Disney's Frozen 2 arrives in Cineworld this November, and we're counting down the days by revisiting all the classic Disney princess movies in chronological order of release.
In honour of Anna and Elsa's imminent return, we're taking a nostalgic trip back through time. This week: we're headed back to where the Disney princess movie began with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
What's the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs?
In a far away fairy tale kingdom, the innocent and pure Snow White lives with her evil stepmother the Queen in her imposing castle. Despite enduring a life of servitude, Snow White maintains a sunny and optimistic disposition – but then her life is put in danger.
Consulting her magic mirror, the wicked Queen discovers that she has now been replaced by Snow White as the fairest in the land. Consumed with jealousy, the Queen orders the Huntsman to take Snow White into the forest and murder her, but he relents, and instead encourages the helpless girl to run away.
After a terrifying night in the forest, Snow White is taken in by a gaggle of dwarfs: Doc, Happy, Bashful, Grumpy, Sneezy, Sleepy and Dopey. She becomes their housekeeper and appears safe from the Queen's machinations – until the latter learns that her nemesis is still alive, her heart having been substituted for an animal's. The Queen therefore swears revenge...
How did Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs get made?
How is one meant to read the character of Snow White from the vantage point of the 21st century? Certainly, compared to her contemporary Disney brethren like Moana, Anna and Elsa, she appears a somewhat winsome, even passive presence.
But given that she survives a murder attempt, a deadly forest and a poisoning attempt, all the while keeping her moral integrity intact, it can be argued she is in fact one of the strongest of all Disney heroines. These central tenets – happiness, bravery, clear moral judgment – would prove to be the genesis of the classic Disney princess character, and one who would come to exert an enormous influence on her successors.
Yet it's remarkable to note what a gamble Snow White and Seven Dwarfs was upon its release in 1937. Nowadays, animated films of all stripes – CGI, stop-motion, hand-drawn – are ten-a-penny on the big screen. But Snow White was a pioneering movie in the medium, not least because most people had completely written it off as an expensive folly prior to its release.
By 1934, Walt Disney was already an established face in Hollywood, and he then announced his most ambitious project so far: his first-ever feature-length animation. Looking to bolster the prestige of his Walt Disney Animation company, the pioneering entrepreneur looked to make a feature for the then-record sum of $250,000.
This would be above and beyond the budget and technical skill of the short films with which the company had become associated. (Steam Boat Willie is a quintessential example.) In August 1934, staff writer Richard Creedon compiled pages of notes and gradually Disney's outline (which he had earlier acted out for staff members in its entirety), began to take shape.
This included the development of the dwarves' personality and various darker elements derived from classic Grimms' fairy tales (for example, the Queen was originally set to try and kill Snow White with a poisoned comb). Over time, the broadly comic tone of the movie changed and the emphasis switched to the twisted relationship between Snow White and the Queen, with back-up comic support provided almost entirely by the dwarves.
Story development continued well into 1935 with Disney himself helping to shape the characterisation of the scheming Queen. He re-imagined her as stately and beautiful (she was eventually designed by artist Joe Grant), and also offered financial rewards for every staffer who could come up with an amusing gag in the movie (such as the dwarves' noses poking over the edge of the bed when they first meet Snow White).
Just as complicated and torturous was the animation process itself. Disney Animation broke new ground with its depiction of plausible body shapes and flesh tones, including realistic observations of tensions in the body that arise from apparently minor details like leg movements.
Disney artist Art Babbit cited the involvement of fellow creative Don Graham with the success of the animation style. "Don Graham really knew what he was teaching, and he 'showed' you how to do something – he didn't just talk. He taught us things that were very important for animation. How to simplify our drawings – how to cut out all the unnecessary hen scratching amateurs have a habit of using.
"He showed us how to make a drawing look solid. He taught us about tension points – like a bent knee, and how the pant leg comes down from that knee and how important the wrinkles from it are to describe form. I learned a hell of a lot from him!"
Babbit and his seven-person strong team were just a number of people forced to labour intensively on this groundbreaking style of animation. Most of the people at Disney had little formal animation training, which made the development of the film an arduous challenge, particularly given Disney's aesthetic demands.
"The first duty of the cartoon is not to picture or duplicate real action or things as they actually happen," Disney said in 1935, "but to give a caricature of life and action—to picture on the screen things that have run thru the imagination of the audience to bring to life dream-fantasies and imaginative fancies that we have all thought of during our lives or have had pictured to us in various forms during our lives [...]
"I definitely feel that we cannot do the fantastic things, based on the real, unless we first know the real. This point should be brought out very clearly to all new men, and even the older men."
Disney required a rich, archetypal look drawn from European mythology, with artists Albert Hurter, Ferdinand Hovarth and Gustaf Tenggren drawing on the influential stylings of Arthur Rackham (English) and John Bauer (Swedish).
Additional cinematic influences included the unforgettable German Expressionist likes of Nosferatu and the 1936 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, all of which helped to enrich Snow White's dramatic palate. The end result was cinema's first-ever feature-length hand-drawn animation (also known as cel animated), and galvanised the industry.
However, it wasn't without its traumas. Walt Disney had to mortgage his house when the budget swelled to a colossal (for the time) $1.49 million. It was dismissed as 'Disney's Folly' and even his brother Roy and wife Lillian attempted to talk him out of the production.
Just as groundbreaking was the music: Snow White was the first commercially released Hollywood film soundtrack, with songs written by Franck Churchill (a Disney regular who went on to score the likes of Dumbo) and lyricist Larry Morey. The incidental score was composed by Paul J. Smith and Leigh Harline.
Anticipation started to build with the release of the now-famous teaser trailer in which Disney, ever the showman, posed with each of the dwarves. The film held its premiere on 21st December 1937 at the Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles, before getting its general USA release on 4th February 1938.
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What is the legacy of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs?
Comparable to Clark Gable spurning Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind, or Janet Leigh being killed in the shower in Psycho, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a watershed moment in popular culture. What had been seen as an egotistical vanity project singlehandedly paved the way for a brand new feature film format.
The reviews coming out of the premiere were glowing. Variety observed that "[so] perfect is the illusion, so tender the romance and fantasy, so emotional are certain portions when the acting of the characters strikes a depth comparable to the sincerity of human players, that the film approaches real greatness".
Throughout its initial release and subsequent re-releases, Snow White went on to gross an astonishing $418 million worldwide. Adjusted for inflation, it's the 10th-highest-grossing movie of all time, just $14 million behind classic horror movie The Exorcist. (Figures courtesy of Box Office Mojo.)
The movie became the most successful sound picture of its day. At the 11th Academy Awards, the film won an Academy Honorary Award for Walt Disney "as a significant screen innovation which has charmed millions and pioneered a great new entertainment field". Disney received a full-size Oscar statuette and seven miniature ones, presented to him by 10-year-old child actress Shirley Temple.
Immediately the world's greatest film-makers, including the likes of Sergei 'Battleship Potemkin' Eisenstein, sat up and took notice. (Eisenstein, considered the founder of the movie montage sequence, considered Snow White to be the greatest movie ever made).
Snow White birthed not only an entire franchise but a legacy of classic Disney feature films that have entranced audiences for generations.
What is the next Disney princess movie?
Sleeping Beauty, released in 1950, is the next movie in our Disney princess retrospective. Keep your eyes peeled on the blog for a full breakdown.