Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Posted by on Dec 10, 2011 in The Best of the Best | 4 comments

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Disclaimer: Some blatant and outdated sexist stereotypes.

When the vast majority of film writers delve into Snow White, they take the route of a historian, giving an encyclopedic account of its role in regards to the history of film animation. The route is certainly justified, as the story of its underdog status and eventual rise to immortality is a great one, but I will only briefly mention it, as you’ve probably already heard it before. When I think of Snow White I think of a different, more personal story; I like to imagine my earliest memories of the cinema.

As the first of its kind, Snow White was the first exposure several generations of filmgoers had to a full-length animated film, shaping their viewership for the decades to come. I was 4 years old when I first saw Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – this was Disney Studios’ seventh re-release of the movie in theaters – and, as far as I know, it was my first experience in a theater.SnowWhite02

Though the scientific community generally agrees that our memories begin around 4 years of age, my only recollections of this experience are second-hand. My godfather, with whom I spent most of my childhood cinema trips, insists that I was mesmerized by the film, and, having lost myself to the fear of the Wicked Queen, ruined the entire audience’s suspension of disbelief when I shouted to Snow White, “Don’t eat the apple!”

Had I simply sutured with the film’s frail lead, or could I possibly have thought I was seeing something real? Better yet, did the film’s original viewers have this confusion? They, like myself, had already seen cartoons. Disney had released loads of animated shorts like Mickey Mouse or Silly Symphonies, many of which screened before feature films (unlike the loathsome advertisements of today), but they’d never seen such realistic movement from human characters on screen. They’d never seen weather, water, or reflections so clearly, and the multiplane camera allowed animators to move all these separate elements to give the illusion of three dimensions.

I tend to believe that Woody Allen admitting SnowWhite03his unhealthy childhood fascination with the Wicked Queen in Annie Hall was a metaphor for his love of cinema, or maybe just for comedic value, because that queen was freaking creepy. The only thing more frightening and tense than Snow White’s paranoia-fueled trek through the haunted forest is the Queen’s transformation into the old crone, and the Dwarfs racing back to the cottage while she delivers the fated apple. That Queen scared the pants off generations of kids, and the fact that Radio City Music Hall had to replace the upholstery after the premiere due to kids urinating out of fright proves it.

When Sergei Eisenstein saw Snow White, his reaction was equally extreme, but far more publicized. The master of Soviet montage and director of the immortal Battleship Potemkin dubbed it the greatest film ever made for the simple reason that he foresaw feature-length animated films allowing a filmmaker complete cinematic freedom. Yet, when Disney announced in 1934 that he and 500 artists would be creating a 90-minute animated film based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, people thought he was crazy. His brother and wife both tried to talk him out of it, while publications referred to his project as “folly.” Their rationale was simple: who would pay $1.5 million to make a movie that no one would want to sit through? “No one’s ever gonna pay a dime to see a dwarf picture,” his wife allegedly said. At the time, cartoons were kids’ fare, and only belonged at short intervals before the feature. That didn’t stop ole’ Walt, who proceeded to mortgage his own home in order to finance the venture.

His investment saw a respectable return, however, as the film earned a spot as the highest-grossing movie of all-time (until Gone with the Wind two years later; though, to be fair, Birth of a Nation should have been first if they properly tracked receipts back then) and still ranks in the top 10 adjusted for inflation, the highest of any animated film. Eventually, Snow White made the cover of Time, took home an honorary Oscar (and seven miniature ones) for “significant screen innovation,” and was the first animated film selected for the National Film Registry. Snow White was also the first to have a soundtrack album for its Oscar-nominated score, with classic tunes such as I’m Wishing, Whistle While You Work, Heigh Ho, and Some Day My Prince Will Come.

Of course, if you ask a child to talk about Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, they won’t mention anything I’ve written thus far. They’d go on and on about the film’s most entertaining and ageless elements – all seven of them (and maybe some animals, too). Those seven loveable dwarves – each as distinct in their verbal and body language as they are in their titles – were the original sidekicks of animated films, providing comic relief right on cue (especially the Harpo Marx-esque Dopey).

So, sure, The New York Times hit it on the head in labeling Snow White, “a classic, as important cinematically as The Birth of a Nation or the birth of Mickey Mouse.” And sure, it also gave birth to an empire and set a standard for every animated feature to come. But most importantly, has any other film had as much impact on young filmgoers? It doesn’t take a magic mirror to answer that one.

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