A 1916 Snow White Film Inspired Disney’s Landmark Movie
Note: This is the eighty-eighth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my third favorite 1916 film, SNOW WHITE, directed by J. Searle Dawley.
Yes, the legend (propagated by Walt himself) is that Disney saw J. Searle Dawley’s 1916 film SNOW WHITE in Kansas City as a child, cementing the magic of movies in his head and inspiring his own iconic animated take on the Grimm fairy tale. Of course, he wasn’t working from the example of this film entirely, but he wouldn’t have been reliably able to if he wanted to; the film was lost shortly after its first run in theaters, but a print was rediscovered in the 1990s. And now we can see what sparked the imagination of a 15-year-old Disney.
And, honestly, the existing relic is pretty convincing. It’s not the most incredible fantasy film even of its era, but SNOW WHITE is an enjoyable adaptation of a well-known tale. I’ve written about Dawley before, most notably with FRANKENSTEIN (1910), a striking adaptation for its time. This was probably the height of his career, at least artistically, as his move to Famous Players Lasky/Paramount resulted in some formative films for the burgeoning Hollywood feature film industry. In fact, SNOW WHITE was touted for its six-reel length. Today, that distinction isn’t so incredible, especially considering the most well-known films of the day; that is, D.W. Griffith’s massive duology THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915) and INTOLERANCE (1916).
But SNOW WHITE’s scope, especially in telling a medieval fairy tale, was impressive for its time. It wasn’t entirely (or mostly) Dawley’s brain child, however. The film was adapted from the 1912 play SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS by its own playwright, Winthrop Ames. This blueprint has numerous deviations for those most familiar with the Disney film or original story, but the general outline is the same. Ames wasn’t the only person brought into the film’s production from the play, though. Playing the titular character, Marguerite Clark reprised her role from the Broadway production. A waifish woman who, like her contemporary rival Mary Pickford, played young ingenues into her thirties, Clark had made a name on the stage and transferred to film in 1914 with more success. She actually competed in brand recognition with the aforementioned Pickford, although we know who ended up winning that distinction of Hollywood superstar. This is partly because much of Clark’s work has been lost to time, but also because she retired from acting in 1921 at age 38.
Snow White is probably Clark’s defining role today, and she plays the iconic character well. As you might expect, the stage acting style of the day is all over her performance, and in fact, everyone’s performance in the film. But she does a good job in portraying the “daintiness” of the princess while adding some positive charm and a bit of determination. But her co-stars would end up being more notable to future audiences. Creighton Hale played love interest (and cousin!) Prince Florimond, the typical dashing and noble savior. Hale would make a mark on two Griffith productions, WAY DOWN EAST (1920) and ORPHANS OF THE STORM (1921), but my connection is his role as anxious nerd Paul Jones in Paul Leni’s phenomenal horror-comedy THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1927). And Dorothy Cumming, who played Queen Brangomar (a separate character from the witch in this film), would go on to play the Virgin Mary in Cecil B. DeMille’s THE KING OF KING’s (1927) and Lillian Gish’s opponent in THE WIND (1928).
And these connections indicate the birth of silent Hollywood as we know it. Film actors and directors coming into the industry at this point could and would stick around into the talkie era and late Golden Age, and the formula for a good picture was solidifying to a certain extent. SNOW WHITE is a perfect example of this, a transitory film in the middle of the world that Dawley came from (short dramatic adaptations from studios like Edison) and the world that would be born from Griffith influence in the late 1910s and early 1920s. The structure of SNOW WHITE is a little strange, a little rambly, as if there were difficulty in making this a full feature film. But its issues are nowhere near the difficulties faced in watching the earliest features from 1912 or 1913, such as IVANHOE (1913), an admitted favorite of mine.
SNOW WHITE is an enjoyable film, with costumes and sets just convincing enough to herald a new type of film production but just cheap enough to also bring the certain charm of a school play. The dwarfs, in particular, are great characters, played by what appear to be children in silly fake beards and patchwork clothes. The Huntsman’s dilemma is also played to surprising effect by Lionel Braham. The film, despite its well-known source material, also holds an air of novelty because of its unique details in the story, although of course the net result of each act is still easily telegraphed. SNOW WHITE is a film that impresses in hindsight, an experience that can drag or seem old-fashioned in the moment but ultimately leaves a feeling of competence. It’s a well-made film and the sights it offers are just fantastical enough so as to transport you to another world. Its historical relevance and context, as well as its connection to another, much beloved film, might also have an effect on this feeling. But then, no one is quite able to separate those kinds of things.