Note: This past weekend, I wrote a piece on "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" for the blog Wonders in the Dark, which is counting down its favorite musicals. Due to several requests, I am reprinting the article here.
Casual Walt Disney fans may be aware that “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was his first feature-length animated film, but they are unsure how to place it within his career.
The enormous and ongoing success of Mickey Mouse can overshadow Disney’s tremendous output during the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s, and some just think he came up with Mickey and followed it with “Snow White.”
In reality, you can chart Disney’s progress as an innovator during the decade before “Snow White.” That film wasn’t a happy accident – although detractors called the notion of a full-length animated film “Disney’s folly” – but a natural extension of what Disney was producing since the beginning of his career. To fully appreciate “Snow White’s” impact, it’s important to understand his career leading up to that achievement.
Before Mickey Mouse made his auspicious debut in 1928, there were Alice and Oswald. And between Mickey Mouse and Snow White, there were the Silly Symphonies. All told, Disney made hundreds of short animated films between 1924 and the release of “Snow White” in late 1937.
Did you know, for example, that Walt Disney was the first recipient of the animated short film Oscar in 1932? And, did you know he would go on to win that category for eight consecutive years, through 1939? Most of those winning shorts were Silly Symphonies, and it’s here that Walt honed his studio’s storytelling flair, animation techniques and use of music that led to “Snow White.”
But let’s start with the Alice comedies. Perhaps, in a very general sense, Alice is Disney’s first princess. In 1923, influenced by Max Fleischer and his “Out of the Inkwell” series, in which animation was inserted into live action, Walt began working on “Alice’s Wonderland” and reversed the situation by inserting a live action little girl into a world of animation. At the age of 21, Disney wrapped up his completed film, grabbed a train and headed to California.
A New York distributor looking for short films ordered six Alice comedies with an option for more. Although the animation was crude on the Alice comedies, you get a sense of Walt’s sense of humor and the beginning of a musical rhythm in his work, despite these being silent. The shorts were popular, but by 1926 the comedies featured less of Alice and more animation. In 1927, by the end of Alice’s run, 56 shorts had been made.
Jump ahead past Oswald the Lucky Rabbit (a successful yet heartbreaking chapter in Disney’s history) to the creation of Mickey Mouse. Walt decided he needed something to set himself apart from the competition. With the release of “The Jazz Singer” in 1927, sound put the movie business in a tizzy. As studios scrambled to adapt to the new technology, Walt realized he has an opportunity. He spent weeks in New York City before finding an inexpensive recording company to help him add sound to “Steamboat Willie.” Nearing bankruptcy, he found one theater to show “Steamboat Willie.”
And history was made. This first animated short with sound was a huge hit. All of the studios wanted Walt, but he remained independent and went with a distributor that allowed him to maintain ownership of Mickey. In less than one year, Mickey was a worldwide sensation.
However, in 1929, Walt recognized that he would be very bored just producing Mickey Mouse shorts for the rest of his life. Carl Stalling, his first musical director, suggested the idea of taking famous music and animating it. Thus, the Silly Symphonies were born.
The first, “The Spook Dance,” which was later changed to “The Skeleton Dance,” is a simple midnight dance by some skeletons in a graveyard. When Walt tried to sell it to the New York distributors, they balked and asked only for Mickey. Ever persistent, Walt found a theater in L.A. willing to show “The Skeleton Dance,” and it became a hit.
The Silly Symphonies allowed Walt to experiment. Initially, there would be no sequels or characters used from one short to another. Each was original and unique.
In the early 1930s, Walt again did something to set himself apart: He inked an exclusive two-year deal with Technicolor, and his first color cartoon was “Flowers and Trees,” a Silly Symphony. Sid Grauman, of Grauman’s Theater fame, saw a minute rough cut and loved it so much he booked it into his theater upon completion.
Much like sound made Walt and Mickey Mouse a sensation, color did the same thing, and Silly Symphonies gained in popularity. “Flowers and Trees” won the very first Animated Short Oscar.
In 1933, Walt won another Oscar for the “Three Little Pigs.” The success of the song “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” caught Walt off-guard, as he never dealt with a hit song before. And, breaking his own rule, Walt agreed to two sequels to “Pigs.”
But you can see how all of this built toward another innovation. Shorts like “The Tortoise and the Hare” continued Walt’s development of fairy tales and fables as subjects for his work. Much like Irving Thalberg at MGM and Sam Goldwyn, Disney had the gift of storytelling. Watch one of my favorite Silly Symphonies, “Music Land,” and see his take on a Romeo and Juliet story that brims with originality and storytelling flair.
Walt realized that he needed to push his craft yet again, and this time the path was clear: feature-length animation. He chose “Snow White” in 1934 and used the Silly Symphonies to testing various animation techniques. He developed the multi-plane camera to add depth and dimension to the animation and used it on “The Old Mill,” a simple tale filled with a style that’s detailed and sophisticated.
Finally, Walt knew that his animated shorts rarely contained humans, so he pushed his animators to learn how to draw people. As “Snow White” went into production, the perfectionist in Walt went into overdrive. The budget ballooned from $500,000 to $1.5 million, and the studio teetered on bankruptcy.
If “Snow White” looks old school when compared to Pixar’s computer wizardry of today, there’s a beauty to that old school look. It’s like storybook art come to life, with vibrant colors as well as deep, rich tones. Even today, the film spills over with charm, vivid characters and memorable songs.
Walt was adamant that this film not play like a live-action Hollywood musical. He wanted his songs to continue the storytelling. The songs were by Frank Churchill, Larry Morey, Paul J. Smith and Leigh Harline and are woven beautifully into the story – “I’m Wishing,” “Some Day My Prince Will Come,” “Heigh Ho” and “Whistle While You Work.”
His attention to detail also included the girl or woman who would supply the voice of Snow White. One talent man thought he had the perfect candidate in a 14-year-old soprano, but Walt thought the voice sounded like a woman between the ages of 20 and 30 and rejected her. That voice belonged to Deanna Durbin! Finally, when Walt heard 18-year-old Adriana Caselotti, he knew immediately that she was perfect.
The Dwarfs provide an engaging group of supporting players who provide a dose of comedy and friendly companionship for Snow White as she escapes the evil Queen, who is truly frightening. A terrifying climax with the dwarfs and the queen in a raging thunderstorm is still riveting.
What Walt may not have realized was how “Snow White” would be a blueprint for Disney films to come, with a sweet heroine, an evil female villain, and appealing supporting characters to provide comedy and help the heroine. The blandly handsome prince provided a happily ever after, but the joy was in the journey.
On Dec. 21, 1937, the film opened, and the impact was immediate. Disney wowed both the critics and the public. The film grossed $8 million in its initial run and was one of the highest grossing films of its time, running for an unprecedented five weeks at Radio City Music Hall. While the film was re-released over the years, which added to its box office take, the web site Box Office Mojo lists “Snow White” as the 10th highest grossing film of all time after adjustments for inflation, which puts its total take at $868 million.
The Academy awarded Walt a special Oscar for that achievement, which consisted of a regular Oscar and seven miniature ones.
Regardless of its box office clout and awards, “Snow White” was a labor of love for Walt Disney and a groundbreaking achievement. The abundance of animated feature films today can trace their lineage to “Snow White,” which remains an arresting, charming tale with superb music and memorable characters.