The story of film, the Klondike Gold Rush and Hollywood are intimately intertwined by director Bill Morrison in the film Dawson City: Frozen Time, which is, at once, both a documentary and an art film.
It starts in 1895, the year before the discovery of gold in the Klondike. Dawson City had not yet been founded and the First Nation settlement of Tr’ochëk had not yet been displaced.
It was in that year that Auguste and Louis Lumière patented the Cinematographe — a combination motion picture camera and projector. The popularity of moving pictures quickly spread. By the Gold Rush, just two years later, moving pictures were being shown — and recorded — in the Klondike.
Early film footage of the Gold Rush in Dawson City: Frozen Time includes waterfront shots taken in Seattle as passengers, goods and horses departed for the Klondike in 1897. These were quickly followed by footage taken in 1898 showing the Miles Canyon Tramway at Canyon City and crowds milling about on Front Street in Dawson City.
Other views include the Whitehorse Rapids, rocking for gold on Gold Hill and mining on Hunker Creek, all authentic and remarkable documentation of the Gold Rush.
Later followed short films showing a pack train on the Chilkoot trail, “Packers on the Trail,” and a card game titled “Poker at Dawson City,” ostensibly taking place in Dawson City, but all of which were undoubtedly recorded elsewhere and tagged with the Klondike label. The card game ends up in a brawl that is eventually resolved using seltzer bottles.
In my conversation with Morrison when I was in New York City, he noted that the poker game was probably filmed in New Jersey and represents the first conversion of the Gold Rush story into myth.
These original glimpses of the early Yukon, survive today only as paper transfer prints. They are important historical documents that are woven neatly into the film in a visual narrative that combines the iconic photos of the Gold Rush taken by Eric A. Hegg, newspaper articles and contemporary photos. Add to this numerous clips taken from the films that were unearthed, literally, in the Dawson Film Find, 38 years ago.
Moving film depicting the Spanish American War was screened before sell-out crowds in the Monte Carlo Saloon in Dawson in November of 1898. More film showings quickly followed at the Orpheum and Savoy Theatres. At first, they were a novelty, but by 1910, the Orpheum Theatre had been converted to a cinema, and the following year, the DAAA building followed suit.
Without radio, television and the internet, movies became the most important form of entertainment – and an important source of news. At their peak, hundreds of films were being shown in the three Dawson theatres each year, even when the population of Dawson was tumbling. This film gives us a glimpse of what people were watching in theatres a hundred years ago.
With the exception of dialogue at the beginning of the film and again at the end, the narrative of this documentary is carried by the imagery, which is almost entirely in black and white, with captions that impart important details from the story.
Traditionally, the silent films were accompanied in theatres by an orchestra, or more often, by a pianist. In Dawson City: Frozen Time, the narrative is enhanced by a haunting sound track created by contemporary composer Alex Somers, which is subtly underlain by sound effects that support the action on the screen.
Interwoven into the narrative are the people whose lives after their Klondike experience propelled them into the film and entertainment business. Writers Robert Service and Jack London, who both spent time in the Klondike, produced works that were later converted into movies.
The film based upon Service’s book, The Trail of ’98,’ premiered at Sid Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood in 1928. Grauman saw his first moving picture when he was in Dawson during the Gold Rush.
Grauman wasn’t the only Hollywood connection to the Klondike. Screen writer Wilson Mizner was there, as was Tex Rickard, who later founded the New York Rangers and rebuilt Madison Square Garden. In New York City before the Klondike, Rickard gave fatherly advice to a young Harry Gleaves, who in later years ran the Orpheum Theatre in Dawson.
A teen-aged Marjorie Rambeau, who later earned two Oscar nominations and a star in Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, spent a winter performing in Dawson. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle appeared live in the Savoy theatre in Dawson in 1906, and later on the screen in Dawson in the 1913 production titled Fatty’s Day Off.
William Desmond Taylor, who was a timekeeper for the Yukon Gold Company for several years, went on to direct 60 Hollywood films. His Film Soul of Youth was screened in Dawson City in July of 1922, five months after he was murdered in a case that has never been solved.
A Greek bartender named Alexander Pantages ran Dawson’s Orpheum Theatre in the early days, and later became a multimillionaire with a string of theatres across America. The award-winning documentary film City of Gold which was narrated by Yukon-born Pierre Berton, was up for an Oscar at the 30th Annual Academy Awards ceremony, which was held, coincidentally, in Hollywood’s Pantages Theatre.
But Dawson City: Frozen Time is also a social history constructed around its theatres. It takes the viewer from the First Nation settlement at Tr’ochëk through the heyday of the Gold Rush and later the corporatization and decline of Dawson City.
One Kinogram travel film used in this documentary, which dates from 1925, singles out two Dawson figures as living monuments of the Gold Rush: Chief Isaac, in the only known moving film ever taken of him, and “Apple” Jimmy Oglow, who ran a novelty store out of the front of the Orpheum Theatre for three decades.
Woven into the story are people whose families reside in the Yukon today. Irene (Caley) Crayford found the Hegg glass plate negatives in the walls of an old cabin in Dawson, many of which are featured in this film. She sold them to Dick Diment, whose son, Bill still resides in Whitehorse. Eric Troberg ran the Family Theatre from 1931 till it was destroyed by fire in 1937, and some Troberg family photos are featured in the film.
Bill Morrison combined elements from his background in the history of film, his familiarity with the medium of silent films, his collaboration with contemporary composers and extensive research surrounding the people and events connected to silent movies in Dawson City to produce this documentary.
I won’t tell it all, but know that there are more amazing connections between past and present in this remarkable film.
Put aside the unusual story of how the Dawson City collection was found. Morrison has woven together many disparate strands to create an unforgettable visual, musical and historical tapestry that I can’t wait to see screened here in the Yukon.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. He is currently writing a book on the Yukon in World War I. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org