Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) Review
What do I know about the film?
I know that people thought Snow White was ‘Disney’s folly.’ Back in the 30’s the idea of a full length animated film holding the attention of an audience for 80 minutes was ludicrous and people were convinced that it would be the end of his empire. Fast forward several years and a lot of hard labour and Disney had 8 Oscars to show for his trouble. Yes, an Honorary Academy Award for being a pioneer of film presented by Shirley Temple as one big Oscar and seven little ones. It is the Hollywood equivalent of shaking hands and making up. ‘Sorry we called you a hack, here is a 4 year old with some statues.’
Thanks to my Disney Filofax (cheers 90’s school book fair!) I also remember that some rejected dwarf names included Puffy, Scratchy and Burpy and that for the washing scene they recorded 7 men washing their faces with soap and water to make it sound authentic. Oh and my good childhood buddy Natasha (If you are reading this…how is it going? Are you a midwife yet?) liked Snow White the best of the Disney princesses cause she was the ONLY one with short hair, like Natasha.
Did I see it as a child?
I had it on VHS and the box was white with gold trim. I did not watch it much cause it was never a favourite. Does it deserve a second look? Let’s find out…
A Wicked Queen has a magic mirror which knows EVERYTHING that she uses to reaffirm her suspicion that she is hot. The pervy mirror was the olden day version of the FHM top 100 sexiest women list. Old times fact. However one day the mirror suggests that Snow White is well fit (was he waiting for her to turn 16? Classy.) So Queen decides it is on. Snow White escapes death and flees into a scary forest, finally crashing at a cottage that happens to belong to 7 bachelors. Hilarity ensues. And washing. And dancing. However Queen is not ready to give up on her yet…
I have watched films from this era before and the quality of the picture, the editing, the sound and the performances are often charmingly dated. They work as a bookmark in history but rarely look nice. The animation for Snow White however is stunning and it could be a hand drawn film from any time period. Really think about that. This is a film from the 1930’s. And the studio had never done a full length movie before. And they hit the ground running.
You could understand them cutting corners but every jewel sparkles, every backdrop is breathtaking and here is one example of the attention to detail: To give her cheeks that permanently flushed look the animators applied real rouge to the animation cells containing Snow White. Amazing. Every member of the art team (by my count according to the stats 382 people who I am guessing did not see much of the huge box office tally) have earned a place in movie history. Forget Walt. These are the heroes of animated film. Kudos to you all.
Two sequences in particular stand out: The first is when Snow White runs through the forest after narrowly escaping death. How does she escape death? Well, the huntsman is about to kill her but then she actually comforts a crying bird and he realises he can’t murder a character so ripe for parody. So she legs it. And gets lost in a wood where every tree has eyes, the logs are crocodiles snapping at her heels, the branches are grasping at her clothes and it is amazing. Thanks to this sequence I could never look at trees without seeing branches as claws. Can anyone?
The second is the transformation scene of the Queen. In my first post I claimed this is the scariest transformation scene in an animated film. It isn’t, as my friend Alex reminded me. Disney bested it in their very next film. But we will get to that. Respect where it is due this scene is perfectly paced and genuinely effective. The Queen now has an idea where to find Snow White so has to don a disguise to win her trust. Although Snow White is quite the airhead and a William Shatner mask would probably have done the trick, Queen cracks open a spell book. Not just any spell book. She has many. The one called ‘Disguises.’ Uh-Oh.
And so it starts. She makes a potion with brilliantly Macbethesque ingredients that ages her into an ugly old woman. Many people have interpreted this sequence as a comment on the ageing process for beautiful women and how horrifying it is. I don’t know about that, or maybe I don’t want to think too hard, but the delivery of the line ‘look…my hands’ as she sounds both fascinated and terrified watching them gnarl, wrinkle and grow bonier in the space of a flash of lightening is quite unsettling. My favourite choice in this scene is to have another creature in the room with her, witnessing her madness first hand. The raven acts as the audience: first curious and then appalled by the lengths she is going to in order to kill the fair Snow White.
So from my gushing so far, you might be wondering is this a horror movie? Well it is at its best when it goes dark. There is a little blink and you’ll miss it moment where the Queen leaves with her poison apples laughing hysterically at the notion of Snow White possibly being buried alive and passes a skeleton stuck forever in the act of reaching for a jug of water from a little dungeon. ‘Thirsty?’ She taunts gleefully. ‘Have a drink!’ And kicks the long empty jug at it, smashing the dead person’s arms and frightening a spider. This actually caused me to drop my pen and exclaim: ‘Fucking hell Disney!’ I doubt even Eli Roth would have the balls to include a shot like that in the ‘Hostel’ movies.
And I love that. I love the fact that along with the delightful woodland critters there are also a pair of Vultures hanging around the story waiting for someone to die. I love that when the Dwarfs think Snow White is dead you actually see them grieving, sobbing for her. We don’t just cut right away to the happy ending, we see they are frickin’ traumatised. I love that they go after the Queen to avenge her, in a scene very similar to that in the 1932 cult classic ‘Freaks’ notable for being a flop because Hollywood felt that nobody would want to watch a film where the main characters we were supposed to like and care about were dwarfs. Ha.
So that brings me fairly neatly to the dwarfs. Are they likeable and can the viewer care about them? Yes. They arrive 21 minutes into an 80 minute film and are instantly winning with an excellent musical number with two distinct sections: One where they dig for MASSIVE diamonds but ‘we don’t know what we dig them for’ and Heigh-Ho where they head for home whistling not so much with happiness but with a steadfast sense of routine that is very endearing. Grumpy the misogynist (who is held down and forced to wash by his brothers in another harrowing sequence that is supposed to be funny) and Dopey the mentally challenged get the most screen time and therefore are the most memorable but everyone gets a moment to shine. They are likeable and sweet although…
What Doesn’t Work:
…Some of their shtick gets old fast and, for me personally, the comedy in Snow White is very, very gentle. When the Dwarfs arrive home and realise someone is in their house the film more or less grinds to a halt. In a seemingly never ending set piece, the dwarfs sneak around the house looking for the intruder, comment on the changes to their house, Doc gives long pep talks, they decide to send the only one of them who can’t actually talk to see what is up the stairs and report back, then they all go up the stairs…it drags and nearly ruins all the goodwill left over from the beautiful introduction which told us all we needed to know about them.
Now I come to the biggest problem of the film: Snow White and the Prince. It was like they knew Snow White and the Prince were not going to be fondly remembered so didn’t bother to give them personality or chins. Apparently the Prince was going to have a bigger role but he was too hard to draw. Ok, the art works so well so much of the time I am not going to judge that too much. Although he is not so much a character as he is a deus ex machina. He is there at the start, joining in Snow White’s wishing well song with one of his own, a rather pleasant ditty called ‘One Song’ No. I didn’t use to sing it to my poster of Pacey from Dawson’s Creek. Stop asking. And then he shows up to save the day in the last SECONDS of the film. Seriously. He kisses her. She wakes up. Then they leave. Right away. End of film. Could we not have sacrificed 5 minutes of Dwarf humour to flesh this relationship out? My young cousin once wrote an alternative ending to a panto where Snow White ends up with one the dwarfs and it makes a hell of a lot more sense, chemistry wise.
As I said, I can forgive The Prince being dull, but not Snow White. She has to carry the film and she is dreadful. Not from my perspective as a feminist although that certainly doesn’t help, but from my perspective as someone with ears. I was shocked to learn that the actress was a classically trained teenager when she sounds like a geriatric doing a poor Norma Jean impression while being driven down a cobbled road in a 4X4. I wanted to rip my ears off whenever she sang. And she sings A LOT. Particularly irksome is ‘Some Day my Prince Will Come’ All the dwarfs are listening, spellbound. Never have I seen a more infuriating example of the trope Character Shilling. This is when you hear a lot about a character being a certain way or having a skill although you see no examples to support this or demonstration of said skill. So we are TOLD Snow White is lovely and charming but she isn’t. We just have to take their word for it.
In this film, there is a tortoise who helps clean the house and tries to climb the stairs only to be knocked down again a couple of times. He is by far a more sympathetic and likeable character than our heroine.
The American Film Institute recently decided Snow White is the very best animated movie of all time. Wrong. Incorrect. Boo. I respect Snow White. But just because something is the first to do something does not make it the best example of the genre. And if they wanted to go old, why oh why did they did they not just vote for the next film on my list? But I will get there…
It is beautifully drawn, the score is fantastic and bravely utilised, the dwarfs are pretty charming and when it goes dark it commits to it. But Snow White herself is a bland, ugly example of a character who never fully comes to life despite the care with which she was created. I don’t give a hoot about her happy ending and I never, ever want to hear her sing again.
Disney Nightmare Inducer Count:
3 (1 for the trees in the forest, 1 for the transformation, and a bonus for the vultures going after the body of the Queen. Chills.)
‘Whistle While you Work’ is wonderfully catchy but is at a disadvantage cause any song performed by THAT voice will never be my favourite song in anything. While ‘One Song’ is nice it is spoiled by the blandness of the Prince. On the other hand ‘Heigh Ho’ is catchy, nice to listen to and perfectly sets up new characters. As I said out loud while I was watching it, it is a hell of an introduction for the dwarfs.
A lesson on why you should always walk your kids to school on their first day…It is Pinocchio (1940)