Poker at Dawson City (1899)

Directed by James H. White

I have big plans for this marathon centering around a group of films which either are about the game of poker, or at least feature it heavily. To start things off, we have two very early silent short films which feature the game. One, extremely short, and another which shows the potential pitfalls of the game in a comedic way. Both shorts are a great starting point to better understand how the game of poker was/is perceived by the general public, which is largely a rowdy game full of immoral cheats who try to steal each other’s money. Flash forward over 100 years and I think the game and the perception has come a long way, but that stigma still exists to some extent. Hopefully through this journey we can discover the evolving nature of the game of poker, and how society has changed its viewpoint on the classic American card game, if at all. But first, we start with these two shorts which show anything but respect for the game. First off we have Poker at Dawson City, an extremely short Edison film from the 1800s!

Coming in at just under 20 seconds total (if that), the film obviously lacks what we’ve come to know about movies today, even short films. As with many of the Edison shorts, this clip is more about spectacle than telling a fully formed narrative. Despite that, even in the brief time, we can be made to understand what is going on in this scene, and even extrapolate out some extra stories through our imagination. For instance, this brawl that we are seeing, what is it the result of? Given the title of the film, we can surmise a disagreement that arose from a game of poker in Dawson City, deep in the Yukon where the gold rush was ongoing. So what caused the disagreement? Surely some accusation of cheating, with the bartender coming in to help cool off the players. At 20 seconds, it might as well be a painting we examine and draw our own conclusions to. But what is fascinating to me about this film specifically is the context surrounding it. Staged at Edison’s New Jersey studios, this is actually a contemporary film, with the Yukon gold rush taking place between 1896-1899. Released in 1899, the film is showing us current events of prospectors in Dawson City. Of course it’s staged, but looking back on the film 120+ years later, it really is a marvel, an incredible thing to consider that such a scene could have ever been contemporary, especially in the medium of motion pictures.

Criticizing this film as a work of artistic achievement, or giving it a rating is a little bit of a trite exercise in my opinion, but that is what we do, right? Bottom line is that Poker at Dawson City is one of those novelty films, an early adoption of the form which presents a subject for less than a minute for more spectacle than story. That doesn’t lessen its impact or importance in the history of film, especially in the history of poker in film. We may not see the game explicitly being played here, instead we’re treated a brawl after the fact, but “poker” is in the title, which suggests it was in the popular consciousness, and likely also largely associated with the wild west, saloons, brawls, and cheating. As the first depiction of the game in film history, it’s not exactly a favorable starting point, but it’s a starting point. I think we’ll see this type of depiction and interpretation a lot in the early films about or featuring the game. But as with anything, the game evolves, culture evolves, and we will definitely get to a point where the game is more interesting and even celebrated in some respects. And since there was no actual game shown, there is no variant to explain, or hand to analyze, but I hope to include those types of discussions in future poker film reviews when they become relevant. But for now, Poker at Dawson City works as an artifact of a time gone by, a time when poker was still present and popular. That isn’t worth nothing. The game has stood the test of time and is one of America’s greatest pastimes.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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