Welcome to Revisiting Disney! Today, we’re looking at that most unique and special animated feature, the one that the Disney company says started it all, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” I’ve labeled each category, so if you want to skip to the parts that interest you most, feel free. And, of course, if you have any thoughts, burning or otherwise, please share in the comments!
“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” is kind of special. Honestly. It’s unique in that it’s the first full-length animated feature to be released by Disney. According to the Walt Disney Company’s history webpage, “Snow White” was released on December 21, 1937 at the Carthay Circle Theatre (in full disclosure, I had to Google where that was. It’s in LA). “Snow White” is listed as Disney’s first full-length animated feature. It’s the first film of its kind to come out of the United States, and the fourth in the world (two are deemed “lost” and the other is German).
So, Snow White is a big deal. According to the Internet Movie Database page, the rest of the film industry was convinced that it would be a flop, going so far as to call it “Disney’s Folly.” To have been a fly on the wall when “Snow White” went on to be a success…
Snow White is also unique in that it was not released on home video until 1994. Many of the early classics were simply re-released in theaters on a cycle; Snow White is said to have been released as many as nine times. When VHS players began to gain popularity, these films were not released on video until the early to mid 90’s. In fact, the first Disney film to be released on VHS was Robin Hood, released in 1984 (we’ll come back to that later on in the series).
The music is the brainchild of composer/songwriter Frank Churchill and lyricist Larry Morey. Churchill also composed the music for Dumbo, Bambi, The Reluctant Dragon and many Disney shorts. In fact, he can be blamed directly for “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” (now that’s stuck in your head. You’re welcome). Morey also worked on these projects and continued to work for the Disney Studio after Churchill’s death in 1942 until his own death in 1971.
While at times sweeping and grand, the score also has, to my mind, the ability to be calm and light, depending on the mood of the film. Basically, it’s a brilliantly scored film that adds to the animation through the musical choices without being overwhelming. It’s emotionally manipulating without being too obvious about it, which I appreciate.
There are eight musical numbers, with several reprises sung by different characters. Six of the main songs are sung by Snow White, voiced by Adriana Caselotti, one is sung by Harry Stockton who voiced the Prince and two are sung by the dwarfs, who are voiced by Roy Atwell, Pinto Colvig, Billy Gilbert, Otis Harlan, Scotty Mattraw and James MacDonald. The final song is sung by the dwarfs and Snow. This has never been my personal favorite of the Disney soundtracks, and honestly, it’s because of Snow White herself.
The voice of Adriana Caselotti has never been my favorite. I know, she’s a classically trained singer, I just always found her voice grating as a kid. During this re-watch, I found my opinion hasn’t changed at all. However, I can’t deny that, personal taste aside; she fits the style of the film perfectly, she’s a perfect film heroine from the 1930’s with the just the right blend of innocence and grandeur in her voice. Fun fact: IMDB tells me that her contract was very tightly held by the studio and that this film was really the only major role she had.
One final note about the music (and we’ll come back to it in the historical context section), it’s one of the more obvious ties to the time period it was made. This is seen particularly in “Whistle While You Work,” “With a Smile and a Song,” and the ever popular “Heigh-Ho.”
The animation is interesting to me, because it’s a bit more grainy looking than other Disney films. This could be a style thing, or it could be because I’m watching a 1994 VHS tape of a movie made in 1937. I’m not really sure. If it’s a style thing, I quite enjoy it. When the art looks more fuzzy, it’s usually an emphasis on Snow herself, and often it could be seen as adding to her beauty, giving her an otherworldly quality.
The animation is what you expect from a Disney movie from any era, the kind that if you pause it at the right moment, almost any moment, you could hang it on the wall. I’ll spare you my discussion about the Nine Old Men until they are all present, but it was quite interesting to see who the animators were and to know that at least five of them would go on to make up that core group. Disney tends to reuse names, and it’s possible to tell who animated what if you watch enough Disney films.
The animation is, although beautifully crafted, also a little slapstick at times, which can be a little jarring. However, the use of more physical comedy for the dwarfs and animals makes the overall film a little more lighthearted. Seeing the dwarfs and animals doing silly things and singing silly songs is ideal for countering the very serious attempted murder of a child plot. According to IMDB, the studio deliberately tried to fit in as many gags as possible, possibly trying to balance out the more frightening aspects of the film. The gags are pretty, even if a bit more cartoonish, for lack of a better word, than the rest of the film.
I read a creepy/intriguing fan theory that said, basically, that the Prince was Death. I can’t remember the source, but it’s been popping up everywhere lately. The idea was that the Prince appears when she’s leaning down a well and she runs away from him. He shows up at the end and takes her to a castle in the sky, but before she goes, she says goodbye (forever?) to the dwarfs. Do I believe it? No, this is a movie for kids! No one puts anything that dark or creepy in a kid’s movie!
Okay, well, that’s not entirely true. “Snow White” gets a bit of a pass from me in the creepy movie category, mostly because the original story was also incredibly creepy (more on that below). What Disney was able to do with this plot, however, was to add music to a story that, honestly, I never heard music in the background while reading.
If, for some reason, you are not familiar with the plot of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” here’s the basic rundown. Snow’s stepmother wants to be the fairest in the land and when she learns that she is soon to be less beautiful than her young stepdaughter, she takes the next logical step. No, she doesn’t acknowledge that her days in the sun are past or simply try a new moisturizer. She calls her huntsman in to kill the girl.
Of course, the huntsman has a problem killing an adorable twelve year old and sends her off into the forest where she will, hopefully, not be mauled by a bear. We were all thinking it, I just said it. Snow runs away, banished from her own kingdom. After a truly terrifying forest scene, Snow finds both friendly forest animals and a house owned by seven dwarfs.
The dwarfs and animals are all skeptical of her at first, but her kindness and singing wins over the animals while her ability to clean even the messiest of houses and her baking skills eventually wins the dwarfs over. Sadly, evil queens with magic mirrors can ferret out lies such as the huntsman’s, and the queen disguises herself as a terrifying old woman, who then journeys to the dwarfs’ house.
They’re at work and Snow is home alone. Trusting the strange, cackling old woman who stares creepily at her and offers her a magic apple while laughing maniacally, Snow eats the apple and falls into a deep, enchanted sleep. While the queen is defeated (killed in her attempt to kill the dwarfs, another frightening and gruesome scene), it’s too late for Snow.
But, because she’s so beautiful, the dwarfs can’t bury her. After an appropriately long and tear-inducing wake scene, she’s put in a glass coffin and we see a year go by. The prince, as the text on top of the screen tells us, has been looking for Snow White and when he finds her, he seems to somehow know exactly what to do. He kisses her, but when nothing happens bows down and begins to cry. Suddenly, her eyes open and she’s alive, because love’s first kiss is what will save her. Hooray!
And then they ride off together into the sunset. There are some issues that I have with this plot that I’d like to share. For starters, if one of the dwarfs had kissed her on the head, would that have broken the spell? What were the perimeters of said spell? Why did the prince decide to kiss the dead girl he met that one time? Did he know about the spell? Why did Snow think that eating the apple was a good idea? To quote Harry Potter, “How thick can you get?”
I will give Disney credit though, these issues are not just from the Disney adaptation, they’re pretty much from every retelling of the Snow White story, which leads into our next category, the source material.
I will give Disney this; they took a much more gruesome and frightening story and managed to tone it way down. In the Grimm Brothers’ version of the story, Snow White is killed by the queen three times; once by magic comb, once by corset and once by apple; and the first two times is brought back to life by the dwarfs. The third time, they couldn’t bring her back but put her in the glass coffin because she looked so life-like. Of course, most everything in the film is from the source material, including the magic mirror and the infamous rhyme…
Another important change from the source material is that the prince hadn’t met Snow White before; he just saw her in her coffin and thought she was pretty. He had his guys carry the coffin back, but they tripped , dropped her, and the apple, which was lodged in her throat, fell out. At this point, she woke up and they fell instantly in love, living happily ever after.
Well, almost. The Queen doesn’t die after the apple in the Grimms’ story, she is fairest until Snow wakes up, when the mirror tells her that the “Young Queen” is fairer. When she arrives at the feast, Snow recognizes her and she has iron slippers hot and ready for her. The Queen is forced to wear these shoes and dance until she drops down dead.
The last thing that was left out of the Disney version is the fact that Snow White had, at one point, a mother and a father. The Grimms’ tell us that her mother dies after Snow’s birth, but her father never appears again after marrying the Evil Queen.
Snow White has been retold many times, including “Snow White: Fairest of Them All,” “Mirror, Mirror,” “Snow White and the Huntsman,” and being a major plot point of “Once Upon a Time.” Each retelling takes a slightly different spin, sometimes with a Snow White who falls prey to the witch when she acts in a maternal way (Fairest), some explaining what happened to her father (Mirror, Mirror) and some just taking the source material and running with it, like “Once Upon a Time.”
Despite the number of times it’s been retold, the Disney version is probably the one most people think of when they think of Snow White. In this version, the dwarfs have distinct personalities, something not present in the source material. Disney’s version has become a part of our culture and is, while not a tale as old as time, a tale with an impact on our time. Most retellings borrow at least something from this version, and the songs are always being used in popular culture.
I lucked out this time because I know a bit about the 30’s; for next week, I’ll have to do more research on the 40’s. The 1930’s are best known for being the era of the Great Depression, which, for many people, was not the happiest of times. I know, major understatement.
Since typically during the Depression as many people in the family worked as possible, I first wondered why Snow White was not working a job of some sort while living with the dwarfs. However, when I looked a little closer, I think I figured it out. While Snow White is not working, technically, she is very skilled at cooking and cleaning. Her job, therefore, is to take care of the house and do the things that dwarfs cannot, because they are working. This allows the dwarfs to have a higher standard of living than before, and her cooking is why she was allowed to stay in the first place.
The idea that is put forth in the song “With a Smile and a Song,” to me, emphasizes the power that the individual has over their world. This fits in well with what I know about the 30’s, everyone mattered and had a job to do to keep the family going. Whether that job was cooking and cleaning or taking a paper route, everyone could and did affect their world. The other song, “Whistle While You Work,” always struck me as about being happy while working, and finding ways to keep your spirits up when your task seems impossible or hopeless. Finally, for me, “Heigh-Ho” was about being happy to be at work, no matter what the work. I also was getting serious Civil Conservation Corps vibes from the Dwarfs, men going out into the wilderness to work, but that might be crossing the line of reading too much into it.
These songs, together with the often just ridiculous antics of the supporting characters, could also serve to offer a distraction to the harsh realities of life during the Depression. They are tempered with scary scenes because life is scary, but if you look hard enough, there is whimsy to be found. I might be giving Disney too much credit with that one, but I think it seems solid.
When you look at this film through modern cultural lens, it really can be problematic and there are lots of things that really bothered me. Luckily, when you look at it through the cultural lens of the 1930’s, a lot of those problems become less glaring, or at least more understandable as a product of their time.
For me, the major lesson is that fruit is bad for you. At least bright red apples being given out by scary old ladies are bad for you.
No, not really. I suppose the biggest takeaway from “Snow White” is that beauty is as beauty does. Snow White is beautiful, but it is her kindness and willingness to work hard that makes the dwarfs want to protect her, and inspires the animals to lead her to the cottage in the first place. The queen, consumed by jealousy, ends the movie an ugly old hag with one of the more gruesome Disney deaths (though I may find myself amending that statement later, I’ve seen Tarzan).
The other lesson I found is that you really shouldn’t trust everyone. Snow trusts the huntsman, he tries to kill her. She trusts the old woman, she actually kills her. Snow really lucked out with the dwarfs, but they also tried to kill her (the animals should really have seen that coming). The amount of times this girl narrowly avoids death in a short amount of time is really staggering, and it’s mostly because she trusts the wrong people.
I suppose the lesson we’re supposed to, technically, take away from this film is that love always wins. I have a hard time with this; they only met once, Disney! However, this moral is one that has persisted through the years, so I figured I should mention it. I’m looking at you, “Once Upon a Time.”
DOES IT HOLD UP?
This one is tricky to judge, because it is, in fact, the film that kick-started an entire genre and launched the Disney Studio into the animation powerhouse it has become. Would Disney have gained that success and renown without “Snow White?” Honestly, probably yes. The studio was headed that way with ground-breaking technology and amazing short films, and, if not “Snow White” in ’37, it would have been something else soon after.
For what it is, despite the issues that I may have with trying to find my historical lens and my personal feelings about the story, I feel like I would be lying if I didn’t admit that the movie is gorgeous and a truly groundbreaking film. According to IMDB and their trivia page, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” is still the highest grossest animated film of all time, adjusting for inflation. Can’t argue with history, I suppose. While not my personal favorite, it set the stage and did it in style.
For next week: Pinocchio
If you enjoyed this post and the others in the Revisiting Disney series, and have found yourself wishing that you could find them all in one convenient and bound book with eight extra essays, there is an option for you! Check out A Journey Through Disney: My Look Back Through Disney Canon, now available on Amazon as both a Kindle book ($4.99) and a paperback ($11.99).
Sale, Roger. Fairy Tales and After: From Snow White to E.B. White. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1978.
Tatar, Maria. The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales. W.W. Norton and Company, New York and London, 2002.Pin this article to read later! And make sure to follow us on Pinterest.