Elephant, fly: “Dumbo” (1941)

Standard

By Scott Ross

The Disney Pinocchio (1940) — which to my astonishment I just realized will be 80 years old this year — is my favorite, not merely of the Disney features but of all animated movies. It is the fulfillment of Snow White‘s promise, but without Fantasia‘s pretension or Bambi‘s anthropomorphic cutseying-up of what is, basically, the grim realism of its source. (Felix Salten’s novel is red in tooth and claw, not to mention hoof.)* Pinocchio‘s contours, its scope, its design and effects, were and are what they were intended to be: An overwhelming visual and emotional experience. Its darknesss, which some see as cold, appeals to me, and seems entirely appropriate: The corrupt world is arrayed against Pinocchio, and his journey is proving his mettle in the face of temptation, and even death. He stands up to the obstacles and comes out the other side, fulfilling the basic requirements of a fairy tale. Pinocchio is a work of high art, both entrancing and profoundly disturbing. Dumbo, by contrast, is a cartoon, caricatured and brightly colored, like a child’s dream of the circus before he attends one and his illusions are forever shattered by the seedy underbelly of sawdust reality.

Dumbo does not aspire to the messy, unpredictable mantle of great art and, maybe as a consequence, achieves instead a kind of minor-scale perfection. This absolute charmer about the elephant child whose freakishly large ears prove an irresistible asset was made, largely (and tellingly) while Uncle Walt was off Good-Neighboring in South America; perhaps as a consequence it’s tighter (it runs only slightly over an hour) and less kitsch-prone and bathetic than some of the Disney features that would follow, yet it is arguably the most emotionally-charged of any Disney release. Its directness and simplicity are a tonic, its humor is gentle, and its impulse to the deliberately artistic limited to an ingratiating Surrealist dream sequence in which vaguely threatening pink elephants mix and mutate in an increasing frenzy until they explode, resolving gracefully into the beautiful, benign little pink clouds of a Florida morning.

Dumbo flying elephant (Roll-a-book)

The story began with a little-seen book for children called Dumbo, the Flying Elephant by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl, published by Roll-a-book Publishers, Inc. (See Michael Barrier’s informative essay The Mysterious Dumbo Roll-a-Book) whose black-and-white drawings very obviously served as models for the Disney animators. Wisely, and cleverly, the story men (who included Disney veterans Bill Peet and Joe Rinaldi) replaced the robin who inspires Dumbo with the circus-savvy Timothy Mouse, voiced with urban bravado by Edward Brophy, although most of the incidents of the original remained. Dumbo‘s is a streamlined story, uncluttered and sincere, and is helped enormously by the fact that its protagonist, essentially an infant, is mute. The picture is not, but its first quarter is chary of dialogue, apart from the smiling officiousness of a talkative stork (voiced by the lanky Sterling Holloway and drawn by Art Babbitt to resemble him) and the insensitive remarks of a harem of alternately pompous and gossiping elephant cows led by Verna Felton’s Matriarch. Before Dumbo’s arrival, and very often thereafter, the picture is primarily visual — and musical, what with its affecting underscore by Oliver Wallace and atmospheric songs by him, Frank Churchill and the lyricist Ned Washington.

Dumbo’s mother, Mrs. Jumbo, has exactly one line in the movie, and even more than the elephants, the blustery German Ringmaster (Herman Bing) and the now infamous crows of the final quarter, the most voluble character is Timothy Mouse, the elephant child’s adviser and protector. Like Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio, Timothy is the movie’s conscience, and a typical sort of Hollywood character of the time: The street-wise, somewhat blustery, wisecracking, slang-spouting urbanite. One of the busiest character actors of the 1930s and ’40s, Edward Brophy was usually either a cop of a gangster, and (as with Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards, who gave vocal life to Jiminy) a contemporary audience would have instantly recognized the sound of his voice. It’s almost impossible not to love Timothy, because for all his toughness, he alone stands up for little Dumbo after Mrs. Jumbo, enraged by the cruelty of some vicious human brats, is penned up as “mad.” More, he makes smoothing the way for Dumbo his entire focus; he’s the loyal big brother we who got picked on wished we’d had, and the unspoken irony is that the relative sizes of protector and protected are reversed.

Dumbo‘s look is unique in the Disney canon, especially of those features following Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It lacks that shaded, deep, expensive appearance that was the hallmark of Disney feature animation, and it’s far more stylized than its predecessors. Many of the figures in the crowd scenes are literally faceless, an effect that is especially notable in the sequence near the beginning where the Roustabouts (and their elephant helpers) raise the Big Top. Yet most of the characters are more overtly “cartoony” than those in the features that preceded it. The circus animals don’t look like real tigers, kangaroos, gorillas, hyenas or hippos (although the elephants are rather accurate) and the people are caricatures. Their designs are simpler than in Snow White, Fantasia or Pinocchio yet we don’t feel in any way cheated, especially with Dumbo and his mother. Affectionate love between parent and child has seldom been as exquisitely represented as it is with these two; there’s a brief sequence in which Dumbo engages in hide-and-seek with Mrs. Jumbo, running between her huge legs and smiling ecstatically, his little trunk raised and his eyes closed in sheer pleasure when she tags him, that is not only the last word in charm but perfectly encapsulates the way parents (especially mothers) and small children (including baby animals) play together. Along with the great animator Vladimir “Bill” Tytla’s beautiful realization of little Dumbo and Wallace’s charming, oboe-based theme for him, this sweet, unselfconsious play cements the emotional bond between Dumbo and Mrs. Jumbo.

Dumbo and Mrs Jumbo

That connection is so naturally strong that, when she is chained up in her cell, Dumbo’s mother sways back and forth in numb, hopeless despair, we see her son, in the elephant tent, moving back and forth almost identically. This may be a bit studied, but the ultimate proof of the filmmakers’ mastery over the problem of imbuing drawings with life and giving them power over the viewer’s senses is the astonishingly fulsome emotional response evoked by Dumbo’s late-night visit to Mrs. Jumbo. You may not, as I do when I see this sequence, shed tears like a child, but I think you’d have to be made of something close to stone not to at least be moved by it. Its direct appeal to the emotions, and its simplicity of action, and of feeling, skirts bathos and becomes something approaching the profound, and which would have been spoiled by dialogue, or uncontrolled keening. Disney isn’t often accused of restraint, but the subtlety of this scene, which every adult who saw it as a child can instantly recall, speaks to his, and his staff’s, seemingly innate understanding of psychology.

Although the sequence is accompanied by a song (“Baby Mine,” with music by Churchill) there is no sense that Mrs. Jumbo is singing it; it’s a reflection of her inner being, and Washington’s lyrics are comprised of words and phrases with which any loving mother — or child — can identify. For a movie as music-heavy as Dumbo, few of its many songs are sung by a character in it. Only the “Song of the Roustabouts” and “When I See an Elephant Fly” (and a brief number by the circus clowns as they go off to ask the Ringmaster for a raise) can be considered musical numbers in the traditional sense. Everything else, from “Look Out for Mr. Stork” and “Casey, Jr.” in the opening minutes to the comically nightmarish “Pink Elephants on Parade” is performed off-screen by The Sportsman Quartet, the singer Betty Noyes (she performed “Baby Mine” here and, later, dubbed Debbie Reynolds dubbing Jean Hagen in Singin’ in the Rain) or, in the case of the Roustabouts’ song, the King’s Men. The only song sung by the characters on screen is, not coincidentally, the best number in what I consider one of the finest song scores ever written for any movie, of any kind.

Dumbo - Crows

Which brings us to Dumbo’s great controversy. It can, I suppose, be argued that the quintet of black crows who show up in the movie’s “third act” is a racist daydream, but it should be remembered that, aside from the lead bird, who was voiced by Cliff Edwards, the voices of the others in the quintet were members of the Hall Johnson Choir, including the actors James Baskett (later Uncle Remus in Song of the South, for which he was given a special Academy Award™) and Nick Stewart and Johnson himself, who voices the Deacon; that their joshing jive-talk was taken directly from the “backchat” on records by Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong (and, one assumes, Fats Waller; one of the crows is called “Fats”); and that the live models for their steps, animated with marvelously loose-limbed joi de vivre by Ward Kimball, were the black dance duo the Jackson Brothers. I realize I am courting opprobrium by saying so but it should also be remembered that then, as now, sensitivity to slang and idiom are a preoccupation of middle-class black intellectuals who apparently have never talked with a person who didn’t go to college, or listened to a jazz or rap recording. I am the furthest thing from a disbeliever in the necessity of intellectual uplift, but a belief in the importance of education and pretending that many (perhaps most?) people in America speak or write grammatically are necessarily mutually exclusive. While I understand that representations of black reality are matters usually best left to black creators, if we accept that a cracker can only be written by a white writer, a Jew by a Jewish writer, a gay man by a gay writer, a woman by a woman — if we buy into the sort of literary and popular segregation that is unhealthy both for art and for the culture at large — we not only junk almost everything that’s come before, but place unreasonable and, I think, frankly racialist as well as reactionary, restrictions on the creative impulse.†

Although some black critics, writers and cultural commentators of the time were offended by the birds, and while the Disney artists might have been more sensitive to the prevailing popular culture stereotypes of the previous eras, particularly in movies, the crows in Dumbo are not only the liveliest characters in the picture, they’re among the most appealing supporting characters the studio ever created. They bring an exuberance, and a relaxed, happy infusion of jive, into the picture, and they got a great song — the best in the score — in “When I See an Elephant Fly.” The punning word-play of Washington’s charming lyrics, coupled with the swing of Wallace’s infectious melody, lift the sequence into the realm of the sublime. Some have called the crows bullies, but surely this is an over-simplification. They’re not picking on Dumbo, although Timothy understandably thinks they are. They’ve just seen an elephant in a tree; it seems to me that to react with humor is the sanest thing they could do under the circumstance. And it’s their smart psychological move in providing the “Magic Feather” that gives Dumbo the confidence he needs to do deliberately what in his champagne-stupor he did without thinking.

The supervising director on Dumbo was Ben Sharpsteen, who with Hamilton Luske also supervised Pinocchio, and the sequence directors were figures such as Norman Ferguson, Wilfred Jackson, and Jack Kinney. I don’t know what Kinney contributed, but he became the director of the great Goofy shorts when the analytic Babbitt, who created and developed the character, was fired during the Disney animator’s strike that began just after Dumbo was completed, so we can assume he worked on some of the more overtly comic moments in the picture. Many of Disney’s veterans were busy with Bambi during the production of Dumbo, giving some younger, less seasoned artists the chance to show what they could do. Among the animators who worked on it, aside from Kimball, were fellow future “Nine Old Men” Les Clark, John Lounsbery, Wolfgang (“Woolie”) Reitherman, Eric Larson and (although uncredited) Frank Thomas, and the junior animators included Walt Kelly (also a casualty of the strike), “Mickey” master Fred Moore, Preston Blair, Basil Davidovich, Michael Lah, the future Peanuts guru Bill Melendez, Paul Murry  (later, with Floyd  Gottfrfiedsen, one of two great Mickey Mouse and Goofy comic book artists) and (also uncredited) John Sibley and Irv Spector. Maurice Noble, Chuck Jones’ brilliant designer and sometimes co-director, worked on character design and the great Al Dempster worked on the backgrounds. That’s pretty much an all-star aggregation; Marc Davis, Ollie Johnson and Milt Kahl are just about the only Disney masters who didn’t put in time on Dumbo.

Dumbo - Timothy as Subconscious

While the entire picture is wonderfully designed and animated, I think we may assume the infusion of young talent into it is likely responsible for its most unusual elements. There are marvelous little curlicues that pop up throughout Dumbo, little comic and atmospheric touches which, despite the simpler designs, make an impact. During the circus parade, for example, the “ferocious” tigers (who are almost certainly the work of Jack Kinney) lie in a sleepy pile and a gorilla who, after howling in savage fury and shaking the bars of his caravan car realizes he’s pulled out one of them and quickly slips it back in place; he’s a performer, and he’s sheepishly embarrassed by having gone over the top. The circus locomotive, Casey Jones, Jr., is anthropomorphized, with a human face and a sentient whistle; when the car behind the engine bangs into it, the whistle hoots as if Casey has just been goosed. When the Ringmaster strips for bed he’s seen through the film of his tent, in silhouette, a gag which is repeated to even better comic effect later, when we see the clowns disrobing, their performance bodies at variance with their actual ones. They animators also enjoy a touch of the macabre; when Timothy sneaks into the Ringmaster’s tent to plant an idea in his mind favorable to Dumbo, his shadow is seen on the tent wall, grotesquely enlarged and looking like that of Max Schreck in Nosferatu. And when he takes on the persona of the Ringmaster’s Subconscious, he wraps himself in the bed-sheet like a spectre, even though he can’t be seen by the man into whose ear he’s dropping suggestions. (Timothy is a bit of a method actor.)

Music Men. (Above, left) Frank Churchill; (right) Ned Washington; (bottom) Walt Disney with Oliver Wallace.

I don’t think Oliver Wallace’s music can be over-praised. His theme for Dumbo is both softly plaintive and expressively playful, and I suspect it was that, and his music for the songs “Pink Elephants on Parade” and “When I See an Elephant Fly” that won him and Frank Churchill the 1942 Scoring Oscar™.‡ Churchill’s songs with the lyricist Larry Morey for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs were a large part of that movie’s appeal (he also composed “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?”) but his work in Dumbo is a bit conventional compared to Wallace’s. And while almost any music could have played under Dumbo’s visit to his mother and the scene would still have packed an emotional wallop, “Baby Mine” is a nearly perfect lullaby, so I don’t mean to pillory him. Washington, who later became a fixture in the production of “movie theme songs” following the phenomenal success of High Noon in 1952, had a remarkable range as a lyricist, not merely from film to film or score to score but song to song. “Pink Elephants on Parade” is almost Gilbertian in its fantastic rhyme-schemes, and “When I See an Elephant Fly” contains a set of lyrics so drunk on word-play I don’t imagine Yip Harburg would have been ashamed to have written them.

Dumbo - Pink Elephants on Parade

The Pink Elephants sequence illustrates better than anything else in the picture the merging of great songwriting, imaginative design and brilliant realization. And it’s beautifully situated in the narrative. I wonder if children of today, raised less on the cartoon tropes of the 1930s and ’40s (and even the ’20s) than we of the late baby-boom television generation, quite understand the concept of seeing hallucinatory pink elephants after a drunken tear (they’re actually an indicator of delirium tremens.) That’s the context here: Dumbo and Timothy, having drunk deeply from champagne-polluted water, enter a kind of inebriated fugue state wherein their shared vision is completely subsumed by fuchsia pachyderms. Beyond the wild squash-and-stretch permutations the animators achieve, the sequence is funny as an idea: A drunken elephant calf hallucinating the human conception of pink elephants. It’s also a strangely beautiful sequence, particularly toward the end when the images are rendered as pink and blue pastel outlines, and the whole thing is a staggeringly successful exercise in Surrealism. (It was so good the Disney animators unfortunately imitated it 27 years later, to diminished effect, in the  derivative “Heffalumps and Woozels” sequence for the 1968 featurette Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day. Even the Sherman Brothers couldn’t work up much of a song for that one.)

I called Dumbo a tonic earlier, and it had a positive effect on its makers as well as its audience. Stretched increasingly thin financially due to Walt’s many money-losing war contracts and reeling from the financial failures of both Fantasia and Pinocchio, the Disney studio desperately needed a hit. Aside from Bambi (which also lost money) Dumbo would be the last bright animated light at Disney in many a long year, until another unpretentious feature called Cinderella returned the company to artistic and fiscal profitability. Naturally, the current Disney “creative” team, which has never had an original idea in its collective life, authorized a live-action, plot-heavy, Tim Burton-directed “remake” in 2019, which ran nearly an hour longer than the original, was focused (sacrilege!) on human beings, cut the songs(!) and which, alas (but also predictably) made, proportionally, a lot more money than Dumbo did in 1941. But I don’t have to believe any of that if I don’t want to.

Dumbo_1941_final


*Although some argue that the movie does soften the Collodi novel, not least in the cricket the book’s wooden boy smashes against a wall when he chides him mutating into Pinnoochio’s Official Conscience, Jiminy Cricket.

†This sort of reflexive sniping not only stifles good work, it obliterates it: It’s what ultimately has kept Disney’s 1946 Song of the South out of circulation, not only in theatres but on home video, largely I think due to a lack of understanding that the picture’s setting is post-war, not antebellum. Floyd Norman, the Disney studio’s first black animator, has little patience with the Dumbo controversy; see his blog essay “Black Crows and Other Nonsense.”

‡It would have been nice had one of those two songs also won, as “When You Wish Upon a Star” did the year before — “Baby Mine” was nominated — but with Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s wistful “The Last Time I Saw Paris” copping the award, I doubt there were many grumbles about the eventual winner… except, interestingly, by Kern himself; he was upset that he won for something not written for a movie, and petitioned to change the rules concerning nomination.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

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

Standard

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