Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Supervising Director: David Hand


In the early years decades of cinema animated cartoons were more simply viewed as a novelty that ran as a small piece in a lineup of other shorts, newsreels that commonly preceded a feature or filled time in-between two features. They  were looked upon as no more than just a time for a quick laugh that entertained audiences in short spurts. In 1937 all preconceived notions of animations as a silly medium of entertainment would change when Walt Disney willed into being the first American full-length animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. (I use “American,” because there were at least two other animated features which were of far lesser note and lost in time.) Since his conception of the idea to make the picture way back in 1934 Hollywood’s brass and insiders would refer to the project as “Disney’s folly,” a notion that would never work in theaters, but the small animated studio led by its imaginative creator would put all these words to rest as he would bring all of industry to its feet making it the most successful picture ever up to that point. Walt Disney’s Christmas present to the world in December 1937, Snow White and Seven Dwarfs, would be a treasured classic of all time.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is an animation of the Brothers Grimm tale with an evil queen attempting to kill a young princess to be “the fairest of them all,” and with the help from her seven new friends and true love’s first kiss good defeats all evil. The sorcerer queen with her delusions of grandeur goes so far to be the most adored woman in all the land that she attempts to kill the beautiful, young princess, Snow White, the fairest of them all. As Snow White flees from the queen she comes across the home of seven small men, becoming a mother figure to the messy, comic bunch, winning the group by her loving kindness in turn giving her a place to stay. The queen disguises herself as an old peddler woman who gives Snow White a poisoned apple that would put the princess into a deathly, deep sleep. The dwarfs would stop the queen from getting away, only too late to discover Snow White in her comatose state. Time passes and the dwarfs hold a constant vigil over Snow White when true loves first kiss comes from Prince Charming, awakening Snow White, and they live happily ever after.

Hollywood had much to say about the Walt Disney’s attempt to bring a full length feature animation to theaters. Many said it would not work. Others said the Technicolor cartoon would hurt people’s eyes. Some said no one would be emotionally attached to a cartoon character. Simply, Hollywood denied the idea of ever seeing the success of Disney’s risky venture.

Walt Disney was visionary of a man who never settled for the status quo. Bankrupt by the age of 20 and ripped away from a star character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, whom he created while working for Universal, Disney had more than enough reasons to be discouraged, but with the creation of a little mouse named Mickey Walt Disney found new ground to further himself. Wildly creative, with the help of his brother Roy, who would help run the finances of the company leaving Walt only to worry about what he wished to create, Walt would innovate of the industry.

The Mickey Mouse short Steamboat Willie would be the first animation with synchronized sound. Playing with sound Disney created the Silly Symphony series, cartoons that played to the tune of a song, where the music enhanced the visuals and the visuals enhanced the music. He would sign an exclusive deal with Technicolor to be the first to produce his cartoons in brilliant color. The Three Little Pigs, a musical short based on the popular children’s tale, would become wildly successful with an equally popular song “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf,” which matched emotions of depression era audiences. Further innovating, his creative technicians built the multi-plane camera, a camera that moved elements of the photographed animated cells to produce a life-mimicking dimensionality to his animations.  His cartoons would feel different with a more life to them. His characters had personality. Walt Disney was the finest animation studio in all the business.

Like many filmmakers before his Disney knew he could not stand still doing the same thing year after year. Following in the footsteps of other such filmmakers such as Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy Disney knew he had to move from shorts to full length features to stay in the business. Centering on quality Disney’s shorts cost a larger sum of money compared to other studios cartoons, and not being necessarily a good businessman he took less money to make them. After the many evolutionary points in the animated process and having a deep love for good storytelling Walt Disney made the statement he was to produce a full length feature, using his shorts as practice to perfect animation for the fantastic tale he was going to produce.

La Verne would inspire the look of the old woman from a past film
Knowing it was not as simple as making a bunch of drawings and throwing a voice into the soundtrack, Disney’s care for quality brought many years of studying to perfect the final feature. He would search for the right voices, with the primary character of Snow White coming from the daughter of a vocal couch, Adriana Caselotti. With her child-like innocent voice, she would serve as both voice and model of Snow White, acting out the scenes on camera for animators to reference her movements. Veteran stage actress with some film work Lucille La Verne was chosen for her regal voice as the queen, doubling as the old woman she transformed into with her skilled voice control and the trick of removing her dentures to muffle he speak pattern. A keen eye can see inspirations of the visuals of the old lady from La Verne’s performance in The Tale of Two Cities.

Disney would be very protective of his star voice actor in Snow White holding the young Adriana Caselotti from interviews and other film work in order to not ruin the illusion of the title character in the film. Disney’s mind would seem somewhat overprotective, but his genius of controlling what was revealed to the audience is what made him and his pictures so very popular, as they seemed so much more engrossing, taking audiences to a far off world away from the real life scenarios around them.

Many other characters were played by comedians, Disney voice actors including Pinto Colvig who voiced the popular character in many shorts by the name of Goofy, and singers. Disney had his animators study and references these real people for their movements and gestures, bringing to life the characters as animation had never seen before.

Disney, his writers, and directors, supervised by David Hand, would take the classic tale and make it fit into the story palatable for the screen. The dwarfs, originally nameless and working more or less as a singular unit in the original story, were each given a distinct personality and characteristics that would provide comedy and emotion that made them each memorable to audiences. From a list of 50 or more names the writers finally decided on the final seven. Of the seven the most memorable would be Dopey, who would share a likeness in spirit to an innocent Harpo Marx-like mute character, and the stern Grumpy, who acts as a old man who dislikes the change with adding Snow White into their home, but whose tears at the death of Snow White would make many break out into tears of their own.

The Disney Studio spent four years of work and studying to produce the film. Walt opened an after-hours art class in the studio to teach his animators to perfect the art of animation. In the pinch, however, the animators did have to resort to rotoscope, where animators track the images of actors on film to animate, in order to finish the picture on time for the release date. The animation includes life-like movement. Referencing real life actions and movements with the multi-plane camera would blur the line of reality even though it was an animation, creating sweeping camera movements that real camera crews could only dream of. The animation was such a huge breakthrough for the medium that it would be likened to D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation in impact on the movies.

So much of Walt Disney and his studio was wrapped up into the picture that it took every last dime to produce it. If it failed, Disney and the studio would go under. No finances was even left to even promote the film, leaving animators scrambling to staple simple signs on telephone poles to get the word out before the premiere.

Walt Disney presented his Honorary Oscars by Shirley Temple
On December 21, 1937 the picture would play for the first time in Hollywood and all of the industries brightest would come out to see the cartoon. Audiences laughed, cried, and fell in love with the picture. Critics praised it as the finest picture. Russian filmmaker Sergie Eisenstein commended it as the best film of all time. Snow White and Seven Dwarfs would be a massive attraction and became the greatest grossing film of all time (only to lose the title the in 1939 to Gone with the Wind). Word spread and accolades abound for Walt Disney and his masterpiece. Walt would be featured on Time Magazine soon after the release and at the Academy Awards would be the recipient of an honorary award for his work in motion picture excellence, with one large statue along with seven smaller statues revealed by one of Hollywood’s biggest names, child actor Shirley Temple.

With the profits Walt Disney would build himself a brand new studio to expand his future productions. The studio would move from the cramped quarters in Silver Lake to its spacious, campus-like location in Burbank, and the many feature film ideas that were considered forthe story of the first full length animated feature would flesh out in future projects for the studio for decades to come, including Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Pinocchio, and even The Little Mermaid.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs literally built the studio and in coming years would save it again. In the leaner years of World War II Disney would re-release the picture to make new profits for the studio on a favorite that was already “in the can,” aiding to bring in finances after stagnant years due to the world crisis. This would be a common practice for the studio with Snow White and many of its features, re-releasing favorites in theaters for decades until the advent of home video.

Snow White would be a success on a new level not explored before. The film would be the first to feature a soundtrack album that could be purchased by the public, making for a world of new income for motion pictures in merchandising. “Some Day My Prince Will Come” would become wildly popular and covered by many artists, especially during the jazz era of music. The American Film Institute would name it the 19th greatest original song in American cinema history.

Generations would go by and Snow White still stands as a milestone and measuring stick for all animated features to come since. Its title would be seen all over many all-time lists, including AFI’s top American films of all time as well as being hailed as the finest animated feature of all, a true honor as it was the first and continued by many to still be the greatest. It would be the first animated feature to be named to the National Film Registry in 1994. Snow White would continued to be honored for many, many decades as an all-time beloved classic. The story and its animation style would come to be perceived as cliché as a Disney princess movie, even by its own studio, but it is all in honor of a remarkable achievement in cinema history with leagues of audiences being drawn in by these drawings that gripped and entertained untold millions.

But remember, with all of this picture’s success Walt Disney was not stand still. There were brave new worlds he would expand into in the coming years. This would include: further perfecting and expanding animation, moving into live action features, exploring the world in nature documentaries never imagined, the creation of the new medium of theme parks, and the idea of urban planning and innovation. The man was a wildly creative person, and though it did start with a mouse, Snow White brought Walt Disney Pictures into a new maturity.

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