As we kick off our salute to classic Disney animation (and our Saturday Morning Cartoons series!), there’s no better place to begin than with the one that started it all: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, released by RKO in limited theaters in 1937 and later across the country in 1938.
I have to admit it up front: this is not one of my favorite Disney pictures. I understand its importance in the annals of film animation, but for me, there are so many more interesting and entertaining movies in the Disney canon–Bambi, Dumbo, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty–that I sometimes wonder why this one receives the bulk of the acclaim. Being the first doesn’t automatically make it the best … right?
Still, the movie has some elements I enjoy, and if, for some reason, you’ve never seen it, you should at least give it a try. It is, after all, an historic achievement in the world of filmmaking–the first full-length animated feature ever to be released, and the cornerstone of the Disney animation legacy.
Most of us are familiar with the story, so I won’t bother going into a plot summary here. Suffice it to say, the story is a classic damsel-in-distress/wish fulfillment fantasy, where the beautiful princess spends the entire film longing for her prince, and he shows up at the end to rescue her and claim her as his one-and-only bride. The movie is an adaptation of the classic fairy tale and largely takes its cue from the Brothers Grimm version (called “Little Snow-White,” or Schneewittchen, in German) with some necessary (and some kinda unnecessary) changes:
- The Grimm tale begins with Snow White’s mother asking for a child who is “white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as ebony wood.” She dies after the child is born, and the new queen (stepmother) targets Snow White when she is only seven years old. However, the Disney version begins when Snow White is already a teenager.
- In the Grimm tale, the wicked queen does not ask for Snow White’s heart, but instead tells the hunter to bring back her lungs and liver. She then eats the organs, thinking they are Snow White’s.
- In the Grimm tale, Snow White is presented with not one, but three separate poisoned objects–bodice laces (a corset, for all intents and purposes), a comb, and the iconic apple.
- In the Grimm tale, Snow White is not awakened by true love’s kiss; instead, as her glass coffin is being carried, the piece of poisoned apple becomes dislodged from her throat and ends the curse.
- At the end of the Grimm tale, the wicked queen is not struck by lightning as in the Disney version, but is forced to wear red-hot iron shoes until she dances herself to death.
Some of these changes, such as the exclusion of the first two poisoned objects, were likely for pacing purposes, to keep the film around an 80-minute running time, but obviously things such as the queen eating “Snow White’s” organs or dancing to her death were excluded from the film in order to avoid scaring children.
And yet … there are plenty of things left in the film to frighten even the most stalwart child: the creepy, smoky Magic Mirror …
… the hunter, poised to strike with knife in hand …
… the queen’s transformation into the wicked old crone and her cruel taunting of a prisoner who died of thirst …
There are easily half a dozen similarly dark scenes in the film, and these scenes are among the most visually stunning in the entire movie. In fact, one of the things I appreciate most about this film is its evocative imagery. The animators Disney hand-picked to produce his tour de force did an absolutely amazing job–no one can deny that it’s a truly beautiful movie. And it’s easy to see some of the influences on the film’s writers and artists in the way by which the animators chose to depict certain scenes and characters. One such scene that particularly strikes me is the one in which the queen, having transformed herself into the crone, paddles her boat out from beneath the castle into the marsh, intent on her journey to the dwarfs’ cottage.
As the mist swirls around the boat, the shadowy, cloaked figure of the old crone reminds me of Charon, the mysterious being who ferries dead bodies across the River Styx in Greek myth. And indeed, as the wicked queen intends to “ferry” Snow White across the threshold from life to death, the image is an appropriate one. I’ve always thought that there must have been an English major (or several) amongst Walt’s crew, to account for all of the literary, Biblical, and mythological references in the early half of the Disney canon (the thought makes me smile, for obvious reasons … English majors of the world, unite).
Yes, the scary scenes in this movie are plentiful. But I would venture that none is so frightening as Snow White’s escape through the dim, haunted wood–even watching it as an adult can produce a slight shiver of unease.
As Snow White runs, hysterical and fearful, into the darkened forest, the screen descends into black and gray. The trees’ branches become grasping hands, clutching her skirts and eliciting terrified screams over the suddenly clamorous, ominous music. And up until her eventual exhausted collapse upon the ground–as she whirls round and round, menacing eyes peering out from the darkness in every direction–there’s a sense that the princess’ journey is a descent into hell … or perhaps madness. Has the thought of pursuit so terrified the young girl that she will now be irreversibly psychologically damaged from her emotional flight (because, let’s face it, that would be kinda cool)?
Of course not. This is Disney. Instead, fluffy little forest creatures emerge from the dark to comfort her, and terror is forgotten almost immediately in light of all the adorableness. After all, there’s nothing a cute, fuzzy bunny or chipmunk can’t do to make it everything better.
And this section of the film, in which her new animal friends lead Snow White to the dwarfs’ cottage, sends me off on a bit of a tangent, because I’ve always wondered something: is anyone else concerned that this film sends the wrong message about home invasion? Because essentially, Snow White is not above a little B&E if shelter is at stake. And no, cleaning the house you’ve broken into is not due penance for the act of breaking in in the first place, particularly if the majority of the work is done by forest creatures who haven’t washed their hooves in God knows how long. I mean, in this kind of situation, Snow White is least a step up from that bitch Goldilocks, who just breaks in and starts taking stuff that doesn’t belong to her and sleeping in beds just because she can. Still, SW’s lucky she didn’t end up being tossed ass-over-teakettle out of the dwarfs’ front door.
While we’re on the subject of the dwarfs … most of us can name all seven in the film (Sneezy-Sleepy-Dopey-Happy-Grumpy-Bashful-Doc), but not many people are aware that, in the original fairy tale, the dwarfs did not have names. The individual names of the film-version dwarfs were assigned by the Disney crew during pre-production of the film, each one befitting the predominant characteristic in each dwarf.
Everyone has their favorites among the little men, but personally, I’m a fan of Grumpy, as he’s the only dwarf to show a lick of sense in the movie (despite his less than favorable attitude toward “women’s wiles”). And who doesn’t love Dopey–his fittingly dopey grin is so endearing, you can’t help but smile as he blows soap bubbles out of his ears or dances exuberantly with Snow White.
The strengths of this movie lie in supporting characters like the dwarfs and the wickedly delicious queen, who are, for the most part, interestingly fleshed out in the film. But Snow White herself is … well, she’s not exactly the most proactive heroine in the Disney canon. She spends the entire film in limbo, waiting for her prince to come, because only then can her life truly begin … at least, by her own standards, which aren’t very high to begin with. And, to me, watching her wait for something to happen is kind of boring. Had there been no dwarfs to alleviate the tedium, the movie would be like any given Friday night for the stereotypical spinster … with a houseful of deer and birds in lieu of fifty cats.
By and large, Snow White cannot act for herself, nor function outside of the protection of someone else, be they forest creature, dwarf, or studly prince-about-town. The forest animals help her find shelter; the dwarfs hide and protect her while cautioning her against the queen’s treachery; the prince rescues her from a deathly slumber with the power of his manly lips. Like a proper woman, her only abilities seem to be looking good, cleaning, cooking, and doing the wash. An ideal woman for the 1930s, one might say, but not exactly a relatable character in the modern era. And those dubious “womanly” qualities certainly don’t–or, rather, shouldn’t–immediately grant Snow White a place among true Disney “heroines” like Mulan, Jasmine, Ariel, Belle, or even Cinderella, all of whom are at least somewhat active in their own defense and show some semblance of spunk, ingenuity, and plain old common sense. I mean, seriously–all Snow White does is to wish her wish as hard as she can, and presto!–she’s rewarded with true love and a castle of her very own.
That’s not an unrealistic expectation. At. All.
The other thing that annoys the hell out of me? The girl won’t listen. How many freakin’ times do the dwarfs say not to let strangers into the cottage? But wave a shiny red apple in her face, and oh, Lordy, she just lets them come in droves, her own safety and well-being be damned.
The main character’s foibles aside, the film suffers from other weaknesses as well, particularly in regards to the soundtrack, which boasts an odd mixture of both essentially memorable and utterly forgettable songs. In the former category, we have “Whistle While You Work” (parodied so brilliantly in the “Happy Working Song” from 2007’s delightful Enchanted), an irritatingly catchy tune that will stick like cotton candy to the recesses of your mind for literally days on end. On its heels, we have “Heigh-Ho,” sung by the dwarfs on their ways to and from working in the mine, another tune that will make you want to gouge out your own eardrums to keep it from repeating ad nauseum in your brain. Add to that the appropriately-titled “Silly Song,” complete with yodeling dwarfs and the toe-tapping-est tune in the film, and you have a trifecta of blasted catchiness. Yet despite the annoyance factor involved, all of these tunes are essential to the enjoyment of this movie, and–admit it–it’s just fun to sing them at the top of your lungs (plus, these songs make great torture tools for those you wish to bother–trust me).
But the other songs on the soundtrack, particularly the sometimes-shrill “I’m Wishing,” the insipid “Some Day My Prince Will Come” (the universal theme song for Rules Girls everywhere), and the overwrought “One Song” (which always inexplicably makes me giggle) are rather weak entries in the Disney songbook. Were these tunes not a part of the film, it might ratchet up my enjoyment of this movie by a notch (or three). It would save me some eye-rolling and fast-forwarding, at the very least.
And while on the subject of the soundtrack, I have to admit that Snow White’s voice, provided in all its sugary sweetness by Adriana Caselotti, is absolutely perfect for the character. But by the same token, it’s also kind of pain-inducing. Listening to Snow White constantly trilling a happy tune or exclaiming in delight over every.little.thing, you’re likely to end the film with a decided toothache.
For Caselotti, the role of Snow White must have been both a blessing and a curse; she was a legend in the world of Disney, but it came at the cost of a more expansive career, as Walt essentially “owned” her voice from that point on. Caselotti was reportedly denied several opportunities due to Walt’s determination to “protect” the illusion of his seminal character’s voice. And while Caselotti does not seem to have ever vocalized any displeasure at this, it had to be frustrating for an aspiring talent to be stymied in her efforts before her career really had a chance to begin.
Other voice actors in the film include Lucille La Verne, a prolific Broadway veteran and longtime movie actress (Sinners’ Holiday, Little Caesar, A Tale of Two Cities); the wicked queen would be her final role (she passed away in 1945). La Verne (who also posed for sketches of the crone) does a remarkable job of portraying the vain, heartless queen; her voice slides between haughty and deranged with nary a hesitation. The prince is played by Harry Stockwell, a singer who is perhaps best known today as the father of actor Dean Stockwell, a great child actor (Anchors Aweigh, Song of the Thin Man, Gentleman’s Agreement, The Secret Garden) who moved easily into adult roles in shows such as Quantum Leap. Actually, it wouldn’t exactly be accurate to refer to Stockwell as a voice actor for this film; he never speaks a line, instead only singing at the beginning and end of the movie. And of the voices of the dwarfs, the best known is probably Pinto Colvig, who plays Grumpy and Sleepy; he was the original voice of Goofy, and also voiced the barks of another Disney canine, Pluto.
All things considered, despite its status as the first of its kind and a revolutionary achievement in its time, despite the talents of its vocal cast and the skill of its animators, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs cannot hold a candle to some of the later films in Disney’s repertoire … at least, in my opinion. As I will propose next week, it took three years for Disney’s legendary “magic” to take root, resulting in the highly superior 1940 production Pinocchio.
Still, considering the obvious love and effort that went into producing what was once referred to as “Disney’s folly” (the man basically mortgaged his life on the chance that this movie would succeed), it’s worth acknowledging that the art of animation owes a great debt to the talented group of people who put this movie together. Admittedly, it’s one of my least favorite in the Disney bunch, but ultimately, this film gave birth to a far-reaching legacy of joy, laughter, memories, and unparalleled childhood entertainment … a happily-ever-after if ever there was one.
For that alone, it may very well have earned its place at the top of the Disney heap.
Perhaps there is something to be said for being first, after all.