Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: J Searle Dawley

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).

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A Christmas Carol (1910)

I don’t know for certain whether this was the first adaptation of Charles Dickens’s classic tale to the screen, but certainly it is the oldest I’ve seen. It wouldn’t surprise me if a British filmmaker had beaten the Americans to the punch, but this version is directed for Edison by J. Searle Dawley, the same man who brought us “Frankenstein” in the same year and directed D.W. Griffith’s performance in “Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest.”

Christmas CarolMarc McDermott chews the scenery as Ebenezer Scrooge, a tight-fisted miser without a friend in the world. We see him berate Bob Cratchit (played by Charles Ogle) at his office before he rudely receives and then turns out petitioners from a charitable society and his own nephew. He yells at Cratchit for leaving early on Christmas Eve, then goes home himself. He is confronted by the transparent face of the deceased Jacob Marley on his door knocker. Then, as he prepares for bed Marley comes to warn him that he needs to change his ways or be condemned, as he is. The “Spirit of Christmas” (singular) shows him images of his past, present, and likely future. The images of the past are quite detailed and show a young Scrooge in happier times, the present is limited to images of Cratchit’s family and his nephew’s party, and the future shows him a tombstone which reads: “Ebenezer Scrooge, He Lived and Died Without a Friend.” Scrooge awakes the next morning to children caroling at his doorstep and throws money at them. He meets the charitable society people and hands them bills. He goes to find his nephew and makes him his business partner. And he brings him and his fiancé over to Bob Cratchit’s, where he pretends to be furious, then surprises the family with a huge goose. Scrooge and nephew are invited to dinner and everyone is happy.

Christmas Carol1Like many movies of this period, the success of this one largely depends upon one’s familiarity with the story. Fortunately this story is as familiar today (especially after its many screen versions) as it was then. I thought McDermott did a great job of conveying the necessary emotions: meanness at the beginning, then fear and remorse, followed by the jolly pranksterism of his reformed self. We never got to hear, or read in Intertitles, his famous “Bah, humbug” line, but he makes up for it by curtly dismissing his visitors with a bow. At times, it looks like he might hit poor Cratchit with his cane, he’s so furious about him leaving early on Christmas Eve. We do see Tiny Tim, but only briefly. We see him limping with a crutch, but there isn’t much emphasis on him as a point of interest for Scrooge or Cratchit. We only get one ghost, but at least all aspects of the story are retained in the short run time.

Christmas Carol2The ghostly effects are probably the part of this movie that interest most viewers today (and possibly at the time as well). They are accomplished through multiple-exposure, and required fairly precise editing and staging techniques to work. Still, for 1910 they are hardly innovative; Georges Méliès had done for more complex multiple exposures well before this. They do work well enough for the story, however. The other question they raise is whether I should count this as part of my history of horror, always a tricky question in terms of this story, which is both warm hearted and filled with horrific imagery. Because fright plays such a major role in the story arc (it’s the whole reason for Scrooge’s change), I’m labeling it as such.

Christmas Carol3

Director: J. Searle Dawley

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Marc McDermott, Charles S Ogle, Viola Dana, Carey Lee

Run Time: 10 Min

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

Copper Mines at Bingham, Utah (1911) (Fragment)

Bingham Utah 1920

This short clip from an “actuality” or documentary film shows a mining town in a valley so deep that the growing population can only expand in a single dimension. An intertitle tells us that the town is “six miles long and sixty feet wide.” It also appears to be broken down into ethnic enclaves: we are told that we are seeing an “Italian settlement” and a “Greek settlement.” Both consist of the fronts of ramshackle huts apparently without running water or other amenities; in the Italian quarter there are laundry lines run along front porches. The bustling “main street” (though it’s hard to see how there could be more than one street) is a mass of signs for various service business, stores and especially bars. Apparently this community was completely destroyed in years to come by the Kennecott open-pit copper mine.

Director: J. Searle Dawley

Run Time: 1 Min

I have not been able to locate this clip for free online. If you know where it can be seen, please tell us in the comments.

Frankenstein (1910)

Frank-1910bis

I want to dedicate the month of October to the development of the “horror” film, although as genre, it didn’t really get going until the advent of German Expressionism after the First World War. Still, I’ve discussed a few examples and influences before, but for the theme this Edison movie is perhaps the best place to start, because, of everything made 100+ years ago, it is probably the most recognizably a horror movie. Edison no longer dominated the market at this time, but they were still producing some innovative films, as this demonstrates.  The use of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel would return, of course, and arguably be done better in the sound period. But, this movie is not to be underrated. I particularly enjoyed the creation sequence and the emergence of the monster through an elaborate animation sequence. The creature itself is downright creepy, although maybe the poor quality of the print explains why I was able to imagine that some of the rags it wore were actually strips of skin. The end, in which the monster looks into the mirror and fades away, leaving behind its reflection, which Dr. Frankenstein walks up and sees, may be a kind of statement about the degree to which the creature is a projection of Frankenstein’s twisted genius, which, the movie suggests, is overcome by love.

Director: J. Searle Dawley

Cast: Augustus Phillips, Charles Ogle, Mary Fuller

Run Time: 12 Min 41 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.