Hollywood silent film trove found in tiny Klondike gold rush city

Adapted excerpt from Hollywood in the Klondike: Dawson City’s Great Film Find — by Michael Gates (2022) with permission from Harbour Publishing.

In 1978, Dawson City, with a inhabitants of 800, was a shadow of its former self, crammed with relics from the Klondike gold rush of 1898.

Decaying buildings leaned this manner and that, deserted equipment stood on empty, weed-clogged heaps. Long remoted from the skin world, the city had remained a dwelling museum, frozen in time.

Hollywood in the Klondike: Dawson City's Great Film Find, By Michael Gates (2022) with permission from Harbour Publishing.

But as old-timers would inform you, after a highway was accomplished in 1955 to attach the previous capital of the Yukon Territory with Whitehorse and the skin, the city shortly modified and the relics started to vanish. Tourists began gathering souvenirs from derelict buildings, collectors hauled away truckloads of artifacts and old-timers took issues to the dump, burned them or threw them in the river.

Sagging buildings had been progressively razed having been deemed by residents as an embarrassing reminder of the city’s pale previous.

But unknown to many, buried beneath the buildings and the streets of Dawson City, had been artifacts that remained in a state of suspended animation, encased by the permafrost found underground all over the place in the North.

With every excavation in Dawson and the adjoining goldfields, extra relics from the gold rush are launched from their frozen state. Such was the case with the unlikeliest of finds — a hoard of silent motion pictures unearthed on July 4, 1978.

The skating rink, a barnlike construction clad with corrugated steel, had been just lately demolished. Dawson alderman Frank Barrett employed a backhoe operator to dig exploratory holes on the website to find out the extent of the permafrost. As Barrett watched close by, the bucket unearthed a steel field crammed with reels of 35-millimetre black-and-white film.

Boxes of recovered recovered films await transit to Ottawa for restoration and cataloguing.

Amid the rubble had been particular person rusted reels, and unfastened film lay unspooled on the floor as properly. Some of the reels of film had been pushed off form, leaving them wanting extra like bowls than discs.

As curator of collections for Klondike National Historic Sites in Dawson City, I visited and shortly decided that the film was extremely flammable cellulose nitrate inventory with a easy take a look at: lighting a match to a transparent part, it flared with such depth it almost singed my fingers.

Nitrate film had admirable qualities for the film Business — sturdiness, low price — however its flammability had been the reason for many warehouse fires the place lots of of hundreds of silent movies had been archived leaving that treasury now largely incomplete.

I examined one of many reels that appeared extra intact than the others. Unspooling the lead finish of the reel, I found a body that held the title of the film: “The Strange Case of Mary Page.” Clearly, the photographs on some reels had not been destroyed by burial in the bottom. Within days, I discovered that “Mary Page” had been screened in Dawson in October of 1917.

My coaching as a museum conservator had made me delicate to the probabilities of restoration so I started phoning throughout the nation, inquiring whether or not anyone would have an interest in what had been found. Time was of the essence as development was because of start shortly. Calls to the National Film Board and the Canadian Conservation Institute did not arouse any curiosity. Each name led me to different establishments and eventually, to Sam Kula, director of the National Film, Television and Sound Archives (NFTSA) who determined to fly to Dawson City to see for himself what was being uncovered.

Sam Kula, head of the National Film, Television and Sound Archives and author Michael Gates examine the find in 1978.

I met Kula on the airport and we went on to the excavation website and commenced inspecting the movies strewn about on the bottom. The situation of the movies uncovered was poor, however Kula was prepared to gamble that what lay beneath can be in higher situation and worthy of salvage. He shortly concluded that the potential of discovering vital film footage was robust. To discover a reel of film that includes Theda Bara, Tom Mix, William Farnum or Buster Keaton, a lot of whose film work had gone up in flames, can be a digital gold mine. It was value it, he stated, to attempt to get well and restore these movies.

The subsequent morning, Sam joined me in my workplace and over the cellphone to Ottawa he dictated the phrases of a contract with the Dawson City Museum for the restoration and cataloguing of the movies. Parks Canada would offer workspace to look at the movies and for storage till they had been shipped to Ottawa, and would additionally provide technical help in the execution of the work. When the movies arrived in Ottawa, stated Kula, copying them would start.

Museum director Kathy Jones insisted the gathering needs to be known as the Dawson City Film Find, and that the primary exhibiting of any restored movies ought to happen in Dawson City. Kula agreed.

Before that point, nonetheless, a lot work can be required and questions would wish answering: How many movies of these excavated from the rubble on Fifth Avenue can be value saving? What was the content material, and most significantly, how did they arrive to be buried in the bottom in the primary place?

And a approach needed to be found to ship them to Ottawa. In July of 1978, no person had the solutions to those questions and nobody may notice what an impression these rusty, buried reels would have on the film world, not to mention the life-changing impact the invention would have on me.

By September, the job of inspecting the movies was full.

Of the greater than 1100 reels recovered, 527 held salvageable content material. The listing of movies included quite a few newsreels, and lots of of Hollywood productions.

One notable beforehand misplaced title recovered from the discover was “Polly of the Circus,” starring Mae Marsh, the primary film identified to bear the identify of film producer Sam Goldwyn.

The 1915 film, “Wildfire,” is without doubt one of the few in which stage actress Lillian Russell ever appeared. Her main man was Lionel Barrymore.

Also listed had been “Princess Virtue,” starring May Murray, “Bliss,” with Harold Lloyd and Bebe Daniels, “The Scandal Mongers,” written and directed by Lois Weber, in addition to “The Inspector’s Double,” directed by William Beaudine. Douglas Fairbanks seems in “The Half-Breed,” whereas Pearl White, the acknowledged queen of the serials, seems in “Pearl of the Army.”

Of archival and historic curiosity are the newsreels, which although produced in America, Britain and elsewhere, have added Canadian content material. Alexander Graham Bell, for instance, is depicted in one newsreel skimming in a ship to a brand new water pace report of 71 miles per hour in his HD-4 hydrofoil at Baddeck, Nova Scotia in 1919. Another has footage of the scandalous 1919 World Series’ Chicago ‘Black Sox.”

The subsequent huge problem was the way to transport this fabulous assortment of celluloid to Ottawa. Since nitrate film is classed as hazardous items, business transport was not an possibility. The resolution: the Canadian navy flew the movies to Ottawa in a Hercules transport.

The NFTSA then took on the difficult process of stabilizing and copying the movies in the months that adopted. In accord with a world conference, the American footage was returned to the custody of the Library of Congress in Washington DC, whereas the newsreels remained on the National Archives in Ottawa.

The thriller of how the film got here to be buried in the primary place was solved when Clifford Thomson, a former financial institution clerk in Dawson, revealed that he was accountable. Dawson City was the tip of the film distribution chain, typically arriving 4 or 5 years after launch. The price of returning movies to distributors was an excessive amount of, so that they had been saved in the basement of the Carnegie Library, which was throughout the road from the athletic facility which housed the swimming pool.

In response to a question from Thomson, who acted because the agent for the distributors, he was instructed to get rid of the movies. Rather than throw them in the Yukon River, he merely hauled them throughout the road and dumped them into the swimming pool which, by 1929, was too costly to keep up.

Slightly greater than a yr later, true to his phrase, Kula provided two reels of chosen titles from the Dawson assortment, which had been screened to a full home in the Palace Grand Theatre in September of 1979.

There was additionally a love story. Five weeks after the screening, Kathy Jones, director of the Dawson City Museum and I had been married in Dawson. We are nonetheless married at present.


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