In 1937, Walt Disney had something to prove.
He’d arrived in Hollywood from Kansas City in 1923. A cartoonist with aspirations of becoming a live-action movie director, he began to make a name for himself with the Alice Comedies, a series of hybrid short films that combined live-action and animation, and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, one of the earliest recurring characters to have his own distinct personality.
Oswald had been created for producer Charles Mintz, who distributed the cartoons through Universal. In 1928, Disney tried to up his fee for the cartoons but Mintz refused, offering less money and reminding Disney that he owned the rights to Oswald. If Disney didn’t accept the terms, Mintz would just find somebody else who would. Disney walked away from Oswald, created Mickey Mouse and made history.
Of course, it wasn’t quite that simple. There would be a lot of trial and error, more unfavorable business deals, and key collaborators would both enter and leave Walt’s life (perhaps most notably, Walt’s long-time friend and partner Ub Iwerks, who left in 1930). Still, by most any yardstick, Disney was a huge success by 1937. Mickey Mouse was recognized around the world, the Silly Symphonies series was a smash hit, and Walt had already won 6 Academy Awards (out of an eventual 22, still the most ever won by an individual). He was 36 years old. And yet, he still had something to prove.
Disney wanted to break out of the short subject rut and into feature filmmaking with an adaptation of the Grimm fairy tale Snow White. Outside of the studio, literally no one thought this was a good idea. Even inside the studio, folks were skeptical. Walt’s brother, Roy, and wife, Lillian, both tried to talk him out of it. Throughout Hollywood, the project was referred to as “Disney’s Folly”. Walt thought he could make it for around $250,000. It ended up costing close to $1.5 million and he’d have to mortgage his house to help finance it. It took around three years to make and when it finally premiered at the Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles on December 21, 1937, it changed everything.
It’s impossible to imagine today just how revolutionary Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs must have been to audiences at the time. Today, most people consider it to be a genteel, rather old-fashioned picture, a relic from Hollywood’s golden age. But no one had ever told a complex story with a beginning, middle and end in animation before. Up until then, animated cartoons were only designed to hold the attention for about 8 minutes with a series of gags and maybe a quick song or two. There were even those who doubted that people could physically take a feature-length animated cartoon. All the bright colors would probably lead to eyestrain and headaches.
Most of all, animated cartoons up to this point were only intended to provoke one of two simple emotions: happy or sad. Sure, people loved characters like Mickey and Minnie Mouse but they weren’t emotionally invested in them. You didn’t hope that they’d find a true and lasting love and you certainly never worried that one of them might actually die.
Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs did all that. It told a familiar story in a way that made it seem brand new. It seamlessly integrated the exaggerated animation style of the dwarfs with some of the most realistic human characters the medium had yet seen. It introduced no less than 8 original songs, most of which went on to become instantly recognizable standards including “Heigh-Ho”, “Whistle While You Work” and “Someday My Prince Will Come”. And, as far as I know, it did all this without causing a single migraine or seizure.
It’s clear from the opening titles that Walt Disney had put everything on the line with this production. A personalized title card early on reads, “My sincere appreciation to the members of my staff whose loyalty and creative endeavor made possible this production.” That sounds as much like a goodbye as a hello, as though Walt was resigned to the possibility of failure and was saying, “Well, boys…we gave it our best shot. Thanks for trying.”
As it turned out, everyone else also sincerely appreciated their creative endeavors. Even today, it’s impossible not to respect the artistry behind Snow White, even if you find elements of it dated. The stunning backgrounds, the fluid movement of the characters, the design elements, everything comes together to create a lush spectacle that’s simply beautiful to look at.
Disney’s success with short subjects translated surprisingly well to creating Snow White‘s story structure. As with the shorts, the story was broken down into a series of interconnected gags, with the distinct personalities of the Seven Dwarfs serving as the driving force behind many of them. But gags are sprinkled throughout the film. If the movie had been a flop, Disney could easily have excised the “Whistle While You Work” sequence and released it as a stand-alone Silly Symphony.
The vocal performances are also key to selling the story. The dwarfs’ design gets you halfway there but it’s the voices of Pinto Colvig, Roy Atwell, Billy Gilbert, Otis Harlan and others who bring them to life. Lucille La Verne had been an actress for over fifty years when she voiced the evil Queen, both in her vain, “fairest-of-them-all” form and as the apple-poisoning old hag. Both voices are terrifying and intimidating in their own unique ways. La Verne retired from acting after Snow White, perhaps realizing she’d already achieved immortality.
The most divisive voice these days is Adriana Caselotti as Snow White herself. Her high-pitched, tremulous voice has been parodied for generations at this point. But it’s frankly perfect for the character. It’s nowhere near as one-note as those parodies might have you remembering. And the character is meant to be as pure and innocent as the driven snow, after all. If Caselotti’s voice has since come to sound like a cliché, that’s because it works.
In later years, Disney would become a bit overprotective of Snow White’s voice. Jack Benny famously wanted to hire Caselotti for his radio show but Walt refused, not wanting anything to ruin the mystique of that perfect voice. Caselotti probably lost quite a bit of work over the years thanks to Walt. Still, she never seemed to hold a grudge, at least not publicly, and became the first female voice actor to be named a Disney Legend in 1994. Even so, from today’s perspective at least, it does seem like Walt was a bit of a dick about it.
The public went wild for Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. For a little while, it was the highest-grossing film of all time (at least until Gone With The Wind came along). The movie landed Walt and the dwarfs on the cover of Time magazine. At the Oscars, Shirley Temple presented Walt with an honorary Academy Award and seven mini-Oscars, recognizing the film as “a significant screen innovation which has charmed millions and pioneered a great new entertainment field”.
The movie’s music also earned a nomination for Best Scoring. This was at the 10th Oscars and, like many categories in the ceremony’s early years, they were still trying to figure this one out. At the time, the nomination went to the head of the studio’s music department and pretty much every studio was guaranteed a nomination for whatever movie they chose to submit. Snow White, and everything else that year, lost to the Deanna Durbin musical One Hundred Men And A Girl. Its “score” consisted of two original songs and a whole bunch of classical music. Realizing that it wasn’t entirely fair to make people compete with the likes of Mozart and Wagner, the Academy changed the category’s rules in time for the next ceremony.
Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs changed movies forever. It paved the way for every single animated feature film that would follow, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that audiences could be made to care just as deeply about a series of drawings as they did about flesh-and-blood characters. The Disney Era had begun.
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