Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Famous Players Film Co

Snow White (1916)

Fairy tales made good sources for early silent movies – they were child-friendly, had simple plotlines that were already familiar to nearly all audiences, and gave opportunities for the use of camera tricks to represent their magic. This one in particular was fondly remembered years later by Walt Disney, who saw it as a teenager, as one of the inspirations that made him want to make movies.

Snow_White_1916The movie begins with an odd prologue that seems out of place today: Santa Claus enters a modern home and conjures a Christmas tree and several dolls. A small child peeks out to see this wonder, and is all the more amazed when the dolls come to life and represent diminutive versions of our cast on her tabletop. The movie then moves into more familiar territory with a Queen who pricks her finger while sewing on a snowy day, and then wishes for a child with snow white skin, blood red lips, and jet black hair. Of course, she gets the child but dies shortly thereafter and Snow White (played by Marguerite Clark) is raised by an evil stepmother who conspires with a witch to become the “fairest of them all.” The witch gives her a mirror that always tells the truth and warns her that, if it ever breaks, her true ugliness will be revealed. Meanwhile, Snow White drudges in the kitchen, but still gets to have eight or nine ladies in waiting, all of whom have nicer clothes than she does. She goes to visit her friend the huntsman and his three children, and along the way she meets the Prince of the neighboring country of “Calydon” (Creighton Hale). They seem to like one another, but she’s coy and doesn’t tell her name. She also convinces the children to release a bird from its cage. Then there’s a ball, and Snow White dresses as one of her own ladies in waiting to get in. She gets to dance with the Prince, who announces that he’s in love with her, but the Queen says they have to wait a year to get married while she sends Snow White to finishing school.

A Princess...

A Princess…

Now the Queen orders the huntsman to kill Snow White and bring her heart (the witch wants to eat it because then she will get Snow White’s hair). If he fails, his children will be locked in the tower to starve, so he reluctantly agrees. Of course, he can’t do it and kills a pig instead. But, he does abandon Snow White in the middle of the forest, apparently quite close to a lion which never actually gets into the same shot with her. Fortunately, the little bird comes back and convinces Snow White to follow it to the Dwarves’ house. They are out mining and Snow White steals some of their food and sleeps in one of their small beds. Then, they come home and find her there, and immediately they want her to stay “so they can look at her.” They pile gifts before her while she sleeps, and she apologizes for stealing food when she wakes up. One Dwarf sleeps in a barrel so she can keep the bed. Then, they go off to their mines while Snow White sews and dances with butterflies. The Queen has figured out how she was deceived now (the witch’s hair turns into pigtails), so she locks up the huntsman and his kids. He manages to escape by bending the bars, and luckily the little bird gives him some rope to haul up the kids and he strangles a guard and takes his keys.

...and a Prince.

…and a Prince.

The Queen and the witch have turned the Queen into a traveling crone, and she convinces Snow White to put a poisoned comb in her hair. She falls down dead, but the little bird tells a rabbit, who summons the Dwarves. They take the comb out of her hair and she’s OK. Now the Queen turns into a Pieman who gets her to eat a poisoned apple, which apparently the Dwarves can’t heal. They get the Prince, who mourns his love’s death, and also the huntsman who vows bloody revenge. They take the body to the castle and confront the Queen, but while they do so, Snow White comes back to life because the bit of apple comes un-stuck from her throat. The Queen smashes the mirror and turns ugly and the witch gets the Queen’s hair, which makes her happy. Then everyone bows to the new Queen – Snow White. She marries the Prince and invites the Dwarves to stay with them in the castle.

Snow White2

There are some scenes that jump in this movie, and it’s sometimes not clear what happened in between. I’m going to give the benefit of the doubt to director J. Searle Dawley and assume that the existing print is missing some frames. Since it was lost for nearly 80 years, we should be thankful to have it at all, and it’s possible to guess what happened in between. Most of the movie is shot in long- and medium-shot, generally in theatrical proscenium-style with exits and entrances by actors and no camera movement, except the tilt downward that introduces Marguerite Clark on the kitchen floor. The story mostly plays out sequentially, but we get inter-cutting to heighten tension in the scenes where Snow White is poisoned by the comb and the escape of the huntsman. Unfortunately, these are some of the jumpier parts of the movie, suggesting that either damage or badly done re-cuts messed up the storytelling. The prologue is explained by the fact that the movie was released on Christmas of 1916, though it still seems out of place.

Snow White3Clark was 33 years old when this movie was made, and had played the role onstage for two years. She was short and girlish, so it still works, and I think her added acting experience made her a better choice than most young actresses would have been. The costumes deserve a mention – most of the cast is in what seem to be French-style clothes from the Court of Louis XVI, although the Calydons wear what look like more English styles. As the Prince, Creighton Hale actually gets the most interesting costumes: when we first meet him he looks sort of like Robin Hood, then his clothes are more like Elizabethan-era nobility, and at the end he has a tri-corn hat and cloak, like a Revolution-era civilian. By comparison, Marguerite starts out in rags, but moves up to the somewhat frilly dress of the ladies in waiting, and then spends the rest of the movie in a bland, fairly shapeless dress. At the end they stick a crown on her head and call it good. There’s an interesting hierarchy of height in the movie: Clark is about the same height as all her ladies in waiting, who are in general much shorter than the other adult actors. The Dwarves are played by children, who are of course shorter than anyone, and the huntsman towers over everyone, reminding me at times of Charlie Chaplin’s villains Mack Swain and Eric Campbell. Fans of Grumpy, Sneezy, etc. won’t get much out of these Dwarves, they have names like Flick, Glick, and Wick and are pretty interchangeable.

Snow White4In light of the story about Disney, I kept an eye out for familiar-looking scenes. The animated “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was one of the first movies I went to as a child (I cried during the lost-in-the-forest sequence and my parents had to take me to the lobby). The sequence where Clark dances with birds and butterflies looks somewhat like Disney’s interpretation, as does Snow White in her bier after death. Really, though, the main shot that made me think of the animated version was a mid-shot of Clark sewing at a window while light streamed onto her face. Of course, Disney’s memory had probably faded in the intervening 21 years, with the original listed as “lost” all that time.

Director: J. Searle Dawley

Camera: H. Lyman Broening

Starring: Marguerite Clark, Creighton Hale, Dorothy Cumming, Alice Washburn

Run Time: 1 hr, 3 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).

September 1915

The Battle of Loos

The Battle of Loos

The news in September continues to focus on the War in Europe, although we have a few other notable events there and elsewhere to talk about.

War News:

Battle of Loos: British forces begin an attack on the French city of Loos, September 25. New Army units are put into the battle, and the British use poison gas for the first time in this attack. Although it ultimately succeeds in October, the cost is high and the British are unable to press the attack. Losses on this first day of attack come because of failure to cut barbed wire prior to the advance and failure to bombard machine gun emplacements with clear views of the open fields across which British units advanced.

Air war: A Zeppelin raid destroys a London building on September 8, demonstrating the ability of Germany to bring the war home, even across the English Channel.

Serbian Army Private Radoje Lutovac shoots down an enemy plane on September 30, being the first in history to destroy an aircraft with surface-to-air fire

War Machines: The first prototype military tank is tested by the British on September 6.

Other News:

Politics: Dissident socialists gather in Switzerland to hold the Zimmerwald Conference, from September 5 to 8. Among the participants and authors of the “Zimmerwald Manifesto” is V.I Lenin, future leader of the USSR. The conferees affirmed the continuation of class struggle and the repudiation of the “civil peace” of reformist social democrats, with War itself declared to be an outgrowth of imperialism and colonialism in the interests of the ruling classes.

Toys: The first Raggedy Ann doll is patented on September 7. The doll will later become the star of a popular series of children’s books by Johnny Gruelle, an opponent of vaccination, and later become a symbol of the anti-vaccination movement.

Transportation: The Pennsylvania Railroad begins electrified commuter rail service on September 11 between Paoli and Philadelphia, using overhead AC trolley wires for power.

Film: A nitrate fire on September 11 at Famous Players in New York destroys several completed but unreleased silent films which are later remade. When film stock was made of nitrate, such fires were common and extremely difficult to handle – nitrate continues to burn when fully immersed in water. The use of nitrate has resulted in the loss of many films from the silent era.

Born: Jack Buetel, Sept 5, actor whose films would include “The Outlaw” and “Best of the Badmen;” Edmond O’Brien, Sept 10, actor appearing in “Seven Days in May” and “DOA;” and Douglas Kennedy, Sept 14, actor who was in “Invaders from Mars” and the “Steve Donovan, Western Marshall” TV series.

Cinderella (1914)


Mary Pickford (who we saw in “Friends” and “The New York Hat”) stars in this version of the classic fairy tale put out by Famous Players Film Company, which was still making movies in New York in late 1914. It makes use of tinting, split screens, close-ups, and other camera effects to show the magical world in which it takes place. Mary is both lovely and kind, while her stepmother and step-sisters are ugly and cruel. The intertitles often emphasize qualities such as these, rather than explaining actions or dialogue in greater detail. Mary actually meets Prince Charming (played by Owen Moore, who looks uncomfortable in leotards, and was in “Resurrection” and “In the Border States”) in the woods before the Ball, where he demonstrates his decency to the disdain of his retinue. Like Pickford, the director, James Kirkwood, Sr., had come up from working for D.W. Griffith in such early movies as “A Corner in Wheat” and “The Red Man’s View.” There’s a scene where the stepsisters go to visit a fortuneteller – a classic witch with a cauldron and a gaggle of dwarven familiars – to find out that “a member of your family” will be chosen by the Prince to marry. I’m fairly certain the witch is played by a man, but I couldn’t identify him.

Director: James Kirkwood, Sr.

Starring: Mary Pickford, Owen Moore, Inez Marcel

Run Time: 52 Min

You can watch it for free: here.