Tuesday, September 29, 2009

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


When we last saw her, Snow White was enjoying cleaning up the mysterious cottage where she hoped to take shelter. The queen...well, we really don't know what the queen is up to since her trusted huntsman was unwilling to carry out her fiendish plot to be rid of her rival. We will find out how she reacts to Humbert's betrayal, but not just yet. Right now, we're going to meet the film's other protagonists, who are much more active than the little princess.

The film goes straight from one song into another, another two if you count “We Dig” and “Heigh-Ho” as two separate songs. These songs here have a clear purpose: to introduce the seven dwarfs. We still don’t know any of their names, but we can learn more about them by watching them. As both visuals and song make clear, the dwarfs are miners, digging away in a mine brimming with enough sparkling gems to make the dwarfs very wealthy indeed. Their industrious nature combined with the long white beards most of them have would seem to indicate that they are nothing like the children Snow White is expecting. But for once, the song provides a clue to what’s really going on:

“We dig up diamonds by the score.
A thousand rubies, sometimes more.
Though we don’t know what we dig ‘em for,
We dig, dig, dig-a, dig, dig.”

The idea that the dwarfs don’t really know what to do with the gems they unearth is repeated a few more times. Before heading home, the dwarfs toss sackfuls of the gems they’ve dug up into a clearly labeled vault located near the mine. The key to this vault is placed on a hook on the mine’s doorframe, so the mine’s security must not be a concern for the dwarfs. (Though the dwarf who puts the key there is the one named “Dopey,” so it could just be his idea that the key should be left at the vault.) The dwarfs’ cottage, while beautifully decorated with wood carvings and little knickknacks, is nowhere near as opulent as the Queen’s throne room and does not indicate that the dwarfs are using their gems or selling them to enrich themselves. Are the dwarfs really digging up precious gems just for something to do? They may not actually be children, but perhaps they’re more childlike than they look.


Giving the dwarfs individual personalities is perhaps Disey’s biggest contribution to the story of Snow White. Up to this point, the film has been a largely straight retelling of the fairy tale. But in the original, the dwarfs were completely interchangeable. Now each one is distinct from the others and we begin to see that even in this early scene. There’s the one dwarf with glasses who tests the gems for quality while the others dig them up or haul them out of the mine. He’s also the one who starts off the “Heigh-Ho” song, telling the other dwarves it’s time to head home. When the dwarfs march back to their cottage, he is at the head of the line. Then there’s the little bald dwarf, the only one of the seven without a beard. He’s charged with sweeping up the dud gems and tossing them away, giving us an idea of what kind of work he is and isn’t capable of. His lack of hair makes him look much younger than the rest of the dwarfs, which fits in with his silly, playful, demeanor. Watching the lead dwarf inspect gems with a jeweler’s loupe, he picks up two diamonds and puts them over his eyes to imitate him. He seems almost permanently happy; whether he’s being knocked over the head or accidentally throwing himself into the vault with the sack of gems he’s carrying, he always comes up smiling. He’s the last in line when the dwarfs leave the mine for the day, and constantly falling behind. Aside from these two, we may also notice a permanently scowling dwarf and a dwarf whose eyelids are always at half-mast.

Back at the cottage, Snow White and the animals decide to see what’s upstairs. They discover seven little beds, each with a name carved into the footboard. So now we know the dwarfs’ names: Doc, Happy, Sneezy, Dopey, Grumpy, Bashful, and Sleepy. We’ll get a formal introduction shortly, but even now we can probably start to guess which name goes with which dwarf. Snow White does comment that they are “funny names for children,” though I guess they’re perfectly ordinary names for dwarfs. After reading Sleepy’s name, she realizes that she’s feeling rather sleepy herself. She lies down across three of the beds and falls asleep while the birds cover her with a blanket. The animals start to settle in, but bolt awake when they hear the dwarfs singing and clear out of the cottage speedily.

The lead dwarf, who we may have guessed by now is “Doc”, is the first to notice the light is on in their cottage. He starts mixing up his words, a character trait that comes up whenever he’s excited or distracted. The dwarfs all creep closer to get a better look and exclaim, weirdly enough, “Jiminy Crickets!” (Pinocchio would not be released in theaters for three more years.) Wielding their pickaxes, the dwarfs decide to investigate, and we begin another mini-drama. Snow White was presented with the mystery of who lives in the little cottage and now the dwarfs have to figure out who or what is in their house and what that individual has done to the place. The dwarfs enter their home and search for the intruder while the bluebird family, who stayed inside, watches from the rafters. As they investigate, the dwarfs react with shock and confusion to the cleaning that’s been done in their absence. One dwarf notes that “our cobwebs are missing.” Another points out that the sink is empty, concluding that their dishes have been stolen. A third dwarf discovers the dishes have actually been “hid” in the cupboard. A fourth laments that his cup has been washed and the “sugar’s gone.” If the mess Snow White found upon entering the cottage didn’t convince us that the dwarfs need someone to take care of them, their reactions to finding their house clean and items put away correctly certainly do. Two of the dwarfs are happy to discover a tasty smell coming from a pot on the fire, but the irritable dwarf, “Grumpy”, keeps them from trying any, declaring that the steaming concoction is “witch’s brew.”

Right now we’re just making educated guesses at which dwarf has what name, but one of the seven makes it unmistakable. When another dwarf shoves a bouquet of goldenrod under his nose, he reacts with a stuffy “My hay fever!” before letting loose a gale force sneeze that sends the other dwarfs and various objects flying across the room. If the dwarfs’ names mean anything, then this has to be Sneezy.

Noticing the dwarfs’ nervousness, the bluebird family taps on the rafter they’re perched on, then lets out as bloodcurdling a shriek as three small birds can mange. I’m not quite sure what their intention is. Do they want to scare the dwarfs out of the cottage? Lure them upstairs so they’ll discover Snow White? Or are they just having fun at the dwarfs’ expense? Whatever the birds’ reasoning, the noise causes the dwarfs to run for various hiding places. Once they come out, they conclude that whatever is in their house is upstairs in the bedroom and someone needs to go up there and chase it down. Dopey is given the task, which briefly erases his usually happy expression, though he’s smiling again as Doc tries to hand him a candle. “Don’t be nervous,” he tells the grinning Dopey as his own hand shakes violently. Dopey cautiously enters the bedroom. Still asleep Snow White moans and stretches under the blanket. Dopey yells and runs in terror from the “monster.” His yell is one of the few places in the movie where I feel a voice performance falls flat. It’s not even that Dopey is otherwise mute; the voice is just too low for a character whose design and behavior are so childlike.

After briefly mistaking Dopey for the monster, the other dwarfs pepper him with questions about what he saw. Dopey hasn’t said a word up to this point but it’s only when he pantomimes his answers that we realize he is actually mute. Although he only saw Snow White under a sheet, Dopey confirms every one of the dwarfs’ suspicions: the monster is a giant, horned, drooling, fire-breathing dragon. The only accurate piece of information he relates is that the “monster” is asleep in their beds.

The dwarfs decide that they have to attack while the monster is sleeping and now the real tension begins. We know that there’s no monster, only a sleeping princess. But the dwarfs don’t know that and in their fear and confusion, they may attack Snow White. They may be little more than children jumping at shadows, but their pickaxes and clubs are capable of doing real harm and their calls of “Off with its head!” “Break its bones!” and “We’ll kill it dead!” show that they are serious.


Doc leads the dwarfs upstairs and over to the beds where they surround the “monster”, weapons at the ready. Doc pulls back the blanket and they stop mid-swing as the “monster” is revealed. Snow White is introduced to them with sparkling music, her chest gently rising and falling as she sleeps on unaware of the latest brush with death she’s had.

Further pushing the idea that the dwarfs don’t quite possess full adult intelligence, one of them asks upon seeing Snow White “What is it?” Doc may not be quite as smart as he thinks he is, but he can at least recognize that “it’s a girl.”

Most of the dwarfs are delighted at the discovery of their unexpected visitor, calling her “might purty” and “just like an angel,” but Grumpy is anything but. The intruder, he announces, is a female and “all females is poison” and “full of wicked wiles.” When asked to explain what “wicked wiles” are, Grumpy admits that he has no idea but is nonetheless against them, suggesting that his misogyny has no basis in experience or reality. Snow White begins to stir and is soon face to face with the occupants of the cottage. She introduces herself with a polite “how do you do?” The dwarfs, as lacking in knowledge of manners as they are in housekeeping ability, look at each other in confusion and when she repeats herself, Grumpy responds with a surly “How do you do what?”

Snow White insists that the dwarfs let her guess their names and we finally get a formal introduction to each of the seven. She first identifies Doc, the pompous leader of the group. Next is the dwarf who called her an “angel” before. He starts to turn away and play with his beard the second Snow White turns her attention to him and she guesses that he is Bashful, which he confirms by turning beet red and tying his beard into a knot. Sleepy’s yawn gives him away, as does Sneezy’s hay fever.

Snow White starts to identify a fifth dwarf, but trails off and he introduces himself as Happy. Of all the dwarfs, Happy is the least distinct, having little in the way of physical or personality traits to differentiate him from the others. All seven dwarfs – except for Grumpy – are usually pretty happy, so being happy is not enough to make Happy unique. Happy goes on to introduce Dopey and explain that “he don’t talk none.” Even Dopey is unaware of whether he can talk or not; he’s simply never tried to. This keeps Dopey’s muteness comedic rather than tragic and ensures that we’ll continue to see him as a funny character.


There’s only one dwarf left, the one regarding Snow White with folded arms and a nasty scowl. Dropping her voice to the lowest register it can reach and folding her own arms, she says, “Ohhhh, you must be Grumpy.” Grumpy looks shocked and even a little hurt by her teasing. Quickly changing the subject, he demands that Doc ask the girl who she is and why she’s here. Doc does so, initially imitating Grumpy’s irritated tone of voice. Grumpy is particularly adept at throwing Doc off his train of thought and getting him to say things he doesn’t mean. When Snow White introduces herself, Grumpy gets Doc to go from trying to express how honored they are to have her in their home to saying that they’re “mad as hornets.” It’s Doc’s eagerness to be a good leader and say the right thing in any given situation that leads to him becoming flustered and mixing up words.


Despite living out in the woods, the dwarfs do know that Snow White is the princess. They’re also well aware that the Queen a wicked, mean person and Grumpy even calls her “an old witch,” a term he means in the literal sense. Grumpy sees this as all the more reason to kick Snow White out. If the Queen find out the dwarfs have been hiding Snow White from her, she could take vengeance on all of them. Snow White pleads her case, promising that if they let her stay, she’ll wash, sew, sweep, and cook for them. The dwarfs obviously haven’t missed most of these services, but cooking catches their attention at once. The way to their hearts is clearly through their stomachs. Doc gets particularly excited over the possibility of what he ends up calling “crapple dumpkins.” When Snow White mentions that she can make gooseberry pie, the dwarfs are sold and decide their guest will stay, Grumpy’s objections non-withstanding.

Snow White runs downstairs to take the soup pot off the fire. The dwarfs smell the tasty aroma and rush downstairs. Grumpy may be a woman-hater and earlier wrote the soup off as witch’s brew, but he’s no going to let any of that stand between him and a hot meal. The dwarfs table manners predictably atrocious. They descend upon the table in a mob, leaning over to grab at bread rolls and fighting over who gets what. In the same gentle tone she used with the animals, Snow White informs the squabbling dwarfs that supper isn’t yet ready, so they’ll have just enough time to wash up.

Though the dwarfs know what washing is, the idea of washing before a meal is foreign to them. Grumpy snarls that he “knew there was a catch.” As they try to unravel the mystery of washing, Snow White sweetly asks if perhaps they’ve already washed and Doc, seeing an out, suggests that, yes, perhaps they have. “But when?” Snow White counters, hand on hips, clearly not buying it. Doc, after sputtering through progressively longer periods of time suggests that they’ve washed “recently” and the others back him up. Naïve as she may be, Snow White still isn’t fooled and asks to see the dwarfs’ hands. The dwarfs immediately put their hands behind them and start backing away. Ages aside, the roles are clear here: Snow White is the all-knowing, no-nonsense “mother” while the dwarfs are guilty-faced little children. Their hands are, of course, filthy and Snow White sends them out to wash, or no supper. Grumpy stays on the sidelines, scowling at the whole drama. He does, however, pull one hand out from his folded arms at glance at it before tucking it back behind his elbow. I wonder what he might have done if his hands were actually clean. After the others have marched themselves outside, Snow White confronts Grumpy. When he doesn’t respond to her, she teasingly asks, “Cat got your tongue?” Flustered, Grumpy sticks out his tongue at her and stomps off, nose in the air, crashing right into the open door. Snow White laughs before asking sweetly, if a little condescendingly, “Oh, did you hurt yourself?” With a final “Hmph!” Grumpy storms out the door, hoists himself up onto a barrel, and chews on the end of a cattail. “Hah, women!” he grunts, at the height of masculine rebellion. To his shock and dismay, the others don’t share his view and are nervously approaching the water trough.


How long has it been since the dwarfs last washed? Their observations that the water is not only “cold” but also “wet” show that it’s been quite some time. Doc reminds the frighten dwarfs that if they wash, it will make Snow White happy, which is incentive enough to brave the cold, wet water. Grumpy points out from his seat on the barrel that, as he predicted, “her wiles are beginning to work.” And though Doc dismisses him, Grumpy isn’t entirely wrong. Snow White may not have a wicked wile in her but her feminine charms are certainly having an effect on the dwarfs, convincing them to do something they normally wouldn’t.

“Bluddle-Uddle-Um-Dum,” also known as “The Dwarfs' Washing Song,” is mainly an explanation song. The dwarfs clearly don’t know how to wash, so Doc explains it to them in song form. It’s not introducing a character or highlighting a moment of high emotion, but it has a little more reason for existence than “With a Smile and a Song.” It’s also another gag sequence, with plenty of jokes as the dwarfs work through the process of washing.

Grumpy continues to sit on the sidelines, warning the others that before they know it, Snow White fill be decorating their beards in pink ribbons and spraying them with “per-foom.” While the others go through the ordeal of washing in order to please the princess, he remains unswayed. Or does he? Having insulted the other dwarfs throughout the whole procedure, he loudly declares “I’d like to see anybody make ME wash, if I didn’t wanna.” Now Grumpy does put up a huge struggle and protest vehemently when the dwarfs take him up on his “suggestion” and drag him over to the tub. But what did he expect after teasing the others and all but suggesting that they force him to wash? And why add on the qualifying statement “if I didn’t wanna,” indicating that it’s not so much that he would never wash as that he doesn’t want to right now? Grumpy, it seems, is faced with a dilemma. He wants to eat the delicious soup that Snow White has made, but she has made it clear that there will be no supper for anyone who doesn’t wash his hands. Grumpy does not want to wash his hands. He’s made it abundantly clear that he doesn’t want to wash his hands and that he thinks that Snow White making them wash their hands proves everything he has said about her. But if he doesn’t wash, he doesn’t eat. And maybe on some level, he does actually want to please the princess. As we’ll se later on he isn’t immune to her charms. But if he washes, he’s admitting that he was wrong and he’s not being grumpy, which is literally who he is. So perhaps his inner conflict between wanting to have supper and wanting to protest the “washing” rule leads him to goad the other dwarfs into making him wash, but still protest all the way.


After enduring his taunts while they washed, the other dwarfs can’t resist having some fun at Grumpy’s expense. They don’t have any pink ribbons or “per-foom”, so blue ones and a flower wreath will have to suffice. Snow White calls them in for supper and the dwarfs, in their rush to go eat, “accidentally” drop Grumpy back in the tub.

Snow White has become aware of her stepmother’s desire to kill her and found a safe haven. The dwarfs, while they may not have been actively looking for a housekeeper, are certainly happy to have Snow White staying with them and cooking for them. So once again, the story leaves our passive protagonist and turns to the lady with the ability to make things happen.


It’s a cloudy, moonlit night and the castle is a dark silhouette against the sky. Snow White no longer lives her and nothing but wickedness remains in this place as the camera zooms towards the same window we saw at the start of the film. Before anything else, we see a familiar box with a dagger-through-the-heart clasp in the hands of the Queen. We know that Snow White’s heart is still safely in her own chest, so what’s going on here? The phrasing of the Queen’s question – “Who now is the fairest one of all?” – tells us right away that even though Humbert didn’t kill Snow White, she believes he did. She is so certain that her stepdaughter is dead that she doubts the mirror when it tells her otherwise and even opens the box to show her grisly trophy. (The box is kept at a height and angle that prevents the audience from seeing inside.) But the mirror reveals the truth to her. Humbert has presented her with the heart of a slaughtered pig instead (and, we would hope, gathered up whatever family he may have and got the heck out of Dodge.) But whatever the Queen had planned for Humbert is going to have to wait. Her first priority is to finish off Snow White, which she now realizes she will have to do herself.

The only other living creature in the Queen’s lair beneath the castle is a raven. Though we might guess that the bird is the Queen’s familiar, that doesn’t seem to be the case. It is not her faithful servant like Maleficent’s raven in the much later Sleeping Beauty. Rather, the bird seems wary of the Queen, even frightened. It is there primarily to give the Queen someone to talk and to reflect the terror that the audience feels as her sinister plan is revealed.

Up to this point, the only magic we’ve seen the Queen perform is to summon the spirit in the magic mirror. But now, we get to see the full extent of her abilities. Now only can she mix magical potions, she can capture and use strange ingredients like the night’s darkness, an old woman’s sinister cackle, and a frightened scream to serve as ingredients. Even the weather itself seems to bend to her will, providing her with wind and lightning as she needs them. When she drinks the potion, we see not only the physical result of her transformation, but also what the experience feels like to the Queen. She drops the goblet from her hand and grasps at her throat, gasping for air as the room around her dissolves into a swirl of colors and bubbles. Lightning flashes as her dark hair streams out from her head and turns to white. “Look! My hands!” she cries, as her delicate fingers grow long and gnarled. A wave of bubbling green liquid and a formless tangle of darkness flash across the screen. We see the shadows of the Queen’s now spindly hands against the wall as she croaks “My voice! My voice!” She cackles wickedly as the camera pans down to show a figure shrouded in a black cloak and the Queen’s new face is revealed. With her scraggly white hair, hooked nose, and round, bulging eyes, she could hardly look less like the regal figure she was but moments ago


If as Santayana says, fanatics are those who redouble their efforts while losing sight of their goals, then the Queen belongs in the same category as Wile E. Coyote. All through the film, the Queen wanted is to be the most beautiful of all women. Yet she has become so fixated on eliminating the competition that she has turned herself into an ugly old hag, the exact opposite of what she wishes to be. We can assume that her plan is to turn herself back into her true form once she no longer needs her disguise, but the fact is that she will live and die as the hideous peddler woman and the irony is inescapable.

Again, the scene ends with a reminder of the threat the Queen poses to Snow White. Looking through her book of spells, she selects “a special sort of death” for her intended victim: a poisoned apple that will cause whoever takes a bite to suffer an affliction known as the Sleeping Death. A close-up shot of the Queen’s horrifying, grinning visage is the last thing we see before the screen fades into darkness.

To be concluded...

All images in this article are copyright Disney.

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