Movies That Everyone Should See: “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”

“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was the very first feature-length animated film, and is deservedly hailed today as a classic of animation. A beloved fairy tale… the ultimate example of a “Classic Disney” movie.

At the time of its production, however, it was an incredibly bold risk. The very notion that audiences would respond to a full, movie length cartoon was considered laughable. Atop of which, the considerable expense of producing such a feature spiraled far beyond initial estimates. “Snow White” turned into a daring business venture that gambled the very future of Walt Disney Studios.

But what was derided in the press at the time as “Disney’s Folly” would turn out to be a cornerstone not only for Walt Disney Studios, but also for animated films, as well.

Walter Elias Disney is a legendary figure in entertainment history. He first became interested in animation in his early twenties when he took a job for a Kansas City advertising company that was producing ads using cut-out animation. He soon recruited a co-worker to help him produce their own animated shorts, “Laugh-O-Grams”, which they showed locally at theatres in the Kansas City area. The shorts were popular, but the local distribution wasn’t sufficient to recoup the cost of paying the animating staff. “Laugh-O-Gram Studios”, Walt Disney’s first animated production company, went bankrupt.

After its failure, he bought a one way ticket to California in order to live with his uncle and his brother Roy. He and Roy pooled their money and set up an animation shop in Hollywood, the heart of the entertainment industry. Disney was trying to market an unreleased short that he had produced at “Laugh-O-Gram Studios” prior to it folding, a blend of live action and animation based on “Alice in Wonderland”. When he succeeded in securing a distribution deal, the “Disney Brothers Studio” began cranking out “The Alice Comedies”. A total of 57 shorts were produced in three years, from 1924-1927.

The series was moderately successful, but by the end of its production run, the focus had shifted away from the little girl and to the cartoon. Costs and technical restrictions led the Disneys to decide to end the series and move to entirely animated shorts. They had been approached to create an original cartoon for Universal. They created Oswald the Rabbit, who would go on to a fair measure of success. But when negotiations over the profits broke down (and resulted in the loss of half of the studio’s staff, who left to continue work on Oswald for Universal), Disney knew they needed a cartoon character of their own.

1928’s “Steamboat Willie” introduced the world to Mickey and Minnie Mouse. It was also the first cartoon with fully synchronized sound. It may actually have been the addition of sound that was responsible for its success, as the first two Mickey Mouse shorts produced, “Plane Crazy” and “The Gallopin’ Gaucho” failed to impress distributors. “Steamboat Willie,” however, was an instant hit, launching the career of Mickey Mouse and fueling the early success of Walt Disney Studios.

Over the next decade, Disney Studios enjoyed success and a growing reputation in spite of the Great Depression. In addition to Mickey Mouse cartoons, the studios were producing their “Silly Symphonies” series of shorts, which focused on coordinating the animated action with the music in order to capitalize on the sound craze.

Other popular characters followed as well. Pluto (1930), Goofy (1932), Donald Duck (1934). Their “Silly Symphonies” short of the “Three Little Pigs” (1933) became one of their most successful ever.

Their studios on Hyperion Avenue were beginning to gain a reputation as a workplace, as well.

Walt Disney is known for being an entertainment visionary, but he was also an exceptional employer, as well. His desire to be the best was contagious, and made him an inspirational leader. Even for the time, Disney Studios was an unconventional work place. Disney believed in employee empowerment, and sponsored a culture of sharing and cooperation. It was an informal atmosphere designed to foster innovation and creativity. All the animators in the Disney bullpen were aware they were striving for greatness and loved working there.

They achieved remarkable results. Those were pioneering days in the art of animation, and Disney was constantly exploring new, innovative techniques. In addition to “Steamboat Willie” being the first short with fully integrated sound, Disney was the first to use Technicolor. They utilized storyboarding in their development process. They developed the “multi-plane camera” which took shots of animation cels stacked at different heights, with space between, in order to capture out of focus foreground shots to create the illusion of depth of field. Through all the success, Disney kept challenging his staff, insisting that artists take art classes after hours.

In the 1930s, Disney characters were extremely popular. Merchandising was already in high gear. Disney characters were featured in comics, as toys, on watches. But in spite of the popularity and success of the characters, the studio was experiencing diminishing returns on the shorts themselves. Production costs were ballooning, while the revenue they were receiving from distribution was declining. By 1934, Disney knew they would have to follow the lead of Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy and make the jump from shorts to feature films.

A feature-length animated film.

It was a visionary concept. No one had ever attempted such a thing. The very notion was considered laughable. Typical shorts at the time ran 5-7 minutes. Audiences wouldn’t lend their attention to a cartoon for the length of an entire movie. People were even saying that the color would hurt people’s eyes if they watched for so long. Plus, the cost of producing such a movie would be exorbitant. Both his brother and his wife attempted to talk him out of it.

But Disney was undeterred. He announced his intention to make a feature-length film, and put an estimated the budget on it of $250,000, ten times the cost of an average “Silly Symphonies”. For a subject, he chose to adapt the classic Grimm Brothers fairy tale of “Snow White”. When Disney was a boy in Kansas City, he had seen a special screening of a silent film production of “Snow White” at the city’s convention hall. It made an impression on him.

He selected the story due to the comedic potential in the characters of the Seven Dwarfs, but he was insistent that the film not be a comedy. In order to be successful, Disney knew the film needed genuine emotion. Pathos. Audiences needed to be given something more than laughs over a feature-length run time. They needed a story that could involve them, and they needed to feel for the characters. Right from the outset, an emphasis was placed on making the characters emotive. Expressive. They needed to have personality.

In order to produce a work of such scope, the studio needed to ramp up in size. The budget swelled quickly to $400,000.

Which was still a woeful underestimation. “Snow White” took four years to produce. The production employed 32 animators, 102 assistant animators, 167 “in-betweeners”, 20 layout artists, 25 artists doing water-color backgrounds, 65 effects animators, and 158 female inkers and painters. Approximately 2,000,000 illustrations were made.

Eventually, the studio exhausted its own resources, and needed to obtain additional financing. Disney was forced (reluctantly) to hold a private screening of a work print for Bank of America officer in order to secure a loan. He even had to mortgage his house.

“Snow White” ran up a total cost of $1,488,422.74, an incredible sum for a feature film in 1937 and nearly six times the initial estimated budget. The movie industry was derisively referring to the film as “Disney’s Folly”.

They were wrong.

The labors of Disney and his staff came to fruition remarkably. “Snow White” was the culmination of all their advancements in animation over the years. It’s hard to imagine, watching it now, that it was released a mere nine years after “Steamboat Willie”, an animated offering that was state of the art upon its release. The advancement that occurred in slightly less than a decade is astonishing.

Watching it from the modern perspective, it feels classic in the best of ways. The gorgeous watercolor backgrounds and cheerful, warbling songs feel like a window to another time in film. It’s still incredibly fun and entertaining, as well. Who doesn’t love Doc, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Sneezy, Bashful and Dopey? With their resistance to getting clean and their loyalty to Snow White? The envious, embittered Queen is still one of the great animated villains of all time… the very template for evil characters to come.

The modern viewer might find a number of things to be “quaint”, and the film certainly lacks the modern animated action sequences and rapid pacing, but watching the cutesy, cleaning animals and yodeling dwarfs feels like seeing the very genesis of today’s “kids movies”. There can be no doubt that this is the movie that started it all.

The film was finished a mere two and a half weeks before its premiere. The studio had little money left over for advertising. Nonetheless, it was a massive success upon release. It went into wide release in 1938 and earned more than four times the gross of any other film that year. During its initial theatrical run, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” earned $7,846,000 worldwide, making it the highest grossing film of all time (it would be dethroned the next year by “Gone With the Wind”).  It was such an enormous success that it inspired MGM to green light “The Wizard of Oz”. The movie made so much money that not only was Walt Disney able to immediately pay off all debt related to the film, the proceeds also funded the construction of a brand new studio in Burbank California, which remains the corporate headquarters to this day.

If “Snow White” had failed, Walt Disney Studios would have failed. Instead, the massive success propelled Disney on to massive success.

Unlike other films that need time to grow into their stature, “Snow White” was hailed as a masterpiece and a milestone achievement immediately upon its release. Walt Disney was issued a special honorary Academy Awards (technically, one full-sized Oscar and seven miniature ones) for “significant screen innovation which has charmed millions and pioneered a great new entertainment field”.

They were completely correct. Today, feature-length animation is an integral part of the movie landscape. Nary a year goes by without several full length animated offerings, the most successful of which routinely placing amongst the top grossing movies of the year. It’s undeniable that animated movies are an important element of the world of film.

The movie is still held in high esteem by critics and fans alike.

It placed at #49 on AFI’s initial “100 Years… 100 Movies”, and rose 15 spots to #34 on the tenth anniversary edition. They selected the Wicked Queen #10 on their listing of the greatest villains of all time, and “Someday, My Prince Will Come” charted at #19 on “100 Years… 100 Songs”. In 2008, they chose the film as #1 animated film of all time.

“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was the first animated film selected for preservation in the National Film Registry (1989).

It’s a movie that has undeniable historical and cultural significance. Seventy plus years after its release, it still maintains all of its charm and beauty. Its importance and influence in the field of animation is immeasurable.

It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See”.


38 thoughts on “Movies That Everyone Should See: “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”

  1. Interesting read! Hard to imagine such a classic was such an expensive risk! Glad it paid off! This is one of my all time favorite Disney movies. Maybe it’s the whole Prince Charming thing. 🙂

    • Some dayyyy my Prince will come…

      Oh. Sorry. LOL

      😀 Yeah. Fascinating backstory here. I never realized it either. Once I was researching it, I knew that it would make for a good read, so it wound up being the focus. Glad you enjoyed it, glad you support this one Deb! 😀

  2. Great choice. And guess what-I have it in my collection. This is a film I never grow tired of watching. I especially like where Snow takes pictures of all the dwarfs and takes the film to have it developed. That when she starts singing “Some day my prints will come”. (Sorry)

  3. I adore this film! My nickname is Snow White (pale, black hair etc etc) and I’ve now got a small collection of ornaments dolls and other things! (Not to mention 4 pairs of pjs – yes FOUR) Yep I’m a HUGE fan! So glad you added this to the Movies That Everyone Should See!

    • FOUR pair of Snow White Pajamas? LOL Holy COW! 😀

      That’s awesome though.

      Yeah, this is one of those classics that inspires collections, devotion, etc. I cant say I blame you in the least. This film is certainly worthy of collectibles. It’s the very definition of “Classic”.

      Glad you support the choice, it was a lock to make the list one day, just needed to wait its turn 😀

      Thanks for sharing on this one, Crafty!!

  4. Fogs, this film is magical! Great backstory on Disney and this pic.
    It’s animation is so well done, and the story and characters are so vivid.
    SUPER MTESS for all ages; this one is a timeless classic! 🙂

    • Well, thank you S. Glad this one meets with your enthusiastic approval 😀

      No quote? LOL

      As I was saying above, I never knew the full scope of the backstory here. I knew it was the first feature length animated film, of course, but I never knew what that entailed… all the debt. The risk. That’s crazy stuff. The cost of making this movie – in those days? Holy cow…

      • I must where the ‘cone of shame’ for omitting that. LOL 😉

        Magic Mirror: “Prepare to be amazed beyond all expectations. After all it is what I do.”
        -Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937)

  5. Terrific, terrific write-up! Remarkable indepth research! The story of Disney, the early days of animation and film itself, made my day. Didn’t know Universal screwed Disney on profit sharing, maybe it’s good they did. Disney the artist, the visionary and the great businessman, what an American story. I can only imagine being in the audience when the lights went down and the screen lit up in Technicolor brilliance for the first time. People must have thought they were hallucinating! This wasn’t another “Snow White” review, I’ve had quite enough of Snow White this year thank you, this was movie history 101. Information that every film fan needs to know! Great job Daniel!

    • The story on Oswald actually concludes with the rights being traded back to Disney for Al Michaels. 😀 NBC Universal wanted him for Sunday Night Football. True story.

      This is definitely one of those “Imagine what the audiences must have thought” movies. I just got stuck on the fact that they had never seen a full length animated movie before. Nothing but short cartoons… I mean, that world was long gone by the time I was born, I grew up with animated movies. This must have been mind blowing in ’37. 😀

      Glad you enjoyed it Raymond, thanks for the enthusiastic support!!

      • No! come on! Al Michaels for rights to 80+year old Oswald? Must have been a combo deal. How could Disney make anything off of unheard of Oswald?

      • I think it was more a pride/history thing than anything. They weren’t giving up anything with Michaels anyways, they never intended to move him to ESPN….

        From Wikipedia:

        Return to Disney ownership: the Al Michaels trade

        In February 2006, Disney CEO Bob Igerinitiated a trade with NBC Universal in which a number of minor assets, including the rights to Oswald, were acquired by The Walt Disney Company in exchange for sending sportscaster Al Michaelsfrom Disney’s ABC and ESPNto NBC Sports . At the time, ABC had lost its contract for NFL broadcast rights, and despite recently signing a long-term contract with ESPN, Michaels was interested in rejoining broadcast partner John Maddenat NBC for the Sunday night package. Universal transferred the copyright to the character to Disney, and in exchange, Disney released Michaels from his employment contract, allowing him to sign with NBC .

        The deal included the rights to the character and the original 26 short films made by Disney (namely, most of the Oswald films produced from 1927 to 1928). Rights to the Lantz/Universal-produced Oswald films and other related products were not included, and therefore Oswald appears in both Disney releases and in Universal’s *Woody Woodpecker and Friends*collection. Iger had been interested in the property because of an internal design document for a video game , which would ultimately become *Epic Mickey *.[7] Walt Disney’s daughter, Diane Disney Miller, issued the following statement after the deal was announced: When Bob [Iger] was named CEO, he told me he wanted to bring Oswald back to Disney, and I appreciate that he is a man of his word. Having Oswald around again is going to be a lot of fun.[8]

  6. The first ‘in theater’ movie I saw as a child was Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. To this day, I remember very little of it. What I do remember is Snow White, which I probably watched on the television back when Disney had a weekly show and aired a movie every week. Sleeping Beauty may have had a scarier villian but the story telling and art of Snow White is still better and it was a much older film.

    • Yeah, you know? I havent watched “Sleeping Beauty” in forever, but I always wonder why it’s not considered a knock off. LOL Right?

      This is the one that’s really the classic of the two, although in fairness to “Beauty”, I should revisit and see if it has its own potential to get an entry here.

      Glad you approve, though! 😀

  7. An interesting read, but when you sing Walt Disney’s praises, you might also mention his flaws. He was an open anti-semite, and deliberately threw many innocent people under the bus that was the House Unamerican Activities Committee. He is reported to have claimed that all Jews were inherently communists and he didn’t want any at Disney. He also reputedly never hired Blacks or Hispanics, and one report had him attending American Nazi Bund meetings (although there has been some dispute about that claim).

    Also when discussing the working conditions at Disney, it’s worth noting that there was much dissent about how great it was to work there. Disney’s animators got less pay and less credit than animators at other studios, and in 1941 when they tried to unionize and strike, many were fired, blacklisted, and otherwise intimidated.

    I tend to look at all Disney films through a dark filter because of that.

    It’s undoubtedly and indisputably an important film in the history of American cinema and a worthy addition to the MTESS rolls.

    • Well, the house unamerican stuff is well documented, etc, but there seems to be some question as to the validity of charges of racism and anti-semitism.

      Regardless, it wouldnt have been the place for it here. Perhaps if the column was purely biopic, as opposed to a “making of”. In general I tend to be forgiving of historical figures for their less than enlightened attitudes, anyways. If their contribution to history is a positive one, I can usually chalk up bigotry or misogyny or anti-semitism or whatever ill is in question to being a product of the times that they lived in.

      As to the workplace conditions? That must either have taken hold after the move to Burbank, or they did a good job of historical whitewashing, because in all my research this weekend, the studios on Hyperion Ave might as well have been sainted. I didnt come across anything negative on it, and found several sources extolling its virtues and contributions to the art.

      That doesnt mean I dont believe it, I’m sure as a big business, they were screwing people just as bad as all big business does.

    • In 1934 there was a ban on anti-Nazi propaganda in films due to general anti-semitism. Harry and Jack Warner fought this with film shorts and the first anti-Nazi film,”Confessions of a Nazi Spy”. The backlash from this led to the senate Nye-Clark hearings. Senator Nye said Hollywood Jews were a bigger problem than Hitler! Disney’s racist attitude was accepted
      practice back then! What a bunch of Assholes!

  8. Great pick, Fogs. I LOVE this movie, and I grew up watching Disney princess movies. Though I like Sleeping Beauty a bit more, one can’t deny the marvelous work done in Disney’s debut animated feature. I mean even the songs are great, I still remember hum them from time to time. Clearly this is one of those fairy tales that stand the test of time.

    • Absolutely stands the test of time, no doubt about it.

      That’s twice the Sleeping Beauty has been brought up, I may have to revisit that one as well soon. This column will eventually see a lot of classic Disney, for sure.

      Glad you approve, Ruth, I grew up on this stuff too! I was happy to cover this one 😀

  9. Great, great write-up, Fogs. And an excellent choice for an MTESS feature. I knew about the “Disney’s Folly” moniker — I can’t remember for certain where I first heard of it, but I think it was a high school business class. I can’t decide if it’s more amazing how wrong they were, or how prophetic it was considering the financial returns of the next two Disney films. (Fantasia and Pinocchio, while undisputed classics now, both bombed on release.)

    Still, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs remains the gold standard for animated features. It’s timeless. And I love that the Academy not only had the artistic integrity to realize that this was something so different that it warranted a special award, but also had the sense of humor to make the award the way they did.

    • I’ll have to circle back on the business aspects of Pinocchio and Fantasia when I eventually hit those… what I saw through my work this weekend was that they may have been negatively impacted by the War.

      I’d err on the side of the naysayers were insanely wrong. This movie was a huge huge huge financial success. I guess I can understand how they might not have anticipated it, but they were WAY off. 😀

      And yeah! Wasn’t that an awesome little footnote, about the Oscars? I thought that was great. Was psyched when I was able to find the clip of it! 😀 Good stuff, right there, good stuff.

      • The War was definitely an impact on both of those films, though in the case of Fantasia it was just one of many factors. I took at a look at the business side of it, and just how long it took for the film to become a success, when I did my Favorite Films review of it. Interesting stuff, especially when we think about how different things might have been had it succeeded initially.

        And yes, the naysayers were about as wrong as they could be on Snow White. And a good thing, too. Just imagine if they had been right: not only no Disney, but probably no animated features at all.

  10. Great article, Fogs! I knew some of the story, being a cartoon/comic nut that I am. I think you summarized the impact and sacrifice that went into Snow White fantastically well. Whenever people use the word “visionary,” I think of how Walt Disney put up everything he had into one of the biggest gambles ever — a full length animated movie! In the 1940’s — and came out of it with the largest multi-media empire in the world. Then I realize that “visionary” is used way too flippantly these days.

    And then I thought of another movie: Delgo. I imagine those animators were inspired by the same story, as they also basically put up everything to turn their little movie into a similar hit. Instead, they ended up with the biggest flop of all time. It’s a sobering thought that it’s what could’ve been if Disney had failed. It’s an important lesson that everything, including plot and characterization, had to be in place to make Snow White a hit. Animation was the new hotness, but the traditional storytelling elements weren’t ignored, either.

    • Thanks Santo! I appreciate that. Seems like everyone is taking to this one pretty well, that’s great!! 😀

      Delgo, yeah. That is a bit of a sad story. That movie got brought up recently in conjuction with the enormous box office collapse of “The Oogieloves”. I came across the movie in regards to how horribly it had performed…

      Always kind of sad when that happens, but hey, sometimes things are for a reason. Disney himself failed with his “Laugh-O-Gram” studio (which I only learned of this weekend). What if he had been modestly successful there? We may never have had Disney at all! Crazy how these things work sometimes…

  11. While I agree with its cultural importance, and the scenes with the dwarves still hold up, much of the rest of the movie leaves a lot to be desired. Snow White and the Prince, who are the two main characters, are both extremely shallow, one note characters with little to no personality. It’s a nice movie to watch to get a glimpse into that moment in time, but there are at least a couple dozen other Disney movies I would rather watch.

    Brilliant write-up though, you covered all the big trivia points, and even a couple I didn’t know (specifically, that Mickey had some silent shorts before Steamboat Willie).

    • The two other Mickey shorts were created, but not released – they didnt get picked up by distributers. Thats why Steamboat is considered his debut.

      Meanwhile, undoubtedly, the movie needs to be seen with an appreciation for it as a classic. I think that more than compensates for some of the elements which dont match up well with modern sensibilities.

      Even given that, I still think its a fantastic watch. I thoroughly enjoyed it this weekend. 😀

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