The Princess and the Prince
Legend says that, in Paris to receive some award or other, Walt and Roy Disney noticed lines outside a movie house offering six Mickey Mouse cartoons. Along with the advent and improvement of Technicolor, this fact that people would sit through such lengths of animation inspired Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs out of the Brothers Grimm. Back home, the boss budgeted $250,000, one eighth of the actual cost by the time of the 1937 première, much of that cash going to an increased numbers of draftsmen, developing a new multiplane camera for depth effect, and a lot of research.
Its somewhat ballooned storyline is simple, not all that differentiated in memory from that of the studio’s more elaborate (and expensive) Sleeping Beauty twenty years later, notable for three good fairies and especially evil Maleficent. As much a game-changer as Star Wars, SWSD repaid the risk four times over within the first twelve months. The industry, however, did not at the time know what to make of the innovative film, granting only a sop Oscar, in seven little statuettes.
Perversely, the “lead” characters are bland though based on flesh-and-blood models: dancer Marge Belcher, later Marge Champion, served for the titular stepdaughter, with the voice of teenager Adriana Caselotti, while Harry Stockwell spoke for the brief Louis Hightower-modeled Prince Charming. Lucille La Verne is a happier choice for the wicked Queen whose hatred flares when the equally fine Magic Mirror (Moroni Olsen, anticipating also-bodiless Frank Gallup introducing Lights Out) responds that not she but her mistreated ward is now “fairest in the land.”
Some early sequences seem a tad uncertain, but a little way in all becomes surer of itself and, for now going on eighty years ago, a miracle. The current screening is just two days shy of the last of the Dave Fleischer, UPA, Looney Tunes and Disney Studios wrap of the Museum of Modern Art’s glorious centenary celebration of “Glorious Technicolor: From George Eastman House and Beyond.”
The original “Snow White,” like many of the Grimms’ and others’ fairy tales, has its generally unknown dark even bloody side, film-shadowed in the heroine’s initial, terrified entry into the forest and later “Sleeping Death.” (Most all the studio’s animation features have their scary or teary moments.)
What makes this film, and what lives on in communal memory, are, however, the non-human characters. Assuming that the four-fingered dwarfs are sort of non-human, not man’s seven deadly sins but, all snoring, laughable foibles or traits of Sneezy, Sleepy, Grumpy, Happy, Bashful, Doc and the youngest, crowd-favorite beardless hairless Dopey. Even to kitsch plastic lawn ornaments, these magnificent seven “little men” have enchanted the world and belie grumpy C.S. Lewis’ “old bright-hooded snowy bearded dwarfs we had in the days before . . . Walt Disney vulgarized the earthmen.”
The other winners are the forest animals who brighten the only-at-first fearsome woodlands. Squirrels, fawns and deer, chipmunks, bluebirds, rabbits and a slow determined turtle are as wide-eyed innocent as the children (and adults) who gaped in wonder way back then (though hardly now). Sexless like the dwarfs and like the human characters as well, they are the conservative, benevolent brave new world once believed in as pathetic fallacy.
The Queen’s and Prince Charming’s castles anticipate Disneyland’s Segovia-inspired one and, indeed, the studio’s Buena Vista logo signature. The film’s warmth, joy and song trump the dark side realized sixty years later in sadistic Snow White: A Tale of Terror aka The Grimm Brothers’ Snow White, more bloodily faithful to the original tale but oh so less enjoyable.
(Released by Walt Disney Pictures and rated "G" by MPAA.)