Moving Pictures from the Permafrost
During construction of a new Dawson City rec center in 1978, a backhoe unearthed 533 newsreels and feature films dating from 1903 to 1929, many of them thought to have been lost to time’s ravages, others previously unknown. Stored initially in the town library’s basement, they had been interred in an old gym pool that also functioned as an ice rink. There they rested like Snow White in her crystal coffin. The pool site was part of the Dawson Amateur Athletic Association’s building, which opened in 1902 and soon after began screening films. Some of the cache’s contents played again in the rebuilt Palace Grand Theatre fifteen months after their discovery.
The reels spanning the heydays of silent, black-and-white moving pictures now have been given a new lease on life. The New York film director Bill Morrison—a fan of things out of fashion—artfully reassembled snippets of cinematic treasure snatched from the debris. His two-hour, largely narration-free meditation Dawson City: Frozen Time was released in 2017 to wide acclaim. (It can be downloaded from iTunes.)
A subtitle five minutes in, “Film was born of an explosive,” speaks to the martial origins of celluloid. This plasticized base of early films, cellulose nitrate, used as “guncotton” in warheads, was extremely flammable. Patented in 1889, coated, light-sensitive Kodak stock not only revolutionized entertainment, but in Dawson and elsewhere also sparked or fed conflagrations. The business district of the timber-built Yukon hub burned each single year of its first nine. Worldwide, firestorms consumed film collections in warehouses, studios, laboratories, and theaters, including the very movie houses that screened such films in Dawson City. Edison’s film manufacturing plant blew up in 1914; Robert J. Flaherty ignited 30,000 feet of Nanook of the North by smoking a cigarette.
Because movers and the railroad refused to ship the combustible stock dredged from the permafrost and temporarily stacked in a root cellar, the Armed Forces flew the crates to Ottawa in a Hercules plane. At the capital, Library and Archives Canada preserved the unstable images. With help from the Library of Congress, staff then catalogued the entire collection, printed it onto 35mm safety film stock, and kept it in climate-controlled vaults for the past 38 years. Morrison, who visited Whitehorse and Dawson while making his movie, obtained scans of any reel he wanted to watch.
Another surprise trove added to Morrison’s sprawling canvas: almost 200 photo negatives by the Swedish emigrant Eric A. Hegg. Considered valueless, they’d been insulating the walls of a Dawson City cabin until 1947, when the glass plates barely escaped being turned into greenhouse panels. The prospecting Swede had followed the shifting human tide from Skagway to Dawson to Nome. His shots of men loaded like mules and stair-stepping up a 45-degree slope to the snow-choked U.S.-Canada border were copied in Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925) and onto Alaska license plates. Hegg’s output also included the only surviving pictures of the infamous 1898 Easter Sunday avalanche’s aftermath. First exhibited in a New York gallery in 1901, they caused crowds vying for a glimpse to riot.
Splicing in period newsreels and newspaper headlines as well as post-WWII home movies, Dawson City: Frozen Time among other things charts the transformation of the peaceful indigenous fishing camp Tr’ochëk to boomtown surrounded by denuded land to respectable, film-obsessed backwater—a tale familiar to readers of Pierre Berton’s The Klondike Fever. The highlights are all there, in grainy detail: sternwheelers, dead horses, scows hammered together at Bennett Lake; seething Miles Canyon Rapids, where four stuntmen died; George and Kate Shaaw, Tláa Carmack, Skookum Jim, Chief Isaac, leather-faced; prostitutes’ cribs lining Paradise Alley, claims on Bonanza Creek; a dancer turned entrepreneur, and latecomer Robert W. Service of “Sam McGee” fame.
Dawson was perfectly situated to become a hotbed of the fledgling film industry. Founded in 1896, the same year that large-scale, commercial projection took off, it teemed with an audience eager to be entertained. Theaters such as the Orpheum or Monte Carlo distracted townspeople on dreary winter nights, and miners who’d never strike it rich. “Good Time Girls” and impresarios walked the muddy streets. Future Hollywood moguls Sid Grauman (a sometime boxing promoter) and Alexander Pantages worked in Dawson hotels. Any fortune hunter leaving his bank job to follow the siren call north was kindred to those headed west to chase wealth or fame in the Dream Factory.
The ballooning, subarctic city lay at the end of film distribution lines, and motion pictures often were screened there only years after they’d premiered. Dodging the high cost of return shipping, distribution companies had a bank manager store the films at the local library. When that ran out of storage space, cartloads of reels that could not compete with the new “talkies” were dumped into the Yukon during breakup, cremated by the waterfront, or buried as landfill.
Hegg’s and Chaplin’s iconic depictions of miners scaling the Chilkoot Pass, antlike, mythologized Dawson and the Klondike rush. By the late 1920s, the town had developed a modest tourist industry, which cashed in on and kept alive the mystique.
A sense of loss and recovery informs Morrison’s approach. The history of oblivion and the obliteration of history march in lockstep. Both nourish the filmmaker’s fascination with found, silent, black-and-white footage. Clips of Colorado miners on strike being killed by National Guardsmen and of anarchist leaders deported to Russia ensure that the labor movement’s feats, like the corporate consolidation of Yukon mines, still flicker brightly in the public’s conscience.
Film is, quite literally, social memory, this award-winning auteur insists. “When we lose filmic record, we lose the memory that these things occurred.” Film also has an uncanny power to resurface, which allows reexamination and re-contextualization. When Morrison first heard of the find in the late 1980s (he can’t recall exactly when), knowledge of it circulated among people interested in the medium. Now, decades later, nobody younger than him seems to have heard of this story, and most of those who have are older cinephiles connected to archival film or to Dawson.
It appears that the former swimming tank had been used in the distant past as a depository for discarded movie film, a newspaper account from 1939 claimed. At that time the films, after only ten years, already had been forgotten. But then they started to leech from the ground after a fire destroyed the building on top.
Following a cut from The Salamander (1916), Dawson City: Frozen Time’s final, longish scene is a potent metaphor for transience and resurrection. In it, a veiled actress gyrates ecstatically, engulfed by “flames”—lesions on film stock from water damage that occurred while these reels lay dormant in the ground. According to ancient folklore, the salamander, like the long-missing films, survived fire.
Seeking to evoke the reflection that comes from reading factual text rather than telling audiences what these images represent, Morrison shunned the voiceover typical of documentaries. A modern narrator for him would break the timeworn images’ spell, distancing viewers who look with hindsight at “quaint old pictures” of people long dead. Alex Somers’ hauntingly beautiful score instead serves as guide on this journey, providing musical backup to a quasi-immersive, hypnotic experience.
Michael Engelhard is the author of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon and of American Wild: Explorations from the Grand Canyon to the Arctic Ocean, a Foreword INDIES gold medalist. He works as a wilderness guide, but appreciates urban culture, such as art house movie theaters.
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