Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). 83 minutes. Directed by David Hand (supervising director). Starring Adriana Caselotti (as Snow White), Lucille La Verne (as Evil Queen Grimhilde), Harry Stockwell (as the Prince), Roy Atwell (as Doc), Pinto Colvig (as Grumpy and Sleepy), Otis Harlan (as Happy), Scotty Mattraw (as Bashful), Billy Gilbert (as Sneezy), Moroni Olsen (as the Magic Mirror), and Stuart Buchanan (as Humbert the Huntsman). Songs by Frank Churchill and Larry Morey. Produced by Walt Disney.

The story of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is probably familiar to most: the young and beautiful princess Snow White lives in a castle and is governed by her evil stepmother the Queen, who forces her to wear ragged peasants’ clothes and perform menial tasks. Snow White encounters a prince one day while cleaning and is smitten. Meanwhile, the Queen asks her magic mirror who the most beautiful woman in the land is. When the mirror tells her that it is no longer the Queen but Snow White who is fairest, the Queen orders her huntsman to take the princess into the forest and kill her. The huntsman leads Snow White into a flower patch but cannot bring himself to murder her and instead tells the princess to run away. When she flees deep into the shadows of the forest, she is befriended by woodland animals, who accompany her to a cottage in a clearing. With the help of the animals Snow White tidies up the house for the people who live there, who she discovers later that night are seven dwarfs. They are entranced and delighted by her but are concerned that the evil Queen may find her there. The dwarfs go off to work in the mines in the morning, leaving Snow White alone. The Queen, who has disguised herself as an old hag, comes to the cottage to tempt Snow White with a poison apple that she says will grant the princess her fondest wish. Snow White bites the apple and appears to die. Compelled by the animals to return home, the dwarfs find the Queen near the cottage and chase her off of a cliff. As a tribute to the dead princess, the dwarfs create a glass coffin and place her body on display. Then one day the prince reappears, kisses Snow White, and restores her to life.

Most of us probably became acquainted with Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in childhood. Today it is marketed as a children’s movie along with other modern-day Disney cartoons, but it is important to remember that when it was initially released in 1937, this full-length cel-animated feature—the first of its kind—was conceived of by Disney as very much a general audience attraction. Snow White was for a time the most successful movie ever released, until it was supplanted by Gone with the Wind in 1939, and no doubt it would not have been as successful if it had not appealed to the adult film-going audience of the 1930s. In fact, as Peter Brunette has pointed out in his article “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” early conversations about the movie took for granted the fact that it was adult entertainment, and a serious form of entertainment at that. As examples, he cites a letter to the editor of Christian Century magazine at the time that advocated reading the movie as a rendition of the Garden of Eden story from Genesis, and another that complained of the wishful tinges of Depression-era sentiment of songs like “Whistle While You Work” and “Someday My Prince Will Come.”

Disney thought of his movie in terms of other successful and decidedly adult films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Nosferatu (1922), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), and Romeo and Juliet (1936). Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs went on to influence some of the most accomplished filmmakers of the Golden Age of cinema. I think particularly of Sergei Eisenstein, whose two-part epic Ivan the Terrible (1944) makes use of shadows, candles, and eye symbolism in a way that specifically pays homage to the extensive and masterful use of these three elements in Snow White. When we look at how the full-height characters are animated in this movie (Snow White, the prince, the Queen, the huntsman), I think it is easy to detect the sophistication of Disney’s vision: Snow White and the Queen glide smoothly through the forest and castle, their cloaks billowing behind and around them. Their movements are elegant and delicate—seemingly real, potentially mistaken for a living person’s.

The subject matter itself suggests an adult audience. It is hard to imagine what very young child could watch the Queen enter the castle dungeon and transform herself on the big screen into a frightening, grinning old hag and not suffer from nightmares. Nor did even I recently enjoy watching the two macabre vultures who follow the Queen-as-hag as she rushes to the top of the mountain ledge in the movie’s climax; after she falls to her death, the birds descend slowly from their perches to her corpse below. I must admit I did not realize what they were up to until I watched this movie as an adult, but then again, I suppose the original Grimm fairy tale ending was worse: in that version, the queen survives until the end of the story, where she is made to attend Snow White’s wedding to the prince and dance in red-hot iron shoes until she falls down dead.

I think there are two areas, however, that might tempt us to place this film in the realm of the juvenile: the dwarfs and the animals. The dwarfs are the most cartoonish of the characters. Their features are exaggerated, and they move, bounce, tumble, and react according to the laws of cartoon physics. For example, as Dopey chases down a bar of soap in the scene where the dwarfs bathe before dinner, he is knocked around by the bouncing soap without consequence to him physically. He turns into a cat-like version of himself, stalks the soap, wiggles his behind, and pounces on it. Finally, the soap bounces off of something else and flies into his mouth, straight into his stomach. He begins hiccupping bubbles.

This particular sequence is chock full of the kinds of gags that the storyboard artists were rewarded for with individual bonuses. They are fine in and of themselves, but when pieced together with shots involving the Snow White figure, they sometimes result in our feeling as if we are watching two movies: something akin to a goofy animated short and something else resembling a more sophisticated story. Still, one thing that must be pointed out in the dwarfs’ favor is the way that they are individuated. Supervising animators Vladimir Tytla and Fred Moore were responsible for defining each dwarf’s unique personality and characteristic facial expressions and movements. For example, in the larger bathing scene that Dopey’s soap-chasing antics are a part of, each dwarf is visually distinctive from the others and reacts uniquely to the challenge of washing up. Considering that the dwarfs in the original Grimm story were not individuated at all, this was a substantial contribution to the movie’s narrative and style.

The animal sequences are another part of the story that tends towards the juvenile, although the animals are admittedly not as cloying as the dwarfs. During the house cleaning scene, we watch the little squirrels wipe up cobwebs and plates with their tails. The turtle’s belly is used as a washing board. The naughtier animals lick the dishes clean and sweep dirt under a rug—they must be reprimanded by Snow White. This is dwarf-like silliness, but somehow it does not bother me as much. Something about animation shorts has prepared me to accept animals behaving in clever ways to accomplish a human task such as tidying up that I imagine no real deer or raccoon has ever attempted on its own.

What becomes a little harder to bear is the sympathetic relationship between Snow White and the woodland critters, something that was interestingly not a part of the original Grimm fairy tale. They help her to clean the dwarf domicile because they are her friends and are devoted to her, much as the mice are famously devoted to Cinderella in that later Disney movie. Snow White thus initiates the kind of Disney narrative in which the protagonist, often female, has a kind of entourage of helpful non-human friends whose only mission is to help her succeed. It is all a bit too sweet. (The loyalty of Snow White’s animal companions and their universal benignity are presumably what prompted the South Park episode “Woodland Critter Christmas,” with its cute, humble, and folksy woodland residents who turn out to be clandestine devil worshipers.)

In many regards, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs both draws from the best aspects of Disney’s animated work (snappy vignettes, animals using their animal sense to accomplish human tasks, human figures that move like real people) and anticipates some of the worst (the sentimentality and saccharine nature of animal-human relationships, the moral imperatives to work hard and be kind). In spite of my criticisms, I have no problem accepting the best aspects of this movie as real cinematic accomplishments and praising them appropriately. For those who are interested in learning more about Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and early animation in general—particularly Disney’s triumphs and failures—I recommend The American Animated Cartoon: A Critical Anthology by Gerald and Danny Peary (1980), which features the Peter Brunette article that I alluded to earlier. This anthology provides helpful analysis of the evolution of animated art, especially of Disney’s role in the early, wildly experimental days of the short cartoon subject.