Monday, November 15, 2010

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

By Cinema Muse

Welcome to the first entry in our Disney Princess Series. We will be going through all the entries on this list in chronological order for the rest of the month, culminating with Alex's review of Disney's new take on the story of Rapunzel, Tangled.

When I was asked to do this review, I realized that I really needed to go back and watch it again because I hadn't actually seen it in nineteen years. There's a reason for that, too, namely that it was way too frightening for a wimpy kid like me. I really wanted to like this film when I was little, especially since it has many charming moments, but quite frankly it scared the pants off me. And when I went back to watch it again recently, I still found it profoundly creepy. Not only is the sorceress/queen frighteningly evil, but our princess gets put in a coffin, and there's disturbing, dark imagery throughout the film.

One thing I'll say about for this film, however, is that it hasn't been overly marketed with shameless sequels, which is good considering it would probably make Walt Disney's ashes spontaneously combust. Incredibly popular at the time of its release, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is all but overlooked by the current generation, and even classic Disney fans seem to find the film unpalatable compared to other old Disney movies like Cinderella and Peter Pan. So why is this former classic now such an ugly stepsister (pun intended)? I mean, Clark Gable and Carole Lombard were seen openly weeping with delight during the premiere, which opened to unanimously raving reviews. Why doesn't it touch us the same way anymore?

Well first off all films, like everything else, are a product of their time, and when you remove them from that context, some of the original significance will be lost. Secondly we live in very cynical times, and Snow White is perhaps the most earnest and artless of all Disney's films. I suppose Disney was trying to maintain the fairytale archetypes of Snow White and the prince, but in doing so he left them feeling very unsubstantial. Even though we see Snow White terrified in one scene, crying in another, and laughing with glee with the dwarfs, she always feels like a character, not a real person.

There's also something deeply disturbing about the way Snow White is drawn. The highly anachronistic '30s bob doesn't really bother me, but her over-sized hair bow, rounded face, squeaky voice, and lack of a bustline make her thoughts of romance with the prince seem disturbingly pedophilic, especially since everyone seems to refer to her as the "little princess." Still, the prince looks like he could still be a teenager or something, so it could be more of a Romeo-and-Juliet relationship, which is slightly less disturbing.

But is there a reason for Snow White's seeming blandness? I mean, the one moment when she shows a bit of logical frailty, she feels bad about her emotional outburst. I refer, of course, to her adventure in the woods when she finds out her stepmother wants to kill her and she must flee for her life. While running in the forest, her imagination acts up, and she imagines the dark gnarled trees are monsters. Finally, she is just so overwrought that she sits down and cries, which is very relate-able, but she goes and ruins the moment of pathos by saying that it was unpardonable to get so scared, and then sings a happy song.

When I saw that scene as an adult, however, the metaphorical light in my head kicked on. Snow White is meant to be an exemplar character, embodying the spirit of the 1930s. As such she is not allowed to let hardships get her down. Millions of Americans at the time were going through the same plight, losing their homes and dignity through no fault of their own, but they couldn't let themselves wallow in self-pity either. So yes, Snow White's bob is emblematic of her significance to her audience. She may be in medieval garb, but she's a woman of the '30s. And that means that audiences of the day could naturally feel a kinship to her because they could relate to her situation. Too bad it doesn't hold up in 2010.

Our protagonist, however, is not the only one who seems a little flat in this film. Although the dwarfs are supposed to be the most colorful characters in this film, their personalities are fairly one-note, and their humor extremely predictable. Also I noticed that the dwarf Happy doesn't really get much screen time. I suppose the writers just couldn't think of many amusing things for a character whose defining characteristic is mirth. I will say, however, that I found the forest animals to be charmingly endearing in their mute sympathy with Snow White and the way they helped her clean the dwarfs' house.

I also really like the music in this film, especially "Whistle While You Work," "Some Day My Prince Will Come," and the "Hi-Ho Chorus." I wouldn't say that any of the music is outstanding, but it all fits the intended mood nicely. Some of the orchestrations may feel dated now, but in the '30s, it must have seemed particularly powerful, since it would have fit the conventions of movie music better. The only problem I really have is that I find Snow White's nasally, weak soprano to be insipid at best and infuriating at worst.

Now let me say why I find this movie completely inappropriate for young children, namely the Evil Queen. The first image we get in the film is of this character conjuring an enslaved demon/spirit from the nether realm who speaks to her in the mirror. And if that weren't frightening enough, said demon of the mirror speaks in a deep, otherworldly voice calculated to scare. The next part that I found deeply disquieting as a child was when the Queen tells her huntsman to cut out Snow White's heart. That detail is a bit too gruesome for young kids. Then we get one of the most frightening sequences is all of cinema when the Queen learns that Snow White is still alive, and storms down into her dungeon lair to find a spell that will kill the princess once and for all. That scene is quite literally a descent into madness and death, and we have symbols of both lining the dark, dank dungeon where she mixes the potions that will poison the apple and transform herself into a hag. As she goes along to the dwarf's cottage, the Queen is followed by a pair of vultures who hang around for Snow White's death and the Queen's fight with the dwarfs, casting an ominous shadow over the whole proceedings. They are not just there for symbolism, however, because the play a role in the Queen's death. After she falls off the cliff and gets squished by a boulder--not that we get to see her squished body, mind you--the vultures swoop down to prey on her still-warm body. Yes, that's a bit excessive and gruesome. I mean, it's enough to see her fall off the cliff to know she's dead. The boulder and the vultures almost excite our pity. To cap off all this kid-friendly fare, we have to see our main character decked out in a coffin with everyone around in tears and dirge-like music playing. I mean, even knowing, as everyone does, that she will be awakened by a kiss does not stop this from being a profoundly sad scene, especially since the animators did a really good job of making her coffin look like the kind of medieval sculpture of the deceased that you would find on a tomb in a Gothic cathedral. I will, however, give this film credit for knowing how to play our emotions like a violin.

So Disney's first full-length feature is a solid outing with a lot of good points, but it remains too raw, too flawed to be enjoyed by children today. It certainly changed the industry, but it's easily eclipsed by later Disney outings, including the quintessential princess film which I shall be reviewing tomorrow.

**Please check out Cinema Muse's blog of classic Hollywood and book adaptation reviews, Seeing Sepia

1 comment:

  1. Excellent review! I agree that the best part of the movie is the forest animals. I am also really glad that sequels have not been made because it would really ruin the integrity of the movie.