Dawson City: Frozen Time
Bill Morrison, director of this documentary feature
Nearly 40 years ago, in the summer of 1978, a wrecking crew in Dawson City found over 500 reels of old nitrate film from the silent era of cinema. Parts of hundreds of films were discovered in landfill meant to prop up the local hockey rink. Thanks to the diligence of then-budding Yukon archivists Michael and Kathy Gates and Sam Kula, the director of the audiovisual division of the National Archives of Canada, the films were restored and are not only viewable, but now form the basis of Bill Morrison’s brilliant film Dawson City: Frozen Time.
Morrison weaves many stories together in his doc. Dawson City will always be famous as the town where the great Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s took place. Using historic photographs, especially the gorgeous ones shot by E.A. Hegg, which have previously provided the visuals for Colin Low and Wolf Koenig’s Cannes award winning City of Gold, Morrison evokes the Gold Rush in its spectacular diversity through shots of saloons and streets filled with gamblers, prospectors, clergy and working women. Morrison offers anecdotes about Dawson’s true pioneers, the Tr’ondek nation, who were evicted once gold was discovered.
He also offers tales—given to the viewers as texts over photos—about some of the Klondike’s most famous temporary citizens: Sid Grauman, who created Hollywood’s Chinese Theatre had sold papers there; Tex Ricard, who eventually started the New York Rangers hockey franchise (they were Tex’s Rangers) ran a bar; and others.
Dawson and the Gold Rush allows Morrison to make barbed asides about pernicious capitalism while also having fun with the colourful nature of the citizens who moved there for gold and stayed—at least for a while—just to enjoy a truly outlaw town. But he has other stories to tell.
Film is combustible and no more so than the classic nitrate stock that formed the bulk of the material distributed during the silent era. Morrison investigates the origins of nitrate film—inherently volatile—and offers numerous cases of fires caused by the material including the explosion that destroyed Thomas Edison’s film studio and collection, at the cost of millions of dollars—in 1910s money. He makes the point that since over 75% of silent cinema has been burned or thrown into the sea or used as landfill, the remaining footage is growing in value.
Morrison offers an interesting digression about baseball’s notorious “fixed” 1919 World Series and how the racist Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis used his anti-labour tactics to keep “the national sport” clean of unions and African-Americans.
Returning to the archives, he offers a stunning array of excerpts from silent films, all discovered in Dawson City, which was the end of the line for film distributors. He evokes the city, which has now declined significantly from its acclaimed past. In the end, he leaves us thinking about the meaning of history and how it once was preserved through cinema.
Dawson City: Frozen Time is one of the greatest archival films ever made. It’s about many things: the lure of gold and money; the joys of old fllm; the history of the Wild West and the story of one Yukon town, that has long since passed its peak but will never be forgotten.
This is a film that should be seen.
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
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