James Searle Dawley, “Snow White”, 1916, Silent Fantasy Film, Cinematographer and Producer H. Lyman Broening, Running Time 63 Minutes, Starring Marguerite Clark and Creighton Hale, Production Company Famous Players Film Company
Born at Del Norte, Colorado in October of 1877, James Searle Dawley was an American film director, screenwriter, producer, stage actor and playwright. During his career, he directed over three-hundred short films and fifty-six features with such actors as Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Harold Lloyd, and John Barrymore. Dawley also wrote several Broadway productions as well as plays for repertory companies.
The youngest of three sons born to James Andres Dawley and Angela Searle, James Dawley received his initial education in Denver and later attended the city’s Saxton College of Oratory. As a child, he permanently lost the vision in his right eye, an injury which challenged his later career as actor and film director. At the age of seventeen, Dawley had his first stage performance as François in the Lewis Morrison Company’s 1895 New York City production of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s “Richelieu”. Three years later, now billed as J. Searle Dawley, he served both as performer and stage manager for the Morrison Company’s productions.
Dawley left the Morrison Company and performed on the vaudeville circuit from 1899 to 1902. He returned to the theatrical stage as a member of the Edna May Spooner Stock Company based in Brooklyn. Actress and playwright Edna May Spooner and her family were a fixture in Brooklyn’s theater life and operated its Bijou Theater for several years. Recognized for his past production experience, Dawley both performed on stage and managed the company’s productions. He also wrote and produced fifteen plays during his five years with the company.
In May of 1907, J. Searle Dawley made the decision to start a career in the rapidly expanding motion-picture industry. He was hired by Edwin Porter, the production head at Edison Studios, to serve as director for the company’s main film facilities in the Bronx, New York. His first project as director was the now-lost 1907 comedy “The Nine Lives of a Cat”. After experiencing some initial frustrations, Dawley quickly established himself as a reliable director who could produce a wide range of releases, often two or more films in a single week. Through his career with Edison Studios, he directed over two-hundred single-reel films. Among these were “Bluebeard”, adaptions of both “Michael Strogoff” and “Faust”, and “Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest”, noteworthy for its special effects and an early screen appearance by film director D. W. Griffith.
By 1910, Dawley was directing increasingly elaborate productions for the Edison Company. Although they were still one-reel films, they included the 1910 Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carol” and two presentations of historic naval battles: “The Stars and Stripes”, a depiction of John Paul Jones’s victory in 1779, and “The Battle of Trafalgar”, the story of British Admiral Lord Nelson’s 1805 triumph over the French and Spanish warships. In both of these productions, Dawley oversaw the creation of large maritime sets inside Edison’s Bronx studio, construction of the ships’ decks, and simulated views of the battles using small-scale models and silhouettes.
In 1910, J. Searle Dawley was screenwriter and director for the longer running (fourteen minute) silent horror “Frankenstein”, the earliest known screen adaption of Shelley’s novel. Staged and filmed in three days at the Bronx studio in mid-January, Dawley used special effects for the creation of the monster. A burning papier-mâché human figure was shot on red film, separately and in reverse, and then spliced into the master negative for the final print. This reverse action produced a creation scene in which the monster forms slowly as it rises from a cauldron of blazing chemicals.
In the same year, Dawley traveled to California and set up Edison Studios at Long Beach. This new arrangement required him to write more screenplays and direct film productions on both coasts. Dawley made several attempts to create films longer than the fifteen-minute one-reel film; however, Edison had little confidence in the attention span of the audience. In 1913, Edwin Porter hired Dawley to work with him at Adolph Zuckor’s new studio, Famous Players Film Company. Dawley directed its first thirteen releases, among which was the romantic comedy “An American Citizen”, the first feature film for actor John Barrymore.
After leaving Famous Players in May of 1914, James Searle Dawley, along with Frank L. Dyer and J. Parker Read Jr, established the film company Dyreda. In the fall of 1914, arrangements were made with World Film Corporation to distribute their releases; Dyreda would later merge with Metro Pictures, a forerunner of Metro Goldwyn Mayer. Dawley returned in 1916 to Famous Players, later Paramount Pictures, for two years. During this period, he directed over a dozen films, including “Mice and Men” and “Snow White”, both in 1916; two 1917 films “”Bab’s Diary” and “The Seven Swans”; and the 1918 “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, a five-reel film produced by Adolph Zucker and Jesse L. Lasky.
Dawley freelanced as a director for several years before joining Fox Films in 1921. The last feature film he directed was the 1923 drama “Broadway Broke”, produced by Murray W. Garsson and distributed by Lewis J. Selznick. Months later, Dawley made his final directorial works in collaboration with the inventor of the first practical electronic amplifier Lee de Forest. Their two experimental sound films, “Abraham Lincoln” and “Love’s Old Sweet Song”, were both released in 1924. Dawley worked through the late 1920s and 1930s in radio broadcasting, journalism, and sound-film technologies.
James Searle Dawley married Grace Owens Givens in June of 1918; the couple remained together over thirty years until Dawley’s death, at the age of seventy-one, in March of 1949. He died of undisclosed causes at the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills, Los Angeles. Dawley’s ashes were interned in the columbarium at the Chapel of the Pines Crematory. Silent film star Mary Pickford and director Walter Lang spoke at the service. Dawley’s personal papers, scrapbooks and several Edison production scripts are housed in the Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, California.
Note: Dawley’s 1916 “Snow White” was considered a lost-film destroyed in a vault fire. A substantially complete print with Dutch subtitles, albeit missing a few scenes, was located in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, in 1992. It was subsequently restored through the work of the George Eastman House, the world’s oldest museum dedicated to photography.
Second Insert Image: James Searle Dawley, “The Harvest Moon”, 1920, Film Poster, Six-Reel Silent Film, Cinematographer Bert Dawley
Third Insert Image: James Searle Dawley, “Frankenstein”, 1910, Film Poster, One-Reel Silent Film, Cinematographer James White
Fourth Insert Image: James Searle Dawley, “A Virgin Paradise”, 1921, Film Poster, Eight-Reel Silent Film, Cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg and Bert Dawley
Bottom Insert Image: “Marguerite Clark and Creighton Hale”, Silent Film Clip Photo, “Snow White”, 1916, Five-Reel Silent Film Director James Searle Dawley, Cinematographer H. Lyman Broening