In 1937, Walt Disney certainly had made a name for himself, having supervised and participated in the creation of such enduring animated characters as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy and Pluto. But there was a project he wanted to turn into the first animated feature film ever and that was the old fairy tale of “Snow White”, first put on paper by the Brothers Grimm. Many in Hollywood believed his project was doomed and labeled it “Disney’s Folly”. Eventually, he had to beg Bank of America for funds to complete the picture, but everyone who saw the film on the day of its premiere knew that they had just witnessed one of those groundbreaking events of cinema history.
Dreaming about a prince
Once upon a time there was a princess called Snow White who lived in a castle with her wicked stepmother who was also Queen of the land. She treated her stepdaughter like a maid and forced her to do manual labor. Snow White kept dreaming about a prince who might take her away from all this misery. The Queen had a magic mirror that would always tell her the truth. The only question she bothered to ask was “who is the fairest one of all?” and the answer was always the Queen herself… up until the day when the mirror told her that now Snow White is the fairest one of all. Furious, the Queen ordered a huntsman to take the princess into the woods and kill her; just to make sure that the huntsman would do as told, she demanded that he bring her Snow White’s heart.
But as the huntsman was about to stab the princess, he realized that he could never do it and told Snow White to run far away from the castle. Frightened, the princess ran deep into the woods and eventually reached a small cabin with seven tiny beds that she assumed belonged to seven children. But the “kids” turned out to be dwarves who were surprised to find a glamorous visitor in their home…
Still not suitable for small children
The Brothers Grimm never named the dwarves, but Disney and his team decided to give these seven men monikers that reflected their personalities. In other words, this film not only began a long-running Disney tradition of turning fairy tales into one successful “event movie” after another but it also clearly defined how those films should look, for instance introducing the need for comic relief.
Many ingredients in the film have aged with time, especially Snow White’s demeanor; she qualifies as one of the studio’s dullest lead characters ever, and her Prince Charming is no better. Still, she represents kindness and decency, which is needed in a story that is otherwise dominated by colorful dwarves and the most evil villain Disney has ever created. Forget about Scar in The Lion King (1994) or Cruella De Vil in One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961) – this bad-assed Queen not only wants her stepdaughter murdered but actually orders the killer to carve out her heart… and when that plot fails, she turns to black magic in order to come up with a potion that will have her victim buried alive. And the only reason why she does this is because she wants to be “the fairest of the land”.
Parts of the film are still not suitable for small children. However, the lion’s share is quite enchanting, with a series of memorable songs and amusing performances by the actors creating the dwarves’ personalities.
When the film premiered it challenged live action films. Few of them could match the liveliness, speed and environs that made some of the this classic’s most riveting scenes memorable, including the rainy sequence where the Queen meets her fate. Snow White may be taken for granted today, but its influence is still noticeable… not least in films like last year’s The Princess and the Frog.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs 1937-U.S. Animated. 83 min. Color. Produced by Walt Disney. Directed by David Hand. Songs: Frank Churchill, Larry Morey (“Some Day My Prince Will Come”, “Whistle While You Work”, “Heigh-Ho”, “(Isn’t This) A Silly Song”). Voices of Adriana Caselotti (Snow White), Harry Stockwell (The Prince), Lucille LaVerne (The Queen), Scotty Mattraw, Roy Atwell, Pinto Colvig.
Trivia: Deanna Durbin was allegedly considered for the lead voice. Fifty names were allegedly considered for the dwarves, including Awful, Biggy, Dirty and Shifty. Walt Disney was presented with an honorary Oscar for this film in the shape of one regular-sized statuette and seven miniature statuettes.
Last word: “[Art teacher] Don Graham really knew what he was teaching, and he ‘showed’ you how to do something – he didn’t just talk. He taught us things that were very important for animation. How to simplify our drawings – how to cut out all the unnecessary hen scratching amateurs have a habit of using. He showed us how to make a drawing look solid. He taught us about tension points – like a bent knee, and how the pant leg comes down from that knee and how important the wrinkles from it are to describe form.” (Animator Art Babbitt on the process, “Once Upon a Time – Walt Disney: The Sources of Inspiration for the Disney Studios”)