Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

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Directors: Walt Disney, David Hand

Producer: Walt Disney (Walt Disney Productions)

Writers: The Brothers Grimm (story), Ted Sears, Richard Creedon, Otto Englander, Dick Rickard, Earl Hurd, Merrill De Maris, Dorothy Ann Blank, Webb Smith (screenplay)

Photography: Maxwell Morgan

Music: Frank Churchill, Leigh Harline, Paul J. Smith

Cast: Adriana Caselotti, Lucille La Verne, Roy Atwell, Stuart Buchanan, Eddie Collins, Pinto Colvig, Billy Gilbert, Otis Harlan, Scotty Mattraw, Moroni Olsen, Harry Stockwell

Introduction

“Walt Disney occupied his own space, both literally and figuratively in Hollywood,” film critic Leonard Maltin said. “I think of him as a visionary, truly a visionary, and I think of him more in a league with Thomas Edison than with Louis B. Mayer.” (E)

Indeed, Walt Disney’s legacy has become one of such nostalgia and family entertainment that we often forget just how important he was toward the overall advancement of the film medium. From the beginning, Walt relied on technological advancement as his niche claim to fame, carving a reputation for ambition and ingenuity that would sustain his considerable talents as a storyteller.

His first big break, the silent Alice pictures, played on the gimmick of combining live action with animation, long before Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988). His second, Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie (1928), marked another technological breakthrough as the first animated cartoon with sound. Always forward looking, Walt continued to push the limits of how he could make his product unique, signing an exclusive contract with Technicolor in 1932, and creating some of the first cartoons in color, from his Silly Symphony shorts, to his massive hit The Three Little Pigs (1933), which had Depression era Americans, young and old, defiantly humming “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?”(A)

By the mid 1930s, Walt had not only made a name for himself as an innovator, he also felt the additional pressure to keep feeding that popular perception. Such pressure would lead him to take on his most daunting task yet, to do a full-length, feature animated film, something most deemed impossible. Serious critics claimed a cartoon could not keep viewers’ attention for that long, and furthermore, an onslaught of drawings would become disorienting over an extended period. Determined to prove these naysayers wrong, Walt Disney Studios labored for years, bringing in the era’s top talents in music, story and animation to get the product just right. This product, of course, was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Plot Summary

Based on the classic Brothers Grimm fairytale, the film opens with the wicked, narcisistic Queen, who consults her “magic mirror on the wall” for constant reminders as to “who is the fairest one of all.” Time and again, the mirror answers that it is she, the Queen. But when the mirror one day claims that her daughter, Snow White, has become the most beautiful in the land, the Queen sends a huntsman into the woods to not only kill her, but bring her heart back in a box (pretty serious stuff). Unable to go through with it, the huntsman urges Snow White to run away.

With the help of some woodland critters, she finds a hideout in a quaint little cottage that, to her surprise, belongs to seven little men — say it with me now: Doc, Happy, Grumpy, Sneezy, Sleepy, Bashful and, the goofy one of the group, Dopey. The guys strike up a loving relationship with Snow White, dancing, singing and enjoying eachother’s company. That is until the Queen finds out she is still alive and uses black magic to transform herself into an old witch. The witch baits Snow White into eating a poisonous apple, signalling her death. In a puddle of tears, the dwarfs hold eternal vigil by her glass-enclosed coffin, until the famously magical ending where Prince Charming arrives to resurrect her with a kiss and carry her off to his castle in the sky.

Gamut of Emotions

“Disney once said that for every laugh there should be a tear,” Pixar’s John Lasseter once told AFI. Snow White follows that mantra precisely. The film hits all the emotions, from humorous gags (Dopey swallowing soap), to bone-chilling fear (The Queen’s transformation into the witch), heartfelt romance (the kiss of prince charming), to genuine sadness (the genius decision to have Grumpy, of all people, break down sobbing).

“There is going to be a lot of sympathy for these little fellows,” Walt said at a story conference in July 1937. “We can tear [the audience’s] hearts out if we want to by putting in a little crying.” (B)

Indeed, the emotional stuff worked so well that Carole Lombard and Clark Gable are said to have emerged from the Carthay Circle red-eyed. (C) This proved to the world what those inside Disney Studios already knew: that Walt was a brilliant storyteller, both in arc, character and emotion. His ability to carry the magic over 83 minutes of film exploded the boundaries as to where animation could go.

Breakthrough Animation

Snow White had also pushed the visual envelope of cel animation, combining earthy watercolor colors with a new attention to detail, namely a sense of three-dimension with foregrounds, middlegrounds and backgrounds that finally made animation something more than moving 2-D illustrations.

This layered effect was accomplished by a “multiplane camera,” an invention of Ub Iwerks, the original Mickey designer and ultimate Disney defector. The device stands like a tower with different shelves of transparent celluloid sheets, or “cels,” each hand-painted with various animation. The cameraman would then climb atop the tower and look down through the different cels, photographing them all at once to create a tangible appearance of depth: foregrounds, middlegrounds and backgrounds.

The greatest example of this occurs after Snow White and the animals have finished cleaning the dwarfs’ cottage. Watch how the camera pulls back to reveal a forest that hadn’t previously been in the frame. This is a simulated camera move, using the multi-plane camera. One can almost imagine the multi-plane camera pulling back (i.e. up) to achieve this shot.

Directing Techniques

But Team Disney didn’t stop there. They decided to fill the film with a number of sophisticated “directing” techniques. Yes, there are still directors in animation; only instead of physically moving a camera, you’re doing it via animation (or these days, digitally on a computer).

You’ll notice one right off the bat: the slow zoom-in on the Queen’s castle in the opening shot. Did this plant the seed for Orson Welles’ slow approach to the Xanadu castle in Citizen Kane (1941)? You never know.

Note also how the room spins around the Queen as she takes the magic potion and transforms into the witch. It creates its own form of horrifying, disorienting vertigo.

Still, my favorite directing technique in Snow White comes during the wishing well scene and the introduction of Prince Charming. We start with a high angle shot looking down into the bottom of the well, seeing Snow White’s reflection in the well water. Suddenly, Prince Charming appears behind her — in a reflection — to finish the verse of her song, “I’m Wishing” with a rousing, “Today!!” To me, this shot ties the Beauty and the Beast crane shot swooping down from the chandelier.

Legendary Music

While the song “I’m Wishing” provides an example of daring animation directing, it’s far from the film’s most famous song. Composers Frank Churchill, Leigh Harline, Paul J. Smith penned a string of gems, from “One Song” to “Whistle While You Work” to “Someday My Prince Will Come.” The music was so enchanting that it earned an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score and became the first commercially released soundtrack in movie history. (D)

Their greatest achievement, of course, was the catchy lunchpail anthem “Heigh Ho.” The song has become eternally linked with Disney for matching the film’s most indellible image: the seven dwarfs, pick axes resting on their shoulders, whistling and marching across a fallen tree trunk on their way home from working in the mine, each step falling in time with the music. If people thought “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” was hard to get out of their head, they hadn’t seen anything until they heard “Heigh Ho.”

Reception

Even when the film and soundtrack were completed, Walt Disney was not satisfied with the final sound of Adriana Caselotti’s voice as Snow White. For a speaking voice, Caselotti is dead-on in her soft innocence. But when it comes time to sing, it’s almost painful. Walt recognized this himself, calling her voice strident and saying that, “When anybody sings, it should be good or [s]he shouldn’t sing at all.” (B)

Walt also expressed other disappointments, including Prince Charming’s jittery animation. But with the project already way over-budget and over-schedule, he called it a wrap, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered in December, 1937.

The result was astounding. Critics instantly praised the film as a “masterpiece,” while moviegoers flooded theaters to make Snow White the highest grossing film of all time upon its release, dethroned two years later by Gone With the Wind (1939).

How did the little kids react? Did they get stir crazy at the runtime? Did they have epileptic fits like many predicted? Nope. They were so engrossed in the movie that they literally peed the seats of Radio City Music Hall. True story.

Legacy

Considering the film’s pants-wetting allure, it’s only fitting that Snow White is just one spot behind The Exorcist in the all-time domestic adjusted box office rankings. That’s right, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs remains the No. 10 highest grossing movie of all time when adjusted for inflation (the only fair way to do it), higher than The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Ben-Hur (1959) and Avatar (2008).

Looking back at the film today, one can make a number of criticisms, some of which weren’t even a blip on anyone’s radar at the time. By this, we’re of course talking about the outdated idea of the female character, who’s celebrated for her cooking and cleaning, whose skin is only beautiful if it is the “fairest” in the land, and who’s helpless to an apple’s temptation and must be saved by a man.

This is a common criticism of many Disney heroines, but no matter how much society has changed since 1937, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs deserves a place on any best list for its pioneering place in film history. The Academy may have best honored it in 1938 when it awarded Walt an Honorary Award for a “significant screen innovation which has charmed millions and pioneered a great new entertainment field.” It was presented fittingly — one large statue and seven little ones.

Citations:

CITE A: Jack Zipes’ “Breaking the Disney Spell,” From Mouse to Mermaid
CITE B: Neal Galber, Walt Disney biography
CITE C: Washington Post critic Rita Kempley
CITE D: 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die
CITE E: Turner Classic Movies documentary Moguls and Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood — “Brother Can You Spare a Dream?”

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