Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

  • Release date: 21 December, 1937
  • Run time: 83 mins
  • Director: David Hand, William Cottrell, Wilfred Jackson, Larry Morey, Perce Pearce, Ben Sharpsteen
  • Cast: Adriana Caselotti, Lucille La Verne, Roy Atwell
  • Inspired by: Snow White (The Brothers Grimm)

“Magic mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?”

This is the one which really started it all. It wasn’t the world’s first full-length animated feature (two from Argentina are now lost but it’s worth looking up the brilliant The Adventures of Prince Achmed from 1926 – a silhouette animation based on One Thousand and One Nights). But it was the first feature-length cel-animated film from the United States – and it was the one which opened the way for a whole industry. It was a huge risk at the time; nicknamed ‘Disney’s Folly’ by others in the movie business, even Walt’s own brother, Roy, and wife, Lillian tried to talk him out of making it. Fortunately, he ignored them and arguably created the Disney template. Let’s take a look at some of the building blocks that first emerged with Snow White:

Original idea? Well, obviously not. Surely all children have heard of the original story of Snow White, even if they haven’t actually read it. How much of this is down to knowing the storybook tale as opposed to Disney’s retelling is anybody’s guess. Given that there are actually very few changes to the story, the story is pretty faithful to the Grimm classic, so it would be hard to tell. In fact, most of the alterations were made for purely practical reasons – such as nobody being able to draw the Prince (hence his smaller role) or needing to push the story along (leading to the removal of the Queen’s first two direct attempts at killing Snow White with the lace corset and the poisoned comb). Otherwise, it’s all there on screen – aside from the original ending (but we’ll get to that…).

Dead parents? Most Disney films begin with dead parents (seriously. It’s like you can only have an adventure if you’re an orphan). In the case of Snow White – well, who knows? In the story by the Brothers Grimm, the Queen had died in childbirth, with the King remarrying an evil woman who practices witchcraft. The king suddenly becomes something of an absent father (presumably realising how awful his new queen is and deciding to bugger off elsewhere to get out of her way). As far as the Disney version is concerned, we don’t ever learn about either of Snow White’s real parents. There is just an evil stepmother who wants to be rid of her annoyingly pretty stepdaughter (it’s not much motivation, but I guess we’ve all had bad hair days). Let’s just assume that the King is otherwise engaged with important matters of state and hasn’t noticed his new wife’s wicked intentions or the fact that his only daughter has disappeared, only to be found to be working as a housekeeper for seven men…

Y’know – for kids? Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is surprisingly dark. For fairly obvious ‘this is for the kiddies’ reasons, it does without the original’s ending (the Wicked Queen is forced by the Prince to wear red-hot shoes and dance herself to death – which is certainly one way of dealing with the in-laws), and as a result does feel like it has an abrupt ending. But Snow White being forced to work as a slave for her stepmother to the Queen’s creation of the poison apple and her own ghastly appearance, this is not a film that shies away from frightening the younger members of the audience (“Won’t somebody think of the children?!”). Perhaps the most terrifying of all is Snow White’s initial run into the forest – from the moment the Huntsman sneaks up on our heroine (before a sudden change of heart), through to Snow’s run through the dark forest, with trees looming out…frankly, it’s enough to give anyone nightmares.

Princesses, villains and comedy sidekicks? Snow White is certainly the archetypal Disney Princess; the template for so many who followed her. She dreams of true love; she must overcome a nasty villain; and she is, quite frankly, as dull as ditchwater. I know that we’re looking at this through the prism of 80-odd years, but she is a wet blanket. No wonder she has been ripe for parody (even by Disney themselves – but we’ll get to Enchanted eventually). I’ve seen arguments that try to defend her: she’s resourceful; she’s romantic; she’s takes no nonsense from the dwarfs. But I don’t buy it. She’s bland and forgettable.

Thank goodness, then, for the Queen. Apparently based on Joan Crawford, in terms of look at least (let’s not go into her fearsome reputation here), the Queen is a force to be reckoned with from the start. Her looks of contempt are matched by a viciousness that fascinates. As is often the case with so many films (not just Disney) it is the baddies who are the most interesting. Her vanity and obsession with looks still screams volumes to today’s society and the battles being fought against the dictation of body image to young people. Plus she’s just wonderfully nasty. The film just seems to light up whenever her dark presence appears on screen. Even her old crone is a joy to watch – incredibly both parts were played by Lucille La Verne (she took out her false teeth to achieve the crone’s rasping voice).

As for the comedy sidekicks, the Seven Dwarfs also take some beating. True, a couple of them do merge into one (could you tell the difference between Bashful, Sneezy or Happy from a single image?). But Doc is a fantastic leader, Grumpy (like the Queen) is the most interesting with his bitter side, and Dopey is simply a wonderful comic creation – proof that you don’t need to say a word to illicit a laugh (originally Mel Blanc was going to play him, until Walt decided that none of the attempts to get a decent voice for the character and he deemed that Dopey would be better mute).

Sing-along a showtune? There are plenty of classics here, many of which have become standards. In fact one even inspired The Beatles (aka The Greatest Band of All Time – Fact); the opening line of I’m Wishing took Paul McCartney’s fancy as he penned Do You Want to Know a Secret? Romantic love songs owe a huge debt to Some Day My Prince Will Come (it may sound rather sappy now, but it’s still a well-written song); and you won’t get any better than Whistle While You Work or, my personal favourite, Heigh-Ho. Plus the incidental music is beautiful; it’s worth searching out the soundtrack album for that alone.

Feel-good factor: Let’s go with 7 again. There is plenty going for it – the sing-along songs, the vile villain, the comedic dwarfs. And, for the most part, it keeps the viewer’s interest. But it loses points for the slightly annoying lead character, who seems to slow the film down too much whenever she is on-screen too long. Plus, it does feel slightly dated; the stereotypes tend to work against it. True, some of these tropes were started here, so they can’t be accused of being cliches at the point they were made (even if they are now), but it does make it hard to watch. But, if you’re feeling low, and just want a slight story then this will do the trick. And, hey, without Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, where would animated movies be now?

You can watch the trailer below:

Next movie: Pinocchio (1940)

Published by Ben Evans

Film fan; music lover; avid reader; culture snob.

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