07 June 2009

Snow White (1916)

d. J. Searle Dawley / USA / 61 mins.

I think it's safe to say that if it were not for Walt Disney, few would care about this 1916 live action version of Snow White, directed by J. Searle Dawley and produced by the Famous Players Film Company. But as it is, this is the fabled film — long thought to be lost, moreover — that Disney saw as a young man growing up in Missouri, the film that stuck with him for twenty years and churned within his imagination and led not only to his vision of a feature-length animated film but the first animated masterpiece. If this film were ask the magic mirror which version of Brothers Grimm tale is the fairest of the them all, I'm not sure it would like the answer.

Even by 1916 standards, Snow White feels archaic, a throwback to the theater instead of a blazing future of cinema. Many chalk this up to the fact that the film is deeply rooted in Winthrop Ames' stage version of the Grimms' fairy tale. Ames wrote the screenplay for this film, and he and director Dawley frame it as proscenium in frequent static long-shot. Such a technique is hindered by its bland editing. I'll concede that a live staging of something so entrenched in my mind as an object of animation (by Disney, Flesicher, Clampett, and others) is partially interesting. And thirty-three-year-old Marguerite Clark, who played the role previously on Broadway under Ames's direction, turns in a lively performance that captures a bit more personality in the character of Snow White than many others. (Her childish demeanor makes it easy to escape the fact that she's about fifteen years older than she should be.)

Above all, I'm happy Disney found it to be as inspiring as he did. Perhaps if I were a fifteen-year-old Midwesterner at the dawning age of film I would have felt the same. But I'm not, and neither are you, so satisfy yourself with the knowledge that we've preserved this film to honor its rightful place in the chronology of cinema; then do your best to avoid seeking it out.


Sam Juliano,  10 June, 2009  

Ha! A polite but blunt dismissal at the end, but so it should be. I agree that the source material will always attract interest, but the teens offered more than enough of stagey, static presentations at a time when the possibilities of the medium were not even broached. I agree that Marguerite Clark was very good, and I'm also happy that Disney was so inspired (I guess we can safely say his 1937 masterpiece was at least in a small way indepted to this ancient relic) even if just for the novelty of film. I was bored stiff with this film, even though it barely scraped an hour. But I guess it's a miracle it's even with us, when you consider how many films were lost during that early decade.

A very fine piece of film scholarship again.

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