“Snow White” is coming to Somerville, but not Disney’s animated adaptation from 1937 that today’s moviegoers have typically seen. On Friday, the Somerville Theatre presents a digital screening of the original 1916 “Snow White” silent film, complete with live musical accompaniment by sisters Leslie and Barbara McMichael
Leslie McMichael, a harpist based in Seattle, also composed the score the pair will play, with Barbara on viola. She started working on it, she said, for the film’s 100th anniversary at the Children’s Film Festival Seattle in 2016.
The 63-minute film, directed by J. Searle Dawley and loosely based on the Brothers Grimm tale, starred Marguerite Clark, who McMichael said was as popular as silent film icon Mary Pickford at the time. The movie made an impression on a young Walt Disney, who later released his animated adaptation. Few of Clark’s films survive today, partly due to the highly flammable nitrate film stock that was used in the industry’s early days.
In 1992, a theatrical print of “Snow White” was found in the Netherlands, according to a press release, and was restored by the George Eastman House film archive.
“When you watch the film, there are a couple of quick jumps,” McMichael said. “They restored the film with the materials that they had, but it still holds together pretty wonderfully.”
McMichael said she’s been performing her score for the past few years, refining the arrangements and cues with every screening. It’s a process she knows well, having scored other silent films including “Peter Pan,” “Captain January,” and “A Little Princess.” Last fall, after being invited to perform her “Peter Pan” score at Epsilon Spires, a nonprofit performance center in Vermont, she started reaching out to other northeastern venues, looking for bookings.
“This one was a complete cold call,” said Ian Judge, the creative director of the Somerville Theatre. “I thought it was just in our wheelhouse, so I absolutely said yes.”
The Somerville Theatre has a history of showing silent films, though usually they are accompanied by the theater’s “regular organist,” Jeff Rapsis, Judge said. And audiences have come out for them.
“We’re not your average movie theater,” Judge said. “In fact, presales are doing better for that [’Snow White’] at the moment than say ‘The Batman,’ so that’s a positive sign.”
McMichael loves the idiosyncrasies of silent-film acting and being able to present old movies to modern audiences. “I think about how fast media comes out these days, and what things will be preserved and what won’t make it,” she said. “I just enjoy the connection to the past and I hope that people also get transported back in time.”
Tickets for Friday’s 8 p.m. screening of “Snow White” are $15 for adults, and available to purchase at somervilletheatre.com or at the box office.
Sam Trottenberg can be reached at email@example.com.