discarded in the Yukon River.

As the circus manager Sleary says in Charles Dickens’s Hard Times, “People must be amused, squire, somehow.” Working girls’ cribs sprang up in Dawson City’s “Paradise Alley.” The Bavarian Friedrich Trump, grandfather of the current US President, and his partner Ernest Levin built the lucrative Arctic hotel, restaurant, and brothel in Bennett (now a ghost town) at the southern end of the Chilkoot Trail.

Fred Trump’s Arctic Hotel and Restaurant (and brothel) in Whitehorse

In 1900, Trump and Levin shipped the building north by barge to Whitehorse, 330 miles (532km) from Dawson, to cater to the new railroad trade. A year later, Trump sold out as the authorities cracked down on vice.

There were other forms of entertainment. Early films were projected in primitive conditions and plays were performed in Dawson City during its boom years, though most of the miners had migrated to Alaska by the time the Dawson Amateur Athletic Association (DAAA), opened in 1902, began showing films in 1903.

Dawson was the last stop on the north-western film distribution chain—most films arrived there several years after they had been shown everywhere else. Since distributors wouldn’t pay for the return of the reels, the Canadian Bank of Commerce, the authority in charge of the shipments, stored them in Dawson City’s Carnegie Library.

First Avenue in Dawson City, c.1898

In 1929, the bank’s Clifford Thomson, who was also the treasurer of the hockey association, had 500,000 ft. of film removed from the library basement and dumped in the swimming pool in the DAAA complex. They were buried in earth, boarded over, and covered with ice, which created a smoother playing service than had previously been available to the hockey association.

The DAAA, where newer nitrate films were stored, went up in smoke in 1937. The Orpheum Theater, a sometime movie venue, burned down in 1940. And, then, in 1978, along came Frank Barrett and his backhoe. Alerted to the haul, Michael Gates, curator of collections for the Klondike National Historic Sites, knew Barrett had found something special.

Gates brought in Sam Kula, curator of collections for the Klondike National Historic Sites, and they enlisted Kathy Jones, director of the Dawson City Museum, to help salvage the films, parts of which had been preserved by the permafrost. (Gates and Jones mention in the film that they got married; Morrison salutes them with a romantic clip from a 1910 one-reeler, The Girl of the Northern Woods, one of the Dawson City discoveries.)

Douglas Fairbanks in “The Half-Breed” (1916)

When 69-year-old Clifford Thomson read an item about the discovery Jones posted in the Klondike Korner newsletter, he wrote in from Chilliwack. B.C.—1,756 miles (2,827km) to the south—to admit his culpability in using the film cans as landfill.

Of the 1,500 reels retrieved during the partial excavation of the old swimming pool, 533 were salvageable and produced 500,000 ft. of film. Spanning 1903 to 1929, the films included newsreels of the Great War and the anarchist Alexander Berkman being deported in 1919, and footage that shows precisely how the Chicago White Sox threw the 1919 World Series.

After a photo, moving image, or voice recording of someone is seen or heard for the last time, he or she effectively vanishes forever. Whether actors in movies such as The Unpardonable Sin (1919) or The Salamander (1916), miners on the Chilkoot Pass, or ballgame fans at Cincinnati’s Redland Field, the people seen in the Dawson City films were revivified by the restoration and projection of the films (now held in the National Film, Television and Sound Archives in Ottawa).

The things those people did were no less significant for being unrecorded. Still, there they are on film, visibly living their lives, staining “the white radiance of eternity,” as the poet Shelley put it, with proof of their existence.

Dawson City: Frozen Time is currently screening at the IFC Center in Manhattan. It will open in 13 more North American cities in the coming months.

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