So the most popular post on here is still my post about the Disney Princesses and their cultural impact, but that was more the Disney Princesses as a brand. I didn’t really talk much about the girls individually, and that is worth doing because each of them are unique characters in their own right. Yes, even Princess Aurora. This new series is to highlight the history and character of each of the Disney princesses and talk about their films on an individual basis. I might expand out to doing profiles on other Disney characters (Prince John is actually much more interesting than Robin Hood makes him out to be), but if we’re starting with the princesses, we might as well start with the princess that started everything.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is an historical feat of animation– the first ever cel-animated, full-length feature film. Of course, with how old it is and how much people praise it, there is the inevitable backlash. Many people find it boring, say it doesn’t have a good message, say it’s sexist, etc. Filmmaking and storytelling of the 1930’s can be quite different from the sensibilities of current moviegoers, but this film is still an excellent piece of cinema and an important one at that.
Of course, Disney wasn’t the first to tell the story of Snow White. “Schneewittchen” is one of the tales found in Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s Kinder- und Hausmärchen, a collection of folk and fairy tales better known in the English-speaking world as Grimms’ Fairy Tales. In their version of the story, Snow White is all of seven years old when the mirror declares that she is the fairest in the land, and the queen tried to kill her three different times– once by suffocating her with a corset, once with a poisoned comb, and finally with the famous apple. While some versions to have the Prince wake her up with a kiss, the Grimm version has the piece of poisoned apple fall out of her mouth when he tries to move the coffin. In the end, the queen crashes the wedding of the Prince and Snow White and is forced to dance herself to death in iron shoes that were just taken out of the fire.
The fairy tale is labeled as a 709 on the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Classification of Folk Tales (which is a thing that I am kicking myself for not discovering sooner). 709 fairy tales are ones where there is an evil stepmother that tries to murder her stepdaughter, with Snow White being the most famous among them. The story was adapted several times before Disney’s version, most notably by Winthrop Ames into a Broadway play in 1912 that was then adapted to film by J. Searle Dawley in 1916. Walt Disney was 15 years old when he saw the film.
It’s not a proper profile without some statistics.
- Release Date: December 21, 1937
- The movie premiered at the Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles, and later had a wide release February 4, 1938. While the theater is long gone now, there are replicas of it at both Walt Disney World’s Hollywood Studios and Disneyland’s California Adventure.
- Total Box Office: $1.8 billion (adjusted for inflation)
- This puts the film a good $600 million over the next Animated Canon film, Frozen. Over its lifetime in theaters, Snow White sold 112.52 million tickets.
- Voice: Adriana Caselotti
- The only major film role she ever had, Caselotti never had a problem with the contract requirement that she not use her voice in any other movie. She had minor roles in The Wizard of Oz and It’s A Wonderful Life, and was always grateful for her chance to be Snow White.
- Age: 14
- Snow White is the youngest of the Disney Princesses, though the oldest in terms of release date.
- Princess Qualification: Born royal
- A few more bits of brand trivia– Snow White has the shortest hair of any of the Princesses, and her most common “color” (the one for all the merch) is red, which is only an accent color in her design.
- “I Want” Song: “I’m Wishing/One Song”
- Though “Someday My Prince Will Come” is the best known song of the film, “I’m Wishing/One Song” is in the proper position to be an “I Want” song.
There wasn’t a film in the Disney Golden Age that didn’t have some sort of troubled production, but Snow White arguably got the worst of it, simply because it had never been done before. The popular narrative of Walt Disney’s career is him deciding to do something outlandish/extragavent/artistic/unprecidented/etc. and everyone around him being this guy:
And it’s no different for Snow White. Everyone, up to and including his wife, Lillian, and his brother, Roy, thought that Snow White was going to fail. Who would sit through an hour and a half of Mickey Mouse shorts? (I mean, I know people who would, but the Walt Disney Company didn’t exactly have the same following or market share then that it does now.) It probably didn’t help that the initial concept for the film had the Dwarfs as the main characters over Snow White and the Queen, and the tests for drawing adult, female humans (most famously, “The Goddess of Spring“) didn’t look very realistic. The Queen was originally conceived as a more comedic character as well, trapping the Prince in her dungeon when he refused to marry her and Snow White’s forest friends coming to rescue him. This subplot was eventually recycled and altered for Sleeping Beauty 20 years later.
To help with the animation process, live actors were brought into the studio to be filmed and used as reference for the animators. Snow White’s model was Marge Champion, a professional dancer, who would also go on to model for the Blue Fairy in Pinnochio and the dancing hippos in Fantasia. When the animators had decided on a design for Snow White, realizing that her head was slightly larger than realistic proportions, they asked Champion to wear a football helmet while modeling. This lasted about five minutes before they realized that she couldn’t act with it on.
The design of Snow White took time to settle on as well. Grim Natwick’s experience with Fleischer Studio’s Betty Boop comes through in some of the early concept art, and some more cartoonish features, like the aforementioned larger head, were kept so that her animation would integrate with the definitely cartoonish dwarfs. Her dress was based on Renaissance fashions, particularly the slashed sleeves, which were the Rennaissance equivalent of modern distressed clothes. No, really. Her short hair, on the other hand, was influenced by 1930’s fashion trends. Snow White even wore makeup– painted on the cells by female animators in the Ink and Paint department. A popular anecdote is that Disney came to check on the progress and asked the animators if they were sure about the makeup and one of them responded “Mr. Disney, what do you think we do every morning?”
If this movie seems like a normal, predictable film now, it’s only for the same reasons that the editing of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance is almost invisible, or why you don’t even notice the ceilings in Citizen Kane. With Citizen Kane, up until that point most films had sound and lighting equipment where the “ceiling” would have been, and so didn’t show it in frame as the audience would assume it’s there anyways, but Welles developed a technique that would allow it to be in frame. Intolerance was a flop, but some Soviets named Kuleshov, Eisenstein, and Pudovkin got their hands on it and developed Soviet montage theory, which is used in every film you have ever seen. Likewise, with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the film establishes so many staples of not just Disney films, but animated films, that mostly held true in the West up until the release of Toy Story— the musical format, the use of a familiar folktale, the comic relief, and the child-friendly nature of the film are all the standard of animated filmic entertainment. Disney going “back to basics” in their Renaissance period included no less than five, and depending on how you count Hercules, The Lion King, and Tarzan, eight films with these elements.
As for Snow White herself, she often gets criticism for basically not being one of the Renaissance princesses, which is not really fair. Yes, she is a relentless optimist, naive, and innocent, but these are integral parts of her character, and help lighten the mood of a film that’s about a woman trying to murder a 14 year old for being prettier than her. Snow is very compassionate– she helps a lost baby bird get back to its parents, and when she thinks the dwarfs are orphans who don’t know how to clean, she decides to help them out without a second thought. She’s also quite resourceful– as soon as she makes friends in the forest, she asks them to help her find a place to stay, and she negotiates what is essentially a verbal contract with the dwarfs in order to stay at their house. And she’s got a bit of steel in her as well– or did your copy of the movie not include the scene where the 14-year-old girl orders seven (presumably) adult men to wash their hands and they obey her.
Side note, unlike Cinderella and Aurora, we have no indication at the beginning of the film how long the Prince and Snow White have known each other. Even her being startled by his presence and running away is not necessarily an indicator of unfamiliarity, even if that is the implication. Because on the other hand, who hops the wall of a castle in a kingdom that is not yours and then immediately hits on the nearest scullery maid? That’s not even a situation.
Of course, the 1937 film isn’t the only version of Snow White– not even the only Disney version. In ABC’s Once Upon a Time, she is portrayed by Ginnifer Goodwin (best known as the voice of Judy Hopps from Zootopia) who is actually married to Josh Dallas who plays her in-show husband Prince David. The premise of the show is that the Evil Queen Regina, Snow’s stepmother, cursed all the
popular Disney characters residents of the Enchanted Forest to live in Storybrooke, Maine and wipes their memories so that they no longer have their happy endings. The only person that can break the curse is Emma Swan, Snow White and the Prince’s daughter. In Storybrooke, Snow White is called Mary Margaret Blanchard, and is her grandson/adoptive step-brother’s elementary school teacher and candy striper for a comatose John Doe that’s actually Prince David. It’s a weird show.
Snow White is also mentioned in the stage version of Into the Woods, where after Rapunzel is crushed by the giantess, her prince goes off to find Snow White who he sang about in “Agony (Reprise)” while his brother, Cinderella’s prince, chases after Sleeping Beauty. They were raised to be charming, not sincere. In 2012, Snow White and the Huntsman with Kristen Stewart and Chris Hemsworth takes a more Tolkein-esque Epic Fantasy look at the story, complete with Snow White putting on a suit of armor and kills the queen herself, while Mirror, Mirror with Lily Colins and Julia Roberts is more of an action-comedy in the vein of The Princess Bride (though, it’s not The Princess Bride). There’s also, and this is a 100% real movie and not a fever dream I had when I was 7, a theatrically released unofficial sequel to the 1937 film made by Filmation called Happily Ever After that stars Carol Channing, Tracy Ullman, Dom Deluise, Irene Cara, Malcom McDowell, and Zsa Zsa Gabor. It’s a beautiful mess of a film that has to be seen to be believed, though it does pass the Bechdel Test.
Impact and Legacy
Starting with the immediate, the film was a critical darling, and even those who had criticisms respected the feat of technology and artistry that it took to make. At the 11th Academy Awards, Shirley Temple presented Walt Disney with an honorary Oscar “as a significant screen innovation which has charmed millions and pioneered a great new entertainment field”, which consisted of the standard Oscar statue with seven tiny Oscars in a line next to it. It also kick-started The Walt Disney Studio’s physical plant at Burbank, California, which is still there to this day. Snow White was one of the first characters at Disneyland, and you can still meet her, the Prince, the Queen, and all the Dwarfs at the parks. Her film is also one of the Disney films that gets released from the Disney Vault every so often (the most recent release, the Signature Edition, is still out of the vault, go and buy it before it gets put back in!) as it was one of the films that was historically re-released in theaters before the advent of Home Video.
Snow White herself is the pattern for many different Disney characters, but especially the entire Disney Princess line. She’s the originator of the concept, which led to the marketing franchise. Even characters like Queen “You can’t marry a man you just met” Elsa and Moana “I’m not a Princess” Waialiki are reactions to the common perception of Disney Princesses that stem from Snow White’s character. The most direct of these reactions is Giselle from Enchanted— a direct parody of all three original princesses (Snow, Cinderella, Aurora), but especially Snow White.
In the end, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs endures because it is historically monumental, but also because of excellent filmmaking. With 56 films to choose from, it’s difficult to say if it’s the best of the Animated Canon, but it’s certainly one of. And as for Snow White, she’s not going anywhere either. She’s an icon of animation, of film, and of our culture, and there’s something to be said for her compassion and optimism. Here’s to many more like her.