“A beautiful girl, Snow White, takes refuge in the forest in the house of seven dwarfs to hide from her stepmother, the wicked Queen. The Queen is jealous because she wants to be known as the fairest in the land, and Snow White’s beauty surpasses her own. The dwarfs grow to love their unexpected visitor, who cleans their house and cooks their meals. But one day while the dwarfs are at their diamond mine, the Queen arrives at the cottage disguised as an old peddler woman and persuades Snow White to bite into a poisoned apple. The dwarfs, warned by the forest animals, rush home to chase the witch away, but they are too late to save Snow White from the poisoned apple. They place her in a glass coffin in the woods and mourn for her. The Prince, who has fallen in love with Snow White, happens by and awakens her from the wicked Queen’s deathlike spell with love’s first kiss.” (courtesy IMDB)
Dubbed ‘Disney’s Folly’ by his competitors, the world’s first feature-length animated movie cost a lot to make, but proved enormously successful. It was also the first animation where characters of the same type (here, the Dwarfs) are individualised in both design and personality. The film set Walt Disney on the road to dominating the family-friendly movie market for the next seventy-five years, and began a backlist legacy that provided a foundation for the powerful studio today. Production began one evening in 1934 when Disney called his animators together on a soundstage and acted out the entire story of Snow White and performed all the roles. Later, when animators were stuck and needed inspiration and guidance, they remembered Disney’s virtuoso performance.
Disney also had a hard time obtaining the finance for his ‘folly’. Finally forced to show the unfinished film to his banker, he sat horrified as the banker watched expressionless throughout the screening but, on his way to his car the banker turned to Disney and said, “Walt, that film is going to make you a hatful of money!” Premiering in December 1937, Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs (1937) did just that, taking more than US$850,000 at the box-office during its initial release, a significant amount considering children were paying only ten cents to get in (twenty-five cents for adults). It’s an adaptation of the Grimm Brothers folk tale about a privileged princess-turned servant girl named Snow White, whose vain and wicked stepmother is told by her Magic Mirror that she is no longer ‘the fairest of them all’. She’s extremely jealous of Snow White’s great beauty and, I suspect, her purity, so the Queen orders her Huntsman to dispose of her stepdaughter rival in the forest, but he cannot bring himself to kill the girl and abandons her instead.
Snow White’s first night in the forest is a terrifying expressionist experience but, as day dawns, she wakes to find herself being cared for by seven dwarf miners, each with pronounced and lovable characteristics: Sneezy, Bashful, Grumpy, Sleepy, Happy, Dopey and their gentle leader Doc. While they’re off down the diamond mine, she cleans their sloppy house, becomes their housekeeper and learns the value of communal living, hard work and affection. Some of them are not entirely thrilled that Snow White has moved in with them, but she eventually wins them over, even Grumpy. Meanwhile, the Magic Mirror informs the Queen that Snow White is not dead so, disguised as a haggard old crone, the Queen arrives at the Dwarf’s forest cottage and tempts Snow White with a poisoned apple. She falls into a death-like sleep from which she can be aroused only by the kiss of a Prince.
Actor Harry Stockwell (father of Dean Stockwell and Guy Stockwell, grandfather of John Stockwell) not only played the voice the Prince, he performed live-action footage for rotoscoping (not unlike today’s motion-capture technology). Pinto Volvig, known as the voice of Goofy, performed the voices for both Sleepy and Grumpy, while Billy Gilbert, famous for his comedic sneezes, was a natural as Sneezy’s voice. After auditioning more than 150 young women (including actress Deanna Durbin) for the voice of Snow White, Disney eventually chose Adriana Caselotti, daughter of a Hollywood vocal coach. The live model for the Snow White character was Marge Belcher, who later married and became the better half of the then-famous Marge Champion/Gower Champion dance team.
It’s estimated that more than one million drawings were made during the production of the film by an army of 750 artists, including 20 layout workers, 25 background artists, 32 animators, 65 special effects animators, 102 assistants, 107 inbetweeners, and 158 inkers and painters. Children will be exited, terrified and dazzled by the animation – the scenes in the castle including the Queen’s transformation, and in the forest when the Queen encounters the dwarfs are particularly impressive – while singing along to what was the first movie soundtrack album ever to be released. The demonic stepmother Queen was the first of many nightmare-inducing villains to be created by Disney, and the film includes memorable songs such as Some Day My Prince Will Come, and the stirring Heigh-Ho and Whistle While You Work written by Frank Churchill, Larry Morey, Paul J. Smith and Leigh Harline, perfect for motivating New Deal USA on the verge of entering World War Two.
While adults will enjoy the same elements as the kids, those interested in interpreting dreams and fairy-tales will be interested in the sexist subtexts: The Queen is actually Satan with an apple trying to corrupt Snow White by taking away her youth and her resistance to relinquishing her virginity. Soon after Snow White meets the Dwarfs, she becomes both a surrogate mother and daughter to these childlike old men. She gets them to wash-up before meals, which is indicative of her desire to keep their hands clean – and off her. Yet they begin to think of her as their dream lover and gladly stand in line for kisses, but they literally don’t measure-up – at one point one sits on another’s shoulders so she’ll think she’s with a ‘man’. When they forget their cowardice and rush home to save Snow White from the apple and then chase the Queen through the forest, they finally qualify as ‘men’.
This, coupled with Snow White’s succumbing to temptation by tasting the apple and yielding her innocence, makes it impossible for the Dwarfs and Snow White to cohabit any longer. She is now ready for the young Prince to kiss her and take her away. There is a lack of self-consciousness about the idea of a nubile maiden living with seven men that betrays Disney’s own earnestness and lack of irony. The Dwarfs make democratic decisions for the common good, which also betrays Disney’s own behaviour a decade or so later during the Joseph McCarthy Hollywood ‘witch-hunt’ hearings, when he denounced union members and named suspected communists. Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs was also the first motion picture to be backed by an extensive merchandising campaign. At the time of the film’s original release, almost a hundred companies had been licensed in America alone to produce merchandise. The film was subsequently re-released to cinemas in 1944, 1952, 1958, 1967, 1975, 1983, 1987 and, for its 1993 re-release, the film was digitally re-mastered and re-coloured.
Today, the film has become part of America’s national cultural heritage. The crown jewel of Disney’s animated features, its importance to the studio is symbolised by the seven Dwarfs gracing the Team Disney building in Burbank. Almost eighty years have passed since the film’s debut, but its appeal still enchants moviegoers of all ages. In recognition of his achievement, Shirley Temple presented to Walt Disney a special Honorary Oscar accompanied by seven miniature Oscars, the first of an unprecedented twenty-two Academy Awards to follow before his untimely passing at age sixty-five. It’s with this sad thought in mind I’ll ask you to please join me next week when I have the opportunity to present you with more unthinkable realities and unbelievable factoids of the darkest days of cinema, exposing the most daring shriek-and-shudder shock sensations ever to be found in the steaming cesspit known as…Horror News! Toodles!