Perhaps the treasure won’t work after all: Big Jim was hit on the head after he found it, thus forgetting where he had gone. Here in the Alaskan winter a snowdrift looks the same, how is he supposed to remember the right place? His good homeless friend wants to help him find camp again. Here, at the latest, humanity and capitalism enter into a direct decisiveness in Charlie Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush.”
The Klondike Gold Rush was long gone when Chaplin premiered his film in Los Angeles in 1925. Between 1896 and 1898 prospectors descended greedily on Alaska and Canada. One of the largest shipping points at the time was the Canadian border town of Dawson, where the Klondike River meets the Yukon. Founded in 1896, the city grew to 40 thousand inhabitants within a year. When the gold rush continued in 1899, there were only 9,000 people left.
However, what remains is the quickly erected infrastructure: churches, bars, educational and recreational facilities, now swept empty like movie sets after filming and left to decay for decades. At that time, no one could have guessed that after more than 75 years had passed, another treasure would be discovered here. Here, too, oblivion played a decisive role – and a pragmatic banker: Clifford Thompson.
The frozen ground preserved the delicate material well
In 1929, he solved two problems at once. The former Dawson City Athletic Club’s pool has long served as a hockey league arena, of which Thompson was the cashier. But because the area was originally designed as a pool, temperatures have fluctuated greatly towards the center and the ice has softened. Thompson began filling the sink with rubbish—including materials the local library wanted to get rid of: in the library’s basement were several hundred rolls of film, still made of celluloid that was highly flammable at the time, causing devastating fires in movie theaters. and production facilities all over the world since its introduction.
Roles have accumulated over the years, with Dawson being the literal end of most films. Production companies often only sent copies to the outback years after the premiere and then had no further use for the old films, especially since transferring returns would have been expensive. So Thompson threw the rolls into the huge trash and filled the hole with dirt. This enabled him to ensure a constant temperature on the ice rink.
The film’s rolls fell into oblivion because, unlike gold, their whereabouts weren’t valuable to anyone. Not even for the city’s three movie theaters, where talk movies introduced in 1927 are now popular. Newspaper reports at the time confirm that a batch of film rolls were also dumped into the Yukon River.
An ice hockey rink would likely become a graveyard of materials if workers had not encountered the pit in 1978 while building an entertainment center. Historian Michael Gates visited the site and found that the delicate material was still usable: the frozen ground had preserved celluloid, which otherwise degrades very quickly. Within a very short time, a pile of rubble had turned into a treasure trove: “Dawson’s Movie Discovery”.
Among the discoveries were the lost silent films
Gates secured the scrolls and proceeded to examine them with Dawson City Museum curator Kathy Jones. The 533 manuscripts were handed over to archives and museums for the purpose of preservation. The special thing about the discovery: the majority of the roles are unique. The material was gradually restored and also partially digitized. A year later, Dawson’s Grand Palace Theater was showing films that had been restored at the time.
But it was New York film director Bill Morrison who first gave this astonishing discovery the attention it deserves in 2016. In his documentary “Dawson City: Frozen Time” he demonstrates the significance of the materials found. He derived a small cultural history from 372 feature films, newsletters, sports news, and science programmes. At that time, cinemas were one of the few sources of information for remote cities and news movies were the connection to the outside world. Find is a rich cross-section of information that came to Dawson at the time: news of the 1914 Ludlow Massacre, in which the National Guard shot coal miners in Colorado, or previously unseen photographs of the 1919 World Series baseball. A betting scandal ensued. overwhelmed her.
This discovery is invaluable in terms of film history: among the reels were silent films that were considered lost, such as the films of D.W. Griffith and Tod Browning, films from early Hollywood. The common denominator among them all is the so-called “Dawson Filter”, a flutter in the picture: despite otherwise favorable conditions, moisture in the permafrost left traces of celluloid: a white pattern at the edges of the picture, which literally writes the history of the films. The film preserves history, illustrating the discovery on several levels.
And the movie in the Yukon River? Not found yet. Bill Morrison hypothesizes that it could also have been preserved in water. The treasure hunt, perhaps, is not over yet.