J. Searle Dawley Films Ranked

Note: “The Ranks of the Auteurs” is a written series that traces notable people, studios, and series throughout film history and ranks their work. This is the twelfth installment, featuring J. Searle Dawley, who was born on May 13, 1877 in Del Norte, Colorado and died on March 30, 1949 in Hollywood, California.

J. Searle Dawley isn’t a film or Hollywood giant. Directing films for Edison beginning in 1907, Dawley would eventually go out west and make films for Paramount and its predecessor company Famous Players Film Company. The third of three major collaborators director Edwin S. Porter would work with (who I wrote about last week), Dawley somewhat inherited his “mentor’s” straight forward, chameleon style, although he would take it further into the silent era. Nevertheless, Dawley made his last film in 1926. But he left behind a legacy of adaptations. This was not a novel concept even in the earliest days of cinema. But Dawley’s innovation was transposing themes and conjuring visuals inspired by the source material, giving rise to the Hollywood method of telling previously told fictional, and indeed, even “true” stories. I’ve ranked his 12 most accessible films below.

#12 — THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE (1912)

This little dramatic historical reenactment is interesting because of its horses and “desolate” on-location shots, but it’s dry.

#11 — A SUBURBANITE’S INGENIOUS ALARM (1908)

Co-directed with Porter, this comedy short features a pretty boneheaded homeowner setting up an alarm that results in him being dragged throughout town by a horse-drawn carriage. Silly!

#10 — FIRESIDE REMINISCENCES (1908)

Another Porter collab, FIRESIDE REMINISCENCES features some impressive superimpositions of other scenes into a fireplace, but otherwise, this “tearjerker” isn’t super affecting.

#9 — THE TRAINER’S DAUGHTER; OR, A RACE FOR LOVE (1907)

There are some impressive shots of horse racing in THE TRAINER’S DAUGHTER, and convincing interior sets, especially the stable with a view of the track in the background. But then, it’s not clear who had more direct control over the cinematography that sets this short apart, Dawley or Porter.

#8 — A LITTLE GIRL WHO DID NOT BELIEVE IN SANTA CLAUSE (1907)

Dawley and Porter’s Christmas short tells a cute little story about, well, you guessed it. As I said in my Porter piece: “I was most impressed by the close up shots at the beginning and the superimposition of another scene during a dream.”

#7 — CUPID’S PRANKS (1908)

CUPID’S PRANKS is a another cute little short with some funny high jinks involving romance. The early “close up,” the set of Cupid’s home, and the effect(s) of his flying over the world establish a fantastical mise en scène before stepping into more typical environments…just with a kid with wings in a diaper in the mix.

#6 — RESCUED FROM AN EAGLE’S NEST (1908)

Best known for introducing D.W. Griffith to the film world, albeit as an actor, RESCUED FROM AN EAGLE’S NEST is a goofy melodramatic short that is worth watching entirely for the “cabin on a cliff overlooking the landscape” set and the visual of a fake eagle carrying a baby against a scrolling painted backdrop.

#5 — THE SONG THAT REACHED HIS HEART (1910)

THE SONG THAT REACHED HIS HEART, set in the “lumber regions of western Canada” (also listed as the film’s subtitle), exists in supremely good condition, which may raise its esteem in my eyes. Nevertheless, the earliest exterior shots are more impressively shot than most anything Dawley would do at Edison, and the rest of the melodrama is compelling enough.

#4 — A ROMANCE OF THE CLIFF DWELLERS (1911)

This prehistoric picture, somewhat of a strange trend throughout the first half of the 1910s (Chaplin made one, Griffith did too), has also been listed as directed by Porter. IMDB, however, just lists Dawley, so we’ll go with that. In any event, A ROMANCE OF THE CLIFF DWELLERS features some pretty incredible long shots of what I assume to be actual cliff dwellings, or otherwise really impressive, more elaborate sets than anything else produced by Edison. The story is pretty rote weird caveman stuff, but the movie is bookended by great sights: the aforementioned cliff dwellings, but also roaring falls and an almost Impressionistic backdrop painting of a night sky and winding river at the end.

#3 — A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1910)

A triumvirate directorial production made between Dawley, Charles Kent, and Ashley Miller, this Dickens adaptation is part of the “trilogy” of the most important (and best) films Dawley would make. Look, it’s not a groundbreaking production, but A CHRISTMAS CAROL is a solid adaptation for the era with impressive ghost effects and a Scrooge performance that is more nuanced than a lot of other performances from peers. It’s all relative, of course.

#2 — FRANKENSTEIN (1910)

But FRANKENSTEIN was truly more nuanced than its peers. This is a true Hollywood production (although it wasn’t made in Hollywood) in that it isn’t incredibly faithful to the source material. Of course, no film adaptation from the time could be so in under 20 minutes, but with FRANKENSTEIN, Dawley deliberately makes different choices in the motivations of the titular doctor and his monster. And the creation sequence of the monster, “baked” in a strange furnace/oven contraption, is truly awe-inspiring, a reverse motion shot of the burning of a macabre figure. FRANKENSTEIN is a great indication of the turn to more ambitious dramatic features within the next few years.

#1 — SNOW WHITE (1916)

And SNOW WHITE was one of those products of that 1914–1916 period of early American features. Famously touted as the film that inspired Walt Disney to make movies and, eventually, his own adaptation of the fairy tale, SNOW WHITE is the only feature film on this list. And fittingly, it’s Dawley’s most ambitious and successful work. A lot of these praises need to be somewhat tempered with the “for the time” disclaimer, but SNOW WHITE showcases some pretty costumes, well-designed sets, convincing on-location choices, and exaggerated performances that nevertheless fit the fairy tale wrapping. But the rough-ish production is part of the film’s goofy charm; I mean, the dwarfs are clearly children with fake beards on. It’s silly and endearing. And ultimately, SNOW WHITE accomplishes and meets the cinematic potential by transporting you to another, full-fledged world, visible wires and all.

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