Monday, September 21, 2009

Famous Firsts - Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Part One


The story of how Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs came to be is almost as famous as the story of the movie itself. All these years later though, it does seem hard to believe that the very idea of an animated fairy tale musical was once considered a colossal risk, if not a guaranteed failure. It was the first animated feature film in the United States (though not in the world). Hollywood pundits predicted disaster for Disney, citing everything from the expected broad slapstick humor getting dull after more than five minutes to the bright colors becoming painful to the audience’s eyes. But as we all know, “Disney’s Folly” became Disney’s First and set the tone for much of the studio’s work to come.

After the opening titles and credits, the film starts with a live-action storybook opening. The book sets up the idea that we are going to be told a story, specifically a classic fairy tale. Making a direct connection between the film and a physical book would further cement the blending of the familiar classic fairy tale and the new format of feature-length animation in the minds of the audience. Connecting something new to something well-known is a tried and true method for getting the public comfortable with a new concept. The image of a book also invokes the concept of a narrative, which was important to let moviegoers know that “Snow White” was going to focus on story and not just gags loosely tied together by a simple plot, as many short cartoons of the time did.

Looking at it today, the book feels like a somewhat clunky start to the film. The rest of the movie does wonders conveying ideas visually, so it’s odd to start off with a prologue that relies on text. But we aren’t completely denied visual information. The little animals nestled in the scrollwork around the crowned “O” introduce the idea that the creatures of the forest love the little princess we’re reading about. At the bottom of the page, a crown rests atop a scrub-brush, highlighting the plight of the princess reduced to a scullery maid by her jealous stepmother. The Queen herself is just barely visible behind the initial “E” on the next page. In case we aren’t clear about what sort of woman she is, a peacock perches in the scrollwork beneath the letter. The text hints that Snow White’s well-being is dependant on the mirror identifying the Queen as the fairest one of all, but it’s the dagger at the bottom of the page that tells us that “the Queen’s cruel jealousy” makes her capable of far worse things than dressing her stepdaughter in rags.

The animation begins with a lovely castle on a beautiful day, but what we’ve learned from the book and the creepy music as the camera zooms in on a particular window make it clear that we’re not going meet Snow White just yet. The large mirror and the crown, long regal robes, and stately bearing of the woman we see next all tell us that this is the Queen. As the villain of the film, the Queen is responsible for driving most of the plot and the action. Her motivations are clear – she wants to be the most beautiful woman of all and is willing to kill anyone deemed lovelier – but we never learn why the Queen is so obsessed with beauty. She wields great power as queen of the land, with no king even mentioned. On top of that, she has the power of magic, carefully established early in the film so her later use of it doesn’t come as a surprise. So why is she so fixated on being beautiful when surely no one but her own magic mirror would dare to call her anything else?

It’s interesting that the film begins by introducing us to the antagonist rather than the protagonist. We learn about a character through other characters talking about her. Before we even meet her, we know that Snow White is beautiful and that she is in great danger because a very vain and powerful woman has her in her sights. So even though Snow White has yet to appear on screen,
we’re interested in her and sympathetic to her. The Queen is one of the more active characters in the movie, and therefore better equipped to get the story rolling. She is someone capable of setting events into motion. Snow White, we will learn, is not.

As we’ve been told, Snow White is a lovely maiden reduced to wearing tattered clothes and scrubbing the palace steps. She’s not completely alone in the world as she’s surrounded by a flock of doves who are more than just the reason she has to scrub the stairs. She’s humming to herself as she works and looks reasonably happy. But right before she gets up, she pauses, looks up at nothing we can see, and sighs. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, but it hints at something that we rarely be seen in this movie. One of the virtues of many of the classic Disney princesses is how they remain virtuous despite the horrible injustices they suffer. They may not be happy about it, but they almost never complain, get angry, or mope. They find ways to remain “ever gentle and kind” as Cinderella will be describe over a decade after Snow White. But Snow White sighs and as small a thing as it is, it suggests a hint of unhappiness and dissatisfaction. It shows that she is capable of realizing the unfairness of her stepmother robbing her of her birthright, demoting her to a lowly servant, and making her dreams seem almost impossible. It makes her human. But it doesn’t last and the idea is never touched on again. Snow White is 99% sweetness and compliance, but it’s nice to see another side of her, if only briefly.

As Snow White draws water from the well, she talks to the doves, who nod and coo in response. This makes two important points. One, Snow White is friends with animals, a concept that will be explored further later in the film. This is a commonly used device in animation – not just Disney – to give characters someone to talk to and relate to who is not quite on the level of an actual human companion. Two, the animals in the movie may be smarter than average, but they are largely realistic animals. They don’t talk, wear clothes, or ride bicycles. Their anatomy is handled relatively realistically; birds cannot use their wings as hands and deer cannot stand up on their hind legs and walk around. As with the Queen’s use of magic, it is important to establish the boundaries of a fantasy world early on so that the audience isn’t confused about what is and isn’t possible.

This scene includes the film’s first song, “I’m Wishing” which leads into “One Song.” The songs are something I keep going back and forth on. On the one hand, the score contains a number of catchy and memorable tunes. I’m sure you can hum or sing at least one of them. And they are generally well integrated, partly because so much of the movie’s dialogue is in verse. Since the characters are frequently speaking in rhythm and rhyme already whether there’s a song coming or not, it feels natural when they slip into singing. But “Snow White” is a musical and songs in a musical should support and enhance the story, not bring it to an abrupt stop. By that measure, the success of the songs in “Snow White” is varied. “I’m Wishing” is extremely light on content, but it is one of the main character’s two “I Want” songs, which highlight her major goals in the story.

At this point, Snow White wants to find true love. So what does she do about it? She tells a wishing well her wish. Snow White doesn’t do much other than wishing to get what she wants because Snow White is an extremely passive character. Her actions are almost entirely determined by other characters. She has dreams, but circumstances and personality combine to keep her from doing anything about them. Life as a servant and her stepmother’s determination to conceal Snow White’s beauty reduce the young princess’s chances of meeting anyone she could fall in love with and she’s simply not the type to try to sneak out or escape her plight altogether until someone else actively tells her to. So other characters act while Snow White wishes. Unlike the later Cinderella, the movie never says outright that having faith in your dreams against all odds is a path to making them reality. Aside from antidotes to evil spells, there is no “good magic” in the movie.” Snow White wishes and for whatever reason, things fall into place for her, eventually.

Snow White’s first goal – to find true love – is accomplished in about five seconds without her doing anything other than singing her desires. As luck (or the wishing well?) would have it, a handsome prince is riding by and happens to hear Snow White singing. He climbs the castle wall and instantly falls in love. Snow White is initially startled, but is quickly won over. Most of the early Disney fairy tales follow this pattern. Love happens instantaneously and the drama comes from the outside forces that keep the two lovers apart rather than internal conflict.

If Snow White is a passive perfect princess, the Prince is almost a nonentity. He appears only twice in the film, once when he first meets Snow White, and again at the end. He has only a few lines of dialogue and a single song – appropriately entitled “One Song.” We’re given no hint as to his whereabouts during the rest of the film, beyond a brief mention in the book towards the end. His role in the film never goes beyond “love interest.”

The meeting of the two lovers provides an interesting clue about one of the other characters. As the Prince sings his song of undying devotion to Snow White, the Queen silently watches from her window. Glaring at the scene below, she angrily pulls her curtains shut. So what’s on her mind? Has the Prince’s arrival merely confirmed what she already knows: that Snow White’s beauty surpasses her own and dressing her in rags can’t hide that fact? Or is this what the Queen really fears: that Snow White’s beauty will prevent the Queen from being able to attract men?

In an earlier draft of Snow White, the young princess decides that the only way she can meet a handsome prince is to make one. She uses some rags and a bucket with a face painted on it to create a scarecrow of sorts, which she dubs “Prince Buckethead.” While she talks to her ersatz prince, the real Prince happens upon the charming scene and is instantly smitten. He slips inside of the scarecrow while Snow White plays at preparing for an imaginary ball. Snow White is shocked to hear “Prince Buckethead” respond when she speaks to him again. The real Prince reveals himself and confesses his love to her. Rather than telling her his real name, he says he likes the one she’s given him: Prince Buckethead.

Unfortunately, the Prince’s arrival does not go unnoticed, and the Queen has the Prince seized and thrown into the palace dungeons. Despite his plight, the Prince is still overjoyed at having found his true love, but Snow White weeps over the cruel fate that has befallen her poor Prince Buckethead.

Much as I like the film as it is, I can’t help but wonder if it would have been stronger if these scenes had been included. It gives both Snow White and the Prince a little more character. Snow White gets to actually do something about her dreams, even if it is just make-believe. It accounts for the Prince’s absence from the rest of the film. Later scenes allow the Queen and the Prince to interact, which they never do in the final film. In early concepts for the movie, it was even suggested that the Queen wanted to marry the Prince herself, which would give her a clear motivation for wanting Snow White out of the way.

Alas, the scenes were abandoned, primarily due to animation problems. Animating realistic humans was still a very new thing for the Disney artists and the Prince was particularly troublesome for them. Rather than go forward with a major character who just didn’t look very good, the filmmakers decided to cut the Prince’s role back. These “lost” scenes were never animated, but they did make it in to a comic book adaptation of the movie and Disney fans sometimes refer to Snow White’s prince as “Prince Buckethead” for lack of a better name.

As it stands, the Prince’s courtship of Snow White ends suddenly and without any clear reason. He sings to her of his love. She sends one of her doves down with a kiss for him, draws back behind the curtains and…that’s it. We see no further contact between the lovers, nor do we learn what either of them does after finding true love. Does the Prince go to the Queen to ask for her servant’s hand in marriage? (No one has told him that she’s a princess.) Does he head home to tell his parents that he’s in love with a scullery maid? Is there some issue he needs to attend to before he can marry Snow White? We never find out; he just disappears.

Snow White wanted true love and no sooner do we meet her than it finds her. Her only goal has been fulfilled without her really having to do anything. If the story is going to keep going, we need someone who still has unfulfilled desires and the will to realize them to make a move.

So we're back to the Queen, seated on her ornate throne. (I could easily write pages about the background detail in this movie. If I handed you a background from this scene, no characters, you could tell plenty about the person who lives in this room just by looking at the stunning carved peacock on the back of the throne, the scepter resting on a cushion nearby, and the overall richness of the decor.) She orders her faithful huntsman to take Snow White out to some secluded spot and kill her. In that moment, everything the movie has been building up to regarding the Queen comes to a head. This woman wants to be the most beautiful woman of all so badly that she’s willing to kill anyone who stands in her way, though without dirtying her own hands.

The huntsman is never named during the film, but internal Disney documents refer to him as “Humbert.” We see right away that Humbert is no cold-blooded killer. He is so horrified by the idea of slaying the little princess that he dares to protest. But the Queen silences him, reminding him that he knows the penalty should he fail to carry out her orders. We don’t know what this penalty might be, but Humbert certainly does and it’s enough to make him reluctantly consent. The Queen also commands Humbert to bring her Snow White’s heart in a box she provides him with. To put an extra visual emphasis on the seriousness of the threat to the young princess’s life, the clasp of the box is a dagger piercing an iconic heart.

Earlier versions of the movie had the Queen explicitly stating that if Humbert failed her, she would have his own children executed. Fortunately for audiences who find the movie scary enough as is, this element was dropped in favor of the more vague threat.

Humbert follows the Queen’s orders and takes Snow White out to pick wildflowers. Oddly, Snow White is out of her tattered scullery maid clothes and wearing a dress more suited to a princess, the one she wears through the rest of the movie. I have no idea why the Queen would allow her to go back to dressing like a princess right before having her killed. Maybe she’s concerned about people outside of the castle seeing the princess dressed in rags and knowing that she’s being mistreated, but isn’t the point of Humbert taking her somewhere secluded to ensure that no one sees her or what’s about to happen?

Snow White is happily picking flowers, singing her Prince’s song, still filled with the joy of true love. The sad chirping of a baby bluebird catches her attention. Setting aside her flowers, she scoops him up in her hands and comforts him. This is our first look at a big part of Snow White’s personality: her maternal nature. She is the mothering type and is ready and willing to take care of anyone who needs it. She quickly calms the little lost bird and helps him to find his parents.

Seeing his chance, Humbert glances around to make sure no one is watching. The reflection of light off the metal blade ensures that we don’t miss seeing him draw his knife. Snow White is shown from the back noticing the baby bird’s parents (off-screen, in case we had any ideas about them coming to her rescue), emphasizing her vulnerability, while the large rock in front of her shows that she has nowhere to run. Humbert approaches, taking up most of the screen as he draws closer. The bird flies off to join its parents, leaving Snow White completely alone. Since Snow White is in front of Humbert and he’s behind the camera, we see his shadow enveloping her rather than coming up behind her on the rock. At the last second, she turns around and screams. Passive even if the face of death, she does nothing more than cover her face with her arms.

Instead of trying to show Humbert’s split-second realization that he can’t bring himself to murder the princess through his facial expression, the Disney artists cut to his trembling hand holding the knife and finally dropping it as he sobs “I can’t do it!” Snow White seems completely unaware of how deep her stepmother’s hatred of her runs. When Humbert explains the reason for his actions by telling the princess “She’s mad! Jealous of you! She’ll stop at nothing!” Snow White replies with a puzzled “But who?” Humbert all but commands Snow White to run away and hide, as if the thought might not occur to her otherwise. Now that she has mostly accomplished her first goal, Snow White is given a new one: to escape from the stepmother who wants her dead. Or, more generally, to survive.

There is a very abrupt transition from the sunlit glade to the shadowy nightmare forest Snow White flees into. Whether this reflects the actual nature of the wood or how Snow White sees it in her frightened state is unclear. Fear does quickly cause her imagination to run away with her. To her terrified eyes, the forest becomes a den of monsters. Tree branches catching her skirt become clawed hands grabbing at her. A dead tree sprouts glaring eyes. A hole in the ground that she falls through becomes a gaping maw. Frightened out of her wits and thinking herself surrounded by monsters, Snow White collapses in a sobbing heap.

The darkness recedes, suggesting that it, like the monsters, was all in Snow White’s head. The eyes surrounding her go from fearsome and menacing to round and curious and are revealed to belong to the adorable little animals of the forest. Though they’re drawn in a cute and cartoony style, like the doves, their movement and behavior is fairly realistic. They approach the newcomer cautiously and immediately scatter when she notices them and exclaims “Oh!” They do, however, slowly return when she ask them please not to run off and apologizes for being so foolishly frightened. Among the animals is a family of three bluebirds, presumably the same one Snow White helped to reunite just minutes before. They likely know that she is a nice person and poses no threat to them, but the other animals don’t. Yet they still warm up to her remarkably fast. The doves may have known her for a long time and the baby bluebird was lost and crying, but these animals have no need or reason to trust her. Again, there is no explicit “good magic” in the movie, but Snow White does appear to have a power, born of her sweetness and gentleness, to win over almost anyone, human or animal. The little forest creatures are still initially wary enough to be believable. A chipmunk darts off when Snow White brings her hand down towards him and a little fawn shies away when she reaches out to him. But seconds later, the chipmunk is back at he side and the fawn is nuzzling her arm.

The scene of Snow White befriending the animals is accompanied by “With a Smile and a Song,” which is one of the film’s weaker musical numbers. Rather than highlighting an emotionally charged moment in the story, this song comes directly after a big emotional scene. It’s not about feeling excited, but about calming down and feeling OK. It could be said to be introducing the forest animals, who do play an important role in the story, but the song itself says nothing about them. The story doesn’t come to a complete stop while it’s going on, but it is still nothing more than a song.

Feeling much better, Snow White asks her newfound friends if they know where she could spend the night. The birds take the lead in bringing her to a little cottage nestled in the woods. Since none of the animals can talk, we don’t know their exact reasoning for choosing the cottage. It could just be the closest dwelling for people that they know of, or maybe the animals are familiar with the dwarfs and are certain that they will allow Snow White to stay.

After determining that no one is home, Snow White opens the unlocked door and starts to explore the cottage. Now Snow White has somewhere to stay – for the moment at least – and the Queen is not going to re-enter the narrative for a while yet. So with no threat from the Queen and no immediate goals for our heroine, what is there to keep the story interesting? The film solves this problem by doling out little mini-dramas, events that are not life and death matters, but interesting enough to keep the audience engaged. The first of these is Snow White entering a house without knowing who lives there. She and her animal friends are cautious entering the darkened house and the animals race out the door when Snow White again exclaims “Oh!” before they realize she’s just commenting on a cute little chair she’s discovered.

Just as we learned about Snow White before actually meeting her, we and Snow White are now learning about the dwarfs before they show up. Snow White notices that there are seven small chairs and a distinct lack of housekeeping, leading her to conclude that this is the home of “seven untidy little children.” (What she thinks children are doing with a pickaxe I don’t know.) Looking over the mess, Snow White starts to remark “You’d think their mother would….” before stopping herself and realizing that they may have no mother which would makes them orphans, though they could well still have a father. She never brings up the fact that she herself is an orphan, with no family aside from a stepmother who just tried to have her killed. She just sympathetically laments, “That’s too bad.”

We already know that Snow White is wrong about who lives in the cottage; the film isn’t called “Snow White and the Seven Untidy Little Children.” But looking around the piles of dishes, scattered clothing, and dusty mantle, we do see that the place is in need of some serious housekeeping, what 1930s audiences would have called “a woman’s touch.” So when Snow White suggests that they should clean up the cottage to surprise the “children” and that doing so might convince them to let her stay, it makes sense, even as it seems more than a little sexist. You would think that after being forced to scrub the castle steps for who knows how long, the last thing Snow White would want to do is clean. But her maternal instinct is her main feature and she and the animals are soon at work tidying up.

Famous as it is, “Whistle While You Work” does little beyond relating what’s obviously happening in the scene. The characters are cleaning up and they’re happy about it. The song’s main purpose is to highlight the series of gags based around the idea of animals doing housework. Since the Disney artists had only worked on short cartoons up to this point, it’s not surprising that parts of Snow White are filled out with entertaining visual humor, sort of shorts within the film. The animals serve as comic relief until the real comic relief shows up and this sequence features some of their best gags. Considering that they are wild animals, they do a shockingly good job cleaning. But they’re still animals and some of the funniest jokes come from them not really understanding the right way to clean up. Two squirrels sweep a pile of dust into a convenient mouse hole, where it is quickly kicked back out by the angry resident mouse. A group of squirrels, chipmunk and the baby fawn clean of dishes by licking them and the fawn even pauses between dishes to lick his own back. Snow White never does more than gently scold them and correct them and the animals seem perfectly happy to use soap and water instead.

To be continued...

All images in this article are copyright Disney.

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