Hindsight is a two-edged sword. On one hand, it can give us a useful perspective on historical events; on the other, it can saddle us with preconceptions that make those events difficult to understand or appreciate. To the first-time viewer, the 1916 Famous Players version of Snow White can be a puzzling experience. It seems to have little in common with what are now regarded as the two definitive versions of the Snow White story, the 1812 publication by the Grimm Brothers and the classic Walt Disney film of 1937, even though it had an indirect influence on the latter.
In fact, the Famous Players Snow White is a descendant of several theatrical adaptations, each of which had taken increasing liberties with the particulars of the Grimm fairy tale. The film’s most immediate ancestor was a stage version by American theatrical impresario Winthrop Ames, who had presented it on Broadway as a special children’s attraction at his Little Theatre in 1912. Ames had written the script himself, under the pseudonym Jessie Braham White, and had carefully supervised every detail of the presentation. His choice for the lead was Marguerite Clark, a 25-year-old actress under his management. Clark, already a 12-year Broadway veteran, had demonstrated that she could play a wide range of parts, and she readily took to the child/woman role of Snow White. “I have never enjoyed playing anything so much,” she told the New York Times.
Ames’s Snow White enjoyed a successful theatrical run in 1912–13 and was revived for years afterward (the script is still in print today, performed occasionally by schools and other children’s groups). In the meantime, Marguerite Clark followed up her years on the stage by signing a contract with Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players Film Company in 1914. During the next two years, she starred in more than a dozen features, playing roles as varied as a young reformatory inmate in The Crucible and both title roles in The Prince and the Pauper, before the studio decided to make a film version of her stage success in Snow White. Paramount, distributor of the Famous Players productions, announced the film as a special Christmas attraction for 1916. The trade press made much of its running time. Breaking with the standard of five-reel program features, Paramount released Snow White in six reels. “It will be the first picture of this length ever released on the Paramount Program,” Motion Picture News announced.
Winthrop Ames signed with Famous Players to adapt his play for the movies. The director, J. Searle Dawley, had already been with the studio for three years, working with luminaries such as Mary Pickford and Mrs. Fiske, as well as Marguerite Clark. Snow White, the film, retained most of Ames’s departures from the Grimm Brothers tale: the names of the characters; Snow White’s forced servitude as a kitchen drudge in the castle; and the division of the Queen’s role into two separate characters—Queen Brangomar and Witch Hex—largely for comic effect. For their adaptation, Dawley and Ames added even more departures, many of them designed to take advantage of the magical effects possible in the movies. In 1912, Ames had introduced the idea of
a brown bird that guided Snow White through the forest to the dwarfs’ house and otherwise came to her aid. Onstage, the brown bird had been played by a stuffed bird suspended on a wire. For the film, Dawley used a live bird and expanded its role in the plot, cobbling together a “performance” from artfully edited closeups. The forest exteriors, filmed in the woods near Savannah, Georgia, featured Spanish moss hanging from the tree branches—perhaps an incongruous sight in an Old World fairy-tale setting, but certainly a picturesque one.
Apart from Marguerite Clark, none of the players from the 1912 stage production repeated their roles in the film, but silent film enthusiasts will recognize two of the Snow White actors. Creighton Hale, playing Prince Florimond, was at the beginning of a long and busy career that included character roles in Griffith’s Way Down East (1920) and Orphans of the Storm (1921), as well as a starring role in Paul Leni’s The Cat and the Canary (1927). Dorothy Cumming, still 15 years away from her unforgettable performance as the bitter, vengeful wife in Victor Sjöström’s The Wind, appears as Queen Brangomar.
In an interview with the New York Telegraph at the time of the film’s release, director Dawley praised cameraman H. Lyman Broening for his camera effects, singling out the trick effect near the film’s end in which a crown magically appears on Snow White’s head. In the scene, the crown seems to appear gradually out of thin air, a cross-dissolve created by fading out on Snow White, winding the film back in the camera, and fading in again with the crown in place. Theoretically this shouldn’t be a difficult procedure, and it’s not the only such effect in the film. In this instance, Broening filmed it in long shot, on a stage crowded with players. In order for the transition to appear seamless on the screen, Marguerite Clark and all the players had to remain motionless while Broening faded out the first shot, stopped the camera and wound back the film, then faded in the second shot with the crown in place. “It is the first time, so far as I know,” said Dawley, “that this double exposure trick has been employed with a whole stage full of people.”
Part of Snow White’s appeal for audiences today is the role it played in later film history. At a special “movie party” presentation at Kansas City’s huge Convention Hall in January 1917, it made a powerful impression on 15-year-old Walt Disney. Four prints of the film were projected on a giant four-sided screen suspended in the center of the hall, while an orchestra provided the musical accompaniment. Disney later cited the event as a factor in his selection of Snow White as the story for his first feature-length film. The two films seem at first to have nothing in common. The Paramount film abounds in supporting characters and subplots that wander far from both the Grimm and the Disney tellings. However, the alert viewer can spot visual motifs and ideas that may well have influenced young Walt.
Snow White disappeared from view after that first round of exhibition in 1916–17, and neither Disney nor anyone else saw it again for decades afterward. It was reportedly the victim of a vault fire that destroyed the negatives of all Marguerite Clark’s Paramount films. Moreover, by the time of the fire, practically no prints of her films seemed to have survived. In one fell swoop, the film career of this lovely actress was virtually erased from history. Years afterward, film historians Edward Wagenknecht and DeWitt Bodeen wrote lyrically of Clark’s sparkling screen presence in those lost films, Wagenknecht declaring that not having seen her was “like saying you have never seen a silver birch or a daffodil.” For several generations, their written accounts remained only tantalizing reminders of the loss.
Then, in 1992, a tinted nitrate release print of Snow White with Dutch titles turned up in Amsterdam. A few scenes, notably the delivery of the infant Snow White to her parents by a comical stork, were missing, but the story was substantially complete and the picture quality was excellent. The print was returned to the United States and, with the support of the National Film Preservation Foundation, restored at George Eastman House. Thanks to their efforts, we can join the young Walt Disney—and the rest of a generation of 1916–17 moviegoers—in discovering this charming, reclaimed chapter of film history.
Presented at Silent Winter 2013 with live music by Donald Sosin