A Pictorial History of the Movies: 1937 – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Oh man, it’s Snow White.
This one is going to be a lot of fun. There’s such a great story behind this one.
But also… it’s Snow White. There is no possibility this wasn’t going to be the defining film of 1937. You can’t even make a case for anything else that better defines 1937 than this film without having to admit you’re deliberately trying not to pick this. It’s not possible.
I’m gonna spend this article talking about the story behind the film. Because we all know what it’s about and we’ve all seen it and we all know it’s a masterpiece of animation, that holds up even today. We don’t need to talk about that. I want everyone to know how the film was made.
There are few perfect choices out there for a list like this, and this is one of them.
So production on the film began in 1934. Walt announced he wanted to make features, and that the budget on this movie would be $250,000. Which is about ten times more than one of his Silly Symphonies cost. It was going to be the first feature-length cel-animated film ever.
And naturally, nobody wanted to make it. Walt and Roy had to fight to get it made. They actually called it “Disney’s Folly.” (Remember the last time there was a “folly”? Turned out pretty well for Seward, didn’t it?)
Walt and his staff wrote up 21 pages of notes in August with ideas for the film. Most of them were gags for the film, as they all realized the dwarves were the main attraction of the film. He decided that they should each have individual personalities, as the story does not name them.
They pooled about fifty names for the dwarves, including Jumpy, Deafy, Dizzey, Hickey, Wheezy, Baldy, Gabby, Nifty, Sniffy, Swift, Lazy, Puffy, Stuffy, Tubby, Shorty and Burpy. And they went through a process of elimination (why has nobody turned this story into a movie? Imagine just watching that scene, let alone being there as it happened), where they narrowed down the list to seven finalists.
By the end of October, they had come up with names for Doc, Grumpy, Bashful, Sleepy and Happy. Jumpy was a selection at this point, and another dwarf whose name no one remembers in any of the literature. They also had an eighteen-page outline of the story, where there were constant gags, and the Queen trying to kill Snow White with a poison comb. Which was part of the original story. This was to be before the apple.
After this, the Queen was going to capture the Prince and bring him to her dungeon, and bring the dungeon’s skeletons to life, making them dance for him. (One of them was to be named Prince Oswald.) The idea was that she was trying to get him to marry her instead. But he refused, so she then left him down there to die as she left with the poisoned apple. (Apparently a sketch of the scene showed him in an underground chamber that filled with water.)
The idea was that the forest animals would help the prince escape, and he would race to save Snow White, but be unable to, since he took the wrong road (since unlike Snow White, he can’t understand the animals). But then, even afterward, True Love’s Kiss would save her. All of this was not in the final film, of course, which explains why the Prince has next to no characterization at all in the final film.
At this point, the film was more comical, and Walt was offering “$5 a gag” to all his staff. (Seriously, I’m writing this script right now in my head. It’s great.) But then Walt felt this approach would compromise the plausibility of it all, so they spent more time developing the Queen. They then took some time off from the project, probably due to doubting their ability to make it, before returning to it at the end of 1935.
By this point, they decided the crux of the film was to be the relationship between the Queen and Snow White. They then cut a few sequences that were already either partially or fully animated involving the dwarves.
Fun little trivia about films that influenced this one: 1936’s Romeo and Juliet, which was specifically referenced in meetings, as was 1931’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The staff also recommended Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, whose references can clearly be seen when Snow White is running through the forest.
The budget on the film eventually went up to about $1.5 million, and Walt had to mortgage his house in order to help finance it. He had everything riding on the success or failure of this movie.
The film premiered on December 21, 1937. At the end of the film, it was given a standing ovation. Walt and the dwarves were on Time Magazine the following week. The New York Times personally thanked Walt. The film was officially released in 1938, and made $3.5 million. By 1939, it had made $6.5 million, which made it the highest grossing film of all time until that point. (Which was a title it wouldn’t hold for long. But we’ll get to that soon enough.) It ended up making a total of $7.8 million in its initial run. To put that in perspective, when you adjust box office for inflation, this is still one of the ten highest grossing movies of all time.
Sergei Eisenstein called this the greatest film ever made. And in a way, it is. At the Oscars, Walt was given an honorary award, and was presented with a statue, as well as seven miniature ones. (The film wasn’t nominated for Best Picture, but that’s a whole other hurdle to talk about at another time.) The film also inspired MGM to make The Wizard of Oz. So there’s also that little side effect that had quite a few repercussions on all of our childhoods.
Oh, and by the way, because this film succeeded, Disney was able to keep making movies. And boy, are we glad that happened.
First animated feature ever, highest grossing film of 1937, culturally important still today, featuring a beautiful song that’s since become a jazz standard. There’s no other choice for 1937. We could only be so lucky to encounter films like this that so define their years as to make the choice a non-choice.