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April 1, 2007


Silent Reflections – Snow White (1916)


Snow White 040107

[Edited to add: This post is the first in an ongoing series of occasional reviews of silent movies. It was prompted by an on- and off-line conversation with Rishi Agrawal about silent movies in general and D.W. Griffith’s films in particular.]

I love silent movies. I’ve been an enthusiast for 15 years and watched hundreds of silent films. I began watching silents as an academic exercise to learn about film history and improve my film literacy, only to discover that silent cinema is a unique art form with its own unique pleasures. The 1920s (despite the year-plus of early talkies at the end) is my personal pick for the greatest decade in cinema history.

Love of silent movies is a lonely passion. I only know a couple of people I can have a good off-line conversation with about a silent movie, so the opportunity to carry on a virtual dialogue about silents is exciting. Although I like Rishi’s Film Chronology idea in the abstract and welcome any chance to talk about silents, even ones I don’t especially like or admire, I have serious reservations in the specific about the list of silent films he’s working from. General critics’ lists like the ones tallied by the folks behind They Shoot Pictures, Rishi’s source, are always heavily weighted to a few familiar big titles. While a few of the best films of the silent cinema are on that shortlist, many great silent films have been overlooked in favor of mediocre, but more famous ones. Because the critics concentrate on a non-representative handful of filmmakers and favored genres, the list doesn’t serve as a good film history primer either.

When Rishi first told me he was going to begin his series with The Birth of A Nation, Intolerance and Broken Blossoms I was dubious, even a little dismayed by his selections. I was afraid that if those were the only silent films of the 1910s that he watched, he would never want to watch another. I wrote some very uncomplimentary things about D.W. Griffith’s work in general and The Birth in particular in my comment to Rishi’s inaugural essay, and I meant every word of it. There are many more enjoyable and artistically superior films from that decade.

Even though I believe Griffith’s reputation as a masterful storyteller and as an actor’s director is exaggerated, I don’t question his place in the film history books. He’s one of those artists whose innovations are so widely and quickly incorporated into the dominant style that it is difficult, if not impossible, to appreciate his influence from watching his own films. For that, you need to watch something that was made in the style that Griffith made obsolete.

Although made after The Birth, Snow White is one of those films, filmed and staged in the “proscenium arch” style that predominated in early filmmaking. As the name suggests, watching one of those films is very much like watching a play in a stage theater. The camera is positioned as if it was a spectator sitting in the mid-center of the main floor and the action plays out in uncut “scenes” within the frame of an invisible proscenium arch. Snow White followed the still-common practice of adapting a popular stage show and the then-common practice of casting the stage star, Marguerite Clark, to reprise her role on film.

Judged against many of the technical standards of 1916, Snow White is a primitive throwback; its strict adherence to the proscenium arch style is already outdated. Nevertheless, it is a delightful, charming, and lively movie. Snow White’s artistic success is very much the exception, not the rule for this style of filmmaking. The limitations of the proscenium arch style actually work to the film’s advantage. The approach is peculiarly well-suited to the innate theatricality of the story and staging, which like the star was taken from the original theatrical show. In addition, Clark, who had already made a number of films and was a major star of the period, is wonderful, and the story is timeless.

Note: Snow White is available on DVD in a beautifully restored, color-tinted print in the first Treasures From American Film Archives set released by the National Film Preservation Foundation.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Apr 3 2007

    Great review Helen, I will definitely add this to my list of silents to see.

  2. bryoni
    Nov 15 2007

    put on the rules for a silent movie please

  3. Nir Shalev
    Sep 25 2009

    There is no doubt that Griffith was showcasing extreme racism with Birth of a Nation and there’s also a very good posibility that he was hugely racist but his film stands out as a textbook onto a dark chapter in American History.
    Birth of a Nation is a great film to dissect in terms of comprehending its content properly, much like Welles’ Kane but Kane is THE textbook on filmmaking. Many disagree that those two are great films but everyone agrees on their importance in better understanding films today.

    And now I need to see THIS version of Snow White!

  4. Oct 7 2010

    I had no idea that there was a “silent-era” version – interesting!
    I am also curious about the rules for watching silent movies, please elaborate.

  5. Helen
    Oct 7 2010

    Truthfully, I’m not sure exactly what the first commenter was getting at. There aren’t any rules per se for watching silent movies. However, I can offer some pointers to make the experience more rewarding, especially if you’re new to silents.

    First, be sure the DVD is good quality, by which I mean the transfer is at the correct speed and aspect ratio, is from a good (or at least best available) print, and has a custom music score. Thankfully this isn’t so much of an issue as it used it to be, but it always pays to be careful. Some of the companies you can count on to put out a good quality silent release are Kino, Image, Flicker Alley, and Criterion.

    Second, keep in mind that silents are not regular movies with the sound turned off. The acting styles and inter-titles (written cards with dialogue or descriptive information) are two distinct and noticeable differences, but there are also significant differences in editing and direction that allowed silent films to transcend the absence of sound.

    Third, don’t give up if you don’t like the first silent you see. Maybe you got one of the bad ones, or maybe you just didn’t like it. There’s a wide world of silent film out there!

    Fourth, you can’t multitask while watching a silent movie. I’ve gotten kind of bad about doing other things while I’m supposed to be watching a movie; reading, checking my email, websurfing, all the usual suspects. That won’t fly with a silent.

    And lastly, enjoy!

  6. Oct 12 2010

    Thanks for the reply! And I can appreciate the admonition to avoid multitasking – something many of us do today without even realizing that we are doing it. One thing that I have noticed, not jus in silent films, but even during the early days of “talkies”, and I have never discussed this with anyone – perhaps you can validate or deny or explain this “observation” of mine: It almost seems to me that the actors in early films used exaggerated body language and posturing, and later, delivery of their lines, almost as if to ensure that anyone watching would know that they are acting, rather than portraying real life. Maybe it’s just my imagination, or maybe all of the early films I have watched just had bad actors. ;)

  7. Helen
    Oct 14 2010

    Wow, that’s actually a really big question! :=)

    The simple answer is that acting styles have changed a lot over the years (115 years of cinema and counting!) and the trend has been to greater naturalism. However, there’s really a lot more to it than that.

    One thing to keep in mind is that, like any art form, filmmaking is constantly changing. The new generation wants to break from the past, audiences look for novelty, there are changing critical fashions, and film is always influenced to some degree by changes in social norms and the arts.

    I said that the trend was toward naturalism, but it’s not a straight path, and what seems naturalistic at the time can seem artificial at a later time. (Yes, I’m an “on the other hand” kind of thinker.)

    An instructive comparison is James Cagney and James Dean. Cagney is legendary for his “acting is a job” attitude; you learned your lines, played your scene, and left the character on the set when you went home. Dean exemplifies the Method acting that was in vogue in the 1950s; you inhabit the character emotionally to bring greater realism to the screen, carrying it around with you until the film is done. Yet, to a contemporary viewer Cagney seems like a regular guy (albeit one with the life-force of ten men), almost like he’s not acting, while Dean’s acting seems exaggerated and overly emotional, so that you’re very aware that it is a performance. I think Cagney and Dean are both fantastic, by the way!

    There’s also the “on the other hand” of comedy, which has always played by its own rules. No one would accuse Jim Carrey of being naturalistic as Ace Ventura, whereas Buster Keaton is renowned for a minimalist acting style that today seems very modern.

    Speaking of silents: Silent film acting is qualitatively different from sound film acting. We take it for granted because it’s what we’re used to, but a huge part of an actor’s performance in a sound film is in their voice. Silent film actors had to do everything with gestures and expression.

    Hopefully that was informative and not just rambling. ^_^