It’s estimated that about 90% of all films made prior to 1929 are lost and many of those are very likely gone forever. With those kinds of odds, it’s no wonder that classic film fans get so excited over news that a print of a thought-to-be-lost film has been found. But if there’s anything more exciting than finding a print of one lost film, it’s finding a whole stash of them, and that’s exactly what happened in Dawson City in 1978.
At its peak during the Klondike Gold Rush in 1898, Dawson City was home to over 30,000 people. One year later, that population had dropped to 8,000 and today, the city’s population is approximately 1,300. But throughout all the ups and downs the city has encountered over the years, one thing has remained consistent: entertainment has remained an important part of the town.
Dawson City was hardly the only city to have its own movie theaters, but what makes Dawson City unique is that, because of its location, it was at the end of the distribution line for films and newsreels. Returning films after screening them would have been very expensive for the distributor and, at the time, it wasn’t widely believed that film had any long-term value. So when a movie arrived in Dawson City, it likely stayed there. Since there was nothing else to do with them, the city eventually became overwhelmed by reels of film. Physically storing them all became difficult and every once in a while, people would hold bonfires fueled by excess film and heaps of film would simply be thrown into the Yukon River to be carried away. At one point in 1929, hundreds of film reels were put into a former swimming pool, which was then boarded up to be used as a hockey rink.
The film reels that ended up under the hockey rink remained there until 1978 when the lot was being leveled. What ended up being unearthed at that site was a priceless treasure trove of movie reels and newsreels from the early 20th century. It was a find Vanity Fair dubbed “the King Tut’s tomb of silent-era cinema.” Many of the films discovered there were believed to have been lost and included some of the biggest names of the silent era, such as Harold Lloyd, Fatty Arbuckle, and D.W. Griffith. Since the highly-flammable nitrate prints had been stored in permafrost, they weren’t prone to spontaneously catching on fire the way reels stored through more conventional means were.
Bill Morrison’s Dawson City: Frozen Time isn’t a documentary solely about the big film discovery; it chronicles the entire history of the town. Morrison primarily uses footage uncovered in Dawson City to tell the story of the city from its earliest days to the height of the Gold Rush to the modern day. Appropriately, most of the documentary is presented similarly to a silent film, without narration and a haunting musical score. If you’re a fan of silent film, being able to see some of this footage is a real treat. Not only is it exciting to see it at all, it’s absolutely fascinating to see the footage used so imaginatively.
While the Dawson City discovery included priceless finds involving major Hollywood stars, the newsreels they found there are every bit as important. Some of these newsreels include footage of well-known historical events such as the 1919 World Series, the year of the infamous Black Sox scandal. Speaking as someone who doesn’t follow baseball, or any other sport for that matter, being able to see that footage was pretty amazing. Not only do you have the chance to see some of the players involved in the scandal, it also gives you a chance to see how fans would keep up to date with games in an era before ESPN was a mainstay in bars around the country.
Dawson City: Frozen Time had been a movie I really wanted to see at the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival, but I ended up not being able to make it. Everyone I had talked to who did see it described it as a fever dream, and that’s a pretty accurate way to describe it. It’s haunting, it’s surreal, and it’s absolutely incredible. If you’re like me and love hearing the stories of how lost films are uncovered, Dawson City: Frozen Time is well worth your time. I’m really glad I finally had a chance to see it.