****/**** Image A Sound A Extras A-
story adaptation Ted Sears, Richard Creedon, Otto Englander, Dick Richard, Earl Hurd, Merrill De Maris, Dorothy Ann Blank, Webb Smith
supervising director David Hand
by Bill Chambers Walt Disney was shooting for the moon with 1937's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, not just his first but the first animated feature. He of the Silly Symphony wanted it to have prestige, fostering an obsessive-compulsive streak within the studio that is curiously reflected in the film's epic preoccupation with orderliness, cleanliness, and labour. It has the air of manifesto when one considers that of the eight songs on the soundtrack, two, "Whistle While You Work" and "Heigh-ho," are about the satisfaction of work1 while a third, "Bluddle-Uddle-Um-Dum," is a set of bathing instructions subtitled "The Dwarfs' Washing Song." In her unrelenting fastidiousness, Snow White reeks of self-portraiture (armchair Freuds might speculate on Snow White's other qualities, such as her being so perfect as to drive the competition mad, as they apply to Disney, already an Ozymandian figure armed with multiple Academy awards by the time of production), and it's because of this that her predilection for housework doesn't feel like the typical chauvinism abundant in the Disney canon. When she scolds two squirrels for sweeping dirt under the carpet, it's difficult not to hear it as an ethos.
What sort of bizarre enchanted kingdom is this, anyway? You've got a Princess (guess who?) and a so-called Prince of adjacent monarchies, and no other trace of civilization save a nearby cottage where seven pint-sized diamond miners live. Despite being neighbours, they're invariably stunned to encounter one another. Snow White (voice of Adriana Caselotti) has been pressed into maid service and forced to wear hand-me-downs so that the Queen (Lucille La Verne), her stepmother, may remain "the fairest one of all." And yet they are veritable strangers: When her Magic Mirror (Moroni Olsen) reports, "But hold, a lovely maid I see/Rags cannot hide her gentle grace," the Queen cannot figure out who, out of all the other women in the kingdom (one, by my count), he could be talking about. Snow White, by the way, switches to regal attire after the opening sequence. Is it intended to show that she's making an effort in case she runs into the Prince (Harry Stockwell, father of Dean) again, or are we to gather that royal subjects, even ones banished to the scullery, are expected to dress up for things like flower-picking? Whatever the explanation, it's abrupt. Despite the sound infrastructure the original Grimm fairy tale provides, the film's story comes together a little like a Picasso.
Work on the screenplay proceeded "incrementally," according to Disney biographer Neal Gabler--each individual moment was given the same exacting attention as the last, which could account for these "discrete" details of narrative, including the disproportionate amount of screentime devoted to CLEANING!!! The bug becomes a feature, though, once folded into the picture's Expressionism, part of both Disney's pursuit of cinematic affect and his aesthetic embrace of the story's Germanic roots. (To that end, Disney drafted Scandinavian artist Gustaf Tenggren, who had illustrated the 1923 German edition of Grimm's Fairy Tales, to design backgrounds for the film.) When the dwarfs enter one shot as towering shadows, it's a funny sight gag (Tim Burton steals it in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure), but it's also how they see themselves and how the movie, for all of Snow White's infantilization of them, sees them, too--they work their little asses off and heroically take on the Queen at the climax. When Snow White is exiled into the woods by the merciful Huntsman, the trees have scolding eyes, the vines grasp at the hem of her skirt, the logs skimming a pond become hungry crocodiles; it's her terror externalized--which is the essence of Expressionism.
So, too, does the ample negative space surrounding these characters reflect a certain psychological reality, however accidentally. Dwelling within fortresses of solitude real and imagined, they're such hardcore solipsists that when Dopey locks up the diamond vault, he hangs the key on a hook next to the vault's entrance--who else is going to use it? All that someday-my-prince-will-come stuff is passé and probably as insidious as ever, but the film also promotes venturing out of one's comfort zone and there's value in that, even if this is Disney allegorizing his move into features. Snow White and the Dwarfs don't just make friends when they cross paths; they join society. It's fitting that the Queen literally drops off the face of the earth in her old-hag disguise, since it suggests a lifetime was misspent in contemptuous isolation.
In typically convoluted and perverse fashion, the Queen meets a much different fate in Grimm: She accepts an invitation to Snow White's wedding, where she is forced to don a pair of iron shoes straight out of the fire and dance herself to death! In Disney's film, she's perched at the edge of a cliff about to spring a trap on the dwarfs when lightning strikes the bluff, sending her fatally plummeting to the ground below. (More Expressionism: It's Snow White's apparent demise that triggers a storm, as if the sky is hysterical with grief.) It's a Rube Goldberg bit of business that was surely in the back of Chuck Jones's mind when he created Wile E. Coyote, and it gave birth to the Disney method of dispatching villains in a chaste way: toss them off a high surface and wait for the screams to fade. Disney, of course, also developed a reputation hereafter of orphaning the hero. The distinction here is that the villain and the parent are one and the same. Gabler speculates that what drew Disney to the material, which Walt first saw as a filmed play in his teens, is that he regarded the Snow White/Queen dynamic as a cookie-cutter version of the one he had with his father, a suppressive presence in Disney's life whose tyranny had "driven Walt to seek a better imaginative world."
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is such a quixotic undertaking in historical context that it was obviously made by someone with something to prove, and it silenced all skeptics by becoming the biggest box-office hit of 1937, in addition to netting Disney another Oscar--plus seven miniature Oscars, back when the Academy had a sense of humour--and giving him the capital to open a fully independent movie studio. But what Disney took from the hosannas was motivation to continue maturing the house style, to push his aesthetic to extremes of naturalism (Bambi) and abstraction (Fantasia), when all audiences really wanted was more of the same. If Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had intended to chart a course for future Cinderellas and Sleeping Beautys, it wouldn't have cherry-picked so heavily from their sources for alternatives to the Grimms' arcane plotting. Whenever the studio's faltering it tends to reboot itself with another retelling of a traditional fairy tale, making this visionary, idiosyncratic film seem far more prototypical than it actually is.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has been reissued on Blu-ray to inaugurate The Signature Collection, an imprimatur that, as far as I can tell, licenses Disney to reissue vault titles digitally and with a smattering of exclusive content to spur double-dips and irk completists. Recycled from the previous BD, the 1.33:1, 1080p transfer is gorgeous and definitive. In those early days of bringing their animated classics to the format, Disney applied a painstaking method of grain subtraction that sought to preserve the Blakeian infernal method in the animators' handiwork, and the image on this disc strikes a hypnotic balance of organic integrity and HiDef pop. Still I wonder: Should the "signature edition" be recycling a seven-year-old master? Perhaps the registration issue2 that rears its head during the Queen's frightening transformation into the peddler could be corrected with today's technology. Note that there is a "DisneyView" option that fills the windowbox panes with scenery for those who won't suffer black bars.
As for the 7.1 DTS-HD MA track, it broadens and deepens the soundstage so humbly as to seem redundant next to the DD 1.0 "restored mono" option (sadly, still not lossless), though with the latter one misses the robustness of the remix. The recycled audio commentary, meanwhile, is essential. Moderated by the great John Canemaker, it excerpts extensively from a career interview with Uncle Walt himself conducted in the mid-'50s that reminds a little of Truffaut's interrogation of Hitchcock. Disney doesn't say much that will be new to those with any degree of expertise, but there's something thrilling about hearing first-hand recollections of, and rationales for, say, the courses he started in-studio to hone his employees' drafting skills.
Sadly, none of the Silly Symphonies or DVD content from 2003 survived this incarnation. Recycled from the previous Blu-ray, "Snow White Returns" (9 mins., HD) sees Disney mascot Don Hahn walking us through recovered plans for a sequel short--aptly-titled Snow White Returns--that would've made use of two deleted scenes from Snow White proper, elsewhere viewable in their entirety as pencil tests. Incidentally, "Soup Eating Sequence" (4 mins., HD) is completely superfluous, but reading supervising director David Hand's argument for including "Bed Building Sequence" (6 mins., HD) in one of the Disney biographies convinced me it should've stayed: He felt the dwarfs building the cot that would ultimately serve as Snow White's deathbed could've been poignant (certainly more poignant than the dwarfs simply sobbing), and I agree. That tidbit is why I don't recommend relying solely on studio-sanctioned bonus material for scholarship.
Five other video segments return, starting with "Bringing Snow White to Life" (12 mins., HD), which is largely a pretext for singling out the specific contributions of artists like Vladimir "Bill" Tytla (the man who brought Grumpy to life), Fred Moore (who added whites to the eyes of Mickey Mouse), Grim Natwick, Art Babbitt, and still others. Hahn comes back for "Decoding the Exposure Sheet" (7 mins., HD), a breakdown of sequence 2A, shot 21 through the prism of an exposure sheet stamped December 15, 1937--a date perilously close to the movie's opening day. Two "Story Meetings" (formerly "In Walt's Words") offer aural re-enactments of Walt and his staff walking through the assassination attempt on Snow White ("The Huntsman") and hashing out guiding principles for animating dwarfs ("The Dwarfs"). These are introduced by The Little Mermaid co-helmers Ron Clements and John Musker, respectively. Lastly, "Animation Voice Talent" (6 mins., SD) is an ancient holdover that shines a spotlight on the cast, many members of which were poached from vaudeville. The interactive tour of "Hyperion Studios," where Disney set up shop in the '30s, likewise resurfaces in a consolidated 31-minute form. It's a fun retrospective on "corridor culture," chance meetings of the mind that proved a constructive method of problem-solving.
New to this release is an extended cut of 2009's "The One That started It All", rechristened "Disney’s First Feature: The Making of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (33 mins., HD), that finds a home for some orphaned featurettes. A glossy overview of a production alternately referred to as "Disney's folly" and, by Gabler, "the most deliberated-upon movie of all time," it's worth watching for Canemaker's droll retelling of the "banker's screening." In an archival talking head, the late Ward Kimball remembers coming up with the quintessential gag where all the Dwarfs' noses pop up over the bed in little Kilroy poses; he feels he should've received $10 for it rather than the $5 he got. Another "In Walt's Words" on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs parlays a 4-minute chunk of Walt reminiscing from the yak-track into a montage of behind-the-scenes footage (including rotoscopes of the actors hired to pose as Snow White and various dwarfs), while "Iconography" (7 mins., HD) is a strangely discursive piece on the film's now-iconic aspects. Speaking of which, "@DisneyAnimation: Designing Disney's First Princess" (5 mins., HD) is a roundtable discussion between current Disney animators Mark Henn, Bill Schwab, Lorelay Bove, and Michael Giaimo wherein they examine the contemporary pop-cultural influences on the look of Snow White, whose nostrily, Bette Davis-eyed beauty is the movie's biggest period "tell."
Rounding out the disc are a couple of uniquely demoralizing extras aimed at younger viewers: the live-action listicle "The Fairest Facts of Them All: 7 Things You May Not Know About Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (5 mins., HD), hosted by Disney Channel starlet du jour Sofia Carson, and "Snow White In Seventy Seconds" (HD), in which an uncredited teenage girl inexplicably raps the plot of the film. For the record, seventy seconds is a lie--it actually lasts forever. I timed it. Previews for The Good Dinosaur and Zootopia cue up on startup.
1.This pro-labour message of course reflected the tenor of the day.
2.As the great preservationist Robert A. Harris gratifyingly explained, once upon a time:
"Those with "eagle eyes" will note that certain frames, now exposed for all to see, go out of focus.This is not an error of the crack Disney team led by archivist Theo Gluck.What we're seeing for the very first time via these extremely high resolution scans, are either damaged or mis-placed cells within the multi-plane camera, that for a single frame are out of focus, or otherwise affected. I've never noted this before, and it shows up the care with which the original elements were scanned and processed.
This is not an error of the crack Disney team led by archivist Theo Gluck. What we're seeing for the very first time via these extremely high resolution scans, are either damaged or mis-placed cells within the multi-plane camera, that for a single frame are out of focus, or otherwise affected. I've never noted this before, and it shows up the care with which the original elements were scanned and processed.You're seeing everything."
You're seeing everything."