Saturday, March 16, 2013

Stubs - Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) Starring (the Voices of): Adriana Caseloti, Lucille La Verne, Harry Stockwell, Roy Atwell, Pinto Colvig, Otis Harlen, Scotty Mattraw, Billy Gilbert, Eddie Collins, Moroni Olsen, Stuart Buchanan. Screenplay (Story Adapted by) Ted Sears, Richard Creedon, Otto Englander, Dick Rickard, Earl Hurd, Merrill De Maris, Dorothy Ann Blank and Webb Smith. Based on a story by Wilhelm Grimm and Jacob Grimm. Directed by (Supervising Director): David Hand. Produced by Walt Disney. Run Time: 84 minutes. Color. U.S. Animated

Having spent the better part of the day at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library to see the Treasures of the Disney Archives exhibit, we decided to watch a classic Disney film and what better one than the first cel animated feature-length film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Even though Disney claims it as the first animated feature-length film, it isn’t. That honor belongs to El ApĆ³stol (1917), an Argentine silent and lost film, which used traditional and cut out animation.

Up until 1937, Walt Disney had made its name with animated short subjects featuring Mickey Mouse and the Silly Symphonies. Making a full length feature was not only costly, but it was a gamble for Disney. The film took roughly three years to produce, but the gamble paid off. The film was a runaway success and at the time was the highest grossing film of all time. It was a crown it would wear for only a couple of years, when Gone with the Wind (1939) came out and took away the top honor.

Snow White was a turning point for Disney and the powerhouse multi-media conglomerate we know today may not have existed if this film had not been a big success. With the profits from this movie, Disney set up the Walt Disney studios in Burbank and the rest is history. In addition to its animated library, Disney owns the ABC TV network, ESPN, Marvel, Jim Henson and most recently George Lucas films.

The film opens with the only Snow White-related artifact at the Treasures exhibit, the storybook, which opens with texts that tells us princess Snow White is living with an evil stepmother, who has taken over the kingdom after the death of her father and obviously her mother. Snow White (Adriana Caseloti) is shown working as a scullery maid, but still happy with her life. She seems to literally commune with nature (doves in this case) and sings about how her prince will come. And indeed he does as The Prince (Harry Stockwell) happens to be riding by. But Snow White runs away and hides.

This was the only Snow White artifact at the Disney Treasures show.
Meanwhile, The Queen (Lucille La Verne) takes vanity to a whole new level. Every day she asks her Magic Mirror (Moroni Olsen) who is the fairest in the land. When the Mirror tells her it’s Snow White, the Queen dispatches the Huntsman (Stuart Buchanan) to take Snow White out into the forest and kill her. The Huntsman is shocked by the request and the Queen’s demand for Snow White’s heart as proof that the deed has been done.

The box where Queen wants the Huntsman to put Snow White's heart.
But when push comes to shove, the Huntsman can’t do it and tells Snow White to run away and save herself. Snow White’s flight to freedom takes her into the woods, where she is frightened by anything that casts a shadow. It turns out that she has nothing to fear from the fauna of the woods and they guide her to a house for her to sleep in. She knocks twice and when no one answers, Snow White and the animals go inside. The house is a mess and everyone pitches in to clean it up. Only after they’ve done the downstairs do they discover the seven beds upstairs. Tired, Snow White and the animals fall to sleep.

After casing the Seven Dwarfs' cottage, Snow White and gang prepare to break in.
Meanwhile the seven dwarfs: Doc (Roy Atwell), Grumpy (Pinto Colvig), Happy (Otis Harlan), Sleepy (Pinto Colvig), Bashful (Scotty Mattraw), Sneezy (Billy Gilbert) and Dopey; are busy with their work, mining precious gems. (Note: Dopey is sort of like Harpo Marx with no lines and no voice.) At five o’clock it’s time to Heigh Ho it on home. There they discover that someone has cleaned their house and then they discover Snow White. She introduces herself and the dwarfs decide to let her stay, because she can cook and clean. So while they work all day, Snow White cleans house and cooks their meals and at night, they play songs and dance and everyone, including Grumpy, seems happy with the arrangement.

The Seven Dwarfs singing on their way home from work.
That is except the Queen, who, having discovered the Huntsman’s deception and that Snow White is living with the seven dwarfs, decides to take matters into her own hands. After disguising herself as an old woman, she concocts a Sleeping Death potion, which she soaks into an apple. Her idea is to get Snow White to eat the apple and bang, the Queen is once again the fairest in the land. The only catch, which the Queen is aware of, is that the spell can only be broken by love’s first kiss, but she figures the dwarfs will assume Snow White is dead and bury her alive.

The Queen in disguise plotting Snow White's doom.

Even though the Dwarfs warn Snow White not to let in any strangers, she doesn’t heed their warnings and lets the Old Lady into the house. Alarmed by what they’re seeing, the animals race to tell the Dwarfs that Snow White is in danger. The Old Lady tricks Snow White into taking a bite of the apple and Snow White falls into her Sleeping Death before the Dwarfs can return. The Dwarfs chase the Old Lady/Queen and trap her on a cliff (remember everyone always runs up to escape). She tries to roll a boulder on top of the dwarfs, but before she can a lightning bolt strikes and knocks her to her death.

You can scream all you want, but Snow White still takes a bite out of the apple.
But rather than bury Snow White, they put her body into a glass and gold coffin. Eventually, the Prince we first met when Snow White was the scullery maid hears about her eternal sleep and comes to visit. Saddened, he kisses her, breaking the spell. Alive and in love, the Prince and his Princess go on to live happily ever after.

True Love's First Kiss, awakens Snow White from her sleep death.
Considering this is all hand drawn, Snow White remains quite an accomplishment. Compared to today’s CGI animation, there are a few rough edges here and there, but overall the effects and the quality are phenomenal for the time. Snow White stands as a high water mark for animation and at least according to AFI, one that has not been topped since. Using a multiplane camera, which Disney developed, the animation is spectacular. But it is the talents of the animators that make it shine. Touches like distortion from water and glass may be a computer calculation now, but had to be hand-drawn then. It boggles the mind how they did it, but now we take it for granted.

Based on the Brothers Grimm tale of same name, Disney’s Snow White retains and embellishes on many of the story elements in the original tale. While the Grimm tale gives more background than Disney’s, in that we see Snow Whites’ mother and father, the story has the same elements: evil stepmother, magic mirror, huntsman, dwarfs (though the seven are not given names). Rather than her heart, the Queen wants her lungs and liver as proof and the Huntsman lets her go, assuming Snow White will get eaten by animals herself. And in a Hannibal-esque turn, when the Huntsman returns with a boar’s lung and liver instead of Snow White’s, the Queen, thinking they are real, cooks and eats them. Mm, mm gross.

And the Queen tries three times to kill Snow White. The first time the Queen offers Snow White some laces as a present and then proceeds to bind them so tight that Snow White faints, but she’s saved by the Dwarfs. The second time, disguised as a comb seller, the Queen combs Snow Whites’ hair with a poisoned comb, but again the Dwarfs revive her. The third time, disguised as a farmer’s wife, the Queen gets Snow White to take a bite of the poisoned apple and we know what happens from there.

But the stories end differently. The Prince plans on marrying Snow White and all the Kings and Queens are invited. The Evil Queen is told by the mirror that the young Queen is by far the fairest. But even though she is hesitant, she still accepts the invitation, not knowing the young Queen is Snow White. And when she arrives at the wedding, the Queen is punished for her attempted murders of Snow White, by having to wear red hot iron shoes on her feet and being forced to dance until she drops dead.

Hey, that’s how we got the word grim to begin with.

Snow White is the first of the Walt Disney princesses, which like everything good Disney does, has become a brand of sorts. And Snow White shares many qualities that one finds in the other two early Disney storybook princess movies: Cinderella (1950) and Sleeping Beauty (1959). To begin with, all three are based on stories by the Brothers Grimm. I’m not an expert, so I don’t know if the similarities are all on the Brothers Grimm, or Disney or a combination of the two.

Snow White and Cinderella share a lot of the same qualities and characteristics. To begin with, both live with vain and mean step-mothers, who punish the heroine because of her beauty and force her to work as a maid. Both are good with animals. In Show White, the animals help clean the Dwarfs’ house and in Cinderella, she befriends the mice and birds around her.

And like Princess Aurora from Sleeping Beauty, Snow White inflicts herself with her own death. Under a spell, Aurora pricks her finger on a spindle and Snow White bites the Apple. The only cure for their sleep death is the kiss of their true love; for Aurora its Prince Philip and for Snow White it’s The Prince. Interesting to note, like The Queen from Snow White, Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty also has a black bird, in her case a raven, with whom she confides and conspires.

And of course, all three, once they’re rescued by their Prince, they live happily ever after. This is not meant as a knock against the films, but that’s more what we’ve come to expect from fairy tales, or at least the movies based on fairy tales.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a landmark film and should be watched not only for its historic significance, but because it is a well-made well-told story. You see in it the elements that audiences would come to expect and still do from their fairy stories. People like a happy ending and Snow White certainly delivers.

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