The Greatest films of all time: 28. Snow white and the seven dwarfs (1937)(USA)


If D.W.Griffith founded Hollywood and is the father of American Cinema, Walt Disney is the father of animation pictures and as everyone knows now the founder of Disney studio and any Disney theme parks and more. All these started by Walt Disney with a life risk taking adventure in 1937 in making “Snow white and the seven dwarfs”, the first full-length animation feature. Although the film was directed by David Hand and a few others and written by quite a few more, the mastermind behind the first animation feature that has so many re-releases and has been the gold standard of all feature animations, has been Walt Disney himself who deserves an introduction, despite being well known to all.


The Man behind all Animations:

Born in December (5, 1901), died in December (15, 1966) and released his and the first feature animation in December (21, 1937), Walt Disney is the founder of cartoons and family entertainment. Despite not being a filmmaker, he stands beside D.W.Griffith and Charlie Chaplin in American Cinema. He holds the record for the most academy awards of 22 Oscars from 59 nominations. Born in Chicago with an early interest in drawing, started a job as a commercial illustrator at 18, he moved to California in the early 1920s and set up the Disney Brothers Studio with his brother Roy. He developed the character of Mickey Mouse in 1928, his first highly popular success, in short animation, a predecessor for his masterpiece, Snow white and the seven dwarfs in 1937. But his adventures and creation of feature animation did not stop there, but continued for years to come in his life time with “Fantasia” and “Pinocchio” both in 1940, “Dumbo” in 1941, “Bambi” in 1942, “Cinderella” and “Treasure island” in 1950, “Alice in Wonderland” in 1951, “The story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men” in 1952, “Peter Pan” in 1953, and finally “Mary Poppins” in 1964, two years before his final farewell.


Disney in 1955 expanded his ideas and visions beyond the feature animations and developed the first Disneyland for children and family to live and experience through his cartoons. Later on this vision, though more commercialized developed into Disney World and beyond, not only in the United States but across the globe. Walt Disney created “Donald Duck” character in 1941 shortly after US entered the World War II to promote war bonds and later on produced several other war propaganda productions. Disney who was a heavy smoker, finally died from lung cancer on December 15, 1966, was cremated and his ashes were interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. Disney who did not wish his legacy stop after his final farewell, dedicated 45% of his estate to a charitable trust, mostly for the progress of visual and performing arts and construction of such school that later on became “California Institute of the Arts” in Valencia, California, home also to the “Six Flags Magic Mountain Theme Park” an expansion of Disneyland theme parks. Although Disney has been accused, mostly after his death of racism and propaganda of American idealism, he is believed by the billions of the viewers around the world as a creator of fun and fantasy for children, who do not need to know prematurely the ugly truth of the world!


A Feature Animation Frontier:

Based on a 19th century folklore story of the German Brothers Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm, Snow white and the seven dwarfs started the film genre of feature animation. In fact most of the Brothers Grimm’s folklore stories have been converted to feature animations on the silver screen including “Cinderella”, “The Frog Prince”, “Hansel and Gretel”, “Rapunzel”, “Sleeping beauty” in addition to their “Snow White”.

Snow white, a lonely princess living with her stepmother, a wicked Queen who fears that Snow White’s beauty surpasses her own, forcing her to work as a maid, asking her magic mirror daily “who is the fairest one of all”. For several years the mirror that always answering that the Queen was to please her, one day, it tells the Queen that Snow White is now the fairest in the land. The jealous Queen orders execution of the Snow White, but the Huntsman cannot bring himself to kill the Snow White, and urges her to flee into the woods and never look back. Lost and frightened, the princess finds a cottage in the woods and enters. When the residents of the cottage, the seven dwarfs, named Doc, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Bashful, Sneezy, and Dopey, returning home from their work in a mine, they are surprised to find their home span and clean, suspecting an intruder has invaded their cottage. The dwarfs find Snow White upstairs, asleep across three of their beds. Snow White awakes to find the dwarfs at her bedside and introduces herself, and all of the dwarfs eventually welcome her into their home after they learn she can cook and clean well.


Meanwhile, the Queen discovers that Snow White is still alive when the mirror again answers that Snow White is the fairest in the land. Using a potion to disguise herself as an old hag, the Queen creates a poisoned apple that will put whoever eats it into the “Sleeping Death”, a curse that can only be broken by “love’s first kiss”, but dismisses that Snow White will be buried alive. The Queen goes to the cottage while the dwarfs are away, faking a heart attack, the Queen tricks Snow White to take her into the cottage to rest. The Queen fools Snow White into biting into the poisoned apple under the pretense that it is a magic apple that grants wishes. As Snow White falls asleep the Queen proclaims that she is now the fairest of the land. As the dwarfs return home, the Queen leaves the cottage and in a chase, she is trapped on a cliff where a lightning strikes and she falls to her death. The dwarfs return to their cottage and find Snow White seemingly dead. Unwilling to bury her out of sight in the ground, they instead place her in a glass coffin trimmed with gold, so together with the woodland creatures to watch over her. A year later, a prince, who had previously met and fallen in love with Snow White, learns of her eternal sleep and visits her coffin. Saddened by her apparent death, he kisses her, which breaks the spell and awakens her. The dwarfs and animals all rejoice as the Prince takes Snow White to his castle.

From a folk story to a great feature film:

“Snow white and the seven dwarfs” did not only animate (put life into) the folk story of “Snow White”, and presented it to millions of viewers at the time and later billions worldwide, this classic was more than that. Although there was already a silent film version of the Snow White earlier in 1916, it was the feature animation of Disney that brought the story to life on silver screen. From the start Disney wanted not to focus only on Snow White, but also on the characters of the seven dwarfs, so he named them one by one, unlike the original story. Each dwarf and their name define their personalities and roles in the story. For example, the leader of them is “Doc” a pompous and self-confident; and the other six could be easily identified in their characters by their names, Grumpy, Bashful, Sleepy, Happy, Sneezy, and Dopey. The last character, Dopey who was replaced in the original draft, happened to be the most successful and loved one of all. Disney also moved from the original script being comic to one more sensible, melodrama while still carrying some comic qualities.

From the beginning, Disney’s goal was to enliven imaginations and fantasy for all, the filmmakers such as himself and even the audience. While he believed that is only possible in the context of animation, he did not want it all to be totally fairy tale and unbelievable. So he encouraged his crew to watch real films that he used as influences in his works, such as “Romeo and Juliet”(1936) which he borrowed the concept of the glass coffin, “Nosferau”(1922) and “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”(1919) that he borrowed the terror and the wickedness of the Queen, and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1931) that Snow White fleeing through the forest and the Queen’s transformation into a witch were all inspired by in the film.


In addition to the numerous re-releases of the film and its influence on all other animations by Disney, his studio and else, the film and its characters was the first to impact not only on the screen, but off the screen on merchandise and fashion. It was the great box office hit of the time and still one of the top commercial success with its sound track being the first of a film to be released on phonograph for the public sale. While nobody believed him at the time and the film was labeled “Disney’s Folly”, he created all the story first in his mind, then acted it out, then believing a significant work would be only possible by a team work, he used many artists to create this masterpiece. One way to encourage his cartoonist to make a feature length animation film not boring and watchable for almost an hour and a half, Disney offered them $5 for each gag they could create, that was quite a sum for the time. While physical gags or slab comedy was hard to create in real films and not every actors were like Chaplin or Keaton to do so, Disney could achieve a lot of these in animation, started earlier in his short Mickey Mouse films, then with the Snow white and the seven dwarfs.

While in many films at the time and later on for years to this day, the wickedness was depicted in ugly façade, Disney’s Snow white and the seven dwarfs’ was revolutionary in portraying the wicked Queen in fact beautiful in appearance. The film, is not only an animated feature, but a musical one with a great emphasis on its sound track and songs to convey the story and the characters. So from the outset, the animators and the composers had to work together to create the dynamic and synchronized scenes. So some 25 songs were initially written that Disney picked eight in the final version of the film. Drawing by hands frame by frame at the time when there was no easy and fast digital creation, adding the music and creating sounds all naturally to the frames by innovative measures, was quite an achievement for all contributors of the film and above all Walt Disney himself. All these that seem to have been achieved over many years, happened with dedications, talents and team work only in three years.


A few years before Snow white and the seven dwarfs, the film industry had been evolved into colors from black and white, so the final hard task of many chemists and coloring artists, at the time of non-digitalism was to custom make over thousands shades of colors into millions of frames. Paying close attention to the detail of color shades specially the face make-ups and the shadows on the walls, would surprise even today’s viewers that all these had done by hands frame by frame. The new technique of multi-playing camera shooting at the time used to create allusion of movements, such as falling the Queen off the cliff was evolutionary.


At the premier, while Disney and his crew sitting on the edge of their seats, waiting to see the audience reaction, there were laughter, different emotions, cries when Snow White died, joy when she came back to life with the kiss of the prince and finally standing ovation at the end. There was a kind of emotional reaction that one expected from a real melodrama film and not the first animation feature. When the little Shirley Temple presented the academy award to Walt Disney a year later for the film, calling him “Dad of Snow White”, that was a special moment in the film history on its own. The film, one of the rare events in the history of cinema, a masterpiece also being a smash hit at the box office, was speedily dubbed into more than 20 languages worldwide.


While in debt and short of fund to finish the film, after the release not all the debts and loans were paid off, the profit of the film made possible to build the great Disney Studios and later on the developments of Disneyland, Disney World and more feature animations for years to come. Finally the ideal of Disney to dip into the world of fantasy, imagination and dreams of children that deep down still exists inside any adult proved right.


In closing remarks “Snow white and the seven dwarfs” one more time will be redefined based on the following criteria:  

  1. Originality:Snow white and the seven dwarfs” is original in being the first feature animation. Not only that, the film was the first animation to combine melodrama, comedy, musical and more synergistically together. The film was also original in a multi-field artistic teamwork from Disney as the creator to writers, animators, composers, color artists, camera men, and more to create a masterpiece unseen before its time.
  2. Technicality: The technicality of “Snow white and the seven dwarfs” is in its so many and multi-layered technical achievements detailed above that will be a repetition in this conclusion. There were not just the techniques in the film but the inventions to be followed in later animations and more.
  3. Impact Factor:Snow white and the seven dwarfs” has had such impact factor so to have numerous re-releases over years to this day, and many influences over the future animations and else. Snow White made possible more feature animations by Disney and others and created a film genre on its own right. Finally the children of all ages had their own film genre to watch for hours.
  1. Survival:Snow white and the seven dwarfs” has survived well to this day that even its original version when watched by the children of our time, it could not be recognized to have been made exactly 80 years ago at the era of their grandparents. The survival of the film is moreover in the legacy that it left behind for all animation features to be evaluated by.

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