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Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: The full-length feature that nearly sank Disney

21 December 2017

It was called ‘Disney’s folly’ by a sceptical Hollywood. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a full-length colour animation produced by an independent studio - but who would watch it? On its 80th anniversary, NATALIE BUSHE reveals how it defied the doubters and conquered the world.

Who could sit for that long just to watch a cartoon? "It’ll blind the audience,” said some critics. But Walt Disney was prepared to take that gamble and risk his studio and home on making Snow White, the story of a young innocent girl, a princess looking for her prince; who draws the enmity of her evil stepmother, the Queen, and who seeks shelter in the forest home of seven dwarfs.

The cinema-going public of the 1930s were accustomed to cartoons as part of their viewing experience. Animation units were established parts of the Hollywood studio system, among them Terrytoons, rooted in 20th Century Fox; Universal, releasing the work of Walter Lantz; and Columbia, who produced Screen Gems until 1949.

One independent company with a singular focus on animation was the Walt Disney Studio. Led by innovator Walt Disney, their cartoon short Steamboat Willie (1928) delivered both sound and the character of Mickey Mouse to the world of animation.

And in 1932 a three-strip Technicolor technology introduced on the Silly Symphonies cartoon Flowers and Trees gained further plaudits for a studio whose work would dominate the animation section of the Academy Awards for years to come.

I had sympathetic dwarfs, I had the heavy, I had the prince and the girl, the romance; I just thought it was the perfect story
Walt Disney

Disney had been drawn to a feature-length animation for some time, broaching ideas around Alice in Wonderland and even Rip Van Winkle, before settling on the idea of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Sneewittchen (Snow White) as the basis for the film.

Furthermore, one of his earliest and strongest film memories was of the 1916 film Snow White, an hour-long silent interpretation of the story.

In Snow White Disney had a vision: “I had sympathetic dwarfs, I had the heavy, I had the prince and the girl, the romance; I just thought it was the perfect story.” His animators were sold on the idea too, after Disney reportedly acted it out over four hours for his staff.

More than just a depiction of jealousy, and of a battle of good against evil, Disney was creating Snow White’s world. A budget of $250,000 (equivalent to $4,501,259 with inflation today) was set, and production began on 1932.

Snow White is often identified as the first feature-length cel animation, though earlier animated features from Argentina, now lost, and German animator Lotte Reiniger’s silhouette animation The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) predate the film’s release.

However, what makes Disney’s film exceptional was his legendary perfectionism and innovation. The feature required a huge staff of artists to painstakingly paint each animation cel. The inkers and painters, an almost all-female department, worked an 80-hour week, including nights and weekends - often to the point of exhaustion - painting backgrounds and characters.

Walt Disney with characters from the film © Walt Disney | Collection Christophel / Alamy
Snow White, 1937 © Walt Disney | Everett Collection Inc / Alamy
Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) | Moviestore collection Ltd / Alamy

Story and characterisation were of the highest importance. Anything that interfered with the pace or storytelling was discarded, no matter how long it had taken to get there, or how much work had gone in to it.

For instance, Disney wasn’t pleased with the first iteration of Snow White - too close to a femme fatale with pouty red lips and long lashes. What was needed was a peasant girl with a wholesomeness rooted in innocence.

Artists were sent back to school for life drawing classes and a more dexterous representation of reality, resulting in characters of varying heights, and dwarfs with different characteristics. The attention to detail led to the dwarfs' centre of gravity being refocused to their bottom to increase the comedy value.

The characters had a realism the audience had never experienced before, aided in no small part by the development of the multiplane camera. Though Walt Disney’s name is on the patent, it had been used by other animators, but not with the same success as the studio.

Disney's perfectionism meant the film ran way over budget and brought the studio to the brink of closure

What the camera delivered was the ability for animators to produce the illusion of three-dimensionality. The depth of an image was created by layering multiple images on top of each other, with the freedom of moving each individual layer vertically and horizontally.

However, Disney's perfectionism meant the film ran way over budget and brought the studio to the brink of closure. After securing a last-minute bank loan, the film eventually cost $1.75m to make - seven times the original budget.

A further layer was added to the mix with songs written by Frank Churchill and Larry Morey. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is recognised as the first feature film soundtrack album to be released commercially, and songs like Whistle While You Work, Heigh-Ho and Some Day My Prince Will Come continue to charm generations to this day. It was also the first feature film to take merchandising seriously, with an extensive marketing campaign making hats and dolls and other collectibles available on its opening night.

After its premiere, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was instantly declared a hit, the reviews were ecstatic - and not just from the critics. Disney had succeeded in demonstrating that an audience would sit and watch a feature-length animation, especially when the film explores emotions, adds a balance of comedy and reinforces with a good tune.

The film’s impact is immeasurable. It opened the door for further Disney features including Pinnochio (1940), Dumbo (1941) and Bambi (1942)and without it we wouldn't have Up (2009), Waltz with Bashir (2008) or Song of the Sea (2014).

Snow White made $8m internationally on its initial release, and remains in the top ten list of the biggest grossing films (adjusted for inflation), of all time after repeated re-releases. Disney's big gamble undoubtedly paid off.

An original 1937 lobby card for the film
Walt Disney with models and sketches for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1937 | Everett Collection Inc / Alamy
The wicked witch from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1937 | Everett Collection Inc / Alamy

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