Imagine walking into a theater in 1910 and watching the newest silent melodrama in town. There are struggles for manly supremacy and vindication, hilarious slapstick, near and actual collisions between people, trains, horses, cars, buildings, dogs and trees and, of course, womanly virtue at stake at every turn. You see the life you live blown up beyond your wildest dreams and plastered across a screen as big as a house.
OK, the houses were smaller then, as were the screens. Even so, the blackness of the theatre and the gasps and cries of horror, outrage and gleeful celebration of your next-door neighbors on every side made the experience more real than any show a hundred years later. No matter how good the special effects, how loud the 15-speaker sound, how 3D the 3D, there was never a cinematic experience to match coming out of the hot, or cold, sitting in a cushy seat, and watching your dreams, and nightmares, come true on the silver screen.
We still have some of these great films. But when 500 of them started literally coming out the ground, like undead zombies pushing away the dirt of the present day, a bulldozer operator in Dawson City in Canada knew he had hit pay dirt. Not since the playing out of the last gold claim had so much startlingly unexpected wealth been discovered. Underneath the former hockey rink, used as back fill to stabilize a no longer used swimming pool, the nitrate prints had been buried in cardboard boxes. No film cans, no reels, just coils in the dirt.
Damaged, yes, but with streaks and pieces still completely intact. After the most painstaking recovery and restoration they came back to life. Piece by piece. An arm here, a leg there, the body of work drew together like a dismembered mummy slapped back to consciousness in modern times. Wrapped for ages in beer boxes, the segments have been carefully sewn together into a frolicking Frankenstein of the cinematic imagination unleashed.
It is impossible to say how much of the splotches, scratches, tears, burns, mold polkas, mass wrinkles and muddy fingerprints were on the prints when they came to Dawson and how much was simply there by the grace of time. But the result is the most amazing rebirth of the most amazing art form of modern man — the slapdash, real-time, shoot and print no matter what ending with a kiss on the lips and black ink on the bottom line.
In the era of these movies coming to Dawson, the city was the last stop. Having seen the laughter, crying, thrills and amazement of audiences all over North America, they were to be played there, the nickels collected and the percentage sent to the studio. Then, like Snow White, the studios ordered the films to be sent to the woods with the huntsman and destroyed. But the huntsmen, or theater owners, did not destroy the movies. They were passed down through fire and flood, wealth and destitution, happiness and despair from hand to hand, until they are now enshrined forever in this wonderful collection. If you have ever seen a single silent movie that speaks to you with its simplicity, or amazes you with its absurdity, see this film.
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