The Persistence of Disney, Part 1: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

| July 10, 2016

Dali studied The Persistence of Memory.  I study The Persistence of Disney.

As it has been in the past, Disney owns the landscape of film animation despite fierce competition from other studios.  This hasn’t always been the case.  Throughout it’s 90 year history, this company has become a multi-cultural phenomenon that has managed to stay with us while others have come and gone.  It is an essential element to American culture even while it’s placement in the landscape varies widely with the times.  It’s been such a part of our lives for so long that the word ‘Disney’ has practically become a verb.  Ask anyone about their first movie experience and I’ll be 9 out of 10 will name something from The Walt Disney Company.  Disney is part of your life.  It’s part of my life.

Disney’s first animated feature debuted 80 years ago, and with that I’m doing a little celebration.  Welcome to my newest project: The Persistence of Disney, a weekly series in which I will explore every single one of Disney’s theatrical animated movies from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs  all the way through the latest animated feature Zootopia.  I will post a new essay every Sunday morning from now until we get through all of them.  So, make yourself some coffee and join me every Sunday.  I hope you’ll enjoy the magic.  Let’s start this week where it all began, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Snow White

If you’ve ever paid attention to the advertising for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs then you’ve probably noticed that it all tips at making the film look like a happy dancing comedy with lots of lively music and colorful imagery.  What is always missing in the ads are the darker portions of the film, the haunted forest, the old crone, Snow White’s wake.  The folks at Disney obviously want to sell the movie to kids, but they don’t want to push them away by suggesting that the film has dark corners.  I wish that wasn’t the case.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs turns 80 years old in 2017 and it endures because of its darker edges and the way in which Disney and his animators balanced those scenes with the songs and the comedy.  This was, of course, Walt Disney’s first animated feature and it indeed has scary scenes that are all for the enhancement of the story.  This is not exclusive to Snow White.  This would follow into Pinocchio and into Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi.

Well rounded stories have to have dark corners because without the dark you cannot have the light.  It is one of the reasons that Disney films touch us so deeply.  Darkness, sadness and despair are part of the tapestry.  If it were all happy, there would be no journey, no lesson, no reward.  We wouldn’t be able to identify and the films would be no different than staring at a billboard.  Disney’s earlier characters (most of whom were reworked from other sources) were so well-rounded that we got a sense of standing in the room next to them.  Their journeys took us to some dark places to focus on real dangers along the way whether they occurred by design, by evil machinations, by mistake or by force of nature.

Revisiting Snow White the other night I arrived at its end with the same exhilaration that I did when I saw it as a child.  As the third act opens, the story has gotten as dark as it could get.  Snow White dies.  Well . . . okay, she goes into a deep sleep so everyone thinks she’s dead, but you get the idea.  All is lost.  The Dwarfs have lost their beloved princess.  Then the prince arrives and plants “Love’s first kiss” right on her ruby lips.  She wakes, they fall in love, and he carries her off to a castle in the sky while the music swells with angelic glory.  She’s not only alive, but she is swept off her feet to go and live in paradise.  It’s the happiest of happy endings perchance if you don’t read too much into it.  We’ll get to that in a moment.

What struck me seeing the film again after many years (I hadn’t seen it since I was a teenager back in the 80s) was just how beautifully drawn this movie is and what a technological leap the animators made.  The technological marvel was the multi-plane camera which allowed objects in the foreground and the background to move independently of one another and independently of the central action.  It also allowed the objects to move at various speeds and various distances to create a three-dimensional feel. This was long before computers, when animation was a painstaking practice in which each cell was drawn and painted one-by-one by hand (production on Snow White actually began in 1934). On the multi-plane camera, pieces of the artwork were laid on various platters on the camera that moved independently of one another so the various cells could move opposite of one another.  The result was that a house in the background could have objects moving independently in the foreground.

The animators had the talent to create a palette that was alive.  Take, for example, Snow White’s nightmare journey through the forest as the branches of the trees reach out and the eyes bear down upon her.  It would be enough just to have a girl frightened by the forest but to see it through her eyes to visualize the nightmare is part of the extra step, the further burst of inspiration.  The foreground objects move independently of Snow White so that she seems to exist in a three-dimensional space.  The effect is also used to great effect later when The Evil Queen takes her potion.  As it takes effect, the objects in room swirl around her as in a dream.  They move independently of her and the effect is mesmerizing.

Of course, any movie known for its technical innovations will inevitably become a victim of time.  Animated films, by their very nature, are almost completely made up of technological craftsmanship.  Yet, Snow White is the exception.  It hasn’t aged in any negative way.  The work on this film is so detailed, so lovingly put together that it endures even in the maw of the ceaseless adamant of time. It might have been easier for Disney and his animators to have made a cute animated movie with lots of music, but if he made it simple-minded, its impact would have dried up long ago.

Historically, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs might seem like a lucky break in which Disney and his animators poured their heart and soul into the production so much that what came out the other end was a collaboration of detail and work and imagination.  Everyone knows that this was Disney’s first full-length animated feature (contrary to popular belief this is not the first full-length animated feature, that honor belongs to a 1917 Argentinean picture called The Apostle and there were at least five others in between) but it didn’t come to life in a single burst of inspiration.

The gestation went back more than a decade.  Walt Disney spent 10 years putting together the “Silly Symphony” cartoons, a series of 77 shorts that he made between 1929 and 1939 at which time he made such well known films as The Three Little Pigs, Flowers and Trees and The Band Concert.  They were cute and colorful but they had an underlying purpose.  Walt had his eye on a full-length animated feature and the Silly Symphony cartoons were his laboratory.  He and his crew experimented with color, sound and new animation techniques, all of which led the way to Snow White.

Note the levels of generosity to the visuals.  There’s a moment when Snow White sings into the well and the camera looks up at her from beneath the water.  It’s not a practical shot, but it adds a level of great detail.  Think about it: somebody had to think up that shot and draw it and color it.  It wasn’t necessary, but it was a generous detail.

I also love the way that the entire frame is populated by supporting players,  Snow White doesn’t just gather just a few forest friends, she gathers at least four dozen.  There are small animals packed into every corner of the frame.  They’re all moving independently of one another so that screen is always vibrating, always moving, always bouncing along.

This was a project for which Walt was given a great deal of praise, as well as several special Oscars (one big one and seven little ones) but in pre-production his project was met with skepticism.  The press called it “Walt’s Folly” and even warned that watching an animated movie would hurt your eyes.  Walt’s family pleaded with him not to pursue this project especially after he financed it by mortgaging his house.  It could have gone wrong in so many ways, but it made a fortune and was the highest grossing movie of 1937.

Yet, it all would mean nothing if what is on the screen didn’t affect us so deeply.  Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is an experience, a great emotional one.  I was surprised how moved I was by Snow White’s wake.  The Evil Queen has defeated our heroine and she lies in her glass coffin because the Dwarves (thankfully) couldn’t bring themselves to bury her.  I know that she’ll be alright, but the level of sadness and despair that the animators put into that scene is stunning.  The faces of the dwarfs are so expressive and so sad that you can feel that weight of each character’s heart.  The lighting, the music, the color, the sound all contribute to the effect.  And remember that it all had to be created from scratch.

I said that Snow White was an experience, but I will note that it is not a practical one.  You have to let your emotions overcome gaps of logic in the story.  When Snow White is awakened by Prince Charming, she is swept up onto his horse and carried off to paradise.  She’s found her prince, but if you follow the story logically, she’s being courted by a man she barely knows.  They’ve met (by the movie standards) only once and now she’s off to spend the rest of her life with him?  That’s a curious misstep but it’s not the point.  The movie isn’t really about characters, it’s about character types.  Note the way that the movie avoids proper names.  The names are more descriptive: Snow White, Prince Charming, The Evil Queen, Happy, Dopey, Sneezy, Bashful, Grumpy.  They’re all given a level of personality trait and that’s where they stay.  They are give a trait and it motivates their personality.

Those singular character traits make the characters a little less rounded, but they lend themselves to the story in the same way that they would in a fairy tale.  Surprisingly the least interesting character in the movie is Snow White herself.  She’s the key player here but she doesn’t seem to motivate the story by her actions.  The story really happens to her.  Her personality is kind of threadbare.  She happy, she’s maternal, she’s carefree, but she doesn’t seem to have a robust personality.  In most other movies, the supporting players inspire the central character to action.  Here it is the other way around.  Her adventure is motivated by the Evil Queen’s attempts (twice) to kill her and the first of these attempts pushes her into the haunted forest where she runs in to the seven dwarfs.  Her happy-go-lucky manner inspires them, up to and including tracking down the Queen when she kills Snow White with a poisoned apple.  She catches the attention of the Prince at the well.  Her innocence wounds the heart of The Huntsman who has been tasked with taking her into the woods where he is to cut out her heart.  She inspires the creatures of the forest – squirrels, rabbits, mince, birds, turtles etc. – to be her protectors and her friends.  And of course, she befriends the seven dwarfs by becoming the matriarch of their home.

Snow White was the antithesis of the times (note that she was created exclusively by men).  In 1937, the American woman’s lot in life had changed.  The jazz era of the 1920s had given women a new sense of freedom and independence that would lead to their liberation movement decades later.  Ever since the end of WWI, women had been moving away from their station as mother and wife and into a more profound sense of self.  The gestation of Snow White – from 1934 to 1937 – is seated in American history between the jazz era of the 20s and the workforce of women that blossomed in the 40s.  Therefore she represents a more domesticated model of home and family and children, a more paternal vision of what a woman’s role was to be (one of the home video ads, I noticed, had her dancing around with a broom).  Snow White has less a personality then attributes.  She’s beautiful, she’s cheerful, she’s virginal, and she’s pure.

Of course, if Snow White represents the positive image of a woman as wife and mother, then The Evil Queen represents the dangers of the independent woman.  She lives on her own in her castle, she’s vain to the point of murder and she has all the power she could ever need.  The madness that boils in her mind is focused squarely on her looks.  She’s beautiful but she wants to be “fairest in the land” and she’s willing to cast off her attractive face for that of an old crone in order to murder an innocent girl.  She lives in a large castle full of skulls and rotten old bones and her only associate is apparently The Huntsman and the image in The Magic Mirror.   What was the image of The Evil Queen telling young girls of the late 30?  Stay in the kitchen because a woman living on her own is vial, cruel, vain and prone to murder?  I’m sure that’s not what Disney had in mind, but it is a point to ponder.

What is the movie telling us?  What is it telling young girls?  For sure, the movie is slanted to a male  point of view, but there is a cautionary lesson to be learned about vanity.  Maybe that’s what it  is trying to say.  It’s placement of women in the picture as seen through a contemporary vantage point is appalling but if that lesson can be carried away, maybe it’s not for nothing.  Times will change, but the movies will stay the same.  They are a window on the world which represents the times in which they were made.  When you look at Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs you are looking at a timeless film, yes, but you’re also looking at a product of 1937.  Can it be blamed for the message it was trying to send?  Of course not, but the movie has endured for four generations because of the care and love given to the artistry.  It endures in the same manner as The Wizard of Oz, Pinocchio, Star Wars, Batman or any of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales.  What Snow White represents was the vision of a group of artists who wanted to create not just an animated movie, but something that would retain it’s magic now and forever after.

Bambi (1942)
Dumbo (1941)
Fantasia (1940)
Pinocchio (1940)

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.