Sunday, March 24, 2013

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Snow White was Disney’s first full length animated feature film. Every now and then someone mocks Disney movies in general and Snow White in special, after all, it was made 80 years ago, but the truth is that Disney animations are wonderful. Snow White is still watch-worthy, exciting, scary, lovely, and dang well made.

It is a very classical retelling of the fairy tale. So classical one can say it’s the mother of all fairy tale movies – animated or not. I can see features from it in all the other Snow White movies I have seen the last week, and I saw quite a lot.

It also sets the imaginary fairy tale landscape in Southern Germany. (Black Forest, Neuschwanstein’s castle in Bavaria…). The fairy tale fashion and ordinary people’s homes are modeled after the German folklore, too, which is why Snow White is dressed in Tracht and the dwarfs’ home is decorated with woodcuts like a cuckoo-clock.

Disney’s version leaves out some of the original (Grimm) version, but adds something else. The dwarfs are given names and personality (even though they were named in the 1916 version also, but there they were Blick, Flick, Glick, Plick, Snick, Whick and Quee) and about 1/3 of the movie is just about the dwarfs.

Now, everyone knows the story of Snow White. Her mother dies. Her father remarries, then he dies also. Snow White is left alone with the stepmother who hates her. To stop Snow White from getting beautiful, the queen makes her wear rags and do household chores. (Back in the pre-19th century working girls were uglier than non-working girls, because they had tanned skin and hard hands.) Nevertheless, Snow White grows up to be a beautiful woman, and her stepmother orders the huntsman to kill her. He can’t, because Snow White is not only beautiful, she is also sweet, lovely and innocent. So he tells Snow White to run away and never come back again, kills a bypassing deer or wild boar or something,  and takes that animal’s heart to the queen as evidence of that he killed Snow White. The mirror tells the queen that she has been lied to, that Snow White is still alive, and prettier than ever. In the original story, the queen tries several different ways before coming up with the poisoned (or bewitched) apple. Snow White lies in death-like sleep, and the dwarfs believe she is dead, but she is too beautiful to be buried, so they make a glass casket to her. The prince comes by and just have to kiss her, and now it just happens to be so that love’s first kiss is the only thing that could break the spell, and so Snow White and the prince live happily ever after.

I’m sorry if a spoiler alert should have been in order, I assume everyone knows this version of Snow White, even better than Grimm’s version. This is the one that has been repeated, retold and used as canon in practically every version of Snow White that came after 1937.  I might not be happy about that – I read Grimm’s unedited version of Snow White already when I was 7-8, and that is my Snow White. In Disney’s version the dwarfs have been made into funny little men, when they were kind, old miners, rather distinguished gentlemen in Grimm’s version. They were also very tidy in Grimm’s version, whereas Disney makes them quite wild and brattish. I suppose that is what people think seven men living amongst themselves in the middle of nowhere would be. One needs a woman’s gentle touch to make houses into homes.

Nevertheless, I recommend Disney’s Snow White to everyone who likes movies, not just fairy tales, fantasy or animated movies. If for nothing else, then to pay attention to Lucille La Verne, the Queen. She is the real star of this movie. Lucille La Verne had had a long and successful like as an actress, both on stage and movies, before Snow White. Snow White was her last movie. I think she is amazing. Just listen to how she changes her voice and manner of speaking as she turns from the beautiful queen to old hag…  (The story tells that she took off her dentures to change her voice…  I can imagine :-D)

Disney handpicked the 18 years old Adriana Caselotti to play Snow White. Her father was a music teacher, her mother an opera singer, and her sister was also an opera singer and voice coach. It is amazing that Adriana had such a squeaky voice, but that – and her bright soprano (or squeaky)  - made her the Snow White Walt wanted. And what Walt wanted, Walt got… They say he was so protective of his Snow White, he didn’t allow Adriana sing in any other movies or even on radio. I have to say I’m grateful, because I can’t stand her voice.

Another good reason to see this movie is for the use of music. I know of no-one who can use music as masterly to control the emotions of the audience.  Also, this movie is full of memorable tunes. I have been humming both one and another this week. It’s no wonder Disney has received quite a lot of Oscars for music.

Note also how Disney often makes things happen in tune with the music. Like the cleaning scene. How the squirrel uses his tail to mop off the spider webs, accompanied by the song, how the clothes are being washed, everything happens to the music.

A third good reason is to look at the results of Disney’s hard demands. I remember watching some documentary from Disney studios and Walt Disney's ideas about animation. He made all the animators study real animals, to get the movements correct. So when the animals lead Snow White through the forest, they all move in a typical manner to their own species. Also, when they enter the house, all the animals move suspiciously, all in their own way... and at the same time, they have been given enough human behavior - and that of pets; cats and dogs; to make Snow White's discussion with them understandable.

There are small jokes mixed into the story, like when Snow White dusts the shelf, and the squirrels and chipmunk sitting on it sneeze, one at a time, the little chipmunk sneezes so hard, he is thrown into a keg..

I noticed this time some details I didn’t remember from earlier times.

It is interesting how she got nice clothes when she was to go out to be killed.

"Silence!” the queen says, and I add “I'll kill you!" :-D

The scene in the forest where everything looks scary and threatening is wonderful... But Disney has always been masterly with creating emotional response. Everything, colors, shapes, music and editing plays together.

“The Sleeping Death can only be broken by love's first kiss... no fear of that. She will be buried alive...”
So this is where they got the idea in both Snow White, the Tale of Terror, and Snow White and the Huntsman.

The Queen/Witch has been created by the same person who created Goofy. I can see some of his expressions on the Witch’s face, which made the apple scene more funny than scary.

I hate the scene with the birds “helping” Snow White bake the pie. All I can think of is “Oh no, bird poo all over the pie! Those birds walking with their dirty feet on the dough… yuk…”

“It’s apple pie that makes manfolks’ mouth water”

I am reminded of Scarlett’s mothers deadbed scene from Gone with the Wind, when Snow White lies on the table between candles.

Thankfully there are no sequels.

Nevertheless, while I was looking at background information, I read that one of the animators, Art Babbitt (he created the Queen), got into trouble with Walt Disney, because he supported the strike of the "lesser talents", the inkers, gel painters and others, and Walt never forgave any of the people who were on strike. Now, he could avoid the "lesser talents", but main animator? No.

So Art did some work for other studios, like Warner Brothers. He was one of the animators working with “Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs”, 1943.

I watched this Merrie Melody. It’s only 8-10 minutes long. It’s a modern retelling of Snow White. It starts with a “mammy” telling a story to her little child. The heroine is So White, who works for the evil Queen "who was as rich as she was evil. She had EVERYTHING! (meaning, she was a hoarder of rationed goods, like rubber, coffee and sugar. Very unpatriotic 1941.) She is being courted by Prince Chawming, who in reality only visits her because of her maid. Queen sees them dance and calls a "blackout team" (who kills midgets for half a price and japs for free) to kill So White, but she is so beautiful and sexy, that she charms them all and they let her out in the middle of nowhere. Which happens to be close to a military training camp. So she becomes a cook there. Queen finds this out, and dresses herself as a "candy apple seller", and gives her a poisoned candy apple, and she dies. The dwarfs avenge her death by killing the Queen (arriving to the spot in a Jeep, a Beep and a Peep.) Prince Chawming tries to kiss So White back to life. He is a master of kissing, but how ever much he kisses her, she won't wake up. In the end Dopey dwarf kisses her and up she jumps! Prince asks Dopey what makes him so hot, and he just smiles and says it's a military secret. And he kisses So White again, and her pigtails jump straight up and the red ribbons turn into American flags. (So, young black men, if you want girls, join the army.)

This cartoon has been on censored lists for decades because of the racist stereotypes… Queen has painted a cute little "white" mouth on her enormous lips. Prince is dressed in a zoot suit, and has gold teeth, except for the front teeth, that are dice. So White is dressed all in red, white and blue, but her skirt is very short and her blouse very tight... your stereotypical exotic, sexy young black woman.

It is also war time propaganda.

What makes this version of Snow White interesting is that it parodies Disney's Snow White (and other things); that it is set in modern time, with all jazz soundtrack, and all the characters and almost all voice actors are black. Bob Clampett (the director) says that it was made in demand for more black characters in Warner Brother's cartoons. Several black people, for example the voice actors and musicians, participated in the storyboard phase to make the dialogue as authentic "black" as possible.  The music is exceptional, the animation work is very good… This movie makes me wonder how much of the things we today consider racist are in reality just reflection of our fear of being non-PC.

I was also interested of the fact, that Dorothy Dandridge’s mother and sister are part of the cast. Ruby Dandridge is the narrator of the story, and Vivian is So White.

Anyway, read this: Gray on Coal Black and then watch the short. (if for nothing else, then to be able to compare that to The Princess and the Frog)

I also saw the Snow White from 1916, which is said to have been Walt Disney’s inspiration for his own Snow White. Unfortunately, there are some parts missing from the remastered version available on-line. Nevertheless, it is well worth seeing.

It is very charming, and Snow White, played by then 33 years olf Marguerite Clark, is adorable. She was only 4’10 long, and slender, so she could well play a teenaged Snow White. Dorothy Cumming, who plays the vain queen Brangomar, was only 21.

In this, the queen has made a scullery maid of Snow White. The cook sends her to the huntsman to fetch some ducks for the queen’s lunch. The huntsman has three children, and they adore Snow White. They have a bird in a cage, and Snow White tells them to free it. Now, a prince is out hunting and is about to shoot the bird, when Snow White and the huntsman’s children run to him and plead him to let the bird live. He falls for Snow White, of course, but she won’t reveal her name to him. Later in the castle she finds out that a prince is expected to visit the queen, and she so wishes to see him, so her maids of honor dress her as one of them, and she dances a little dance with them, and sees the prince. It is the same prince, of course.

Now, the prince was sent to queen Brangomar to arrange the marriage between himself and princess Snow White, but he tells the queen that he can’t marry the princess, because he is in love with another. The queen thinks he means her, but he corrects her and says it’s one of the princess’ maids of honor. The queen calls in all of them, but Snow White is missing. She isn’t one of the maids. Now, here’s a part of the movie missing, so I don’t know how  the truth came out, but it is revealed that the maid the prince loves is none other than Snow White, the princess. The queen isn’t happy about this, but an agreement is to be respected. Reluctantly she promises the wedding to happen in a year and a day. During that time the princess is to be in a finishing school, which sounds more like a correction facility for bad princesses.

Now it is so that the queen is beautiful only because of magic, and she promised the witch Snow White’s heart as a payment for her beauty. She sends the huntsman to take Snow White to the school, but in private she tells the huntsman to bring her Snow White’s heart. The huntsman refuses, because he loves Snow White as his own children, but the queen threatens to throw his children in the tower if he won’t do as she says. The huntsman cries bitterly, but must do as he is told. In the forest he sees a boar and gets the idea that he can kill the animal instead of Snow White, and Snow White can run away. The queen doesn’t trust the huntsman, and throws him and his children in the tower anyway. She takes Snow White’s heart to the witch, who uses it to a potion, which is to give her beautiful hair, but as it is not Snow White’s heart, she gets pig tails all over her head instead…

It is hard to read some of the texts, as they are written in fracture script, and it is a bit irritating that parts of the movie are missing, but I love this movie. I love the Snow White, I love the huntsman, I love the witch’s cat…

See it.

1 comment:

Helena said...

I had no idea there was a silent movie version of Snow White -- the one photo you show has some amazing costumes. But I especially want to see the Coal Black short. It definitely sounds non-PC and like war propaganda, but the jazz music and the black actors' voices would be exciting to hear. I know that in the 1940's white movies sometimes had "black" scenes, for example Lena Horne singing a number. But the versions that were shown in the South had those scenes taken out, and the movies were written so that the "black" scenes could be removed and the story would be intact. Sad, how racism was accommodated.

I haven't seen Disney's Snow White since I was a little girl, but I should watch it again as an adult. The art work was beautiful and the animation was way ahead of its time, however simple it looks to us now. And when you mentioned the music and songs I suddenly remembered, "Hi-ho, hi-ho, it's off to work we go..."

Some things you never forget.