It’s been hailed as one of the greatest movies of all time, a milestone in animation. Through masterful storytelling and visual artistry, it dispelled what can only be called the ignorance of the age and forged a path forward for the creation of a body of work that has continued to endure eighty years and counting. In 1937, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs became the first feature length animated motion picture, achieving instant success and recognition, transforming the film industry and the world as a whole in ways that has only been matched by one other film in history: Star Wars. Forty years after Snow White, George Lucas achieved the same kind of success as Walt Disney, following the example of animation’s original trailblazer to create a legacy.
The only way to put statements like that into perspective is to look at what the state of animation was actually like before Snow White. But before we get into that, let’s revisit the story itself, even if we know it so well.
Based on the tale by the Brothers Grimm, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs tells of a princess who is threatened by her evil stepmother and is forced to work as a scullery maid. The vain Queen is reassured by her magic mirror that she is the most beautiful in the land, until one day the mirror declares that the title now belongs to her stepdaughter. Enraged with jealousy, the Queen orders her Huntsman to kill the girl. He finds he cannot do the deed and warns the princess of the threat to her life. She flees into the forest and comes across the home of seven dwarfs, who begrudgingly welcome her into their midst when she offers to cook, clean, and in general raises their overall quality of life to something closer to her standards. When the Queen discovers the girl is still alive, she creates a poison apple and transforms herself into an old hag as a disguise, confronting her would-be rival under the pretense that the apple grants wishes. The princess falls into a death-like slumber. The dwarfs take their revenge on the Queen, but unwilling to bury such beauty in the ground, they opt to place her in a glass coffin where she can be seen. A year later, the prince who became enamored with her learns of her death, makes the pilgrimage to see her body, and kisses her, breaking the spell.
It’s a tale that Disney called the most perfect story, himself being enamored with the idea of bringing it to life in his own way after seeing a silent screen version of it in 1916. Since it’s release, everything about it — the story, the characters, the look of the film, and even the music — have all become a part of our cultural DNA. And while we take this sort of thing for granted today, as difficult as it is for us to consider, it’s the sort of thing that could not and would not have been envisioned by anyone else. For example, there was another work released in 1937 that revolved around a team of dwarfs and began with an interest in fairy stories. You may have heard of it: J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth would evolve into a vastly different kind of world in print, and while it would become the foundation and springboard for modern fantasy and go on to inspire all manner of other books and films in its own right, Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs opened the door on possibilities that Tolkien himself could have never dreamed.
Let’s take a few steps backwards and see what it took to make this little marvel.
Since the idea of film first took hold in the public imagination, the cartoon was a painstaking process of single-drawn images that, by necessity and economy, consisted of animation that relied on simple shapes such as circles and tubes that could be quickly and cheaply moved around. By the time the advent of synchronized sound was introduced to film, the cartoon had already staked its claim as a medium for the juvenile and silly. Once sound was added, the most popular addition to the cartoon was music, an idea that Walt Disney jumped upon and advanced through his Silly Symphonies and cartoons such as the landmark “Steamboat Willie” in 1928. Color was eventually added through the costly Technicolor process, and Disney signed an exclusive two-year contract to keep competitors in his dust while he developed the greater usage of the process. It was never about color and music for the sake of these novelties alone. They served as tools to create something far more grand. Disney’s vision would carve a niche, forge an empire, and shape the world.
Of course, as is often the case, genius is rarely appreciated in its own time. His announcement of a feature length animated film was immediately derided. Critics claimed that no one would want to sit through a cartoon that long. Medical professionals weighed in on the idea that being assaulted by bright colors for that long could potentially cause blindness, which Disney would actually address by the use of a muted color palette. The project became known in the press as “Disney’s Folly.” For himself, Disney would attend these gala red carpet events in Hollywood, and when people would ask him what he did, he’d proudly announce that he made cartoons, and he was immediately treated as a second class citizen among his peers. He thought that it would be nice if he could make a cartoon, and all these celebrities would come out on the red carpet just to see it. It seems like a no-brainer today, but at the time it couldn’t have been a bigger pipe dream. It wasn’t just about ego. The project was born of necessity. The cartoon shorts were facing higher costs and diminishing returns, and the more Disney pushed the technology and techniques in his art, the higher the debt mounted. A feature length film was essentially a “Hail Mary” longshot. If successful, he’d be able to pay his debts. If not, he’d be buried under them. This was an even more pressing concern when you consider that, in addition to the perceptions and standards of animation at the time, the country had also entered the Great Depression. In the early 1930s, both animators and the money to pay them were in short supply. As the story goes, see a need, fill a need.
Disney assembled a small team of the best artists he could find and put out the call for more straight out of art school, which was enthusiastically answered as there were few such jobs to be had. He then vetted these budding artists and put them through his own kind of retraining, slowly transforming the ideas in their minds to create something entirely new, beyond the simple pipe and circle animation that had created Mickey Mouse. The largest obstacle was to get them to stop looking at a single drawing or even a handful of drawings and to shift their perceptions to see a fluid range of movement across time. You may have heard of the key animators in Disney lore known as “Walt’s Nine Old Men.” These animators are the legendary backbone of the Disney legacy, having worked on and nurtured the entirety of the early catalog of films. They were understudies on what was to become Snow White. The Silly Symphonies cartoons were used to further push the techniques needed to pull off the project, beginning in 1934 with “The Goddess of Spring.” This variation on the Persephone myth is essentially a test reel for Snow White. Techniques and technology would continue to develop from there, from the usage of rotoscoping to achieve lifelike figure movement to the multiplane camera to achieve the illusion of depth through an animated world. One has only to compare “The Goddess of Spring” with Snow White to see the leaps and bounds Disney pushed his team to achieve, and to compare either of those with “Steamboat Willie” to see the same quantum leap from there to here. Another innovation of the age, Hollywood had begun exploration of full musical scores for film, the first of its kind being King Kong the previous year. But even a full background score would not be enough for the likes of Walt Disney. More on that in a bit.
The animators working on the project each had their own gifts and strengths, and Disney would “cast” them in roles to animate a single character, thus offering consistency. But not one for complacency, Disney would cast his animators into roles that would challenge their skills and sensibilities, forcing them to grow and become flexible. For example, the character of the evil Queen was animated by Art Babbitt, who is credited with the creation of Goofy and is more indicative of the animator’s style. Likewise, Snow White herself was animated by Grim Natwick, a European-trained animator Disney recruited following Natwick’s design and animation of Betty Boop for Fleischer Studios. During the production, Babbitt hired models so that he and his fellow animators could continue to study and develop their style until it was suggested they hire Don Graham to teach classes specifically targeted at human anatomy and animal motion.
Don Graham really knew what he was teaching, and he “showed” you how to do something – he didn’t just talk. He taught us things that were very important for animation. How to simplify our drawings – how to cut out all the unnecessary hen scratching amateurs have a habit of using. He showed us how to make a drawing look solid. He taught us about tension points – like a bent knee, and how the pant leg comes down from that knee and how important the wrinkles from it are to describe form. I learned a hell of a lot from him!
— Art Babbit
Disney ensured that everyone on the project was involved at every level, turning it into a family affair where everyone had a stake. He would pay $5 each for the creation of gags that would make it into the final cut, which translates to almost $90 in today’s money. He offered twice that amount for the ones that could be used as ongoing gags. He had his people help name the dwarfs, which eventually were narrowed down from a list of fifty that included “Jumpy, Deafy, Dizzy, Hickey, Wheezy, Baldy, Gabby, Nifty, Sniffy, Swift, Lazy, Puffy, Stuffy, Tubby, Shorty, and Burpy.” According to legend, the project inspired such dedication that some key animators, disappointed in the work of some of the lesser frames filled in by in-between animators, came in at night off the clock and redid the work for free.
Visual inspiration for the film comes from a wide range of European artwork and motion pictures that Disney scoured, such as 1936’s Romeo and Juliet, from which the glass coffin sequence is derived, to silent classics of German expressionism such as 1922’s Nosferatu and 1919’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The Queen’s transformation into the Witch was directly influenced by 1931’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
I mentioned the music. While the concept of the full orchestra score truly enriched the final film, the influence of Broadway cannot be overstated. Until the development of the concept of the book musical, songs in a story were simply interludes that had nothing whatsoever to do with storytelling. A book musical incorporates the story into the songs and uses them to advance that story and its characters in a way that transcends a real world experience for a heightened effect. 1943’s Oklahoma! is often credited as the first book musical on film, itself leaning on conventions that were developed on the stage by 1927’s Show Boat. It’s safe to say that Oklahoma! cannot claim this credit. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs got there first, by years, and much of what it achieved continues to set the standard not only for Disney animated features, but also for the Broadway stage. Consider: how many Disney films can you name that have been successfully translated to musical stage shows in the last few decades?
The musical inspiration doesn’t cease there. As a point of interest for pop music fans, the song “I’m Wishing” would be sung in weird keys to a young John Lennon by his mother. Her take on the song would become the basis for the early Beatles track “Do You Want to Know a Secret.”
The songs in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs were composed by Frank Churchill and Larry Morey. Paul J. Smith and Leigh Harline composed the musical score. It became the first American film to release a soundtrack album. Before that time, such a concept was unheard of and thus of little value to a studio or its audiences. Though eight songs made it into the film and its soundtrack album, around twenty-five were written for the film, owing their deletion to Disney’s ruthless editing criteria to shape the story. The same criteria resulted in over two million drawings for the film to be made, with the final film using only around 166,000.
When the film opened, it was the red carpet gala that Walt Disney had often dreamed about, attended by a who’s who of Hollywood royalty and receiving a standing ovation. More than that, when it was released to general audiences in 1938, it grossed four times more than any other picture that year, becoming the largest moneymaker in Hollywood up to that time and retaining the title until 1939’s Gone with the Wind made its debut. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs would go on to be recognized for its storytelling and technical achievements, earning it a number of industry awards, including the vaunted Oscar.
MGM, desperate to achieve that kind of success in its own studio, used Snow White as the model for its 1939 live action musical remake of The Wizard of Oz.
The profits from the film put Disney squarely in the black, and he used the proceeds to not only reward his team, but also to create Walt Disney Studios, the animation bedrock that persists and evolves to this day. The legacy of Snow White‘s storytelling process is that today we have this concept of the “Disney Princess.” We can point to films like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty that draw from the same creative models as Snow White, and indeed both were compared as the greatest films the studio had released since Snow White, but the Disney Princess is a more modern construction. It wasn’t until after the so-called Disney Renaissance with 1989’s The Little Mermaid that the idea of the Disney Princess became a conscious tool, first used with 1991’s Beauty and the Beast following the studio’s failure to capitalize on the monetary potential of the idea with Ariel. The Little Mermaid was a runaway success that the studio simply did not anticipate. When you look at the marketing and merchandising for Frozen, this is what the studio executives wished they had the foresight to bring about with The Little Mermaid. There was always some level of it, but the merchandising really didn’t ramp up until 1994’s The Lion King when the Disney Renaissance was in full swing. Looking back at the marketing juggernaut surrounding Mickey Mouse that made him a household name and one of the most popular characters of all time, it seems so obvious, doesn’t it? *shrug* Hakuna matata.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a film that I grew up with, alongside pretty much the entire Disney catalog. Being a Star Wars fan and constantly being inspired by George Lucas, it’s difficult to not likewise be inspired by the creative genius who inspired him. Likewise, I practically cut my teeth on the animated offerings of Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, the Fleischer Superman and Popeye cartoons, Tex Avery, The Pink Panther, and dozens of others. The creators and animators behind all of these held Walt Disney up on a pedestal and constantly looked to his studio as the cutting edge benchmark of the industry. I studied art and animation in college, and while I eventually moved towards the computer animated realm in my studies following the rise of Pixar (created by George Lucas and shepherded beneath the Disney umbrella), my appreciation for the artistry and precision of the hand-drawn classics knows no bounds. Even so, it wasn’t until I finally studied Walt Disney as a creator that I truly understood what makes this movie tick. There comes a point when you see all of the legendary creators that worked on this film — the animators, the voice actors, the musicians — where you recognize their talents and input, and you come to the realization that if not for Disney himself, that same assembled team could not have produced this masterpiece on their own. It’s awe-inspiring for me to consider that idea. The opportunity to study the technical and storytelling wizardry involved in bringing this film to life as well as those classics that followed, combined with an appreciation for the music that lives alongside as part of our cultural lexicon, has only furthered my enthusiasm for all things Disney, thus giving rise to this little blog project of mine.