Saturday, 9 April 2016

Walt's Era - Part 1: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

We all know the story. Walt Disney cut his teeth on animation back in 1921 in Kansas City, Missouri, making extremely crude animations that modernized fairy tales like Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood. With some extra cash, he was able to put together a short blending animation with live action in 1923, titled Alice's Wonderland, and went scouting around Hollywood. Partnering with his brother Roy, more of these "Alice" shorts were produced until the Walt Disney Studios were built at 2719 Hyperion Ave. in 1926. After the Alice shorts ran their course, Disney made a series of cartoons with Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. This contract lasted about a year and a half before the character was scooped from beneath him by Universal Studios, who technically were the rightful copyright holders. This setback forced Disney to start over again in 1928 with a new character co-created by longtime friend and coworker Ub Iwerks. That character went on to make his fortune.

The original Disney studio at 2719 Hyperion.
The first official Mickey cartoon, Steamboat Willie, was also Disney's first attempt at synchronized sound. The combination of a sassy but lovable everymouse with music and sound effects was a hit, and within a decade Disney went from simple black-and-white barnyard cartoons to Hollywood's first feature-length, full-colour, animated film.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
December 21, 1937
83 minutes

When I was growing up, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was still an event. The first Disney film I remember seeing in theatres was the 1985 re-release of One Hundred and One Dalmatians, followed by 1986's The Great Mouse Detective, and finally the 50th anniversary re-release of Snow White, after which point I fell out of interest in new Disney animated films. That 50th anniversary of Snow White was exciting, with all the customary merchandising tie-ins - I particularly remember the plush Dwarfs from Sears - and the pervasive feeling that Disney's first and greatest film was available to be seen by a whole new generation.

That sense is gone now, reserved only for Snow White becoming the go-to first release for each new home video format: the first Masterpiece Collection VHS, the first Platinum Collection DVD, the first Diamond Collection Blu-Ray, and now first Signature Collection Digital HD. I was honestly astonished when the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train ride for Walt Disney World was announced, because I thought a 75-year old film would be a bit beyond the statute of limitations for hot franchise material. Still I was genuinely disappointed that the replica of the Carthay Circle Theater in Disney's California Adventure did not have a working theatre that played Snow White on a continuous loop. Damn a restaurant! I would absolutely take 83 minutes out of a trip to Disneyland to watch Snow White in a replica of the theatre it debuted in. If Buena Vista Street is meant to contrast Main Street, how great would is be to have the Carthay Circle Theater contrasting the Main Street Cinema? Sadly, I don't know that today's children will experience Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as the event it should be.

Watching Snow White again in its historical context puts the exclamation point on what an unprecedented cinematic milestone it was. To a moviegoing public reared on relatively unsophisticated Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony cartoons, Snow White would have been a bolt of lightning from out of nowhere. It is only with the privilege of hindsight that we can guffaw at the critics who guffawed at "Disney's Folly"... Given what Disney had produced up to this point, how could they anticipate what he was going to do? The Mickey Mouse shorts were getting progressively better, but the only thing that could have clued anybody to what was in store were the Silly Symphonies Little Hiawatha and The Old Mill released only months before. Little Hiawatha is, artistically, miles beyond the Silly Symphonies that preceded it. We can see the groundwork for Snow White's naturalistic backgrounds, animal templates, and dwarven physical comedy. The Old Mill is dramatic short that eschewed prior conventions, depicting its subjects with even more realism against a painterly backdrop and advanced environmental effects. It was also the first use of the multiplane camera, which bestowed the same depth of field to animation that live-action films enjoyed.

Disney's oeuvre of short gag films did nothing to prepare anyone for the masterful work of romance, drama, danger, pathos, sentiment, humour, and horror that flickered across screens that Christmas. Snow White is a supremely consummate motion picture: it has everything, and tells its story with brevity, precision, and a tautness that we have only lost since. The Thirties were a period of absolutely remarkable movie magic - arguably the best decade of film in the medium's entire history - and Snow White compares extraordinarily well with films like King Kong (1933), Gone With the Wind (1939), Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Wizard of Oz (1939), Errol Flynn's The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), The Thin Man (1934), Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times (1936), and Stagecoach (1939), and so on, and so forth. If I was only allowed to watch one decade's worth of films, I would be torn between 1925-1935 or 1931-1941. Whether I could bear to be without Snow White would play a large part in answering that dilemma. Thankfully it's not one I have to answer!

Compared to modern films, Snow White's pace is breakneck. We've barely met her before she's running screaming through a forest, yet we know exactly everything we need to know about her, her motivations, and her antagonist. There is no wasted motion, which is understandable given that somebody would have had to sit and draw and ink and shoot that motion frame-by-frame. The best movie I can compare its timing to is the original King Kong: a clinic in making a film of epic scale that is in fighting trim, without the slightest bit of fat or bloat. There is more content in Snow White's 83 minutes and King Kong's 100 than in a modern trilogy of 183 minute films.

Nor does Disney pull any punches. The romantic song between Snow White and The Prince is all soft lit and drifting blossoms and storybook castles. Her flight through the forest, and the Evil Queen's subsequent transformation, are absolutely terrifying. It was for no undue reason that Vincent Price was rumoured to have said that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the scariest movie he had ever seen. The heart hardly pumps faster than for the animals' mad dash through the forest to save Snow White from the fateful apple, nor pines more after the melancholy beauty of her glass coffin under a weeping tree in a ray of light. It has just about everything one can put in a movie, and does it perfectly.

Audiences felt that way too, and assured all of Disney's future success. Snow White was never nominated for a "Best Picture" Oscar, but was awarded a special Oscar all of its own in 1939. With the proceeds, Disney could afford to build a custom studio in Burbank, closing out the old era of the Hyperion studios with its relatively crude cartoons. Disney's artform would become increasingly sophisticated, until interrupted by the failures of his own ambition and the onset of the Second World War.

But that is a story for our next installment of Walt's Era... 


  1. "Sadly, I don't know that today's children will experience Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as the event it should be."

    Most people are not film buffs, let alone animation historians. They may, on an intellectual level, appreciate the accomplishment that Snow White represents, but animation has gotten so much flashier in the nearly 80 years since that it's hard to get people to try to inhabit the shoes of the film's original audience. That, and I think Snow White herself is hard to market using the Disney Princess model, since her story is so simply told.

    As for me, Snow White is, oddly enough, one of the few Disney animated features I don't own. (My sister has promised me her DVD once she picks up the Blu-Ray.) It's also not one of the ones we had on video when I was little...the end result of which is that I have probably gone on the Disneyland ride more times than I have seen the movie!

    Even so, when I do watch it, it blows my mind to think that it was created entirely with 1930s technology. Things like flowing water are damn near photo-realistic, and not only was it all done by hand, it was the first time anyone had done these things on this scale. Let other people count the hairs on Judy Hopps; I'm going to be impressed by the dedication to art it took to transform the beautiful Queen into a terrifying hag.

    1. Granted, not everyone is an historian. It just makes me a little sad, and wistful, when a unique experience like that is lost. There aren't many movies that are treated like events anymore, outside of the 20th film in some current hot franchise. Film has just moved on from that, but it's too bad in some ways. Heck, there wasn't even a little Snow White figure set in the Disney Store for the latest home video release! At the very least, I would have preferred the Carthay Circle try and "recreate" opening night instead of just having nothing.

      Snow White is an amazing accomplishment in its own right, both from a technological standpoint and a storytelling one. My appreciation for it has been immeasurably raised through this project. The story may be simply told, but there's so much that modern movies could learn from that simplicity.