Cinematic Century

1937 – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

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Seven weeks ago we had a pretty momentous installment of Cinematic Century when All Quiet on the Western Front introduced us to the wonderful world of sound with the first talkie to be featured on this project. And today we’ll be adding another first for this project with the first film in color to be on this project. Now, I tried to a bit of  research, and apparently there’s a whole lot of contention in regards to what should be considered the first color film, so it’s a little complicated to figure out where today’s film falls in the historical importance of color. Likewise, it also has a pretty dubious claim as the first feature-length animated film, which also isn’t exactly accurate. But, despite the fact that it occasionally is portrayed as being more historically significant than it may actually be, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is still an easy pick for my favorite film of 1937. It may not be quite as groundbreaking as it’s sometimes held up to be, but being as it’s the first feature-length film to be released by Disney, it still has quite a lot to hang its hat on. But, it’s not just all historical importance. It really is just my favorite film from 1937. Which does mean that, once again, we have year that didn’t really have a lot of tough competition. The poor old Marx Brothers take another shot at getting highlighted on this project with A Day at the Races, but that’s never really been one of my favorites. I’ve actually never seen Grand Illusion, which is probably an enormous oversight on my party, but Renoir has always been a director that I have struggles with, so I’ve never really gone out of my way to rectify that. Honestly, the biggest competition that Snow White has is probably Make Way for Tomorrow. Which I have seen. But, as we’ve discussed before on this project, the films I highlight here are my favorites, not necessarily the best. Make Way for Tomorrow is a very good film. But it’s a complete bummer. It’s a film that I’m glad I’ve seen, but I can’t imagine a scenario where I’ll ever want to see it again. Which means that it’s not my favorite film of 1937. It’s a movie that I highly recommend seeing, and it’s a fascinating examination of the struggles of aging and the bizarre expectations of elder-care, but it’s not a film that I really enjoy watching. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs though? That’s a film I’m happy to put in.

This is a film that no one seemed to think would work. Walt Disney and all of the animators at Walt Disney Productions had been having quite a bit of success with the animated shorts that were so prevalent at the time. They were a huge figure in the world of animation in the thirties, and it seemed like they had really figured out their niche of the entertainment industry. But, Walt was convinced that they could do something more. So, he began pushing in 1934 for his studio to create the first feature-length animated feature that would feature cel animation. It was a hell of a gamble, and everything around the project seemed to promise failure. But they kept at it, and slowly began to bring Snow White to life. They decided to adapt the Brothers Grimm fairy tale of Snow White, seemingly primarily because of the dwarfs and the comedic potential that they felt they had. The studio then got hard to work in a manner that would really come to symbolize the studio’s well-known perfectionist streak. Albert Hurter was made the concept artist for the film, and all animation had to pass his approval, giving the film and it’s design a universal look despite the army of animators that were brought on board. They were encouraged to take the trends of then modern cinema and translate them to this fantastical world, tossing in everything from pre-Code musicals to German Expressionist horror to create a visual design unlike anything ever seen before. And, bafflingly, it worked. What had been dubbed “Disney’s Folly” was a massive success, briefly becoming the highest-grossing talkie of all time. People loved it, and the film continued to have a massive following as it helped prop Disney and his studio up to become the media juggernaut that it is today. And, while certain parts of this film haven’t aged terribly well, it’s hard to watch Snow White and not see the massive effects that it’s had on cinematic history.

 

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Discussing the plot of Snow White seems a tad silly, since it’s a film that I imagine a truly staggering amount of the population has seen at least once in their life, but here we go anyway! The film tells the story of a young woman known as Snow White, a princess who is living under the angry hatred of her stepmother, a wicked and evil Queen. The Queen is incredibly vain, and spends most of her time commanding a Magic Mirror to confirm that she’s the “Fairest in the Land.” Until one day when the Mirror tells her that she’s officially been upstaged by Snow White’s beauty. And this just so happens to come on a day when a young Prince first notices Snow White’s beauty, and tries to gain her favor. The Queen sees all of this, and makes the rational decision to kill Snow White, leaving her as the Fairest in the Land. So, the Queen requests that a huntsman take Snow White out into the woods, and carve her heart out. The huntsman agrees, but when he and Snow White end up in the woods he can’t bring himself to murder the innocent girl, and tells her to flee into the forest while he tries to lie to the Queen and tells her that the princess actually is dead.

Snow White then flees into the forest, finding herself in a nightmarish world completely alien to the life she’d been leading up until then. But, she eventually finds a bit of solace when she comes across a small cottage in the middle of the forest. She heads into the cottage, and finds it empty, but decides that it must be the home of a series of seven orphaned children, due to the size of all the furniture. She also realizes that the cottage is absolutely filthy, so she uses an innate ability to befriend woodland animals to help her clean up the house. She spends the day sprucing up this house that she just randomly invited herself into, and eventually gets so exhausted that she takes a nap in some of their beds, all without finding out who the actual owners of the cottage are. Which is when we’re introduced to the Seven Dwarfs: Doc, Grumpy, Sleepy, Bashful, Sneezy, Happy, and Dopey, who have been working in a mine all day, and are ready to come home. And, when they get there, they’re pretty confused. Especially when they find a mysterious woman sleeping in their bedroom. But, Snow White isn’t really too surprised by the appearance of the Dwarfs, and quickly ingratiates herself in their filthy little existence. She begins spending time with the Dwarfs, cooking for them and making them be more hygienic and pleasant to each other. And, slowly but surely, they become a happy little family.

Unfortunately, that’s spoiled when the Queen finally realizes that the huntsman lied to her. The Magic Mirror confirms that Snow White is still alive, and even tells the Queen her location with the Dwarfs. So, the Queen decides to take matters into her own hands, and begins using her skills at magic to create both a powerful poison to kill Snow White with, and also a magical disguise so that she can get close to the girl. The Queen then transforms herself into a grizzled crone, and makes a poisoned apple to kill Snow White with. The Queen then heads into the woods, and arrives at the cottage at a time when all the Dwarfs are off mining for jewels. The Queen ingratiates herself with Snow White, and eventually offers her the apple by claiming that it grants wishes. Snow White takes it, and after taking a single bite the poison takes affect and Snow White falls into a coma. Unfortunately for the Queen, the Dwarfs came home early that day, and when they find Snow White’s unconscious form they give chase and the Queen has to flee into the woods. But, while trying to drop a boulder on the chasing Dwarfs she ends up slipping off a cliff, and falling to her death. So, with that taken care of, the Dwarfs return to their cottage and build a glass coffin to contain Snow White in the hopes that someday they can discover a way to wake her from her slumber. And, as luck would have it, the legend of Snow White begins spreading around the kingdom until the prince from the beginning of the film arrives to see her. The prince then kisses the sleeping Snow White, and his kiss is enough to break the spell, returning Snow White to consciousness, letting them all live happily ever after.

 

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Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a truly special little film. Really, when you get right down to it, it’s a very simple story. Just like most fairy tales are. But Disney has always had a wonderful ability to take these relatively simple stories and fill them with magic, making their versions of the stories the definitive one. You can watch this film and see the structure for almost all Disney animated movies that will follow. We get princesses, musical numbers, true love, a great and memorable villain, and some rather dubiously fleshed out characters. Snow White herself is a very slight character, barely having much impact in the story that bears her name, just kind of flitting around while more interesting characters move her plot around. I suppose there’s nothing too objectionable about her, there’s just not much to her other than cleanliness. But, luckily, the film is gifted with the delightful Dwarfs and the villainous Queen. The Dwarfs really were the selling point of this movie, and Walt seemed convinced that if they got the Dwarfs working the entire project would succeed. And I guess he was right, because the Dwarfs are a lot of fun, and let the animators fall back on some of their previously maintained expertise in silly slapstick. The Dwarfs themselves don’t really have overly well-defined characteristics other than what their names imply, but as a unit they’re a lot of fun. But, the real star of this show is the Queen. I’m a huge fan of Disney villains, and she is one of the most pure. She’s just evil for the sake of evil, so vain that she’s willing to kill a young girl, and so spiteful that she’ll warp her own body to get vengeance. She’s kind of the platonic ideal of a Disney villain, and everything about her is perfect, and so wonderfully archetypical.

Which is kind of the most impressive thing about Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and the output of Walt Disney Studios in general. I’m not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but it’s certainly fascinating how good this company is at taking over the popular consciousness and making their version of these tales the primary one that people think about. Disney is able to take these fairy tales that have been knocking around Western society for centuries, puts them through their carefully and almost scientifically created formula to make it as palatable and charming as possible, and then lets it generally overshadow the tale that it’s telling. I don’t think any telling of the tale of Snow White will ever be able to get out of the shadow of this film and the massive impact that it’s created. Hell, the design of the Queen in her witch costume even seems to have become the dominate design of witches in general. That’s just the power of Disney. Love it or hate it, the way that they craft their stories and the way that they influence popular culture is truly staggering, and on of the most interesting film companies in the history of the medium. I believe that this is going to be the only time that one of Disney’s films will be highlighted in this series, and I’m okay with this being the sample we get. Because Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is the perfect example of a Disney movie, and a fascinating case study in the all-reaching power that the House of Mouse can have over our stories.

 

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was written by Ted Sears, Richard Creedon, Otto Englander, Dick Rickard, Earl Hurd, Merrill De Maris, Dorothy Ann Blank, and Webb Smith, directed by David Hang, William Cottrell, Wilfred Jackson, Larry Morey, Perce Pearce, and Ben Sharpsteen, and released by RKO Radio Pictures, 1937.

 

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