Monday, October 10, 2016

Lazy Sunday #439: Dawson City, Frozen in Time

Several years ago, I was approached to write a documentary about a cache of "lost films" discovered during the demolition of a movie theatre in Texas.

In the parlance of film historians and preservationists, "lost films" are those for which there is evidence of their being made -- but no existing prints or negatives.

And they number in the tens of thousands.

A vast majority of the movies made during the silent era are long gone, never to be seen again. They were shot on highly flammable nitrate based film stock and either self-immolated or turned to dust in storage. 

But many did not even get into storage in the first place. After being humped around the country to first run theatres, then second runs and eventually small town mom and pop movie houses, nobody wanted to pay the freight to have them returned to the studio.

So they were simply trashed, while the pristine prints and negatives kept in Hollywood vaults holding one of a kind stories and performances simply rotted away before anyone noticed.

But many of the films trashed in small towns have returned from the dead. The cache I dealt with came from a small town in Texas where the theatre owner, for reasons nobody knows, decided to park the films he was stuck with in a storm cellar in the movie house's basement, a room that turned out to be cold and dark enough to prevent their decay.

It was amazing to sit in a preservation lab and watch films no one alive had ever seen. The Texas collection included several films from the 1930's and 40's made only for African-American audiences, among them one with the only known footage of Bessie Smith singing.  

But the largest collection of lost films every discovered was found in Canada's Dawson City in 1978. Most dated from the Klondike Gold Rush, when boats returning to Vancouver and Seattle were laden with gold and newly rich prospectors and nobody wanted to make space for heavy metal cans of year or two old movies.

Instead they were dumped into the town's old swimming pool, providing the fill to turn it into a skating rink. For decades, more than 500 films, including newsreels of WWI, silent comedy shorts and Hollywood features remained hidden under the ice and preserved in permafrost.

For 50 years, even the residents of Dawson City didn't know that 500,000 feet of lost movie art was under the skates of the local hockey teams they cheered.

And then in 1978, the old film cans were unearthed as the hockey arena was torn down and a foundation dug for a new recreation centre.

A Canadian Forces Hercules was dispatched to carry the thawed but now highly flammable film to the National Film Archive in Ottawa, where the preservation process began.

The story of this discovery, how the films were saved and what they revealed has recently been released by American filmmaker Bill Morrison. It's a fascinating glimpse into a world that was once thought lost and movies that were the building blocks of the industry we have today.

Enjoy Your Sunday...

1 comment:

Birgit said...

Wow....I never knew that and it just shows how many films may be out there waiting to be found. I consider these treasures.