This past December, Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs turned 80. On December 21, 1937 the world was introduced to feature-length animation. Well, maybe not the world since that date was just the premiere. It wasn’t until February 4, 1938 that the rest of the United States was introduced to the picture. The film was behest by production delays and budgeting concerns and the mood was that this would be Disney’s greatest failure before it arrived. That wasn’t the case, and it’s a good thing because had Snow White failed we likely would not have the many subsequent pictures, or maybe even a Disney. This post should have ran in December, but since I was elbow-deep in Christmas I sat on it until now, timing it with the picture’s wide release. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a remarkable achievement and a film worth celebrating any day, but especially so when it turns 80.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had to be a special film in order to justify the need for an extended running time. Prior to its release, cartoons were relegated to the pre-show, if you will. Theaters would run a Mickey Mouse or Betty Boop or some other toon before a picture along with news reels and other pieces of film. Since there was less competition from other past times, a trip to the movie theater was practically an all day affair as opposed to modern times when movie-goers are left griping that a cartoon short is too long. In order to make Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs stand out, Disney naturally injected a huge amount of cash into the production. Live footage was recorded to animate over, numerous backgrounds were painted in lovingly detail, and a new camera technique even had to be invented. The Multiplane camera is a massive structure that basically separates three backgrounds at three different distances from the camera. This creates a literal foreground, middle-ground, and background for a given scene and the camera can zoom or pan on the image creating an illusion of depth. It’s on display right at the beginning of the film and it’s a fun little trick that would be utilized for basically all of Disney’s animated films to come.
Originally, Walt Disney thought he could produce the film for around $250,000. That’s a tiny sum by today’s standards, but in the 1930’s a typical Silly Symphony cartoon cost about $25,000 to produce. Disney must have assumed the feature would be ten times as long and cost ten times as much money as a result. If that was his reasoning, he failed to account for all of improvements he wanted to make to the process as the picture ended up costing around 1.5 million dollars. That was a rather colossal sum at the time, especially for a cartoon few thought would be a success, including brother Roy and wife Lillian. Disney had to mortgage his own home and most likely put up every piece of collateral he could to get the picture made. It was a gamble, but it paid off since what makes the film so special is the production values which help to cover a fairly pedestrian story.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs basically establishes the template for the Disney “Princess Movie.” A kind and good-natured young woman is made the target of a ruthless villainess through no fault of her own. This young woman, either a princess or soon to be, then just sort of lets everything happen around her hoping against hope that a prince will come to her rescue and take her away to live happily ever after. It’s a common setup for fairy tales and it’s a pattern that will be reused in both Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty years down the road. Of the three, Snow White is the one that follows it most closely. When the film begins, we find out that Snow White has lost her parents and is left with only her cruel step-mother, the Queen Grimhilde (Lucille La Verne). Despite being a princess, she’s forced to tend to the castle like a commoner while her jealous step-mother looks on concerned that Snow White’s beauty will soon surpass her own. When her magic mirror on the wall confirms this, the Queen responds with violence and commands her huntsman to lead Snow White into the forest where he is to kill her and return to his queen with the maiden’s heart in a box.
Snow White (Adriana Caselotti) is a happy and contented young woman despite her station in life. I suppose being a servant in a castle is probably better than a peasant, but we are introduced to her washing the castle steps in a tattered dress while she sings a happy song (“I’m Wishing”) to the birds that swarm around her. A dashing prince (Harry Stockwell) hears her song from outside the castle walls, scales them, and surprises her by sneaking up alongside her and joining in her song. Frightened, Snow White retreats into the castle proper disappointing the prince, but a little peak his way lets us know she’s more than a little curious.
Love will have to wait, as the Huntsman (Stuart Buchanan) leads Snow White off to pick wild flowers where he is to do as his queen commands and end her life. When first confronted by the Queen, he is alarmed at the request and once the moment is upon him he finds he is unable to go through with it. Sobbing, he begs Snow White to flee from the evil woman sending her into a panic. She runs through the forest which takes on a supernatural quality. Trees reach out to her with thorny fingers and hideous visages as she screams and runs this way and that. Her dress gets caught multiple times, she stumbles into a bog, and bats and owls frighten her further. When the animals of the forest come to her aid she reacts with fear once more causing them to flee. Seeing their fear seems to snap her back into reality, and Snow White is soon apologetic and gradually calms down.
She walks through the forest which leads her to a little cottage. Inside she finds the place a mess with dust everywhere and dishes piled high in a wash basin. She notices the tiny furniture and the many beds upstairs adorned with silly names like Sneezy and Bashful and deduces this must be the home of some children. She happily cleans and prepares a meal while the many critters assist her. Of course, this home does not belong to children but to the seven dwarfs who are hard at work in a nearby mine harvesting various wonderful gems. They sing their little song as they work, which leads into perhaps the film’s most famous tune, “Heigh-Ho,” as their work day concludes and they set off for home.
Upon arrival, they find the house is occupied and they immediately suspect the worst. Doc, the dwarf with glasses, is apparently the leader of the troop but Grumpy is the one with the loudest opinions. Little, beardless Dopey, is apparently the one lacking in wits and he’s encouraged to venture upstairs and see who is sleeping in their beds. He sees Snow White and mistakes her for some kind of monster and the other six dwarfs need little convincing that he did not as they all scamper away in fright. Eventually, they return to the second level and see that the individual resting in their beds is not a monster, but a beautiful young maiden. She awakes to her own surprise that the inhabitants of the castle are not children, but seven dwarfs. The ice is broken almost immediately, and the new friends set in for a night of feasting, laughter, and dance.
Meanwhile, the evil queen knows her huntsman has betrayed her, and utilizing her magic mirror once more, she finds where Snow White is hiding. Turning to her book of spells, she concocts a potion that will disguise her as a hideous old hag and another that will coat an apple in poison. Any who consume a portion of the apple will fall into an eternal slumber. Only love’s first kiss can break the spell, and the Queen dismisses the possibility as soon as she reads it.
The rest of the story is likely not foreign to anyone reading this. The dwarfs head off to work the next morning while the Queen finds the cottage and is able to trick Snow White into taking a bite of the poisoned apple. The dwarfs, alerted by the forest critters wise to the Queen’s plan, are too late, but they do successfully chase off the Queen indirectly causing her to meet an untimely end. Unable to bring themselves to bury Snow White, they instead incase her in a glass coffin and stand vigil for many months until her prince eventually finds her and wakens her with a kiss. What convinced a prince to kiss a long-dead maiden is beyond me, but I suppose you can’t argue with results.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is an achievement not because of its story, but because of its production. The plot is well-paced leading up to and including the introduction of the dwarfs to Snow White. The whole sequence of a frightened group of men tip-toeing through their cottage is a delight and genuinely amusing. Their warming period to Snow White is needed to make their reactions to her eventual “death” convincing, though it’s hard to argue that there isn’t a significant amount of padding at this point of the picture. Not accustomed to creating features, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs falls victim to long stretches of time where nothing really happens. Just seeing characters dance and be merry might have been enough entertainment for a crowd in 1937, but to a modern audience it starts to feel long. Watching the film with young ones at home and this becomes even more obvious as their attention wanders. And yet, the film ends in a some-what rushed fashion reducing the emotional payoff of the moment when Snow White awakens. Despite that though, the dwarfs feel genuine in their remorse when they find Snow White apparently dead. From an emotional standpoint, it’s the film’s highest point as the little men, especially Grumpy, are reduced to tears at the horrible sight.
Even 80 years after the fact, the animation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is still remarkable to behold. Because live-action actors were utilized to map out the movement of the characters, everything has an elegant flow to it. It’s eerily realistic and the Queen looks especially splendid with her large flowing robes and dramatic movements. As an old hag she creeps along convincingly. If not for her cartoonish nose you’d think it was live footage and not animation. The only limitation of this approach, essentially tracing live footage onto animation cels, is in the facial animations. The small details and realistic proportions for Snow White are difficult to translate to a drawing (hence why so many animated characters have over-sized eyes and mouths) so her mouth kind of “floats” on her face and her eyes sometimes lack any semblance of life to them. The dwarfs, by comparison, have a more cartoonish appearance so they don’t have the same limitations. They mostly have large, bulbous noses and simple, but expressive, eyes. Live footage was tracked for them as well so their movements are not out of place when compared with the more human characters. All of this adds up to create one spectacularly animated film.
The backgrounds in the film are also lovingly crafted. Disney would perhaps learn eventually that not so much detail was required, but considering this was the first feature it’s not surprising they went a little overboard here. Every dusty little nook and cranny of the cottage is created. Wood grain appears on every wooden object and you can even see little hinges and bolts where appropriate. There’s also a nice water effect early in the film from the perspective of the wishing well that Snow White looks into. Such an animation trick is hard to pull off and I can only imagine how breath-taking it was in 1937. The scary forest and the Queen’s laboratory are also exquisitely drawn. In the case of the lab, it’s convincing to believe the Queen has been inhabiting this place for a long time. Her transformation into the old hag is perhaps not as ambitiously animated as it would be if done today, but is still effective and even a bit frightening. I also really enjoyed the little touches, such as a pair of buzzards stalking the old woman seemingly foretelling of her demise. And when she actually convinces Snow White to taste the poisoned apple we experience it through her eyes as she eagerly rubs her hands together and looks upon the girl with hungry eyes. When Snow White collapses, we just see her hand hit the ground by the witch’s feet as the apple rolls away. I don’t know if this was an artistic call or a bit of self-censorship on their part not wanting to show Snow White’s death onscreen, but it’s effective nonetheless.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is as much remembered for it’s stellar look as it is for its music. Music and Disney are intertwined and many of the studio’s animated productions are synonymous with their musical numbers. That is certainly the case for Snow White as many tracks have gone on to become celebrated and often associated with the Disney brand: “Heigh-Ho,” “I’m Wishing,” “Whistle While You Work,” and “Someday My Prince Will Come.” These songs are all often referenced and sung today by children and adults alike. Though societal attitudes have somewhat tarnished “Someday My Prince Will Come” as this is an easy point of reference when deriding the trope of a young woman simply waiting for a man to come and better her life. A song that has aged just fine though has got to be “Heigh-Ho,” as who hasn’t left work on occasion singing that one to themselves?
Certainly the notion that a “Princess Movie” should seek to empower young women is perhaps the biggest obstacle for an old picture like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to be enjoyed by a modern audience. As an amateur animation historian, I enjoy this picture for the story behind the scenes, the real-world struggle to get it made and the fantastic artistic results. As for the actual story within the film, I do recognize the short-comings of the Snow White character. While it’s not a bad message to encourage unfailing optimism, like a character hoping against hope that their life will improve if they stay the course and be a good person, it is a bit unfortunate to see a young woman simply rely on a prince to carry them off to the happily ever after. I suppose it would have been nice to see more resolve from the title character. Instead of running off like a frightened child she could have shown some determination or maybe even fought off her attacker. The short run time necessitates a hastening of the romance in basically all of these films, so that part I can forgive. As a “Princess Move” though, Snow White is guilty of many of that genre’s sins. When compared with Disney’s other films, I’d probably slide the character ahead of the rather boring Aurora, but behind Cinderella who is at least more sympathetic given her relationship with her step-mother is explored in greater depth than what we have here.
Given that there are numerous “Princess Movies” to show your sons and daughters, I don’t think the message contained within Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is particularly damaging or anything. Today’s kids can find better role models in modern pictures, but I also personally doubt many would seek to truly emulate the characters here because they’re fairly shallow. The dwarfs are the real stars are they’re consistently funny and charming and the Queen is memorable for being scary and cruel sure to leave a mark on a young child. Snow White, by comparison, is a bit boring and her look and even singing are some-what dated and not likely as captivating as modern characters. If your child prefers her to Elsa then consider me surprised. Because the film is a bit slow for children, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs feels more like a picture that will entertain adults more than children, especially if the audience is just looking to drink-in the glorious animation. As the first feature-length animated production in the US, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is definitely worthy. Even with a pedestrian story, it looks fantastic and stands the test of time as a result. I imagine that when production began way back in 1934, that’s exactly what Walt Disney hoped to accomplish. Well done, Mr. Disney.