Buried film history

In 1978 a cache of five hundred film reels was discovered under an ice rink in Dawson City, Yukon. These buried reels included the only copy of films that had been lost for decades.

Dawson City
Eric A. Hegg, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There’s a poignant line in the Scorsese film Hugo: “time hasn’t been kind to old movies.” Early film was made of highly flammable nitrate, and a series of film vault fires in the first half of the twentieth century wiped out a significant portion of silent cinema. Three quarters of all silent films, perhaps more, are today considered lost. The second film directed by Alfred Hitchcock is gone; Douglas Fairbanks Jr.’s first film is gone; the first filmed version of A Christmas Carol is gone.

Every now and then, a long lost film is rediscovered. For scholars of cinema every discovery is a revelation, a new piece in the tattered and frayed historical record. But few discoveries were as exciting as the Dawson Film Find in 1978.

First, we must rewind a bit.

Between 1896 and 1898, the town of Dawson City in the Yukon went from 500 residents to more than 30,000. It was the Klondike Gold Rush, and prospectors from across the Americas swarmed to the Yukon to seek their fortunes. The craze tapered off at the turn of the century and Dawson City’s population shrunk, but there were still enough people to warrant screenings of the latest craze: film.

At this time films were typically circulated amongst cinemas, but many of the films that went to Dawson City stayed in Dawson City instead. The reels were stored in a bank, and later on in a local library. In 1929 those reels (flammable and dangerous) were buried underneath an ice rink – this was done to stabilise the rink and free up some storage space.

The Yukon is very cold, and ice rinks are also very cold. The film, buried in frozen earth, stayed well preserved and safe for nearly fifty years. In 1978 builders dug up the ice rink and discovered the films.

Buried treasure! The recovered films included prints of Universal’s first film serial (Lucille Love, Girl of Mystery, directed by Francis Ford), D. W. Griffith’s Brutality (starring Lionel Barrymore and Lillian Gish), Fatty Arbuckle shorts, Todd Browning’s The Exquisite Thief, and The Girl of the Northern Woods (by one of the first film studios in the world, the Thanhouser Company), and footage of the infamous 1919 World Series.

Some of these films survived nowhere else on Earth, and would have been lost forever but for luck and the permafrost of the Klondike.

[Thanks to Today I Learned.]

One Reply to “Buried film history”

  1. I’ve read that a great deal of these old lost movies were used for fire scenes in other movies.

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