“It was an incredible story.”
A remote arctic gambling hall, going by the name of Diamond Tooth Gertie’s, would hardly seem like a location central to one of the greatest finds in the history of film preservation. But in Dawson City: Frozen Time, a 2016 documentary from writer-producer-director Bill Morrison, the unexpected is par for the course. In 1978, a construction crew was excavating a lot behind this illustrious wagering den, making space for a new recreation center, when there, beneath the frozen terrain, circulated amongst the garbage and springing up like celluloid sprouts, were the mangled remains of hundreds of reels of nitrate film stock. In this far-flung region of Canada’s Yukon Territory, a landfill beneath an obsolete hockey rink produced a treasure trove: hundreds of movies, mostly from the 1910s-1920s, damaged but remarkably well-preserved by the blanket of permafrost.
As the ensuing two hours of Dawson City: Frozen Time reveal, this cache was buried in the late 1920s. In the silent era, Dawson City had been the end-of-the-line for film distribution, and once the movies played there, no one—neither the respective studios nor those in charge of local exhibition—was particularly concerned with how, or if, these reels found their way home. The footage that wasn’t burned or dunked in the Yukon River was subsequently interred without a thought given to its importance or its endurance.
After a brief primer concerning the chemical genesis of motion pictures and the combustible nature of nitrate stock, and after the depressing reminder that roughly 75 percent of all silent movies have vanished, Morrison’s film charts the tumultuous rise and fall of the documentary’s namesake hamlet. Instead of focusing exclusively on what made up this accumulation of squandered art—what the films were, who starred in them, who directed them, what studios produced them, etc.—Dawson City: Frozen Time chronicles the backstory of this once-bustling mining community. Dawson City was settled in 1896, following the all-too-familiar practice of native destruction and relocation (it feels odd to be so thrilled by the conservancy of these photographic cultural artifacts when the cruel ejection of the indigenous Hän people is but a fleeting footnote).
The town soon became a site synonymous with the gold booms that climaxed in such monumental undertakings as the legendary Klondike Gold Rush; still photos from Eric Hegg depict the still-staggering scale of this endeavor. And as the fortunes of this venture went, so too did the fortunes of Dawson City. This meant that when it wasn’t victim to one of the many fires that continually threatened its structural stability (this documentary is an arsonist’s delight), it was precariously reliant on the success of those prospecting the land. The result was a mining district repeatedly abandoned and developed in a series of tottering capitalistic initiatives, with a correspondingly shifting population and a whole host of entrepreneurial contenders, from famed dancer Klondike Kate Rockwell to none other than Donald Trump’s grandfather, who began his real-estate empire with a resident whorehouse and restaurant.
Illustrating this saga, which is recounted by printed titles rather than voiceover narration, is a medley of footage, some of which was accrued from the Dawson City haul, some of which derived from supplementary sources. Building on his 2002 film, Decasia, an experimental work of nitrate montage, Morrison’s accomplished integration of mixed imagery continues, as does his evident fondness for the physical material itself; one senses a fascination with the tactile substance of celluloid, no matter its content or value. Dawson City: Frozen Time consolidates ghostly visuals of a bygone era with clips from the miscellaneous titles ascertained by the unearthing: early boxing matches, Westerns, contemporary dramas, scenics recorded by cameras mounted to the front of passing trains, newsreels, and, perhaps most intriguing of all, moving pictures from the infamous 1919 World Series, which shows conduct integral to the resulting “Black Sox” scandal. At the same time, Morrison uses filmic fragments to suggest portions of the narration where recordings don’t exist: individuals from Dawson City write letters, we see characters opening envelopes; reels of film are dumped, we see scenes of forlorn faces.
Backed by Alex Somers’ haunting, ambient score, which with the absent vocal track makes for a dreamily mounting movie (one best avoided if drowsy), Dawson City: Frozen Time is languidly paced and strategically constructed, but still somewhat unfulfilling. Cinema is obviously essential to the existence of the documentary, and throughout the film, one sees the curious connection Dawson City had to motion picture luminaries like Sid Grauman, Alexander Pantages, and William Desmond Taylor. Yet while the tale of this Canadian province is a curious bit of tucked-away, turn-of-the-century history, surprisingly little time is actually devoted to the extracted movies themselves, their history and the process of their restoration.
Fortunately (though still minimally), the new Kino Lorber Blu-ray of Dawson City: Frozen Time expands upon what is briefly depicted in the documentary, with a postscript highlighting the historians and conservators involved in the salvage, the piecing together of information (advertising in the local newspaper to establish what these films were and where they came from), and the difficulties in transporting such highly flammable material. An interview with Morrison adds further historical context, but the real bonus is the inclusion of a few of the films rescued, D.W. Griffith’s Brutality (1912) and Tod Browning’s The Exquisite Thief (1919), among them. Ultimately, what Dawson City: Frozen Time accomplishes above all else, is to provide hope for those who lament the 75 percent of silent cinema considered lost. As this film shows, some of these works may still be out there, just waiting to be discovered and restored. Even in the most unlikely of locations, anything’s possible.