Silent Reflections – Snow White (1916)
by HELEN GEIB
[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.