“Disney’s Folly.” The “Feature Symphony.” The one that started it all. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves is one of those rare films equally beloved by every age group and culture on the planet. What’s not to love? The animation is exquisite, the characters wonderful, and the songs-“Some Day My Prince Will Come,” “Whistle While You Work,” “Heigh Ho”-are worldwide standards.
At least as early as 1934, Walt Disney decided it was time for his studio to make an animated feature. Disney’s cartoon shorts were profitable, but a feature could bring economic as well as artistic freedom on a level the studio could never achieve otherwise. It was a financial risk and an unprecedented move, but Walt was passionate in pursuing it. For his pioneering work, Disney decided on a treatment of the Grimm fairy tale Snow White, a story with which his audiences would be familiar.
Disney’s version begins on the cover of a storybook, and as the pages turn, we learn that Snow White is an orphan, brought to the Queen’s castle as a servant. The Queen herself is a vain beauty, daily consulting her Magic Mirror to find out, “Who’s the fairest of them all?” The Queen is incensed when the Mirror tells her she’s been upstaged by the grown Snow White.
The girl herself is happy in her place, making friends with the woodland creatures while she carries out her duties. Her one wish is for a handsome prince, a plea answered when a dashing stranger hears her lovely singing voice and joins her. Back in the castle, the Queen charges her Huntsman with taking Snow White out to the forest and slaying her. The Huntsman obeys, but at the last instant, he can’t go through with it. He sends Snow White fleeing into the forest, where she sees horrible visions and collapses in terror.
The girl is awakened by the friendly forest creatures, who take her to a small cottage. Snow White and her animal pals clean up the pigsty, and the girl lays down for a rest on seven tiny beds. Meanwhile, the Seven Dwarfs-Doc, Sleepy, Sneezy, Bashful, Happy, Grumpy and Dopey-finish up their work at a nearby diamond mine and tromp home singing, “Heigh Ho.” The little fellows find the big intruder in their home, but Snow White wins them over with a promise to cook and clean for them. The girl charms the Dwarfs’ hearts (yes, even Grumpy), but back at the castle, the Queen has learned the truth.
Still as jealousy-crazed as ever, the Queen transforms herself into a wrinkled old crone and concocts a poisoned apple. The next day, when the Dwarfs head off to work, the disguised Queen appears at the cottage door and offers Snow White a bite of her luscious, deadly apple.
Nothing like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had ever been tried before. It required an entire new set of tools, from larger animation paper to a special “multiplane camera” which created the illusion of depth. The cost of innovation pushed the budget to a worrisome $1,500,000 (trust us, that was worrisome at the time), and the doubters predicted a colossal train wreck.
Instead, the train arrived like a bullet, opening in December 1937 to glowing praise from critics and audiences alike. The Disney marketing machine, already a potent force, sold truckloads of Snow White storybooks, comics and dolls. The movie itself boasted record-setting runs in several theaters, more than quadrupling its investment with an $8 million take. Regular reissues have raised that figure considerably, making Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs one of the most profitable animated features in history.
It’s easy to forget over the course of more than six decades and hundreds of animated features (including a few dozen from the Disney folks themselves), that what Walt Disney and his large team of invaluable co-workers created was a completely new art form. Suddenly, every studio in Hollywood wanted its own Snow White (Paramount’s Gulliver’s Travels was the first challenger in 1939).
Perhaps the reason we forget its influence is that Snow White doesn’t look like a history lesson. It plays in re-release to every generation as well as it did to the first. Dopey is still funny, the animals still adorable, the Queen still terrifying. It’s a timeless tale told well, the very definition of a masterpiece.