As the first ever animated feature film celebrates its 80th anniversary this week, Planet Slop present Animania – a week long celebration of cartoons throughout the ages. Shaun Ponsonby kicks it off with the story behind Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
80 years ago this week, Walt Disney unveiled the first ever feature length animated feature; Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs.
Contrary to common belief, cartoons weren’t created for children. They tended to be used as a sort of opening act to a main feature, whether this was an adult or family film.
Walt Disney Studios were one of the early powerhouses of the medium with their Silly Symphonies series of shorts, along with Fleischer who presented a more risqué, pre-Hays Code image with the likes of Betty Boop and silent stars such as Koko The Clown.
By the mid-30s, however, Disney had begun to lose ground, most notably to Warner Brothers. Where Mickey presented a wholesome image in many of their animations, Warner were off the wall. It wouldn’t be until 1940 when they would debut central character Bugs Bunny, but they were still riding high with Porky Pig and Bosko.
They had also recently hired two of their most innovative directors – Tex Avery and Friz Freleng. Even the umbrella name for the stable of characters was a pot shot at Disney – Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies directly parodied Disney’s Silly Symphonies.
As a result, Mickey Mouse was starting to look old hat, boring even.
Disney was always at the forefront of technology and strove to perfect what was available. The Fleischer studios may have pioneered sound cartoons, but Disney arguably perfected it with 1928’s Steamboat Willie, the first appearance of Mickey Mouse. He knew that if the company was to survive, they would have to reach the next step – a feature length animated movie. “I saw the handwriting on the wall early,” he said. “A short subject is just a filler on any programme. I just felt like I had to diversify my business. If I could crash the feature field, I could do things.”
Production began on Snow White as early as 1934. He sent his staff out for an early dinner, but instructed them to return for an important meeting. When everybody returned, he stood on the sound stage and acted out the entirety of Snow White.
At this point, cartoons were essentially gagfests. They were born out of vaudeville – even down to the white gloves worn by so many cartoon characters, which were a holdover from the minstrels. In seven minutes, you could make people laugh. The trick to Snow White’s success, according to Disney, was to make the audience suspend disbelief long enough to care about the characters. His ultimate goal was to make people cry.
Of note, the original plan was to produce an animated version of Alice In Wonderland, which was squashed when Paramount released their 1933 all-star version, though Disney would finally realise this idea in 1951.
Snow White itself dates back to the Grimm Brothers collection of stories and had already passed into common folklore. Motion picture pioneer Siegmund Lubin had produced the first (silent) adaptation for the big screen in 1902. But it was the second adaptation in 1916 starring Marguerite Clark that inspired Walt. It was one of the first features he ever saw.
When Hollywood heard of the project, Walt became an industry joke. The film was mockingly referred to as “Disney’s Folly”. Animator Ward Kimball later recalled; “We were told by all the big movie moguls in Hollywood that people just wouldn’t sit still for an hour and a half of cartoons.”
The most striking development from the original fairytale was the dwarfs. The Grimm brothers never named them, and they weren’t given any particular character traits either. Disney was adamant that this should be changed for the film, and he and his team of writers and animators whittled Doc, Happy, Sleepy, Bashful, Sneezy, Grumpy and Dopey from a list of about 50 possibilities.
This was, of course, a significant decision, as the dwarfs are arguably the central appeal of the movie. Snow White herself is kind of bland, and though the evil Queen works beautifully as a cold, calculating villain (even the delivery of voice actress Lucille LaVerne is as ice cold as the animation), there isn’t much in the way of characterisation or motive for her.
But in a lot of ways, the dwarfs sell it. They are strangely relatable in a simplistic way, and once they appear we effectively see the story through their eyes.
The studio had an advantage in that they could use short subjects to road test the effects they were using for the film, and it is pretty obvious that during the making of Snow White, they were experimenting with the feature in mind when producing the Silly Symphonies. A number of Disney’s short cartoons of the mid-30s feature animation achingly similar to what would later appear in the film.
When the Queen transforms into the old hag, her design is similar to a character in 1932’s Babes In The Woods, 1937’s The Old Mill strove to create the most realistic portrayal of nature that looks to have inspired the forest scene in Snow White. 1934’s The Goddess of Spring was also a clear attempt to perfect the image of Snow White’s dancing scenes with the dwarfs and the animals.
Some of these shorts may be crude in comparison to what Disney would eventually unleash, the most impressive thing was the level of development between those shorts and what they did with Snow White.
But it came at a cost. Disney spent over three years making Snow White, and by the summer of 1937, the company was in financial ruin, to the point where there was no guarantee that the movie could be completed. The original budget had been raised six times. With just ten months to go until the December premiere date, not one single animation cell had been shot on film. The animators were working 15 hour shifts to complete the film on schedule. It wasn’t until November 27th – three weeks before the premiere date – that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was completed.
Hollywood still wasn’t taking Disney entirely seriously, so there was a great deal of scepticism that was only compounded by stories of the difficult production. But Walt would have his revenge. Towards the end of the film, after Snow White had eaten the apple, poisoned and with the appearance of death, the dwarfs gather around her. They lay her in bed, surrounded by candles. The mournful church organ filled the room, as the dwarfs bawl over the death of what seems to be the only woman who has ever come into their lives, and treated them with unconditional love.
During this scene, the audience at the premiere sobbed with the dwarfs. Walt achieved his goal; he had made them suspend disbelief to such a degree that they loved and cared for these characters in a way that they hadn’t loved and cared for cartoon characters before.
And that is the key to Snow White’s success. This was an emotionally driven film. Your emotions don’t want a sad ending, so naturally Prince Charming arrives to wake the Princess. Over-analysing, you do have to question how he knew she was there. I think they shared, like, two lines in the whole film. But it doesn’t matter. It is the ending you want, and the right ending following such an effectively depressing moment.
Both a financial and a critical success, Walt had proven Hollywood wrong. Perhaps the level of success contributed to the Academy‘s refusal to nominate Snow White for Oscars. They did concede somewhat, presenting him with an honorary award for “significant screen innovation“. But there was still a persistent snobbery. The infant Shirley Temple presented him with the award which also included seven miniature Oscars in a move that could be considered either cute or mocking gimmickry depending on your perspective.
But it was Disney’s foresight that rose the company above all the others. He knew the future would be in feature films, not cartoon shorts. The animation departments of other studios, even those at Warner, were unable to keep up. It was kind of like being a singles driven band post-1967. Warners kept producing singles, but Disney were creating albums; the Sgt. Peppers and Dark Side of the Moons of animation.
We can all complain about how Disney is an evil corporate monster that just keeps getting bigger and bigger. But you love it. Don’t lie, you do. You have no choice.
For many of us, Disney films are our introduction to film in general. They form the fabric of our childhood. We watched them during school holidays, we watched them to cheer us up when we were sick. The first two films I ever saw on the cinema were reissues of Peter Pan and The Jungle Book. And for people of my generation, we grew up at the height of the Disney Renaissance, when The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty & The Beast and The Lion King epitomised the childhood of an entire generation.
When something owns your childhood to this degree – it has you for life. And Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the start of all of that.