Some of the film recovered has major stars like Lionel Barrymore, Lon Chaney and Douglas Fairbanks. There’s also some incredible newsreel footage, including a previously unseen recording of the most controversial plays in 1919’s infamous “Black Sox” World Series scandal. While that famous moment in history is incredible to witness, it’s filmmaker Bill Morrison’s journey through the ups and downs of the Klondike Gold Rush in 1896, to the end of the silent film era in 1928, that truly fascinates.
We learn early that the nitrate film ignited so easily that movie theaters burned down with more frequency and ease than other buildings in town. The nitrate decay in much of the footage here gives it a kind of human quality, emphasizing the frailness of the time.
Prior to the Gold Rush, 3,500 Native Americans had inhabited Dawson City. Almost overnight the population swelled, hitting 40,000 in a matter of months as prospectors flowed in. What was once a sleepy town buzzes with activity. Donald Trump’s grandfather Fred, built his first hotel along the trail, and saloons, brothels, casinos, and yes, movie theaters, we’re built by men whose names–Sid Grauman and Alexander Pantages–would soon be famous, to entertain the masses. By 1899, word of a gold strike in Nome, Alaska caused 75% of the population to leave.
As silent film grew popular, the remote Dawson City became the end of the line for the film distribution companies. After a movie finished it’s run (sometimes as much as three years after its initial release), distributors balked at paying to have the film sent back to them. As a result, the town eventually housed a rather large film library, much of which was later dumped into the Yukon. Except of course, for the portion that was buried.
Morrison tells his story with silent film montages constructed from the found footage, intertitles, photographs, letters, and a couple of brief interviews, all accompanied by a score from Sigur Rós collaborator Alex Somer, with a sound design assist from John Somer. Everything is well paced, and film buffs will marvel at the treasure trove of material on display. Brutality by Birth of a Nation director D.W. Griffith and The Exotic Thief from Tod Browning of Freaks fame. Look closely and you’ll find Oscar-winner Alice Brady in The Lure of Women and Hollywood icon Lionel Barrymore in clips from Wildfire, while the likes of Thomas A. Edison and Douglas Fairbanks appear in snippets from The Butler and the Maid and The Half-Breed, respectively.
If Dawson City: Frozen Time doesn’t make a convincing case for film preservation, I don’t know what will.
The Kino Lorber Blu-ray is a terrific encoding of this fascinating find. With the help of Canadian film authorities and the Museum of Modern Art, the newsreel and historical film used to help illustrate the found material is in excellent condition. As is to be expected, the condition of the found footage varies in quality, from remarkably clean to barely viewable. Despite the damage, these images do much to augment this fascinating story.
Kino offers a choice of DTS Master tracks in 5.1 surround or 2.0 channel stereo. 5.1 should be the desired choice if you want the full experience of Alex Somers’ score.
There are optional English subtitles included.
The following extras are available:
- Dawson City: Postscript (HD, 9:54) A short documentary expanding on some issues related to the film.
- Interview with Director Bill Morrison (HD, 8:49)
- Eight Selections from the Dawson Film Find: Newsreels, short films, etc.
- Trailer (HD, 2:13)
- Booklet: Illustrated booklet including essays by Lawrence Weschler and Alberto Zambenedetti.
Movie title: Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016)
Director(s): Bill Morrison
Actor(s): Kathy Jones-Gates Michael Gates , Sam Kula , Bill O'Farrell , Chris 'Mad Dog' Russo Bill Morrison