Much of the original fairy-tale was simplified – the three attempts made by the Queen to destroy Snow White, for example, were reduced to one – and many of Disney’s more extravagant ideas (including the rock crusher and the forge) were abandoned.
One deleted sequence, set in the Queen’s dungeons, was to have shown the Prince chained to a wall while skeletons of former prisoners were magically brought to life and made to dance for the Prince’s entertainment before the Queen flooded the dungeon and left him to drown. They also cut one of Disney’s favourite episodes in which Snow White dreams that her Prince carries her away across a sea of clouds in a swan-boat drawn by anthropomorphic stars; and an elaborate sequence showing the dwarfs building a bed for Snow White from the living trees in the forest.
Disney’s skilful editing – however ruthless – allowed nothing to hold up the story, and a sequence in which the Dwarfs make a messy business of eating soup (and try to retrieve a spoon swallowed by Dopey) was cut even though it had reached the stage of pencil animation.
As a result of all the pruning and refining, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has a tightly-paced story, full of dramatically contrasting scenes, and – though few people realise it – the whole action takes place in a period of less than 36 hours.
Animating the film involved a great deal of trial and error and the pioneering of the multiplane camera to give an illusion of depth as well as several other major developments in the art of animation (discussed by Richard Holliss in this issue).
All in all, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs represented an extraordinary commitment: by the artists who worked day and night and weekends for the final six months to complete the film; and by Disney who had all his personal assets tied up in the venture.
The proposed budget for the film in 1934 had been $250,000, but that figure quickly doubled and – to Roy Disney’s horror – kept on growing. On one occasion, it seemed as if the project would founder for lack of finance when the Bank of America baulked at loaning the money needed to complete the film. In desperation, Disney screened an incomplete version of the picture – made up from finished animation, pencil-tests and storyboard and layout sketches. The banker, Joseph Rosenberg watched the makeshift movie in disconcerting silence, despite an enthusiastic running-commentary from Disney. Only as he was
on the point of leaving the studio, did he reveal his intention to give Disney another loan when he said: “That thing’s going to make you a hatful of money!”
Finally – containing two million drawings, and at the cost of $1,488,423 – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was premiered at the Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles; when, as Disney later recalled: “All the Hollywood brass turned out for my cartoon!”
For 83 minutes, the celebrity audience sat entranced – frequently moved to laughter, often to tears. And when Snow White and her Prince at last rode off towards their castle in the clouds, the theatre erupted with cheers and applause.
The verdict of the reviewers was unanimous: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was “a classic” to be ranked “with the few great masterpieces of the screen”. Writing in the New York Herald Tribune, Howard Barnes declared the film “one of those rare works of inspired artistry that weaves an irresistible spell around the beholder… Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is more than a completely satisfying entertainment, more than a perfect moving picture, in the full sense of that term. It offers one memorable and deeply enriching experience.”
Fifty years on, that appraisal holds good. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the film that was once dismissed as “Disney’s Folly”, can be seen for its true worth: the first of Walt Disney’s many feature-length animated films and – like its heroine – still the Fairest One of All.
All Snow White illustrations copyright © MCMLXXX VII The Walt Disney Company.
Printed in Animator Issue 20 (Autumn 1987)