Like horror movies? Thank J. Searle Dawley, part 2

by Joe Tarabino

Del Norte-born legendary film director J. Searle “Scottie” Dawley’s lasting contribution to his industry’s history extends far beyond his attempts to drain the sewer of corruption involving the decadence of film producers. His productions also exerted a continuing influence on movies that lingers to this day. Arguably the most successful current film production company, Walt Disney, in some part is a consequence of Dawley’s efforts during the era of silent filmmaking. The countless horror films that have sprung from their source in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein tale are also indebted, in part, to Dawley’s early storytelling techniques.

Dawley’s first major success was with Frankenstein [1910] in which he used a unique special effect to create the creature in a completely filmic manner. He made a wax casting of the actor who played the creature in full makeup, then cooked the effigy back to liquid in a massive kettle. He then ran the film backward so that the form seemed to arise from a mass of boiling liquid. After a film cut, the actor animated the monster with his performance.

This early precursor to today’s special effects came from a man who had been hired by Edison advising director Edwin Porter to deal with actors. A NitrateVille.com blog in 2010 revealed how Dawley spoke about conveying emotion in silent drama, about acting instead of pantomime, about editing as a means of shaping a story, about how the audience could “supply the thoughts and words of the actor and becomes art of the performance itself.”

Another entry suggests that Dawley understood and brought to the Edison Company a more up-do-date style of filmmaking, based on French methods.

He worked his way up from being an assistant director to being in charge of dramatic continuity while Porter could focus on the action scenes. His first responsibility was to direct ‘The Nine Lives of a Cat’ in 1907. He could accurately be called the first professional movie director in the United States.

After that, he supervised the soon-to-be legendary director D.W. Griffith in his acting debut in the short work, ‘Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest’ [1908]. According to one source, once Griffith understood the process, he made leaps and bounds over the international models, so perhaps it’s harder to grasp Dawley’s achievement in retrospect.

No less influential than his more popular adaptation of the Shelley story, however, was his Snow White [1916], which was seen at a free showing in Kansas City by the sixteen year old newsboy, Walt Disney. It was, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival noted in their retrospective showing, one of the first features he’d ever seen and he was hooked.

“I thought it was the perfect story… It had the sympathetic dwarfs… the heavy… the prince and the girl. The romance… the perfect story,’’ Disney later said. The film also impressed him, he claimed, “because of an unusual exhibition format in which the film was rear-projected onto four screens arranged in a square around which the audience sat.” This allowed him to watch the film twice at one sitting. Twenty years later, after he had fully developed his animation skills with what he originally called ‘’Laugh-o-grams” and other shorts featuring a character he called Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and subsequently Mickey Mouse, Snow White was the subject matter for his first full length animated film in 1937. Snow White was long believed lost but eventually found and restored as part of the Library of Congress collection of works National Registry of significant motion pictures.