Between terror and delight: “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937)

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By Scott Ross

The first time I saw David Hand’s Snow White

(Wait a minute! What? Exactly. The above is a deliberate representation of the lunatic extremes to which the perpetual abuse of the auteur theory in America is so often, and so hilariously, misapplied. I would be willing to bet that, in the pages of the whatever publication Andrew Sarris was writing for, Walt Disney’s early masterpiece, whose every frame and incident bears the mark of his overseeing hand, would have been listed, absolutely without irony and because he was credited as the picture’s Supervising Director, as “David Hand’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”)

As I was saying… The first time I saw Snow White, on its 1967 reissue, I was six years old and it was 30. (It’s over 80 now, and I am far from six.) It’s one of those events for which I recall, not just the movie, or even the live-action featurette, The Legend of the Boy and the Eagle, that accompanied it, but the circumstances: My mother took me to a matinee screening, uncharacteristically without my sister (she may have been at summer camp) and, being a cartoon-mad child and this my first animated feature, it was a red-letter day for me. I see from my research that my long-held memory of the date has played me false: I was convinced that it was a school-day, and a cold one, suggesting winter, and 1965, before I entered kindergarten. But it seems the movie was re-released in June, making me wonder if my additional memory — of my having to take a hot bath before we left, and of Mom’s taking me to a drug store lunch counter for a hot cocoa with whipped cream (another first) afterward and buying me a tiny soft rubber “Admiral Pelican” toy — are images from another occasion, although I’m still convinced I got the pelican that day.* Well, memory as we all know is far from entirely reliable, but whatever the circumstances surrounding my seeing Snow White, the vividness of my first exposure to that movie has never faded.

Snow White - bedroom

A simple, funny gag by Ward Kimball — the Dwarfs revealing their faces as their noses pop into view — has been interpreted by Freudians as a series of erection caricatures. Who do they think made the thing? Tex Avery? Some adults should never be allowed to see a movie without a child along to explain it to them.

Unsurprisingly, the images that hit hardest, and have stuck longest, were the more horrific ones: Of Snow White’s race through the forest, and how, in her panicked, fevered imagination the trees reach out for her and logs turn into crocodiles; of the wicked Queen’s terrifying transformation into the poison apple-vending hag; of her dispatching of Snow White, the heroine’s arm falling into the frame, a bitten apple rolling away from her open hand; and of the Queen’s subsequent, poetically justified, demise, the vultures circling down into the mist to feast on her freshly dead flesh. Those are nightmare sequences, of which Disney was a true master: They’re in all of his studio’s genuinely great animated features (aside perhaps from Cinderella, although the stepsisters’ tearing the heroine’s gown to shreds and the cat Lucifer’s falling from the high window at the climax may qualify) and they remain fixed in the memories of millions — even billions — of former children.

Snow White - Crocodile logs resized

Extremes of terror…

Snow White - Silly Song resized

… and delight

But I can also recall, as I imagine was and is true of others, my delight in the wonderfully delineated Dwarfs (particularly Dopey, Sneezy, Grumpy and Doc; I had never heard Spoonerisms before, and Doc became my favorite as a result of his), their comic actions, and the infectious joy with which they sing and dance their “Silly Song” with Snow White. These too are areas in which Walt would prove masterly, although I take issue with the people on the Disney Blu-ray documentary who claim Oklahoma! as the “first fully integrated musical,” and that Disney beat it by eight years. Not only was the 1927 Show Boat the real precursor of all of this, but Walt seems not to have known that Sigmund Romberg’s day had passed: The first 25 minutes or so of Snow White, until the Dwarfs reach home and discover something amiss at their cottage, is virtually a turn-of-the-century operetta, employing almost no dialogue — except the Queen’s — and arriving complete with twittering coloratura and sexless tenor, in love from the moment they see each other; they’d doubtless have been considered real humdingers at the Hippodrome in 1907. (Until she meets the Dwarfs, all of Snow White’s dialogue rhymes as well, something almost no one, including Walt Disney, could ever carry off.)† Snow White herself, as voiced by Adriana Caselotti, dates the movie more than anything else in it; she obviously fit Walt’s conception of the fairy tale adolescent heroine, and while small children may not mind her, and may even find her comforting, she has a way of making adults’ back teeth ache. Which is a shame, because your grown-up irritation can cause you to miss all sorts of wonders, such as how remarkably done Snow White’s reflection in her wishing-well is in the opening sequence, an effect people now take for granted but which in 1937 was revelatory, the product of the new Multiplane camera without which much of the visual impact of Snow White on its contemporary audience would have been infinitely less.

As a child of the ’60s, and while I instinctively gravitated to “funny animal” comic books (mostly Gold Key reprints) I had until that afternoon very little exposure to full animation. Where would I have seen it? By the time I was cognizant of such things, roughly the age of 4 or 5, most animation on television, unless it was comprised of old theatrical shorts, had succumbed to the cost-saving, and art-shaving, Hanna-Barbera “limited animation” model which ultimately poisoned the animation well for decades. The only exceptions, at least in the Canton, Ohio area where I was born, were the old Terrytoons and Paramount (alas, not Fleischer) Popeye shorts on local morning and afternoon kiddie-shows, Bugs Bunny on Saturday mornings and the all-too occasional vintage short on Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color on Sunday nights. Not even the Peanuts specials, charming though they were, exhibited much in the way of visual artistry, and although my parents had a Zenith television/radio/turntable console, they elected for the black-and-white model, presumably at the time the less expensive choice; as a result, I never saw color television on a regular basis until I moved away from home at 19. (I still remember the wonder with which, at age 7, I first beheld a color television broadcast, on the set of a family friend. It was a Kukla, Fran and Ollie special, Burr Tillstrom’s 1968 television adaptation of The Reluctant Dragon, and I can still picture in my mind the sight of Ollie’s glittering, bejeweled chest: sparkling imitation jewels on a field of deep, vivid blue.) So something like Snow White, especially projected on a big movie theater screen — something I also hadn’t experienced often — was absolutely entrancing. And I was exactly the right age for the picture: Young enough to enjoy it on a purely childish level yet old enough not to be traumatized by its darker sequences. (You want emotional trauma? Try Bambi. Thank God I was in my 20s before I saw that one.)

Snow White - Dopey with diamond eyes

Dopey in the “Heigh-Ho” sequence, living up to his name.

And what a aggregation of animators worked on the thing! Along with such relative veterans of the Disney studio as Hand, Art Babbitt, Shamus Culhane, Grim Natwick (who, while at Fleischer, had worked on a jazzy, satirical Snow White short for the character he created, Betty Boop), Fred Moore, Dick Lundy, Wilfred Jackson, Ben Sharpsteen, Norm Ferguson, Hamilton Luske and Vladmir “Bill” Tytla, every single member of the group that would come to be called “Walt’s Nine Old Men” (Les Clark, Milt Kahl, Ward Kimball, Eric Larsen, Woolie Reitherman, Frank Thomas, Marc Davis, Ollie Johnston and John Lounsberry) was involved, along with Larry Morey (who also wrote the song lyrics), Pete Alvardo, Michael Lah (who, after Tex Avery left MGM, later directed Droopy shorts there) and David Swift, who would, like Frank Tashlin, later become a live-action director. Not to mention (why do we say that, and then mention?) Ferdinand Hovarth and Gustaf Tenggren — who, like Hovarth helped design the Dwarfs, provided magnificent conceptual art of the backgrounds and buildings, and painted the gorgeous release poster seen above — and Albert Hurter, whose splendid character designs were also integral to the visual luster of the movie. A stable of creative artists like that is impossible to imagine today, and they, as much as Walt himself, turned what in Hollywood was snickered at as a disaster-in-the-making into a work of genuine popular art, an international financial juggernaut that, more than any other project in the studio’s history, made possible everything that flowed from it. Walt liked to say that his fortune was built on a mouse but if Mickey was the foundation his studio really stood on the shoulders of a beribboned teenager in a peasant blouse.

My previous observations about the songs in Snow White are not meant as a criticism of the numbers themselves, merely the structure built to house them. While not as rich, or as intriguingly dark, as their counterparts in the later, and more ambitious, Pinocchio (1940) the musical numbers here perform their duties efficiently, and with a great deal of charm. Moreover, whatever my complaints about the dated operetta style, each number flows into the next, and there is a particularly nice juxtaposition of “Whistle While You Work” and the Dwarfs’ “Heigh-Ho” (just as Disney achieves real suspense with his cutting between Snow White being menaced by the Witch and the little men and forest animals racing to save her.) Larry Morey’s lyrics are seldom of a kind that would have lost Cole Porter any sleep, but they weren’t intended to be clever or sophisticated. They were expected to convey generalized emotions, and they do. The music by Frank Churchill, however, is exceptional, and not only did nearly all of his and Morey’s songs (“Heigh-Ho”, “Whistle While You Work,” “With a Smile and a Song”) enter the American Popular Songbook, some of them, like “Some Day My Prince Will Come,” became jazz standards as well. Carl Stalling, an old Kansas City hand, worked at Disney on the early Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonys, but after he decamped in 1930 the Disney shorts were accompanied by instantly forgettable music. These continued to be uninspired musically, but after Snow White, the features at least had superb scores: Paul Smith worked on Snow White and while when I see the movie I can’t really distinguish his compositions I can immediately determine which cues were composed by Leigh Harline; his quirky little motif for Dopey, for example, is instantly recognizable as Harline’s, a brief precursor to his theme for Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio three years later.

Snow White - Heigh Ho

The “Heigh-Ho” sequence: A perfect synthesis of song, story and breathtaking visuals.

Music was, of course, integral to Disney’s success; he saw the potential of sound immediately, developed Steamboat Willie (1928) to exploit it, and continued to experiment with it throughout the 1930s. The Three Little Pigs (1933) in particular depends on music, and song, and the Depression-era public embraced Churchill’s “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” as an emblem. Walt’s embrace of a bigger sound for his Silly Symphony shorts — the name, if not the concept, was immediately imitated by Leon Schlesinger; Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies could not have existed without Disney’s model — must have thoroughly confused the money-men at other studios. Symphonic accompaniment for cartoons? What next? An animated feature? (Yes.) Whatever criticisms may be lobbed at Disney himself, or at the ravening corporation he spawned, his (and its) musical instincts have been more than effectual. Snow White set the prototype.

Snow White - Queen Grimhilde resized

Snow White - Wicked witch resized

If Caselotti is a sticky embodiment of virtue, the redoubtable stage actress Lucille La Verne is a marvelously fulsome personification of vice. Her Wicked Queen is silkily vicious, a walking, preening avatar of vanity (the Queen’s throne is in the form of a peacock) who seems to live only to be desirable. And La Verne’s Witch is thrillingly loathsome, the sort of figure to send delicious chills up a child’s spine. She’s not merely a perfect disguise; she is the Queen’s very essence. If her movements, like those of the Queen, are a series of melodramatic, silent-movie posturings, she is no less effective for them. The Disney artists were not yet ready for subtlety in characterizing evil; it would take years of experiment, and a much richer vocal artist (Eleanor Audley) to arrive at the more shaded, and more correspondingly frightening, Stepmother for Cinderella and wicked fairy Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty.

Snow White - Grumpy at organ

Grumpy’s independently-working buttocks keep time in the “Silly Song” sequence.

Disney’s distillation of the Dwarfs’ personalities is even more successful, their endearing idiosyncrasies suggested by their names and brought to fruition by the way they are animated as much as by the men who gave them voice.  Disney, no less than his rivals at the Schlesinger or Fleischer studios, was, as so many were at the time, tuned in to vaudeville and radio (if perhaps less directly imitative) and most of the Dwarfs reflect that interest: Roy Atwell’s trademark stammering and malapropisms informed Doc’s pomposity, while Billy Gilbert, a master of explosive sternutation, was a natural for Sneezy and Otis Harlin (Happy) had a voice that radiated joviality. Eddie Collins, the model for Dopey (and purveyor of his occasional hiccups and excited twitterings) was studied for his distinctive movement while Scotty Mattraw, known for his bucolic characters, was a natural for Bashful. Pinto Colvig was likely a no-brainer as well for Grumpy and Sleepy; a Disney gag writer and sound effects man, Colvig was also for many years the great voice of Goofy, my favorite of Disney’s characters.

Up to to this point in animation history, the standard practice for dealing with a collection of like figures in cartoons, at Disney and elsewhere, was to make them more or less interchangeable: They look indistinguishable and move together uniformly (The Skeleton Dance, 1929) or in identical patterns (the imps and flowers in The Goddess of Spring, 1934). With The Three Little Pigs Walt grasped the power, and the appeal, of character delineation. For his first feature, his Dwarfs couldn’t just be a mass, a septet of identical-looking (and acting) stick figures. They had to have individual personalities, and inter-familial conflicts. We sense within minutes that Doc is the most self-important of the seven and believes himself their natural leader while Grumpy is his polar opposite, adversarial in every situation, the voice of the pessimist where Doc radiates optimism, and that Dopey is the Dwarfs’ communal backwards child, petted and tolerated as much because of his eagerness to oblige despite obvious mental limitations as for his essential sweetness of personality. This sort of thing, de rigueur now in animation, had its basis in the Three Pigs but had never before been seen on the scale of Snow White. The Dwarfs’ personae are easily graspable by the children in the audience for their eponymous characteristics yet beloved of adults for their humor and their recognizability. And when, at the climax, they were seen weeping at Snow white’s coffin, members of the audience joined them, moved as much, I suspect, by Disney’s sheer audacity in depicting such a thing as by the Dwarfs’ collective sorrow. Hey! These little guys are real!

Snow White - coffin

As an adolescent Disney had seen the 1916 Snow White starring Marguerite Clark at a special showing for newsboys, which had made a marked impression on him, so it is unsurprising that he would choose it as the subject of his first feature. Development had begun as early as 1934Walt’s memorable first story conference, in which, characteristically, he acted out his ideas for the staff, including the youngest dwarf using a single feather for a pillow, later a charming moment for Dopey in the completed picture, occurred that autumn. As he demanded sequences be redone, and scrapped two in the pencil-test stage, before they could be completed and painted, the budget kept climbing (it eventually reached a then-unheard-of $1.49 million) but the proof was in the pudding. The movie grossed $3.5 million in North America, $6.5 million by 1939 and, by the end of its original release run, had earned a whopping $7.85 million internationally. Including its various re-issues over the decades (every seven years from 1937, grabbing roughly a new generation of impressionable young viewers each time, your humble scribe included) its box-office reached $418 million, with Christ only knows how much money generated in the sales of related books, records and toys and, later, home videos and DVDs/Blu-rays of the picture itself. (That crucial process of accretion cited by Walt and, later, as “synergy,” so beloved of his successor, Michael Eisner.) So much for what those in the know had once smugly called “Disney’s Folly.”

And the movie holds up, in a way few 80-year old pictures do. It helps, of course, that it’s set in an indeterminate period, and kingdom, and with no anachronisms and none of the cringe-inducing democratizion (really, Americanization) Disney later went in for, the nadir of which is probably Bing Crosby referring to Ichabod Crane in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1949) as “Ol’ Icky.” And given a pleasing restoration on its 50th anniversary in 1987, Snow White looks spectacular on Blu-ray, its palette a beautifully balanced mixture of muted tones for its natural and architectural backgrounds and bold Technicolor splashes for the characters’ costumes and such important elements as that terrifyingly enticing, bright red apple. The Prince is almost entirely characterlessness — all he does is sing a little, and deliver that revivifying kiss at the end, and next to the vividly-defined Dwarfs he barely exists but the design and execution of the normal-sized human characters is such a vast improvement on figures like the stilted Persephone of The Goddess of Spring as to constitute a quantum leap in animation possibility, and there are almost no missteps in the picture. Pretty much the only error I picked up on as I watched it again the other night was one of continuity: A quick depiction of Dopey’s drumming hands emerging from his distinctive yellow sweater during the “Silly Song” at the same time he and Sneezy are dancing with Snow White. I’m surprised Walt didn’t have that re-painted, but, as with the Prince shimmying slightly at the climax it may have been too late, and too expensive, to fix.

Snow White - Magic Mirror LP resizedI’ll end on the return to a personal note: After seeing the movie with me our mother bought us the Snow White “Magic Mirror” LP, which I played and re-played obsessively, and the reprint of the comic book (re-purposed from the original 1937-1938 newspaper strip adaptation drawn by Hank Porter and Bob Grant) accompanied me on our car-trip to the 1967 Expo in Montreal that summer. I re-read that one until it was pretty much in tatters. (I also had the coloring book, which puzzled me because it depicted the cut sequence of the Dwarfs making a bed for Snow White, and a plush doll of Doc I wish now I’d held onto.)

Snow White - comic 1967

As I was already hooked on cartoons, and on Disney, before seeing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, it can’t be said that Walt claimed another child-victim with his ’67 reissue. But I won’t deny that seeing it deepened the addiction as I also realize there’s something insidious about Disney’s hand-rubbing calculation; he liked to crow about the figures showing that every child in America had seen a Disney movie, read a Disney comic, played a Disney record or owned a Disney toy. And it’s worse, of course, now his company has become a corporate octopus, busily grabbing up any-and-everything that might attract a child’s attention, from Muppets to Marvel to Star Wars. (And let’s not forget the company’s current, gorge-rising, emphasis on enticing vulnerable little girls with its “Disney Princesses,” from Snow to, one presumes, Leia.) But when a movie is a genuine astonishment, as Snow White was and continues to be eight decades after its original release, even a Grumpy might be forced to admit there are worse things out there vying for a child’s attention than this bright, tuneful, funny and ultimately cathartic fantasy.


Admiral Pelican*Admiral Pelican, re-discovered on EBay a few years back. My original was orange, but you can’t have everything.

†The Dwarfs rhyme with her as well, before she sings “Someday My Prince Will Come,” and all of the Magic Mirror’s dialogue is in verse.  (Sample: “Over the seven jeweled hills / Beyond the seventh wall / In the cottage of the Seven Dwarfs / Dwells Snow White, fairest one of all.”)

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

2 thoughts on “Between terror and delight: “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937)

  1. Thanks for “sternutation”! Somehow I never encountered that word, even though I have a gigantic soft-spot for Billy Gilbert (ever since his condescending professor, in The Music Box, got so enraged at Stan and Ollie that he spouted his CV as his only argument for getting what he wants).

    • scottross79

      I must admit I did have to look up the word to remind myself how to spell it! I know you’re not fond of Howard Hawks but I love Gilbert as the process server in “His Girl Friday” (even if they did make the character a Gentile.)

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