The Great Disney Blogathon: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
|August 8, 2012||Posted by Jess under Cartoons, Disney, Movies, The Great Disney Blogathon|
As a huge Disney buff, I’ve been meaning to blog my way through the animated features for a while now, and, well, there’s no time like the present! In this intermittently-updated series, I’ll rewatch and discuss each of Disney’s feature-length animated films in order – and their sequels. (Hey, some of them aren’t that bad!)
Today, we’re kicking things off with – of course – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, a.k.a. “Walt’s Folly,” released in 1937 as the first full-length animated feature ever. (And yes, I do mean “Dwarfs” – Walt preferred it to “Dwarves.”)
The primary thing to note about Snow White is that it is very much a product of its time. That’s obviously evident in the enormously passive heroine, the alien singing styles, and the cringeworthy presence of Dopey, but it’s also very clear from the animation style and the pacing that this was their first full-length film and they didn’t really know what they were doing. In a lot of ways it feels (and definitely looks) more like an extra-long Silly Symphonies cartoon than any of its successors. This is especially prominent during “Whistle While You Work” and any scene with the Dwarfs, where the plot is abandoned in favor of long sequences of nonstop gags. Actually, it might be more accurate to say that it’s a scary/romantic Silly Symphony (everything with Snow White, her Prince, and the Queen) with maybe four humor shorts shoved in the middle. Many of Dopey’s shenanigans could be handed off to Goofy pretty easily; it’s a very similar style of humor.
That said, it’s really a lovely movie. Disney would reach new heights in animating forests a few years later with the absolutely stunning Bambi, but this one ain’t half bad. Several techniques were invented for this film, like the zoom in the shot where Snow White sees the Dwarfs’ cottage for the first time, and the development of paints that looked like they had texture – the Queen’s robes are clearly velvet, the Dwarfs’ clothes are rough and rustic, etc. The reflection shots in the wishing well are fantastic. The Queen’s transformation is where the movie reaches its greatest artistic heights, though; it’s captivating, elemental, and genuinely terrifying.1
What I find most striking about the film is what they don’t show, however. It’s not a hugely subtle movie, but two of the best, scariest moments come because you can’t see the main action: the close-up on the Witch’s eager face as Snow White eats the apple and collapses, and the wickedly gleeful looks on the vultures’ faces as the Witch falls to her death. I suspect the Hays Code had to do with these reaction shots (what was the rule on on-screen deaths?), but they’re still far more effective than showing the actual deaths would’ve been. Death is sad, but wicked creatures exulting over it is chilling.
So much for the look and feel of the movie. Now for the characters.
Snow White is both the first and least of the core Disney Princesses – super iconic and instantly recognizable, but still the least popular and the least-used in the general princess franchise. She doesn’t even get kicked around for her passivity the way Cinderella does. I suspect that’s almost entirely to do with the fact that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – and its heroine – feels dated in a way that Cinderella doesn’t. She sings weird! She’s squeaky-voiced! She talks in rhyme! People can’t relate, thus the movie doesn’t get shown/purchased/obsessed over as much.
The weird thing is that the movie doesn’t really ask you to relate to her. Like, ever. She’s given no internal life; even her “dreaming song” (a Disney staple) is about someone else and the things he’ll do to and for her, not about her own ambitions or life philosophy. (Compare “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes,” which expresses Cinderella’s independent motto and the core of her personal strength.) Rather than getting into her head, we see her through the eyes of the Queen, the Prince, the Huntsman, the Dwarfs, and the animals.2 The only action she independently undertakes in the whole movie is, as John Grant points out in his wonderful Encyclopedia of Walt Disney’s Animated Characters (which I will be referencing many more times before this series is through), to clean the Dwarfs’ cottage. And while I don’t see that in and of itself as an anti-feminist action – I personally love cooking and cleaning (yes, cleaning!) and in general don’t like putting down traditional “women’s work” as inherently bad – a female character with no goals and no actions who is constructed solely to be looked at and reacted to is, um, not a great female character. (Though I do think there’s something inherently powerful in the existence of such an iconic female character, who is in many ways the first lady of the world’s biggest kids’ entertainment juggernaut.)
All that said, I love her. There’s something enormously appealing about her design – she may have been designed to be looked at, but that looking is a pleasing experience. Like many of the Princesses, she’s cute rather than beautiful, but it’s such a charming cuteness. As a classic movie buff, I’m not at all put off by her voice, and in fact her chirpyness and general demeanor remind me an awful lot of Shirley Temple, who has been one of my personal heroes since I was a wee tot (and who presented Walt with a special Oscar for this very film!). She’s sweet and good and she has a sense of humor – all very positive things. I would dearly love to see Disney expand upon her character with, say, some really good comics that give her an inner life in addition to her general sweetly cute sweetness, but I suppose any further exploration of her canon would have to involve Dopey, who I suspect Disney would like to avoid.3
Speaking of which…sigh. Okay. Grant goes into this whole thing in his book about how Dopey is totally lovable and not at all offensive…! But no. He’s super offensive and even as a very small child he made me uncomfortable. I likened him to Goofy a bit further up, but the difference is that Goofy, while klutzy and dim, is always shown as essentially a comfortably independent adult. Dopey is clearly a parody of the developmentally challenged, and with the name and the waggling tongue and the very brief but super racist “Chinese” impression he does during “Silly Song,” I can’t. I just can’t. It might have flown in the 1930s – and for decades after, since well through the 60s if not later, characters like Dopey and Jiminy Cricket and the Three Little Pigs were core standard-bearers for the company – but it doesn’t fly now.4
The rest of the Dwarfs are far less problematic, and basically enjoyable, though their shenanigans grow a little wearing after a while (there is seriously like a 40 minute Dwarfapalooza in the middle of the movie). Grumpy is by far the most developed – and by far my favorite, though I also like Doc, being a blustery leader-type myself. The others are, well, just kind of there? When your name expresses the full extent of your personality, there’s not much more to say.
What else? Well, the Queen is fantastic. I don’t tend to be particularly interested in villains – I need a story to have a good one to work, but I don’t care about them beyond making sure they’re effective and given sufficient motivation – but man, the Queen is a joy to watch. Lucille La Verne does an amazing job voicing both of her aspects.
And finally, the Prince is a total waste of space. He’s not heroic or charming in any way; he’s just a weirdo who wanders around the forest kissing dead 14-year-olds. Bleh.
I feel like this post has come off pretty critical, so I want to clarify: I love this movie. I grew up on it and have seen it at least a few dozen times. It makes me happy. There are many reasons it wouldn’t work as a movie made today, but I accept it as a product of its time, and a legend in its own right. Good on you, Snow White.
- It also reminds me a lot of the opening of the Mickey Mouse short “The Worm Turns,” released the same year. It’s interesting that though the Queen is casting a magic spell, she comes across more like a mad scientist than a witch. I’d be super interested in learning more about the perceptions of mad scientists in 1930s pop culture, since they seem to be different in flavor than those of the post-war sci-fi boom – certainly more chemical and less nuclear, for obvious reasons. Anyone want to research that for me? ↩
- With the Magic Mirror, the sum total of the characters in the movie. The whole film floats in this weird unreal space where only four humans inhabit an entire nation-state – why is the Prince’s castle on a cloud? who rules Snow White’s kingdom after she leaves with the Prince and the Queen is killed? – but Snow White is the most disconnected of all the characters. Aside from one or two lines with the Huntsman, she has no dialogue with ordinary humans – she never even shares a room with the Queen. Again, there’s the sense that this is a Silly Symphony and not a fully-realized world – but it also helps to render Snow White a pretty face with no interiority whatsoever. ↩
- Unless she just hangs out with the other Princesses as the somewhat naive but spirited baby of the group? OH MY GOD, DISNEY, DO THAT. Need a writer? CALL ME. ↩
- It doesn’t help that Mackenzie and I were once followed around the Disney Store and relentlessly, passive aggressively hit on by an extremely creepy employee of theirs, who turned out to collect Dopey merchandise. Try and think of a creepier character for a creepy guy to collect! You can’t! ↩