Disney Diary: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Original Snow White theatrical poster.
Original Snow White theatrical poster.

Note: This was the first post in a proposed series of “Disney Diaries”, a new look at the theatrically released Disney canon. I may revisit this series now that I have a place to put it.

Once Upon A Time

“Magic mirror on the wall…”

Once upon a time, an evil queen goes to her magic mirror to discover who the “fairest in the land” is today. When the mirror responds that she is no longer the most beautiful, but rather Snow White, she realized that something must be done. She had been keeping snow in rags and doing the work of a scullery maid, and yet her beauty had shined through. It was time for more desperate measures: Snow White must die. Outside the castle, Snow White dreamt of a prince who she had fallen in love with while singing around a wishing well. The prince appeared and Snow retreated to her balcony and the two exchange a love song while the evil queen looked on in disdain.

A short time later, the queen met with a huntsman with one request: take Snow out into the wilderness to pick flowers, and kill her there. As proof, he must bring back her heart. While out in the fields, Snow White melts the huntsman’s icy heart and he tells her of the plot and to flee into the woods. She pushes through past monstrous trees and haunted terrain to emerge into a clearing surrounded by evil-looking eyes. Except, they weren’t evil! They were just the friendly forest creatures that were scared by Snow’s running. She asks the animals for a place to sleep and they lead her to a charmingly small cottage in the woods. Snow investigates the cottage and enters when she realized that no one was home. It was such a mess! Deciding that the house must be filled with orphan children, she and the animals clean up the place before settling down to a nap.

In another part of the forest, a group of dwarfs are clocking out of their day job and head home, only to discover that they have a burglar. You know their names: Happy, Sleepy, Bashful, Sneezy, Grumpy, Dopey, and Doc. Initially believing Snow to be a monster, they send poor Dopey up to investigate, but the truth of the situation is soon discovered and within minutes Snow White has charmed the dwarfs (all except Grumpy) by knowing all of their names. Snow prepares dinner and forces the dwarfs to wash, so cue another song!

Back at the castle, the queen consults the magic mirror for her daily affirmation and discovers that Snow White is still alive. Having been failed once, she decides that she must do the deed herself: she will travel in disguise as an old grandmother with a poisoned red apple. If she takes one bite, Snow White will suffer the Sleeping Death which only Love’s First Kiss and cure. The queen disregards this as unlikely and prepares her disguise and her poisoned apple. Slipping out of the castle, she arrives at the dwarfs’ cottage the following day after the little men have headed off to work. The animals immediately sense that something is wrong and attack the disguised old woman, but Snow brushes them off and takes the old woman inside. There, the queen tempts Snow White with the idea of a wishing apple, just one bite of which will make Snow’s dreams come true. Snow White takes the bite… and collapses near-dead.

Meanwhile, the animals had arrives to warn the dwarfs who raced back, but not in time. The queen flees and they race to the top of a nearby mountain. Just as the queen was about to flatten the dwarfs with a large boulder, a bolt of lightning sent the old woman spralling to her death, never to be seen again.

Snow White remains dead and the dwarfs, unable to bury her, create a glass coffin and display her in the forest. After some time, Snow’s prince has heard rumors of this coffin in the woods and investigates. Either through his grief or because he knew the antidote, the prince kisses Snow White and she wakes up. Few words are exchanged as Snow leaves with her new husband-to-be and we are given no epilogue, except to say that they lived happily ever after.

Thoughts

Beauty, inside and out, is the heart of Disney’s first animated feature. And it is easy to forget after fifty-some animated films, this is where it all began. This was the Toy Story of our grandparents generation, and it changed animation forever. Snow White is not only an artistic thing of beauty, it ushered in a new era of high-quality animation in the United States. While the treatment of the lead is a little antiquated, the movie holds up amazingly well for being almost eighty years old. It’s a marvelous beginning to Disney’s animated legacy.

Snow White is less a story about beauty than it is about vanity, and the slow march of years. The wicked queen is beautiful by any measure except her heart, but as she ages and her young stepdaughter comes to maturity, her place as the “fairest in the land” is challenged. Along the way, Disney iterates over the theme: the queen and the apple are beautiful on the outside, but ugly within; the dwarfs are just the opposite. Only Snow White is beautiful both within and without, although that beauty comes with a naive innocence which frustrates modern viewers such as myself and ultimates makes the character of Snow White less well-realized than those around her. She is “nice”, nice to look at, nice to animals and people, and an overall good person– but her dreams of an ideal love are true only because this is the type of story where it must be, a story which begins at a wishing well and ends with “happily ever after”.

The texture of the film is a storybook, and it plays almost like a dream. There are shockingly few speaking characters, and even fewer named ones. Only Snow White and the dwarfs are given names on screen, and even their names are more descriptions than actual names. The queen, the huntsman, and the prince– especially the prince– all remain stock characters to enter the film, do their part, and exit. Of the whole cast, only Grumpy is given any character growth as he gradually comes to accept Snow and her place in the dwarfs’ world, only to have her taken away again– first by death and then by a prince. The film does not even dwell on that loss as the ending moves swiftly from a kiss to the credits without hardly time for a breath.

You have to admire the artistry of Snow White more than its detailed plotting or realistic characters, but it remained true to its source material and is still entertaining to watch for children and adults today.

The Source

Snow White was one of the more than 200 folk tales collected by the Brothers Grimm, first published in 1812 but edited by the brothers into the story that we know today by the 1850s. The original title was Schneewittchen, “Little Snow White”, and Disney stayed remarkably faithful to the overall thrust of the tale while he made many edits.

The original story, like many fairy tales, was indebted to the “Rule of Three”. There were three sections to the narrative (the huntsman, the dwarfs, and the prince), the queen attacks Snow White three times, and Snow’s mother wished for her beautiful baby on three drops of blood staining the white snow. In Disney’s version, two of the encounters with the queen are dropped– a corset that is magically tied too tight and a poisoned comb– to give the narrative more urgency and make Snow look perhaps a little bit less of an idiot. In both cases, the problem was neatly solved by the dwarfs and everything was fine. Unlike the film, the original story had no “cure” for the sleeping death and the dwarfs kept Snow in the coffin without hope of recovery. Her coffin was purchased by the prince and while he traveled to his castle, the cart they rode in hit a bump and dislodged the piece of apple still stuck in Snow’s mouth. Naturally, she awoke and they got married. While the film ends at this point, the original story has Snow and the prince inviting the still-alive evil stepmother to their wedding where they present her with a pair of red-hot iron slippers and force her to dance in them until she died. Suddenly, falling off a cliff seems somewhat less horrid. Disney’s best choice was possibly to include the prince in the beginning of the film, as well as at the end. It is somewhat less unseemly for Snow to be kissed by a man she loves, than for a random prince to buy a dead lady off of a troop of dwarfs.

There are some nice bits dropped from the original story, as well. Snow was gradually learning to not be fooled by the queen and by the time she came around with the apple, Snow made she she took a bite as well. Unfortunately for Ms. White, only the peel was poisoned in the original story. The original story also featured very cleanly dwarfs, though they still offered to let Snow stay with them if she offered to cook and clean.

Passing the Test – Gender and racial stereotypes

“And all females is poison! They’re full of wicked wiles!” – Grumpy

Snow White is the story of a girl that gets into trouble twice and has to be rescued by men each time. Its depiction of the role of women is both a product of its time and slightly disturbing. The only two female characters– Snow White and the queen– are primarily defined by how nice they look and, in Snow’s case, how well she can impress men by cooking and cleaning. The queen at least is a woman of substance and unafraid of getting her hands dirty. The implication is that she runs her kingdom on on her own and is unmarried– an “independent woman”. Too bad she is evil to the core and dies by falling off a cliff.

Since there is only one named female character, Snow, the Bechdel test fails on its face. Even if you argue that “Granny” is a valid name for the queen, when the old woman comes by and offers the apple it is first and foremost so that Snow can impress the men by making apple pies. When Granny comes inside and says that it is a wishing apple, the implication is still Snow’s ability to woo a man. What little conversation they had between those two events as Snow helps the woman through her feigned injury is immaterial.

In terms of race, Snow White both seems to both embrace and defy racial stereotypes of the day. It defines the ideal of human beauty as “skin as white as snow, […] and hair as black as ebony”, and Snow herself is depicted as having brown eyes. This may have been in direct contrast to the rise of Aryanism then being seen in Europe, which favored lighter hair and blue eyes, though it is challenging to be particularly happy about the film’s portrayal of beauty. It is similarly difficult to categorize the dwarfs as they may or may not be human (“little men”). If they are human, they are generalized as dirty and childlike, in desperate need of a caretaker, even though they are diligent workers.

Daddy Issues – Parents and the role of parents in the film

Snow White has no living relatives, and her stepmother certainly errs toward the “wicked” variety. It is ironic then that when Snow finds the dwarfs’ cottage, she immediately comes to believe that they are orphans and desires to step in as a parent figure for them. Nothing is known about Snow’s father or how her step-mother came to raise her.

Happily Ever After – Continuation in other Disney properties

For several months from October 1979 to March 1980, a Snow White musical was produced at the Radio City Music Hall, just off of Broadway. An edited version of the musical was released direct-to-video as Snow White Live, starring Mary Jo Salerno as Snow White.

Unlike the majority of Disney’s “Princess” films, Snow White has not received a direct-to-video sequel. Snow White herself has appeared in an episode of Sophia the First (ironically advising the heroine to trust her gut when it comes to a stranger), as well as cameos in films such as Roger Rabbit and Lion King 1 ½. The wicked queen was given her own direct-to-DVD film in 2005, featuring the villains of many other Disney films and franchises.

The story of Snow White is an integral component to Once Upon a Time, where Snow is played by Ginnifer Goodwyn. In this retelling, Snow has been re-envisioned as a stronger character, a survivalist and expert archer, and the mother of Once Upon a Time’s lead protagonist, Emma. Prince Charming, the evil queen, the magic mirror, the huntsman, and others play leading or recurring roles on the series.

Awards

At the 11th Academy Awards in 1939, Snow White received an honorary award consisting of one Oscar statuette with seven smaller ones for “pioneering a new field”. The film was also nominated for Best Musical Score.

Trivia

  • Several times in the film, the Dwarfs use the phrase “Jiminy crickets!” to evoke surprise. While almost certainly a call-forward to the then-in-development Pinocchio, the phrase itself is much older. The Oxford English Dictionary puts the first known use of the phrase in print as 1848.
  • Perhaps the most telling moment in the film is when Snow meets the dwarfs for the very first time. She already has memorized their names from reading the beds!
  • The curse is broken by “Love’s First Kiss”, not by “True Love’s Kiss” as would be used in several followups
  • Doc’s vocal tic sounds remarkably like Porky Pig!

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