Like almost everyone on this planet, I am a big fan of Disney cartoons. With my two little boys, I enjoy watching the latest and greatest animated feature that the miracle workers at Disney and Dreamworks are able to throw together with such brilliance. It never ceases to amaze me how these producers, animators, etc. are able to continually push the creative envelope further and further. Whether it's Toy Story, Shrek or Cars, these animators have created a massive assortment of instant classics that are sure to delight generations of fans.
With that said, I must admit that despite the obvious brilliance and technological superiority of newer animations, one "old school" cartoon stands supreme in the pantheon of animated film: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Ever since I saw it for the first time as a little boy, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has remained my all-time favorite cartoon, and I don't see that changing any time soon.
Aside from being a personal favorite, Snow White has also played a unique role in the history of animated film that literally transformed animation forever and launched Walt Disney into immortality. That's right, it wasn't Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck that made Disney the worldwide brand we all recognize today, but rather a pale, dark-haired damsel and her seven vertically-challenged roommates!
The Origins of the Snow White Story
Contrary to what some may think, Snow White was not the brainchild of Walt Disney or any of his colleagues. In fact, the original story of Snow White is much older than America itself. The first known accounts of the Snow White story come to us from the Brothers Grimm, who, during the early years of the 19th century, collected and published a number of old European folktales, many of which dated back to the Middle Ages (Snow White possibly being one of them). The original Snow White story (known in German as Schneewittchen) has several different twists that make it unique from the Disney tale we all know and love. Here are just a few:
- In the Grimm tale, Snow White is but a 16-year-old girl.
- The dwarfs (more than 7) DEMAND that Snow White work and cook for them in order for her to have their protection.
-The evil queen step-mother actually tries to kill Snow White on three different occasions. First she ties Snow White up and leaves her for dead, only to discover that the dwarfs have freed her just in time. Second, she disguises herself as a poor peddler and combs Snow White's hair with a poisoned brush but is again unsuccessful when the dwarfs come to save her. And finally, the part we all recognize, Snow White is poisoned by an apple.
-The "handsome prince" does not meet Snow White prior to her fleeing into the woods. Instead, he stumbles upon her in her coffin and pays the dwarfs to take her and the coffin with him on his journey home. While in route to his kingdom, the coffin shakes open and a piece of the poisoned apple is released from Snow White's throat causing her to regain consciousness. The "handsome prince" and Snow White then (after vomiting the apple, not embracing in a romantic kiss) ride off into the sunset to live "happily ever after."
-The evil queen stepmother, who is shocked to see Snow White alive at the wedding of her and the prince, is hunted down by the dwarfs and is forced to dance for hours on end while wearing a pair of heated iron shoes, which eventually burn her to death.
This original version of the Snow White tale (which most experts agree probably dates back to at least the 16th century) may seem strange at first to those of us in the modern era, but it was a huge hit for those who heard it first hand. In fact, the Snow White tale was not confined to Germanic lands. In Italy, the tales of Bella Venezia and The Young Slave contain many parallels, as does the Greek story of Myrsina and the Scottish tale Gold-Tree and Silver-Tree However, the non-German tales usually depict the dwarfs as rough thugs who steal, murder, plunder, etc. but are eventually cured of their evil deeds upon seeing Snow White's beauty (even though in an Albanian version the dwarfs basically gang rape her).
What is important to remember about these versions of the Snow White tale is that they provide an interesting glimpse into the late Middle Ages. With the rise of the Renaissance and Reformation, the role of women faced a strict dichotomy: on the one hand, you had the beauty, purity and ignorance of Snow White; on the other, you had the conspiring, vindictive and hateful nature of the evil stepmother. Such was the case for women of this era. Women were seen as unpredictable creatures who were in great need of "control" and "stability" that only a male partner (the "handsome prince" and dwarfs) could provide. Women were to be as Snow White: pure, innocent and helpless. All of this could, of course, be achieved by her acceptance of her new role in society. Without such a system, women were sure to become like the evil stepmother.
The Case of Margarete von Waldeck
Aside from these traditional folktale stories of old, there is another possible explanation for the origin of the Snow White story. In 1994, the German scholar, Eckhard Sander, published Schneewittchen: Marchen oder Wahrheit? (Snow White: Is It a Fairy Tale?). In his book, Sander alleges that many of the traditional components to the Snow White tale can be found in the real life story of Margarete von Waldeck (1533-1554), who was a countess and the alleged lover of Philip II of Spain. As was the case with almost all royal marriages, political aspirations were more important than love. And as was the case with Philip II (who was destined at the time to inherit the kingdom from Charles V) almost everyone of royal blood had a vested interest in his love life. And though Margarete was a countess, the relationship held no real political clout. Nothing could have been gained politically from their union and as a result, many have argued that Margarete was poisoned to get her out of the way. Her death at a young age, coupled with the fact that many of her contemporaries believed she had been poisoned (there is an obvious tremor in the handwriting of Margarete's final will) have convinced many that her death was in fact from poisoning. And as was the case with Snow White, Margarete allegedly had a terrible relationship with her stepmother (though it should be noted that the stepmother was already dead prior to Margarete's alleged poisoning so there is no way she could have been responsible). Nevertheless, the family dynamics between Margarete and her stepmother were such that many believed she had reached out from the grave (possibly possessing the body of a vagrant old woman) to poison Margarete. In addition, a wild madman of the time had been trying to kill a number of children by poisoning apples and many believed that the spirit of Margarete's stepmother was "coaching" the madman in an effort to kill Margarete von Waldeck.
In addition, it is worth noting that Margarete was forced to leave her home and live in Brussels at the age of 16 (allegedly due to problems with her stepmother). Also, the town in which she grew up (Wildungen) employed a countless number of young children to work in the copper mines as quasi-slaves. The poor conditions there caused most to die before age 20 while the rest faced severe malnutrition, which attributed to a severe stunt in their growth during puberty. As a result, these workers were often ridiculed for being "poor dwarfs" who were only good for human chattel in the mines. Margarete would have certainly been aware of them since it was primarily members of her family that "employed" the "dwarfs."
Walt Disney's Snow White
As pointed out above, it is obvious that Walt Disney did not create the Snow White story. Even so, this does not mean that his role is irrelevant in promoting and preserving this classic European folktale. Quite the contrary. Without Disney, it's likely that few people would know anything about the Snow White tale or the other Brothers Grimm tales (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, etc.) that he brought to the big screen.
But the role of Snow White, as it applies to Walt Disney, was much more than the mere preservation of a folktale. It was, in every sense of the word, the single most important and influential decision of his career. It was Snow White (not Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, a cool theme park ride, etc.) that launched Disney to greatness.
During its earliest years, the Disney brand confined itself to making small 5-10 minute animated "shorts" which usually preceded full-length feature films. Of course it was Mickey Mouse that became Disney's "golden child" during these years. The creation of the "Silly Symphonies," a running series of animated shorts that were distributed by Columbia Pictures, helped to lift the likes of Mickey, Donald and Goofy past Betty Boop and other rivals.
Despite his early success, Disney quickly saw his monopoly on animated "shorts" disappear with the emergence of Popeye the Sailor Man and Bugs Bunny. Animated shorts were becoming increasingly more expensive to make and were bringing in less and less money. Simply put, the competition was beginning to slowly squeeze the Disney franchise to death.
It was under these circumstances that Walt Disney suggested a new and radical idea for animation: create a full-length feature film. And while the notion of a full-length animated movie sounds standard to the modern movie buff, the idea of such an undertaking was seen as both crazy and suicidal in the 1930s. After all, animation was nothing more than a side show event to precede the "real" movies. Surely nobody would pay to see an hour long cartoon!
Nevertheless, Disney could not be dissuaded, even when his own wife told him that "nobody will go to see your stupid dwarf cartoon" and the New York Times labeled Snow White as "Disney's Folly." After convincing other like-minded animators to join his project, Disney was able to raise the $250,000 needed to begin production on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (the amount eventually climbed to over $1 million). In addition, Disney was forced to mortgage his home and studio as collateral. In every sense, this was an "all or nothing" gamble for Disney.
Finally, on December 21, 1937, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs debuted to sold out theaters across the country. In Los Angeles, the film received a standing ovation from a crowd that included Hollywood juggernauts like Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin, Shirley Temple, Judy Garland, Jack Benny, Ed Sullivan, etc., many of whom were engulfed in tears. Audiences were stunned to discover that they could in fact develop an emotional attachment to animated characters. Charlie Chaplin and Gary Cooper went so far as to hail Snow White as "The greatest movie ever made." By May, Snow White had become the most successful film of all-time, a position it held for 4 years until finally beat out by Gone With the Wind. In a very real sense, Walt Disney had hit a home run...a grand slam.
The success of Snow White forced others to reevaluate their "game plan" for movie production. For rival MGM, it was the success of Snow White that convinced them to take a chance on a project that almost everyone was afraid to touch...a little project known as The Wizard of Oz. After Snow White Disney would go on to create Fantasia and other blockbuster films, all of which made Disney a worldwide success story.
But none of it would have happened without a silly, gullible maiden and her seven short sidekicks, who got the "snowball" rolling for Disney, which is why there can be no question that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is the greatest cartoon ever made. In its rankings of all-time greatest movies, the American Film Institute ranks Snow White as the #41 greatest and most influential film ever made (the only cartoon to make the list). The "evil queen stepmother" ranks #10 as the all-time greatest movie villain and the film ranks #1 as the greatest animated film ever (eat that, Shrek, Donkey, Woodie, Buzz, etc.)
Oh, and let us not forget the music. The AFI also ranked "Someday My Prince Will Come" as the #19 greatest movie song of all-time. And for your listening pleasure, here is a modern twist performed by a young woman who happens to also be a member of my faith: