Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
Directed by David Hand (supervisor)
Adriana Caselotti as Snow White
Lucille La Verne as the Queen
Pinto Colvig as Grumpy
Not that it’s probably necessary for many of them, but I’ll provide short synopses of each movie in this project. In this case, Snow White is the stepdaughter of an evil, vain queen, who sees Snow White’s beauty as a challenge to her own. She orders her huntsman to take Snow White into the woods and kill her, but he can’t bring himself to do it, abandoning her instead. After making her way through a dark and scary forest, she comes across the home of seven dwarf miners. Though initially afraid of her, they quickly adopt each other as a surrogate family. When the queen learns that Snow White still lives, she disguises herself as an old woman, and cons Snow White into eating a poisoned apple. Snow White falls into an enchanted sleep and the dwarves, thinking that she’s dead, pursue the queen, who falls off a cliff and dies. Later, a prince finds the sleeping Snow White and kisses her. She wakes up, and leaves with the prince to live happily ever after.
Since I find the ups and downs of Disney as an animation studio fascinating, I’m going to provide some notes on the making of each movie (it also helps me pad out my word count somewhat, tbh). Now, I’m not an animation historian at all, so I might end up getting some of the details wrong or incomplete. Students: I’m not an academic source! If anyone does know more than I do, please chime in with additions or corrections as necessary. I won’t mind, and in most cases would appreciate it.
Anyway, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first feature-length cel animated movie in motion picture history (there had been earlier features that were made with stop motion animation). Pretty much everyone in Hollywood was convinced that no one would watch an animated movie that was that long, especially one produced by a small, independent studio without much in the way of financial backing. In fact, they were almost right. “Disney’s Folly” took four years to produce and cost well over a million dollars, an exorbitant amount of money for the mid-30s. It nearly bankrupted Disney, who only kept the studio afloat by mortgaging his house.
However, Disney’s faith in feature animation as a commercial and artistic medium was more than justified. The movie received rapturous critical acclaim, got a Time cover story, and went on to be not only the highest-grossing movie of the year but (briefly) of all-time. The Oscars didn’t quite know what to do with it, so they gave it a special award consisting of one full-size Oscar next to seven smaller ones (Disney himself was reported very disappointed he hadn’t gotten a Best Picture nomination for it). Most of the profits from the movie went right back into the company, enabling Disney to purchase the land for the Burbank, California studio that still houses the Disney corporate headquarters.
This is the movie that started it all. The process of Disney’s rise to worldwide pop culture domination began here. So this movie is a key part of cultural and artistic history, regardless of anything else I might think about it or Disney. It’s a movie everyone should see at least once. I believe that this is my second time watching it as an adult (that I can remember, at least), and my first in about a decade.
Watching the movie again was a bit of an odd experience. There are some parts of the movie that really hold up, and some parts that really don’t. For example, pretty much everything having to do with the dwarves was gold. Their character animation still looks wonderful, even eighty plus years from the movie’s release. Despite occasionally being difficult to tell apart visually, especially when they’re all grouped together, they each have strong, well defined personalities. Grumpy especially pretty much steals the entire movie. His transformation over the course of the film from being the most misogynous member of the dwarves, who only wants to get rid of the meddling woman with her “wiles”, to being the first to charge to her rescue is definitely the best characterization of anyone in the whole movie.
Unfortunately, Grumpy is really the only character with any sort of arc here. The human characters definitely pale in comparison. Part of this might have to do with the animation itself. Unlike the dwarves and the animals which follow Snow White around in the forest, all of the human characters are rotoscoped. For readers who might not be familiar with the term, this is a technique where actual human actors were filmed, and then drawn over by the animators frame-by-frame. While this helps the animators to draw characters with realistic proportions and movements, it also had the result of rendering every human character as noticeably stiffer and less detailed than their dwarven co-stars. While each dwarf has a wonderfully expressive, detailed face and a fluidity of movement, Snow White’s expression barely changes from scene to scene, and her movements are much less broad and, well, cartoony.
That wouldn’t be a problem if the rest of the movie was done in that style, but juxtaposed with the dwarves it really stood out to me. It doesn’t help that I really didn’t care that much for Snow White’s voice actress, Adriana Caselotti. She wasn’t an experienced actress (and in fact was, by contract, forbidden from taking any acting roles again after this), and it really shows. I found her singing voice to be especially grating, being way too tremulous for my tastes. I recognize that “Someday My Prince Will Come” is now a jazz standard, but I can’t really admit to liking this original version.
Fortunately, while I might not like Caselotti’s songs (or at least her versions of them), the movie definitely has a stand-out song in “Heigh Ho.” Once again, it’s the dwarfs who rescue the soundtrack as well as the rest of the film. The song is actually their introduction into the film, and is really the point where the whole narrative pivots and becomes something that I actually enjoyed watching. I read online that this was the first movie to actually have a soundtrack album released for it, and I don’t think that would have been possible without “Heigh-Ho.”
Speaking of the songs and “Some Day My Prince Will Come”, I also have a bit of an issue with the messaging of the movie. Unlike more modern Disney princess movies like Frozen or Tangled, Snow White actually sticks pretty closely to the original source material. That creates a bit of a problem for me viewing the film today, as Snow White desires nothing so much as to cook and clean for her new dwarf friends until such time as a handsome prince comes around to sweep her off her feet. Yes, I realize that this movie was made in the 1930s, and that modern culture vis-à-vis attitudes towards women has changed a lot since then. However, I also have two young nieces, and I have to consider what they might be learning from movies such as this. Also, Snow White is definitely still a teenager, and might be as young as fourteen. I’m pretty sure a grown man marrying a fourteen-year-old (as is implied by the ending) was sketchy even in the 30s, if not when the fairy tale was originally recorded.
Now, for all that I’ve ragged on the human characters, there is still one that I found truly enjoyable: the Queen herself. The scene where she transforms herself into her old woman disguise is one of the stand-out sequences of animation in the movie, as is the climactic chase between her and the dwarves up the side of the mountain. While Snow White and the prince are both non-entities, the Queen has a very distinct, if vain and selfish, motive and clearly takes glee in being evil. She definitively kicks off the trend of Disney villains being more interesting than the heroes, and I could have used another ten minutes or so of her in the movie.
Overall I have mixed feelings on Snow White. Its place in film history is undeniable, as is its impact on pop culture as a whole. However, I pretty much only enjoyed the movie when either the dwarves or the Queen were on screen. I still think the movie needs to be seen, but it wouldn’t be my first choice of Disney movies to expose my nieces to.
Now, I’m trying not to rip off other blogs too much. Especially early on. However, the rating system from the Disney blog Unshaved Mouse makes too much sense here, and I’m going to borrow it for my own use. I’m just going to use letter grades instead of a point system.
Animation: B (the dwarfs are great, Snow White less so)
Main Characters: C- (I find Snow White to be more annoying than anything)
Supporting Characters: A- (I love the dwarfs, but I have to dock it a little for the Prince being a total nonentity)
Villains: A- (She’s bad, and she knows it)
Music: B (Some great songs, but a lot of them will only be great in other contexts)