Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Tonight's Movie: Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016) - A Kino Lorber Blu-ray Review

The highly regarded documentary DAWSON CITY: FROZEN TIME (2016) has just been released on Blu-ray and DVD by Kino Lorber.

DAWSON CITY: FROZEN TIME was written and directed by Bill Morrison. I've been anxious to see it since I first learned of the film's subject matter at this past year's TCM Classic Film Festival; I wasn't able to see it there and became even more interested in seeing it thanks to reviews by KC and Raquel.

DAWSON CITY: FROZEN TIME is the story of a collection of over 500 rare nitrate prints from the early 1900s which were found in 1978, when a bulldozer dug up a parking lot in Dawson City in Yukon Territory. Though water damaged, much of the frozen film was salvageable, a collection of newsreels and silent movies which no longer existed anywhere else in the world.

Increasingly it seems that long-lost movies turn up in places which were the "end of the distribution line"; for instance, MAMBA (1930), which I saw at UCLA last spring, was found in Australia. By the time a movie got to places like Australia, Eastern Europe -- or, in this case, the Yukon -- it was often two or three years after the original release, and studios didn't want to bear the expense of their seemingly useless films being shipped all the way back to California.

The little town of Dawson City accumulated hundreds upon hundreds of these abandoned films, but many were lost to fires, both accidental and deliberate. Those which survived, unearthed under the parking lot, had been used to fill in a swimming pool.

DAWSON CITY: FROZEN TIME is about much more than the movies, however; it tells the intertwined story of the town's history along with the tale of the movies discovered there.

For what became a small town after the initial population explosion due to the Gold Rush faded away, remote Dawson City had a surprisingly close linkage to Hollywood. A number of people who would become famous film folk spent time in Dawson around the turn of the last century.

Sid Grauman was a newsboy in Dawson City, and Alexander Pantages opened his first theater there. The ill-fated director William Desmond Taylor worked in Dawson, and Marjorie Rambeau and Fatty Arbuckle performed there for a time. The novel THE TRAIL OF '98 was written in Dawson by Robert Service, and, coming full circle, the film version later premiered at Grauman's Chinese Theatre.

Along the way DAWSON CITY: FROZEN TIME also provides the viewer with what might be called the violent history of nitrate film, which is particularly fascinating since the projection of nitrate films has become a hot ticket (pardon the pun) in Los Angeles, thanks to the ability of both UCLA and more recently the Eygptian Theatre to screen such films. The Egyptian Theatre was, of course, a Grauman theatre, another tie-in with the documentary and Dawson City.

After a brief introduction, DAWSON CITY: FROZEN TIME becomes a silent movie until its last few minutes. It was an interesting choice to avoid "talking heads," other than at the beginning and end of the film, and instead create a silent movie about silent movies.

Narrative cards explain the history, accompanied by stills and silent movie clips, many of which were from the "Dawson City Find"; frequently the movie clips are not of the actual subject matter described by the cards, but rather were used as what might be called themed illustrations. My only complaint about the documentary's presentation style is that while the narrative cards were readable, the print of each clip's title, along with descriptive words such as "Dawson City Find," was so small as to be close to unreadable.

DAWSON CITY: FROZEN TIME is a fascinating and educational history, if perhaps a bit slow at 120 minutes -- about 15 minutes too long in my opinion. That said, it is extremely worthwhile and I was very glad I saw it.

Once again Kino Lorber has provided film fans with an excellent presentation. Extras include a selection of full-length clips from the Dawson City finds, an interview with the filmmaker, a trailer, and a 22-page booklet with essays.

The trailer may be seen at YouTube.

Thanks to Kino Lorber for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray.


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