Sunday, 9 November 2014

Fairy Tale Blogathon: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Today animated feature films are not a rarity. Indeed, they are nearly ubiquitous. Even animated feature films based on fairy tales are fairly commonplace. A very good argument can be made that the Walt Disney empire was built upon animated movies based on well known fairy tales and children's stories. It is perhaps for this reason that we tend to take Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) for granted. It is true that most people know that it was not only Disney's first animated feature film, but the first American animated feature ever. What many people might not realise is that it is also still one of the highest grossing films of all time when adjusted for inflation, and in many ways it revolutionised the movie industry even beyond its status as the first American animated feature film.

Walt Disney began his animation career in 1920 when he and Ub Iwerks founded Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists in Kansas City, Missouri.  Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists did not last long, nor would Mr. Disney's next company,  Laugh-O-Gram. It was following the failure of  Laugh-O-Gram that Walt Disney relocated from Kansas City to Hollywood where Walt Disney and his brother Roy founded the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio on 16 October 1923. The Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio would evolve into what we now know as the Walt Disney Company. Renamed the Walt Disney Studio in 1926, the company found success with a series of animated shorts featuring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Unfortunately, Disney lost control of Oswald the Lucy Rabbit to their distributor, Universal Pictures. It was after the loss of Oswald that Disney found success with a new creation, an animated character called "Mickey Mouse". Disney followed his Mickey Mouse shorts with another series of animated shorts, "Silly Symphonies", in which music proved a key role.

The "Mickey Mouse" shorts proved to be a phenomenal success. While the "Silly Symphonies" series were not nearly as successful as Mickey Mouse, they also proved very popular. It was then in the early Thirties that Walt Disney began contemplating the production of a full-length animated feature film. Walt Disney considered Babes in Toyland for the subject of his first feature, but a feature film based on Victor Herbert's operetta was already in development at RKO. Adaptations of Rip Van Winkle and Alice in Wonderland were also considered. Ultimately Mr. Disney settled on an adaptation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as the subject of his first feature film.

Walt Disney's choice of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs actually stemmed from an earlier film based on the fairy tale. In 1916 Famous Players-Lasky released a film titled Snow White, based on  Jessie Braham White's 1912 Broadway play Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which in turn was based on the fairy tale. Both the play and the film starred Marguerite Clark in the title role. Walt Disney had seen Snow White at the Kansas City Convention Centre in 1917. As one of the first feature films Mr. Disney had even seen, the film left an impression on him. It was then in 1934 that Walt Disney announced to his animators that they would be making a feature film based on the fairy tale "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs". It was in June 1934 that Walt Disney made public his plans to make his first feature film through The New York Times.

To say that Mr. Disney's announcement of his first animated feature film was met with scepticism from the film industry would be an understatement. The project was soon labelled "Disney's Folly", with many in Hollywood convinced that it would fail. Even his brother Roy and his wife Lillian had little faith in the project and both actively tried to discourage Walt Disney from pursuing it, with Roy pointing out the sheer cost of an animated feature. Indeed, Walt Disney estimated that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs would cost $250,000, which was ten times as much as his average animated shorts cost. As it turns out Walt Disney dramatically underestimated the cost of producing the feature. The budget for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs eventually grew to $1,488,422.74. With financing proving difficult to find, Walt Disney had to mortgage his house.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs did not simply take a large amount of money to make, it also took a good deal of time. Production appears to have begun on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on 9 August 1934 with the goal of completing the film in early 1936. Ultimately the film would not be finished until 1937. According to publicity materials for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 32 animators, 102 assistant animators, 167 in-betweeners, 20 layout artists, 25 background artists, 65 effects animators, and 158 inkers and painters were involved in the making of the film.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was completed in 1937. It premiered at the Carthay Circle Theatre in Hollywood on 21 December 1937. The audience, which included such well known personages as Charlie Chaplin and Marlene Dietrich, gave the film a standing ovation. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs also received widespread acclaim among movie critics. Frank S. Nugent in The New York Times wrote of the film, "The picture more than matches expectations" and "Nothing quite like it has been done before; and already we have grown impolite enough to clamour for an encore. Another helping, please!" In Variety John C. Flinn, Sr. stated, "There has never been anything in the theatre quite like Walt Disney’s 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs', seven reels of animated cartoon in Technicolor, unfolding an absorbingly interesting and, at times, thrilling entertainment." Walt Disney even appeared on the cover of the 27 December 1937 issue of Time magazine.

The film industry, including many who had deemed the project "Disney's Folly", also showed their appreciation for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. At the 10th annual Academy Awards held in 1938 the film was nominated for Best Score. Surprisingly, "Some Day My Prince Will Come" was not nominated for Best Song, even though it has since become a standard.  At the 11th annual Academy Awards held in 1939 Walt Disney was given an honorary Oscar consisting of one full-sized award and seven smaller ones.

As appreciative as critics and the film industry and movie critics were of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the general public was even more appreciative. After playing exclusive runs at theatres such as Radio City Music Hall in New York City, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs went into general release on 4 February 1938. By May 1939 it had already made $6.5 million, making it the highest grossing film of all time. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was soon overtaken by Gone with the Wind for the highest grossing film of all time, but to this day it remains one of the all time biggest money makers. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is still the tenth highest grossing film of all time when adjusted for inflation.

As the first American animated feature film film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs certainly had a lasting impact. The film took Walt Disney Productions from a maker of animated shorts to one of the major studios in Hollywood. In fact, it was with the profits from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, the company's headquarters to this day, was built. Of course, the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was responsible for the release of every single Disney animated feature film ever since. From Fantasia and Pinocchio in 1940 to Frozen in 2014, none of them would have been possible without Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs would also provide the template for many Disney features to come; namely, the adaptation of classic fairy tales. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs would be followed by Cinderella (1950), Sleeping Beauty (1959), The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), and many others.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs would also lead other animation studios to make their own feature films. Disney's long time rivals, Fleischer Studios, released their first animated feature, Gulliver's Travels, in 1939. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs would even have an impact on live action films. It was because of the early success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that MGM decided to go forward with a live action adaptation of L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, simply titled The Wizard of Oz.

Besides being one of the highest grossing films of all time and the first American animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is also important in film history as one of the first movies in which merchandising was an important part of its marketing plan. Even before the film had been released Walt Disney planned what was then an extensive merchandising campaign for the film. A newspaper comic strip adaptation of the film, simply titled Snow White, was distributed to newspapers by King Features Syndicate from December 1937 to April 1938. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs would also be the first film to have a commercially produced soundtrack album. Among the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs merchandise made in 1938 were radios, banks, books, dolls, games, and much more. In a New York Times editorial, "Prosperity Out of Fantasy", published on 2 May 1938, it is stated that "Figments of Disney’s imagination have already sold more than $2,000,000 worth of toys since the first of the year." Four decades before the release of Star Wars, Walt Disney pioneered movie merchandising with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

There can perhaps be no greater measure of the influence of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs than the impact the film has had on the public's perception of the original fairy tale. Indeed, in the original fairy tale as told by the Brothers Grimm, not only did the dwarfs not have names, they did not really have individual personalities either. The names by which many, perhaps most, people know the dwarfs by today (Doc, Bashful, Sleepy, et. al.) were creations of Walt Disney Productions. While Snow White's biological mother appears at the start of the fairy tale, she is entirely omitted from the film. Similarly in the fairy tale Snow White is not awakened by a kiss from the Prince, but instead by her coffin being moved (thus dislodging the piece of poisoned apple from her throat).  Disney's version also differed from the original story in many other ways. Despite this, today if someone is asked to tell the story of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs", chances are good that they will relate the Disney version rather than the Grimms' version, right down to the names of the dwarfs.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs proved phenomenally successful upon its initial release, paving the way for many animated feature films to come. It also pioneered movie merchandising years before it would become commonplace. What is more, the film continues to be popular to this day. to. Even now, seventy seven years after its release, merchandise for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is still being made. Indeed, it is quite possible that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs could be the most famous film adaptation of a fairy tale of all time.


Fritzi Kramer said...

Thank you so much for participating and giving us the background of this most famous of fairy tale movies. I especially appreciated your tying in the silent era. (Hey, I'm biased.)

Dan Day Jr. said...

You're right....I've always kind of taken this film for granted. I never realized how important and influential it really was.

Michele Grabowski said...

I really enjoyed this post and learned a lot more about this classic film.

Silver Screenings said...

Thanks for providing the background info. I didn't realize how much this film cost to make, nor how long it took. Just proves that Disney really was a man of vision. Great post!

John Hitchcock said...

Great post. I can certainly see how Snow White has made such an impact to the point where people think of the Disney film more than the original story. Then again it might be for the better since the original story's treatment of events seemed to imply the Prince was a necrophiliac.

Still, I never realized quite the significance of Snow White in the context of film history. I knew it was Disney's first big project but I wasn't aware of the fact that it was the first animated film or any of the challenges that went into making it.

Spiritually Cramped said...

It never fails to amaze me that the entire Disney empire is pretty much built on the success of this film. 'Classic' has been throughly over-used, but this version of Snow White truly deserves it. Great addition to the blogathon.

Vicki, GirlsDoFilm

Joe Thompson said...

I'm glad you included all that background, especially mentioning the Marguerite Clark version. That was a good essay. Thank you for sharing it with us.


Viewing and reviewing so many Snow Whites made me fall in love again with Disney's feature. It is amazing, touching and stood the test of time. Last week, by the first time I listened to Adriana Caselotti's voice (I only saw dubbed versions) and it was a thrill.
Oh, and spoiler alert: in the 1916 film the prince doesn't kiss Snow White. She simply vomits the apple. Ew
Very good article! Congrats!