Snow White (1937)
the one that started it all
Hi there and welcome to the premier episode of Oof! Right in the Childhood. I’m Jen, and this is a podcast where I watch the Disney animated feature films in the order in which they were released, and react to them from a modern standpoint. I’m so happy you’ve joined me for my first ever podcast as I discuss the 1937 masterwork that is Snow White & the Seven Dwarves. Or, as I call it, the one that started it all.
This particular episode will likely be the shortest. Despite Snow White beginning the Disney legacy, it’s a little short on story. But before I get to my observations from this film, I want to start every episode with a little history around the movie we’re going to talk about.
The Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio was founded by Walt and Roy O. Disney in late 1923. Its name has changed several times over the years, but in its early days, it produced short cartoons to be played before other studios’ movies. By 1932, Walt Disney Productions had gotten a contract with Technicolor to make their cartoons in color.
But in 1934, Walt decided he’d had enough of playing cartoons before other people’s movies, and he announced to his staff that they were going to make the first feature-length animated movie, and it was going to be Snow White & the Seven Dwarves. He acted out the whole story to the staff and estimated the movie would cost the studio $250,000.
According to US Inflation Calculator - dot - com, $250,000 in 1934 is the equivalent of about $4.8 million dollars today in 2020. That was also ten times the amount it cost the studio to make one of their Silly Symphony shorts.
Because of all of this, no one else shared Walt’s excitement. His wife and his brother tried to dissuade him, and the Hollywood industry referred to the project as “Disney’s folly.”
And of course, nothing went to plan. The animators weren’t familiar with the techniques they needed for a full-length film with humans as its focus, so they brought in art teachers and instated weekly required art classes. However, the art teachers weren’t familiar with animation, so the classes were as difficult for the instructors as they were for the “students.”
Though the overall story was based on the fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm, the actual script went through many changes. Disney came up with about fifty potential names for the dwarves, which they pared down over time. Sneezy and Dopey were the last to get their names.
The original version of the story was “funny” and included several gags at the expense of the queen. They intended to follow the original Grimm story which includes a poisoned comb, dancing skeletons, and the Queen trying to marry Prince Charming himself. The animators imagined the queen as “fat, batty, cartoon type, self-satisfied,” according to Michael Barrier in Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age.
But, despite his original intention to encourage the animators to make “gags,” Walt eventually decided that the humour made the cartoon less plausible, so they changed the Queen to be more beautiful and stately and began focusing on Snow White and her animal friends.
In the end, the film ended up costing Walt Disney Productions $1.4 million dollars. Actually, because it was the first, it has a very specific price tag, unlike most other films. It actually cost them exactly $1,488,422.74.
Adjusted for inflation, that’s approximately $26.6 million dollars today. And though it’s now pretty normal to have a movie cost $100 million or more, it was virtually unheard of in the 30s. Walt even had to mortgage his house to keep it going.
But, then the movie was released, and critics loved it. They praised it as “art,” recommended it for all audiences, young and old, and the 11th Academy Awards, which, obviously, didn’t have a animated feature award just yet, presented Walt Disney with an honorary award for as they put it, “a significant screen innovation which has charmed millions and pioneered a great new entertainment field”. Shirley Temple, then 10 years old, presented Walt with a normal sized Oscar with 7 small Oscars for his achievement. The film was also nominated for Best Musical Score, but didn’t win.
By the end of its first theatre run Snow White & the Seven Dwarves had grossed $7.8 million or $140.4 million today, and that was four times more than any other film in 1938. As of today, with all its re-releases and home movie sales, it’s made over $418 million. There’s no way to adjust that for inflation because it’s spaced throughout the last 83 years, but given that it’s been re-released and shown throughout all of those years, you can assume it’s made quite a bit more than that
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All of the following is commentary on the film as I see it now, in 2020. My views are not that of the Disney company.
But enough about how Snow White came to be, let’s get right onto the film. Due to copyright laws, I won’t be playing audio clips of the movie, you’ll just have to follow along. The movie is only an hour and 23 minutes long. Take a moment. Rewatch it.
In the Brothers Grimm story, there’s a whole bit about how Snow White got her name. In the original, it says, “Once upon a time in midwinter, when the snowflakes were falling like feathers from heaven, a queen sat sewing upon her window, which had a frame of black ebony wood. As she sewed she looked up at the snow and pricked her finger with her needle. Three drops of blood fell into the snow. The red on the white looked so beautiful that she thought to herself, ‘If only I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood in this frame.’”
I’ve heard this retranslated as “If only I had a child whose skin was as white as snow, her lips as red as blood, and hair as black as the wood in the frame.”
The problem is, though Disney obviously used that description to design Snow White herself, the script just skips over the whole reason why Snow White has her name and skipped straight to the Queen saying, "Gee, she’s pretty, I should kill her."
Snow sings into a well about wanting to be in love. Research by people smarter than me indicates she is 14 years old now. And though that is an appropriate age to get all tied up with wanting to be in love, I would like to posit an objection to the rest of the film on this basis.
The queen orders her huntsman to kill Snow White, but he can’t kill her, so she runs into the woods. This woods scene is genuinely scary. I guess that kids in the 30s had stronger stomachs, or no one really cared if they wet themselves in the theatre. But eventually the scary eyes dissipate and some kind animals come out. They show her to a strange house, and of course, she goes in. Why not?
As soon as she goes in, Snow is offended by how filthy this place is. I guess, she’s been working as someone who scrubs flagstones, so she’s not used to dust? She looks at these animals and seriously says "You wash the dishes; you clean up the house; I'll sweep," and bless these little animals that just met her, they think, "Sure! this is an equitable division of labour!"
Thus begins Whistle while you Work which is a super fun song. Snow finishes cleaning. She’s tired, so she lays down across seven beds which she assumes are children’s? That live alone.
The dwarves come in, and now they’re offended by their house being clean. Like, at one point, Grumpy thinks they’ve been robbed. And I’d like to know if it’s common for people to break into houses and clean them until they sparkle? If so, could someone send me that burglar?
Throughout the film, Doc jumbles his words, and at one point in this scene, he almost says "Check every crooked fanny.” Because I’m twelve, I couldn’t stop laughing. I had to stop the movie.
During this scene, they reference Jiminy Cricket before he exists! Is this the beginning of Disney Easter eggs? No, it appears Jiminy Cricket was a fairly common exclamation at that time..
So, they find this little girl sleeping across their beds, and Grumpy says "females is full of poison." And as this is not a psychological podcast, I’m going to leave that suitcase alone and not unpack it, but we should probably find a professional.
Snow tells them what’s going on, and they then proceed to panic about the Queen. They know a lot about her, and I’m a little confused about why they know so much about the Queen. I mean, the residents of England don’t know this much about Queen Elizabeth II and she’s been queen a lot longer.
Once she gets them all calmed down, Snow tells them she’s cooked and that they need to wash up. The dwarves gather around a water trough that they already owned and then we discover they are afraid of water. In fact, they have never washed their hands, or touched water before. I want to know why they own a giant water trough if that’s true? Also, how?
In the morning, the Dwarves go off to “work” which appears to be mining the largest gems anyone has ever seen. They sing a fun song about it and then don’t come home with the billions of dollars in gems. Where do the gems go? Who is benefiting off their labour?
Meanwhile, the Queen is planning to trick Snow. She plucks a "Disguises" book off the shelf because she owns that. I'm not going to recite the spell, but the components are Mummy Dust, Black of Night, an Old Hag’s Cackle, and a Scream of Fright. I really, really want to know the story of getting three of those.
We’re now in the final bits of the movie. I’ve found through watching a few of these early movies that Disney really lacked denouement, or falling action, so the following all happens within the last 10 minutes of the movie, or at least it seems.
So, the queen shows up with a basket of poison apples, Snow bites one after being told that it will bring her true love [spoiler alert! It does], the dwarves find Snow dead, they build her a glass coffin, and immediately a prince appears, kisses her, she wakes, and they ride off together.
I mean, I don’t think that the Dwarves even got a full cry in, but now Snow and the Prince are together and they’re going to get married. And the end!
But, before I sign off, I’m going to let you know that, according to Google, Prince Florian (that’s his name. I don’t think it’s ever said anywhere in the movie) is 31 years old when he takes the 14 year old Snow White off to be his bride. Oof! Right in the Childhood.
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