“I’m awfully sorry. I didn’t mean to frighten you. But you don’t know what I’ve been through. And all because I was afraid.”
Three years in development, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
is a milestone in cinema history. It is one thing if you are the studio who created one of the first sound-cartoons in Steamboat Willie,
even a bigger deal if you are one of the first to use technicolour for Flowers and Trees
, but what about a feature-film that could rival live-action. Max Fleischer had made an animated feature titled Einstein’s Theory of Relativity
, but Walt Disney wanted to make a film that could be seventy or eighty minutes long and, crucially, is accessible to everyone. Chaplin moved to features before and Disney had to too because shorts were simply not as financially effective as features. But moving from an 8-minute comedy-short is a bit different to a story with depth, narrative and comedy that lasts the length of a feature …
Structuring a Feature
Like future films, Walt Disney decided to bookend the film with the opening of a live-action book – it ensures that the story begins as clearly fantasy and it is clearly seen as a traditional fairytale. Based on Grimms short-story, Disney had seen a silent-version of Snow White
as a young boy and it stuck with him until his own version. Disney begins the story from the perspective of the Evil Queen realising that she is not the “fairest of them all” and, in fact, a young maiden cleaning the steps and singing-as-she-cleans, is the “fairest”.
|Silly Symphony #48: The Goddess of Spring (1934)
Snow White herself would always be a challenge to animate – she needed to be human and real opposed to playful, cartoon animal. Prior to the feature film, one Silly Symphony named The Goddess of Spring provided the opportunity to animate human – and the female form. Unlike future princesses, Snow Whites look remains a little dated with an incredibly pale face and a voice that is high-pitch. On the one hand, this may be archaic but on the other, it gives the film an incredibly unique element. Snow White, in comparison to the range of other princesses, looks different and classical in her look, whilst she sounds sweet and operatic in her voice.
The plot has huge scope and emotion – so it was brave for Disney to choose the subject matter. Comedy was available within the characters of the dwarves and the animals – but the lead roles of Snow White, the Evil Queen, Huntsman and Prince are never seen as comedic, and need to hold the story effectively with an emotional depth. We need to be able to relate to these characters and understand their challenges – in fact, could an audience relate to animation at all?
Ineffective and Effective Animation
Famously, the Prince is not animated as well as future characters. You can tell that the exceptionally limited use of the Prince combined with his dull, flat characteristics meant that his character has always been seen as one of the weaker aspects to the film. Unlike the Prince, the sequence involving the Huntsman took six-months to plan – and ensured an audience would get emotionally involved with the life and death of the animated characters. The very specific planning of the scene – the Huntsman dropping the knife, Snow White with her back to the Hunstman showing her vulnerability – all these facets became incredibly important. To move from this sequence rooted in character, and then portray Snow White running through the woods as trees turn into hands and wooden logs turn into alligators, shows how well the film was directed and constructed. The specific scene in the woods also owes something to the German-Expressionists of the time as the shots become distorted and off-balance to represent Snow Whites fear, whilst the shadows are akin to F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu
, and are purposeful in highlighting the impending evil.
Fast-paced action ensured that there was no ‘fat’ on the story – but it was still a fantasy story that live-action could not reproduce. As an example of this juxtaposition, consider how Snow White herself has interesting charactistics that also make her ambiguous in her age. She has a childlike fascination with playing (even stating how the dwarves house “looks like a dollhouse”), while she is also romantically interested in the Prince. This ensures her character is pure fantasy in how she changes her attitudes to suit the situation – but we still relate to the human elements of her character.
|Ludwig Richter Illustration of Snow White
Even the animals hold very human characteristics – birds have a clear father-mother-child dynamic, which Snow White understands and even reveals aspects of her own personality when conversing with the woodland creatures. A tortoise gives the impression that he is sleepy and has a character and the keen chipmunks run amok – so excited to meet and greet this new visitor to the woods. We feel real sympathy for Snow White too – despite the fantastical element of the animals joining her in the forrest – and this continues as we meet the dwarves and understand each of their characters too. Again, this balance of accessible human-emotion and character with fantasy and fairytale is what makes the animation so engaging.
The European Link
The look of the film, though vey unique in the look of the animals and dwarves – harking back to the Silly Symphonies and short-features – also had an influence from the Grimms stories themselves. Ludwig Richter, in his depiction of Snow White in the book, shows Snow White with a fondness and friendship with the animals. In one image, it is clear that Disney has turned to these images for reference as you can see the parallel in the sequence portraying the Evil Queen (in old lady mode) give Snow White the apple.
|Segovia Castle in Spain
Robin Allan notes in ‘Walt Disney and Europe’ how Ludwig Richter “anticipates the old world charm that Disney searched for and achieved”. Even Segovia Castle in Spain is seen as allegedly the inspiration for the Evil Queens castle – and you can see how! Europe has an old-world charm that often lacks in American History, and Disney clearly knew his artists – especially as a few were even hired to work for Disney. Specifically Albert Hurter and Gustaf Tenggren became important go-to men for the animators as Hurter would check animations before they were adapted into sequences, whilst Tenggren would create backgrounds that show fantasy, European landscapes.
Subplots and Finale
The Evil Queen, initially is a beautiful woman (though dressed in a suitably ‘evil’ robe) but – as the film progresses, she becomes more obsessed with the death of Snow White and therefore becomes uglier. The clear association with evil-thoughts becoming expressed and characterised on the surface feeds into the character. Whilst, in comparison, the character of Grumpy begins as somebody apparently “against” Snow White, but his good-heart and efforts to impress, are not ignored and eventually, a single kiss is what melts his heart.
The film remains a clear example of the incredible skill in animation at the Disney studios – and we could easily delve deeper into the animation of the dwarves themselves or the stunning soundtrack taht includes classic Disney songs “Heigh-Ho” and “Someday My Prince Will Come”. Even the movement of the animalsis something to write in-depth about. It is clear that Disney and Co were firing off all-cylinders and the movement of each and every animal shows how capable the animators are at filling an image with depth and movement. The woodland creatures are so important to the story too – as they direct Snow White to the dwarves cottage in the first place!
One thing which I think is worth noting, and that our modern-eyes will not pick up on, is the use of ‘camera’ in the film. At the time, a camera could only move in certain ways for live-action but animation – obviously – could move in whichever way it wanted. The scene portraying the Evil Queen turning into the Old Lady shows the “camera” move 360 degress around the queen, the colours and shapes almost burst out of the screen! This was simply not possible with live-action at the time – and it shows how informed the animators were. They wanted to top live-action and “use of camera” had to be considered if you are going up against the feature-length nature of a live-action film. Disney ensured the animators were up-to-date, watching the latest films and combining their understanding of Picasso and Matisse, with current trends in theatre and film. Practitioners and directors such as Stanislavski would be compared with Charlie Chaplin and the acting of Charles Laughton.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves is much more than simply a kids story – it is full of brilliant technical achievements which consequently influenced others. Everything from the odd lyrics in a Beatles song (Snow White singing “I’m Wishing” and The Beatles “Do You Want To Know A Secret?”) to cinematography and animation itself. This film single-handedly changed cinema forever.