Ever since I started my Through the Decades feature, I’ve been waiting for the moment to hit the late 1930s and start focusing on the films that really put Disney on the map.
1937 brings us Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and most of us know its place in history as the first animated full length feature film to be made on cels.
Taking the backbone of the story from the original Brother’s Grimm fairy tale, Walt Disney and the entire studio worked night and day to bring this classic and groundbreaking film to life.
From a young age, Walt Disney had always been transfixed with the story of Snow White, a young girl running away from her step-mother and wishing for her life to change. I think that when Walt Disney watched that silent film screening of Snow White back in 1917, he was thinking of the similarities with his own personal experiences – moving away from his tough father, losing Oswald, running to California and discovering Mickey Mouse, wishing for his own dreams to come alive. Snow White is the piece of his youth that stayed with him because he connected to it, felt a kinship with this fictional character that he couldn’t let go.
In 1934 when he conceptualises the story for his animators, he became the story. He acted out the entire plot in front of them, determined that this would be the story to push the Disney Studios higher up the Hollywood ladder. By reworking the original Grimms story and taking out parts that he didn’t believe conducive to effective film-making and story planning, he found an adaptation that would suit the constraints and flexibility of animation.
However getting the film started was not an easy ride. It was estimated that it could be produced for a budget of US $250,000, ten times the budget of an average Silly Symphony. All of Hollywood came out to call it “Disney’s Folly” believing that it would cause financial ruin, and that no one would sit through an animated film that long. Even Roy and Lillian Disney weren’t convinced!
Snow White was truly a gamble and at one point, even Walt was beginning to crumble under the pressure. It had to be perfect, and it needed to be otherwise he would lose everything. At one point, Roy was worried that Walt was on the verge of a nervous breakdown (the second in as many years) and so in the summer of 1935, the Disneys escaped production and toured Europe. Whilst they were in Paris, Roy and Walt went to a movie theatre and saw that they had strung three Mickey Mouse films together and played them back to back like a feature length film.
This gave Walt the motivation he needed and when they got back, everything was kicked up a notch. Adriana Casseloti was hired to play Snow White, the multi-plane camera was created to help bring depth to the animation, and Walt was even committed to distributing the film through RKO Radio Pictures and having it available for release in Christmas of 1937.
They say that time is money and that was certainly the case with taking Snow White into the home straight. Walt needed another quarter of a million dollars to finish the film and he couldn’t be granted that money until the bank saw something tangible. When his banker – Rosenberg – saw the film it was a patchwork of animation, concept art and sketches. It was nowhere near completion and it took until the 11th hour for the entire film to come together. Some retake orders were dated four days before the premiere so if that isn’t cutting things fine, I don’t know what is!
But as we all know, Walt’s gamble paid off.
During its initial release, it had international earnings of $8 million and briefly assumed the record of the highest grossing sound film at the time. Six days after the premiere, Walt Disney and the Seven Dwarfs appeared on the cover of Time magazine, and Variety suggested that:
“so perfect is the illusion, so tender the romance and fantasy, so emotional are certain portions when the acting of the characters strikes a depth comparable to the sincerity of the human players, that the film approaches real greatness.”
Since then, Snow White has been re-released into cinemas on numerous occasions, the first time being in 1944 to help raise revenue during the Second World War. These subsequent re-releases set a tradition of Disney re-releasing their animated features every seven to ten years. However Snow White would be re-released for the last time in 1993 before being released on vhs in 1994 as the first film under the Disney Masterpiece Collection.
The legacy of Snow White is huge, not just for Disney but for Hollywood and cinema everywhere. It made animation an even greater art form, enhanced its credibility, and created an extremely high level of expectation. 80 years on and we wouldn’t have modern film today if not for Snow White and the Disney studios. It will always be one of the most important films and I think the US Library of Congress was exactly right to select it for preservation in the National Film Registry.
When I watch Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs today, I can’t help but marvel at everything that went into the making of the film. It is full of hope, desire, dreams, and I know that I wouldn’t be sat here now writing all of this if not for Snow White. Actually, in writing all this, I can’t help but think that Snow White is Walt Disney of the 1930s, that the prince carrying her away at the end of the film is symbolising Walt Disney move further forward into making feature film animation. Not forgetting to mention my own love for animated film. Having being released onto vhs in 1994 I reckon Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was one of the first films I ever watched as a small child. If not I certainly remember going to watch the Disney on Ice production at the Manchester Arena and being terrified by the Queen when she disappeared under the ice and left a cloud of smoke behind her.
Regardless I will always love this film, if not for its brilliant storytelling and design then for its music and infectious quality. Something magical happens when we sit down to watch Snow White because we recognise that it was history in the making, and that Walt Disney was starting to make his bigger dream into an even greater reality.
When I was living in France I went to a French screening of Snow White and whilst I was there smiling and nodding at the attendant as she whittled off some facts, everyone else was completely transfixed just like Walt Disney would have been. I might have been the only adult there in the audience who wasn’t accompanying a small child but it felt like I was watching the film for the first time all over again, and it was defining moment for me, not just in terms of being a Disney fan but in realising how comfortable and at home I felt being surrounded by the magic and power of great storytelling. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs will always be a special film and whilst not one of my absolute favourites, it is still near and dear to my heart.
I don’t particularly want to make this post longer than it already is so I will end it there.
What does Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs mean to you?
Thanks for reading and have a brazzle dazzle day!