Snow White's famous run through the forest


Original Medium: Theatrical animation
Produced by: Walt Disney Productions
First appeared: 1937
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Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs was not, as commonly believed, the first animated feature — but the chances …

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… are, you've never heard of the obscuros that came before it. It's certainly the first to succeed in the American market, and the first to be critically acclaimed as a masterpiece.

And it's the first to become a classic. Even today, millions flock to see it whenever it's re-released, and millions flock to buy it whenever it's available on video.

Walt Disney was probably thinking about an animated feature at least as early as 1933. By '34, hints were starting to appear in the press, and it appears he was figuring it would cost about $250,000, i.e., as much as ten Silly Symphonies. That makes sense — ten times the length, ten times the cost. But work had scarcely started before the realization set in that it was a lot more difficult to make one feature than ten shorts. To hold an audience's attention that long, he needed more depth, finer characterization, greater complexity. He needed to develop techniques that had never been seen before, and he needed to spend more money for each foot of completed film than had ever been lavished on a cartoon. The final product weighed in at almost six times his original estimate.

It's impossible to give full credits, because so many people worked on it, in so many ways. A few of them were David Hand (supervising director); Adriana Caselotti (voice of Snow White); Lucille LaVerne (voice of the Wicked Queen); and Scotty Mattrew, Roy Atwell, Pinto Colvig, Otis Harlan, Billy Gilbert and Moroni Olsen (voices of Dwarfs). Stellar animators and designers like Ward Kimball (creator of Jiminy Cricket), Grim Natwick (creator of Betty Boop) and Shamus Culhane (Woody Woodpecker, Popeye the Sailor) were reduced to mere faces in the crowd of this gargantuan production.

And by the time the film was in the can, Disney was already thinking of the next one. Just before it was released, he told a reporter, "We've learned such a lot since we started this thing! I wish I could yank it back and do it all over again!"

Audiences, however, seemed quite satisfied with it. As heavily promoted as it was, it could probably have earned back its cost just as a novelty; and indeed, it was the highest-grossing film of all time until knocked from that perch by Gone with the Wind.. But the novelty factor wouldn't have given it its enduring value. That took scenes like Snow White's terrified run through the forest and the Wicked Queen's fascinating transformation into an ugly crone. It took catchy songs like "Heigh Ho" and "Whistle While You Work". Most of all, it took a compelling, satisfying story. From "Once upon a time" to "And they lived happily ever after", viewers of all ages were caught up in Snow White's hopes and dreams, dreads and dangers.

Snow White had its world premiere on December 21, 1937. It was preceded by a serialized version in the Sunday comics, written by Merrill deMaris and drawn by Hank Porter, which King Features Syndicate began distributing on December 12. The film's general release, on Feb. 4, 1938, happened just as the comic strip Dwarfs were marching home from the mine, and about to discover their unexpected guest. No doubt, it was intended to make kids (and quite a few grown-ups) rush to theatres to see how the story would turn out.

The merchandising of Snow White came fast and furious, and never let up. Dolls, storybooks, figurines, etc. abounded, and still do. The Sunday page was collected, packaged as a comic book, published by Dell, and repeatedly reprinted by Dell, Gold Key, Gladstone and, as recently as 1995, Marvel. Whitman Publishing made a Big Little Book of it. Dopey, apparently the most appealing of the Dwarfs, was marketed as a separate character, occasionally appearing with Donald Duck on the cover of Walt Disney's Comics & Stories; and the whole Dwarf ensemble still had enough cachet years later to co-star in a comic book with Bambi's rabbit friend, Thumper.

Its impact on the animation industry was profound. The Max Fleischer Studio immediately started production on a feature of its own, Gulliver's Travels, which was released in 1939, and followed it with Mr. Bug Goes to Town in '41 — and the resulting financial over-extension was a large factor in the studio's demise in 1942. Walter Lantz announced an animated feature, which was never completed. Warner Bros. responded not just with Bob Clampett's 1942 parody, Coal Black an' de Sebben Dwarfs (seldom seen today because of its racial caricatures), but also in more subtle ways. In such cartoon shorts as Chuck Jones's Tom Thumb in Trouble (1940), they looked like they might be practicing characterization and story structure, with an eye toward a feature of their own. Even within the Disney organization, it signaled a de-emphasis on the cartoon shorts that had hitherto sustained the company, in favor of increasing reliance on features.

Mostly, tho, it simply raised the bar on animation. The craft was gradually transformed as the techniques and expertise developed during Snow White's production spread throughout the industry.

It was many years before any studio but Disney made a real mark with an animated feature. Nonetheless, the creation of Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs was a watershed event for all practitioners of the art.


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Text ©2001-10 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Walt Disney Productions.