A busted boom town like Dawson City, Yukon is the last place you would look for Hollywood glamour, yet it has the strangest connections to motion picture history. For instance, William Desmond Taylor, the film director and victim of one of Tinsel Town’s most notorious unsolved murders sought his fortune there during the Klondike Gold Rush. Yet, it was the cache of early silent nitrate films, most previously assumed to be lost, that cemented the small town’s place in cinema history. Bill Morrison chronicles the history of the former Yukon capitol with images from the films it inadvertently preserved in Dawson City: Frozen Time (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
In 1978, an earth mover at prospective construction site uncovered boxes of buried nitrate film, but before we get too far, Morrison rewinds, in James Michener-like fashion, to chart the rise and fall of Dawson City right from the start. It is a reasonably compelling tale in itself, but it is the connections and historical footnotes Morrison illuminates that make the film so fascinating. In addition to Taylor, future powerhouse film exhibitors Alexander Pantages and Sid Grauman (as in Grauman’s Chinese Theater) did prospecting stints in and around Dawson City. Fatty Arbuckle actually brought his vaudeville act there and would subsequently turn up in the ghostly ghosting nitrate film discovered beneath the former site of the Dawson Amateur Athletic Assoc. Family Theater.
Such celebrity appearances were rare in town, because Dawson City was literally at the end of the line. They were the very last theaters to get films, so distributors did not want to bother with the expense of return shipping. Therefore, they simply entrusted the local bank to store and eventually dispose of the films once the rental period expired.
Yet, Morrison gives nearly equal time to the vintage photographs of Gold Rush photographer Eric Heggs (many of whose emulsion plates were discovered in a similarly unlikely manner) as he does the treasure trove of silent cinema. They are remarkable primary source-documents of the Klondike. In fact, filmmakers Colin Low and Wolf Koenig drew extensively from his archive for their Cannes-award winning City of Gold, which in turn Ken Burns has credited as his formative aesthetic influence.
Still, viewers are likely to feel overwhelming frustration at how much was lost at Dawson City. Rather depressingly, Morrison notes apparently every fire that ravaged film archives holding like or related titles. However, the film’s rather callous treatment of the 1920 anarchist Wall Street bombing, resulting in the death of thirty innocent people and the severe injury of another 143 New Yorkers (and documented in rediscovered newsreels) is highly problematic. Regardless of John D. Rockefeller’s misdeeds, it was a horrific act of domestic terrorism.