Monday, October 5, 2009

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


It’s the same night and another lighted window, but the music accompanying this shot is celebratory and Snow White’s animal friends are crowded around, their heads and tails swaying in time with the happy music. The song here is called “The Dwarfs’ Yodel Song” or “The Silly Song.” Like the washing song before it, it has a reasonably solid plot reason for existing: the dwarfs wish to entertain Snow White. But the actual song doesn’t have anything to do with this sentiment, and even the song’s own chorus amounts to “this song is ridiculous and has no point.” Still, the scene itself is entertaining and does a good job of illustrating how well Snow White and the dwarfs are getting along and that their relationship is not limited to her teaching them good manners. The detail that this film does so well is on full display here, from Grumpy’s beautiful carved pipe organ to Dopey’s drum set. Bashful has a particularly good moment where he is supposed to recite a verse but is so embarrassed to be performing for Snow White that he can’t get past the first word without having to bury is face in his beard. Grumpy is less than thrilled about having to repeatedly start Bashful’s musical introduction over again as the dwarf continues to flub his lines. Snow White is clearly having a good time, joining in the singing and dancing. Dopey, proving that his dopiness does not make him stupid, figures out that standing on top of an obliging Sneezy and wearing a long coat will make him an ideal dance partner for the much taller Snow White. The dwarfs never try to vie for Snow White’s attention. They simply laugh and clap when she spends extra time dancing with suddenly taller Dopey. Beautiful as they may find her, she’s still more of a mother than a romantic interest. If she’s happy, they’re happy.

The dancing comes to an end as Sneezy sneezes. Dopey puts his finger to his own nose right before the sneeze, either in a fruitless attempt to preserve the illusion or in hopes that doing so will somehow prevent Sneezy from sneezing. The force of the sneeze sends Dopey rocketing up to the rafters of the house, though as always, he is completely unharmed.

As the laughter dies down, the dwarfs ask Snow White to tell them a story. Happy wants a true story and Bashful requests a love story. She tells them about how she fell in love with her prince, which leads into one of the film’s best-known songs, “Someday My Prince Will Come.” At first, it may seem like this song doesn’t need to be in the movie. Snow White already had an “I Want” song with “I’m Wishing,” right? But actually, this song expresses a slightly different desire for Snow White. “I’m Wishing,” revealed her hope that she would meet the man of her dreams. Now that she’s met him, what she wants is to be reunited with him, marry him, and live happily ever after. It’s also been a while since Snow White mentioned her original goal of true love. Her dream of a happy life with her prince is going to be very important very soon, so the audience needs to be reminded of how important that goal is to Snow White. On top of that, the song ensures that all of Snow White’s friends know that she is in love and that her fondest wish is to be with her prince. The animals, still at the window, happily nuzzle up to their mates. The dwarfs listen with rapt attention and dreamy eyes. The only person not won over is, predictably, Grumpy, who leans against his organ in a dark corner and denounces the whole thing as “mush.”


Notice that Snow White’s passivity even extends to her song lyrics. In “I’m Wishing,” her wish is for her beloved to find her, not the other way around. Now she sings of her desire for her prince to come to her, with no suggestion that she might actually seek him out herself.

The clock striking eleven snaps Snow White back into “mom” mode. She hurries the dwarfs off to bed, but Doc, taking up the role of leader once again, stops them. Snow White, he insists, will sleep upstairs in their beds. The princess protests, but Doc reassures her that they will all be comfortable downstairs, though Grumpy is again able to derail his train of thought. When Doc has trouble explaining exactly where they will spend the night, Grumpy pipes up with a surly “In a pig’s eye!” which Doc repeats before correcting himself. As the other dwarfs agree that they’ll all be fine, Dopey once again proves that he’s no fool and slips off to lay claim to the only pillow in the whole downstairs room. But the second Snow White is upstairs and has shut the door, the dwarfs’ maturity evaporates and they pounce on Dopey in a tug-of-war over the pillow. Doc attempts to calm them down, but to no avail and the pillows rips. Ever a “glass half full” kind of guy, Dopey is happy to have saved just one large feather for himself, which he fluffs and lays under his head before going to sleep.

Upstairs, with the bedroom all to herself, Snow White says her prayers before bed. She asks for blessings on her newfound friends the dwarfs and that her dreams may come true, adding as an afterthought “and please make Grumpy like me.”

Back downstairs, Grumpy is feeling anything but kindly towards Snow White. He has been reduced to sleeping in a kettle by the fire and has to contend with the snoring of his fellow dwarfs as they snooze away in their various makeshift beds. Meeting Snow White has done nothing to reduce Grumpy’s misogyny and has, in fact, only confirmed his beliefs that women are trouble. Or so it would seem.

From a billowing cloud of steam, the camera pans down to reveal the transformed Queen hunched over her cauldron, dipping an apple into a sinister green brew. As she draws it out, the viscous liquid remains on the upper half of the apple in the shape of a skull, making clear its poisonous nature. The Queen turns the apple from a foreboding greenish-black to a tempting red, which will set it apart from the green and yellow apples the Queen will carry with her. Cackling, the Queen turns to the raven and offers the apple. The bird recoils in horror, backing away and flapping its wings in an attempt to flee. “It’s not for you,” the Queen chides in a mock-sweet voice. “It’s for Snow White!” She goes on to describe in detail the effects of the poisoned apple, first stilling the victim’s breath then congealing her blood. But, the Queen suddenly realizes, there may be an antidote and she goes to check. Sure enough, the victim of the Sleeping Death can be awakened by what is known as “Love’s First Kiss.” The Queen is unconcerned. The dwarfs, she is convinced, will think the princess is dead and bury her alive, a thought which sends her into fits of cackling laughter.

What is strange about the Queen’s plan to be rid of her rival is that the method she has chosen will not, by her own admission, actually kill Snow White. The Sleeping Death leaves the victim in a weird in-between state, appearing dead but somehow still alive. The Queen had no compunctions about ordering her huntsman to cut out Snow White’s heart. So why bother with a half-measure instead of using ordinary poison? Perhaps the idea of leaving her foe alive, yet totally helpless appeals to an aspect of the Queens personality that we will see in the next shot: her cruelty.


Still cackling, the Queen descends a staircase with her basket of apples, heading for a boat in an underground waterway. As she goes, she passes by an imprisoned skeleton, one of its arms reaching out for a water pitcher that lies inches out of reach. “Thirsty?” the Queen laughs wickedly. “Have a drink!” She kicks the pitcher over, sending the skeleton’s bones flying and revealing the pitcher to be empty except for a lone spider, which scuttles off into the darkness. It’s likely that this seen replaced one of the Queen taunting the Prince with her plan to murder his love back when he was to have been her prisoner. As it stands, the joy she gets from this pointlessly cruel action only underlines the fact that the Queen is a person completely devoid of compassion or morals. As she steers her boat through the thick fog, we know that Snow White is in real, serious danger.

Morning arrives and the forest animals are still gathered around the seven dwarfs’ cottage, unwilling to leave the little princess even in this safe haven. They rush off as the door opens, but they aren’t scattering in a panic like they did earlier. They are now comfortable around both Snow White and the dwarfs.

Doc is reminding Snow White of the threat the Queen still poses to her. For a moment, their roles are reversed: he is the adult warning the innocent young girl to beware of strangers while he and the other dwarfs are away at the mines. Snow White reassures Doc that she will be fine and kisses him on the top of his head. She is back to being the adult and though the dwarfs are happy to receive a kiss from beautiful Snow White, they are still children, reacting with embarrassed giggles. Dopey’s particular brand of smarts makes another appearance as he staggers off in joy after getting his kiss, then runs around the back of the house, dives through the window, and gets back in line for another one. She humors him the first time, but sends him on his way when he tries for a third.


Grumpy has already declared the whole kissing business disgusting, so you would think he would be sneaking out the back to avoid getting kissed himself. But what’s this? Grumpy is in front of a mirror, rubbing his forehead, setting his cap at a jaunty angle, and straightening his beard. Could the proud woman-hater actually be…primping? He retains his Grumpy scowl, but he removes his cap as he approaches Snow White and clears his throat several times to get her attention. He warns her not to let anyone or anything in the house and she exclaims happily “Why, Grumpy, you DO care!” Despite his clear efforts to get the princess’s attention, he struggles to get away from her and stalks off in a huff after she kisses him. But as he goes, his face softens into an actual smile and he steals a doe-eyes glance back at Snow White with a happy sigh. Snow White kisses her fingertips and sweetly waves at him. Suddenly remembering himself, Grumpy snaps back to his customary scowl and storms off – straight into a tree. Adding insult to injury, his nose gets stuck in a knothole. Once he dislodges it, he stomps off again, only to fall into a stream and hit his head on the footbridge as he stands up. Snow White calls a last cheery goodbye to him as sloshes off angrily to join the other dwarfs.

Of all the characters in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” Grumpy is the only one who undergoes real change. Other characters may have a change of circumstances, but he alone is a different person at the end. The change in him can seem somewhat forced; one minute he is totally against Snow White and the next he is all but completely won over by her. But what makes the transition work is Grumpy’s clear struggle with his growing affection for Snow White. Even as her charm and sweetness are having their effect on him, he still fights to remain Grumpy. But as we see in this scene, the effort causes him nothing but pain. He’s so distracted by the need to keep up his image that he runs headlong into everything in his path. Only when he accepts the fact that he really does care about Snow White will he be able to stop being a permanent sourpuss and learn to enjoy life.

As the dwarfs are leaving, the Queen is drawing ever nearer to their home. Two vultures watch her pass by, grin menacingly at one another, and slowly take to the sky, following in her wake. Through some combination of instinct and insight they know that this woman has death on her mind.

Snow White is not totally alone. Her forest friends watch through the window and help out as she makes the gooseberry pies she promised the dwarfs. She sings a reprise of “Someday My Prince Will Come,” keeping the importance of her dreams of love front and center. As with the huntsman before, the Queen’s shadow engulfs Snow White and frightens off the animals before we see her leaning through the window. “All alone, my pet?” she coos with false warmth. Snow White admits that she is. She always seems on the verge of saying something more to the stranger confronting her, explaining perhaps that she is not supposed to let anyone in. But the disguised Queen quickly cuts her off at every turn and Snow White is far too sweet and polite to take a stand.


The animals, though spooked, have not gone far and watch with concern as the old peddler woman talks up her apples to Snow White. They seem suspicious, but it’s not until they notice the vultures perched on a nearby tree that their fears are confirmed. The birds twitter amongst themselves and decide to take action. They can’t do much, being very small. They fly at the Queen and cause her to drop the apple she is offering to Snow White. The princess is saved, but only for the moment.

This is the first time we see the limit to the animals’ abilities. Up to now, they have been able to help Snow White with whatever she needs. But here, their inability to communicate anything but the simplest of ideas proves a terrible handicap. They cannot say to Snow White “Our instincts are telling us that this woman is up to no good,” or even remind her that she must be wary of strangers. All they can do is physically attack the Queen with their very limited strength, a move that ultimately benefits no one but the Queen. Shocked by their behavior, Snow White rushes out of the house and shoos the animals away, scolding them for scaring the “poor old lady.” The animals can only watch as the wily Queen turns the unexpected attack to her advantage. She feigns heart problems and Snow White’s instincts to care for others immediately overwhelm her fears and her promise not to let anyone into the house. The animals gather worriedly at the window and watch the Queen surreptitiously smile over her good fortune while Snow White’s back is turned. With no other options, the animals race into the forest to find the dwarfs and somehow make them understand the terrible danger Snow White is in.

The dwarfs are just arriving at their mine and getting to work when they are set upon by the stampeding creatures. Still unable to explain the situation, the animals desperately grab hold of the dwarfs’ clothing and try to push or pull them into action. Unfortunately, the dwarfs cannot figure out what’s going on. They try to shoo the animals away just as Snow White did, wondering what could be causing them to act so strangely.

Back at the cottage, the Queen has come up with a plan to get Snow White to try the poisoned apple. She was smart enough to exploit her stepdaughter’s kindness to a poor old woman and now she will shrewdly exploit her dreams. Supposedly repaying Snow White’s kindness to her, the Queen reveals that the bright red apple is actually a “wishing apple,” capable of making your dreams come true with a single bite.

We cut back to the dwarfs under siege by the panicked animals. The dwarfs have started to guess that there must be something wrong, but they can’t figure out what. It is Sleepy, too tired to even realize the horrible implications of what he is saying, who at last yawns, “Maybe the old Queen’s got Snow White.” The others immediately realize that this must be what has the animals so upset. So what happens next? Does Doc, the self-appointed leader, take charge and lead the dwarfs into battle? No. Fear has reduced him to stammering and repeating what the others say. He doesn’t mix up words – this is no time for that sort of comedy – but he’s in no shape to lead anyone anywhere. So who is going to get the dwarfs out of their initial panic and into action?



Once the dwarfs realize that Snow White is in danger, is it Grumpy who cries out “The Queen’ll kill her! We gotta save her!” And while the other dwarfs agree but are at a loss for what to do – Doc included, Grumpy is the one who leaps onto the back of a stag, shouts “Come on!” to the other dwarfs, and rides off to rescue the princess. Doc may be capable of taking the lead when the threat is an imagined monster or a trough of water, but in a real crisis, he’s all but useless. Grumpy may be a bad-tempered individual capable of making the most minor issue into a battle. But when his forceful personality is combined with his growing affection for Snow White and a real cause, he rises to the occasion without a moment of hesitation.

While the dwarfs ride on deerback towards the cottage, the Queen continues to make her pitch to Snow White, suggesting that there must be something she wants, maybe someone who she loves. Snow White is literally backed into a corner. She seems to be aware that she should be afraid of the old woman, but she just doesn’t have the strength of character to act on it. The promise of her dreams coming true is too much for her to resist and she is soon holding the apple and making her wish.

The dwarfs are still speeding to the rescue. The next few scenes will cut rapidly between Snow White and the Queen at the cottage and the dwarfs on their way, heightening the tension as the audience wonders whether the dwarfs will arrive in time. Snow White finishes her wish and the Queen urges her to take a bite of the apple. The dwarfs are still racing home. The Queen tells her victim not to “let the wish grow cold” and watches with bated breath as Snow White takes the fatal bite of the poisoned apple. The camera remains on the Queen’s face as she recites the process of the Sleeping Death taking hold while Snow White gasps for air. The camera pans down and we see Snow White’s arm fall to the floor, the apple with a single bite out of it slipping from her fingers in a great bit of “less is more” storytelling. The Queen’s triumphant laughter is punctuated by a crash of thunder and lightning, indicating that a storm is coming. “Now I’ll be fairest in the land!” she crows, despite still being an old hag with a wart on her nose.


Leaving the cottage, the Queen spots the dwarfs and an army of forest animals racing towards her. She makes a hasty exit. Grumpy pulls his stag to a stop in front of the cottage, but instead of going in, he points in the direction that the Queen fled and urges his comrades to join him in chasing her. For a while, this puzzled me. Why would the dwarfs go after the Queen and not go into the cottage and make sure that Snow White is safe, especially when there are seven of them and they could easily split up? Then I realized that as long as the dwarfs believe that Snow White is still alive, they are pursuing the Queen in order to stop her from harming Snow White. If they had found Snow White seemingly dead and then taken off after the Queen, they would have been chasing her out of a desire for revenge, which would have thrown their status as “good guys” into question.

The Queen flees and becomes briefly tangled in branches, just as Snow White did in her frightening run into the forest. She climbs up a rocky cliff, with the dwarfs not far behind. Reaching the top, she suddenly realizes the there is nothing but a precipitous drop in front of her and the dwarfs closing in at her back. The vultures who began following her earlier settle on a branch overhead. Snow White, not being truly dead, is of no use to them, but their instincts once again tell them that death is near. With the storm growing worse, the Queen grabs a fallen tree branch and shoves one end of it beneath a convenient bolder. She intends to send the bolder down the cliff-side and crush the dwarfs. Grumpy, still in the lead, yells “Look out!” but can the dwarfs get away before the Queen sends the huge rock down upon them?

The Queen’s ultimate demise is something of a deus ex machina. As she laughs, believing herself triumphant, a bolt of lightning, much like the one she seemed to summon before to finish her potion, strikes the ground in front of her. With a horrible scream, she plummets to her doom and the boulder tumbles after her. Even the elements, it seems, have turned on the Queen. Where the lightning once heeded her call, it now saves the lives of her next intended victims and brings about her death. In case there is any doubt remaining about her fate, the vultures’ eyes widen in hungry anticipation before they take wing and circle slowly towards the ground below.


I don’t think I can possibly overstate how much of a risk this next scene is. Nowadays, we are used to characters in animated films crying, mourning, and dealing with very serious matters. But back in the 1930s, animated characters weren’t expected to engage an audience for more than a few minutes at a time. Now Disney is asking audiences not only to watch an animated film over an hour in length, but also to believe that an animated character can die and to feel as strongly as they would if that character were being portrayed by a live actress. Was the outcome of the film ever a mystery to filmgoers? Of course not. “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was a classic fairy tale long before it was a classic animated film. Even a person who had never heard the story before could likely guess what is going to happen just by watching the film. In order for audiences to suspend their disbelief, they have to buy into the character of the dwarfs. If the film hasn’t won them over, if the artists and animators and voice actors and everyone else haven’t made the dwarfs into convincing and believable personalities, if the audience isn’t connecting to the characters as real people, then the scene doesn’t work and the whole film falls apart. The fate of the entire Disney studio rested on whether or not moviegoers could be convinced to sympathize with the heartbroken dwarfs, even knowing that Snow White will soon be free of the evil spell and that every last one of the characters is really just ink and paint and a little rouge.

The dwarf’s cottage is dimly lit by two candles, with only the suggestion of rafters and a few furnishings in the background to tell us where we are. Snow White lies motionless on a bed at the center of the room. Soft organ music makes the funerary atmosphere unmistakable. Slowly, the scene becomes bright enough to reveal the dwarfs gathered around her. Tears stream down their faces and none of them says a word. Almost as soon as the camera is on him, Grumpy loses his composure and his grouchy expression. He hides his face in the chair he’s leaning on as he breaks down sobbing. Grumpy has finally learned to truly care about another person, only to have her die and leave him broken-hearted. Even normally joyful Dopey is weeping, burying his head in Doc’s shoulder as the older dwarf gently pats his back to comfort him. The forest animals crowd around the door and window and bow their heads in sorrow, heedless of the rain that gives the sense that all of nature is mourning the death of Snow White.

The next shot is of text, presumably excerpted from the storybook we saw at the beginning, as it starts off mid-sentence. We are told that the dwarfs just could not bring themselves to bury Snow White, saving her from the Queen’s prediction that she would be buried alive. Instead, they make a gold and glass coffin and keep constant watch over her. Behind the text, there is a single tree branch, which is first shedding its last dry leaves, then weighted down with snow. As the branch blossoms, heralding the arrival of spring, the text informs us that the tale of the lovely yet seemingly dead maiden has reached the Prince. (Remember him?) He has apparently been searching for his beloved this entire time and decides to seek out the beautiful girl in the coffin.

Because it’s been so long since we last saw the Prince, we get a reprise of “One Song” before he appears to help remind us who he is. The dwarfs and the forest animals gather around Snow White in her ornate coffin to lay bouquets around her and mourn their loss. Doc and Happy remove the glass coffin lid to place a bouquet in the princess’s hands, but the real purpose is to make it easier for the Prince to deliver the all-important kiss. The Prince says nothing when he arrives; he only continues to sing his song. But the dwarfs move aside to let him by, realizing who he must be. The Prince leans down to kiss Snow White, then kneels at her side and joins the dwarfs and animals in mourning her. None of the characters know that Snow White can be revived by the kiss or anything else, so their reaction is only sadness. Snow White’s prince has found her at last, but too late. But as the Disney Chorus begins singing “Someday My Prince Will Come,” Snow White stirs and stretches as if she had merely been asleep. First the dwarfs and then the animals look up and stare in amazement and joy at the miracle. Though he is the nearest to her, the Prince is the last to notice that Snow White is alive and well. Once he does, he is overjoyed and sweeps her up into his arms. The whole forest breaks out in celebration, with dwarfs and animals alike dancing and leaping about, overcome with happiness.


The Prince, perhaps not wanting to take any chances this time, immediately sets Snow White on the back of his white charger. He lifts each of the dwarfs up to her so she can give them all a goodbye kiss. Grumpy has learned from his experience and not only gladly accepts Snow White’s kiss, but blows her one in return! They all wave a last farewell to her, once again happy that she’s happy, even if they’re losing her. The princess and her prince head off to their happy ending, visually represented by his castle, gleaming in the sunset as it towers over even the clouds. It almost redundant when the book informs us that they, like all good fairy tale couples, lived happily ever after. The book closes and the very first Walt Disney feature film comes to an end.

After over seventy years, does Snow White still hold up? I cannot say that it is a flawless film or that it is indistinguishable from modern animated films. But the visuals remain stunning even today. And although our cultural has changed in the decades since this film was made, there is still plenty in the movie to keep modern audiences entertained. Whether viewers are drawn to the sweetness and innocence of the title character, the power and cruelty of the jealous Queen, the comedy and warmth of the dwarfs, or the artistry that has stood the test of time, they will keep coming back to the one that started it all.

All images in this article are copyright Disney.

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