Disney Film History: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

(Let me preface this by saying that I am not trying to steal the idea of the Disney Film Project or anyone else attempting to review Disney films. I feel as though I am bringing my own style to these reviews. I don’t have a film background, but I do have a history background. My focus with “The Whole Picture” is to showcase how the film was made, how well received it was or wasn’t, and how it has impacted the Disney company in the long run. All of this while still adding my own personal opinion of the film. I am planning to do all of the Disney animated, live action Touchstone, Pixar, and any other Disney brand film in chronological order.)

If I am going to start at the beginning, we of course have to start with the original Disney princess. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was announced by Walt Disney as “in production” in June 1934. To most Disney fans, this had to be crazy jibberish. You have to realize that Disney introduced sound with Steamboat Willie in 1928 and color had only been added less than two years earlier with the Silly Symphony short “Flowers and Trees” in July of 1932. The studio, at that point, was used to producing 5-6 minute short cartoons that came before the feature film. So why would Walt Disney and Co. want to risk it all to make a full length animated feature film with sound and color?

Despite the overwhelming hysteria for the Mickey Mouse character and the critically acclaimed Silly Symphony shorts, Walt Disney didn’t feel like he had found the success he deserved. His name was never the feature on the marquis of any theater. The shorts were always a side note, merely an extra for audiences there to see the latest Humphrey Bogart film. Walt knew he had the talent at the studio and could push the boundaries of animation even further. So he chose a classic tale, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, as his first foray into feature film making, a task that put himself, his family, and the studio on edge.

The summer and autumn of 1934 were devoted to story development. The story was originally intriguing to Walt due to the possibilities of gags he could have with the Dwarfs. The Queens was also originally seen as short, fat, and comical looking. The film was originally going to play of of the studio’s knack for comedy rather than the drama they later devised. The budget for Snow White was set at $250,000 and story meetings took place for the rest of 1934. The project however, possibly due to doubt and unrealistic standards, was shelved by Walt Disney at the beginning of 1935. It wasn’t until he returned from a trip to Europe, rejuvenated and clear minded, that he decided the studio could take on the massive task of Snow White.

In November 1935, Walt had his story and had created personalities for all of his characters. (The dwarfs don’t have names in the Grimm tales.) Scenes were assigned to animators and the race was on. The original comedic storyline and a focus on the Dwarfs was still the task at hand, but as time went on the decision was made that Snow White and her relationship with the dwarfs as well as the now beautiful Evil Queen. Because of the change in story from a comedy to a drama, several scenes not pertaining to Snow White and her story were cut from the film, including fully finished scenes that took months to complete. Ward Kimball, now famous as one of Walt’s Nine Old Men, almost walked out on the operation after seeing his hard work being thrown in the trash.

A main concern for the film was the believability of animated human characters. This type of animation hadn’t been done before. The closest animation had ever gotten to drawing a realistic looking human was Betty Boop and she looks more like a triangle with a football for a head. Art Babbit decided to gather several animators at his home on a weekly basis to train in the art of drawing human figures. As his group of animators grew Walt Disney decided this was a good idea and moved the weekly gatherings to the studio and turn it into an art class. He recruited Chouinard art professor Don Graham to help his animators in their training. Enthusiasm for the project really developed in this artistic atmosphere, pushing the envelope and taking the time to get things right.

Unfortunately for the financier of the studio, Walt’s brother Roy, the budget continued to increase. The original $250,000 ended up becoming nearly $1.5 million . Walt put a mortgage on his home and pulled severeal loans from many different banks to finish the film. Even if the film did okay, the studio may not have gained it’s money back, but that wasn’t going to stop Walt from making his animated masterpiece and he put that problem on Roy’s shoulders.

The film, after several changes in story and development, finally made it’s premiere in December 1937. Three and a half years after Walt announced his feature film project and with all of his money (plus more) on the line, the premiere had to be a success. Thankfully for Walt and Co. the film was given at standing ovation and was praised in the media, even by the reporters who originally debunked Disney’s feature length endeavor as the downfall of Walt Disney. His once unrealistic standards of creating the first feature length sound and color animated film had not only become a reality but an overwhelming success. Walt and his film were the talk of every newspaper, radio station, and Time magazine. By the end of it’s original theatrical run in 1938, it had grossed nearly $7.85 million. That made it the top grossing film ever at the time, until Gone with the Wind in 1940.

The music from the film is also notable considering the songs were released as the first soundtrack to a film. There had never previously been an attempt to sell a recording of a films score or songs from a musical. I’m unsure if Walt or someone else at the Disney studio thought of the idea, but it definitely became a money maker for the studio. On top of that, having a soundtrack influenced the studio to create songs that theater goers could sing. “Whistle While You Work”, “Someday My Prince Will Come”, and of course, “Hi Ho” became instantly recognizable tunes and most likely helped increase sales in both record stores and at the movie theater. If you heard the song, you had to see the film or if you saw the film, you had to buy the record. The soundtrack made perfect sense and would only cushion the studio with what they needed for future films.

Currently, it’s been 75 years and Snow White still holds up today. Upon viewing the movie again, I have to say it was a definite risk for the Disney company. It never seemed overly cartoon-ish, in fact it’s quite scary, even as an adult seeing it. (We don’t even see the comedic Dwarfs until 20 minutes into the film.) The animation of all of the characters is done very well. To today’s standards, the faces of the human characters is a little rough, but the movements of clothing, facial expressions, and body language are all there. It’s as if you were to watch a live actor playing the role. Thinking that only a few years prior, most cartoons were in black and white and characters had no grasp of reality is pretty crazy. Even if you go back to look at Steamboat Willie from 1928, there isn’t a grasp of weight, natural movement, or emotions through facial expressions. In Snow White that was all brought to the forefront, and I think the studio has only done better with those human qualities since this feature.

My favorite scene, I think like many people is the soap scene with Dopey as he is easily the funniest of the dwarfs, but I also love the trasformation scene of the Queen into the Wicked Witch. Not only does it play out as some of the animator’s best work in the film, but it is also a very scary scene. It holds up as probably one of the scariest scenes in Disney animation history. I’m also a very big fan of the backgrounds in this film. They they create a mood for where the story is and by themselves are beautiful works of art.

The film has also inspired some of the greatest characters in Disney animation history. Snow White, Dopey, and Grumpy are all still top merchandise sellers. The songs are still as memorable as ever. An attraction at Disney Parks still exist, and a new one is being built at Walt Disney World. The film continues to stay relevant. I wouldn’t just say that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a breakthrough due to it being the first feature length film by Walt Disney, but it is also one of the best out of everything they have done since then. 75 years later, we still quote it, sing it, praise it, and love it, and none of the future films would be possible without it.

Love it? Hate it? Leave your thoughts on Snow White! What’s your favorite scene, song, etc… Let me know.

Josh Taylor
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Next Film: Pinocchio

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Posted on January 23, 2013, in Articles, The Whole Picture and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

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