To be published only if and when the moods and movies strike us, Movies That Made Us is an occasional look at films that led us all here and still make us wonder about where we’ve yet to go.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a 1937 American animated musical-fantasy film produced by Walt Disney Productions and originally released by RKO Radio Pictures. Based on the German fairytale by the Brothers Grimm, it is the first Disney animated feature film. In fact, it’s the first full-length cel-animated feature film ever made.
Snow White was nominated for Best Musical Score at the 1938 Academy Awards and, in 1939, producer Walt Disney was awarded an honorary Oscar for the film. The award was unique in Academy history: It consisted of one normal-sized Oscar statuette and seven miniature Oscar statuettes. Child star Shirley Temple, then 10 years old, presented the Oscar(s) to Disney.
I suppose it’s important to note that I might’ve known the soundtrack before I ever saw the film. I can’t remember not knowing this film’s soundtrack. (Snow White is the first American film to have a soundtrack album, released in conjunction with the feature film.) I don’t know exactly when my father bought it, but the original soundtrack album has existed in my life forever. I still own it and it still sounds great. “Heigh Ho” is one of my all-time favorite songs to this day, and I’ve sung it, whistles and all, to my 1-year-old grandson almost every day of his life. “One Song” is literally the love song against which I measure all other love songs. In my humble opinion, it is the greatest love song every written; its lyrics defined for me what true love is supposed to be. (Full disclosure: To mix my fairytale metaphors, there were a few frogs before I found my true-love prince. Who knew that such a true love would be so rare and hard to find?)
For the soundtrack alone, Snow White is a movie that made me.
Back to the film. I was born in 1963, long before Disney movies were readily available for home viewing. They weren’t on television, there were no VHS tapes, DVDs, Blu-rays or digital streaming services in my childhood. For someone of my age, actually seeing Snow White was a rare and special treat.
The next generation, my children’s generation, grew up watching it at home. On October 28, 1994, the film was released for the first time on home video on VHS and LaserDisc — the first release in the Walt Disney Masterpiece Collection. My daughter was 4 years old and my son was 2 years old: I immediately bought it for them (on VHS, as those fancy LaserDisc players were way beyond my budget).
In 1993, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs became the first film to be entirely scanned to digital files, manipulated and recorded back to film. By 1995, the film had sold 24 million copies and grossed $430 million. Six years later, Disney released the film as its first Platinum Edition DVD. (I had a DVD player by then, but I’m pretty sure it was my parents who bought the DVD for the children.) By the end of January 2002, both the VHS and DVD versions returned to the Disney vault — having grossed $1.1 billion in total revenues. Seven years later, the film became the first of Disney’s Diamond Edition Blu-rays, and a new DVD edition was also released that year. Back to the vault again in 2011, before another 2016 re-release (this one the inaugural title in the Walt Disney Signature Collection — a version I believe I inherited from my parents’ collection in 2017, after my mom passed away). Finally, in 2016, it released in digital high-definition with bonus material.
All those home use release dates are long after my own childhood; the only times I could’ve seen this 1937 film were the times it was re-released in theatres. Snow White was first re-released to theatres in 1944 as a revenue-raiser for the Disney studio during World War II. That re-release set a tradition of re-releasing Disney’s animated features every seven to 10 years. Snow White was re-released to theaters in 1952, 1958, 1967, 1975, 1983, 1987 and 1993 (before all the home-video releases above took over).
Those in-theatre re-release dates confirm my memory: I saw it first in 1967, at a San Diego drive-in. I was 3 or 4 years old, depending on what month we saw it.
I remember it like it was yesterday.
It was the first children’s movie I’d ever seen. We went to drive-in movies quite a bit in my childhood — when we lived in both San Diego and in Columbus, Georgia (where we had moved by Christmas 1968) — to see films my parents wanted to see; they were lifelong movie lovers. Going to drive-ins was cheaper and easier for them than going to theatres — no babysitter needed at the drive-in. We went in our red Comet station wagon with the back bench seat folded down for me to play with my dolls — silently, of course, because silence was The Rule at the drive-in — and eventually fall asleep among my nest of pillows and blankets.
I watched grown-up movies without understanding them; I remember seeing 1967’s Reflections In A Golden Eye, 1972’s Deliverance, 1958’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and 1969’s Mackenna’s Gold. As I write this, I don’t remember all the other grown-up movies I saw at drive-ins, but I know that every once in a while when I’ve watched an old film on television, I have déjà vu of being in the back of that station wagon on a breezy San Diego or sultry Georgia night. (The first film I ever saw in a theatre was Gone with the Wind, at the Peachtree Theatre in Columbus, when I was 6 years old.)
But Snow White? It was incredible. It was colorful, beautiful, and man oh man, was it scary. The early scenes with the Wicked Queen and her Magic Mirror — and of the Huntsman preparing to kill Snow White — terrified me. I was mesmerized by the dark nighttime forest, with its eyes and screeches, that scared Snow White almost to death as she ran from the Huntsman before she passed out from fearful exhaustion. I could relate: That forest was the stuff of my (as-yet-undiagnosed lung disease-induced) fevered nightmares. At the time, we did not yet know my fevers and constant coughing were caused by a rare, incurable lung disease; that diagnosis would come years later in Georgia.
Then the morning came, with sunlight and flowers and birds singing, and Snow White found her sweet animal friends, and they took her to a delightful house where she met the Seven Dwarfs. (I forever fell in love, platonically, with both Grumpy and Dopey.) And and and. You know the story.
In my child’s mind, I didn’t know or understand all the technical and artistic talent that went into the film. I already knew the songs and now I could see them. I watched the movie in glorious rapture; it was as if it had been made for me. I think Walt Disney knew every little girl would feel that way; I hope he did. He made his second full-length animated feature film, Pinocchio, in 1940; I think he knew every little boy would feel the same way about it.
(In September 1937, during the production of Snow White, animator Norman Ferguson brought a translated version of Carlo Collodi’s 1883 Italian children’s novel The Adventures of Pinocchio to the attention of Walt Disney. He read it and intended for Pinocchio to be the studio’s third feature, after Bambi. Due to difficulties adapting the story and realistically animating the animals, Bambi was put on hold until 1942, and Pinocchio became Disney’s second feature-length animated production.)
Aside from the songs, the most indelible scenes for me from Snow White were the scary ones — which I think is a pretty normal memory thing for a small child. One of the greatest things about the movie is that all the light and color and sweetness and humor are balanced by just enough scary evil stuff. The forest at night was scary. The Wicked Queen / Old Hag were evil and scary. Her Magic Mirror was scary. The shadowed Huntsman was scary. The transformation of the Wicked Queen into Old Hag was especially terrifying.
But the scariest scenes for me were Snow White’s “death” after biting the poisoned apple — Hello?! POISONED APPLES COULD EXIST??!?! Scary! — and her funeral procession during which we saw her in her glass coffin. The Seven Dwarfs’ grief when she died was my first experience with seeing loss and heartbreak. I felt their sorrow deeply. I stifled my tears as they carried her glass coffin to its resting place in the forest; I did not want to make crying noises because I didn’t want my dad to get mad. (Remember, silence at the drive-in was The Rule; of course now I know that he wouldn’t have gotten mad).
I did the same a few years later when we saw Bambi at the drive-in: when Bambi’s mother gets killed and his father explains her death to him. Man oh man. Silent tears flowed, and my heart broke for Bambi because his grief was my grief because, in that moment at the drive-in, I imagined how I’d feel if it was my own mother.
As I write this, health or lack thereof is weighing heavily on my spirit due to the COVID-19 pandemic. So forgive a little melodrama on my part.
Writing this review floods me with memories of more than just seeing the movie. I can remember my mother turning several times to place her cool hand across my forehead, checking me for a fever. I remember delicious floral scents wafting in the San Diego night air. I remember the eerie scratchings of the well-worn speaker, hung on the partially rolled-down car window, adding to the film’s audio, and I can remember my pulse accelerating as the scenes unfolded. I remember feeling paralyzed with fear for many of the scary scenes I’ve already described. I remember feeling an indescribable fear and sense of personal doom as Snow White lay in her glass coffin. I felt as if I was her, silent and still and suffocated forever in that glass coffin.
What was that? Some sort of illness-related premonition?
But wait! I can dial down my melodramatic memory! Death was not yet on my radar. It wouldn’t be for several more years — not until I heard a doctor deliver the three-to-five-years prognosis for the first time. I’ve heard that same prognosis my whole life from every lung doctor I’ve ever had, and yet I’m still here. My survival against the odds is an especially comforting fact in these scary COVID-19 days. It’s important for me to remember that, in that moment at the drive-in, as I watched Snow White die and be placed “forever” in her glass coffin, I didn’t even know I had a lung disease let alone that it could kill me. My sense of doom wasn’t a personal premonition.
It was, quite simply, a testament to Walt Disney and his team’s storytelling. They made me feel like I was Snow White. They made me feel like I was in that coffin. Did they know that small children would feel that way? I don’t know.
It doesn’t matter; they did their jobs perfectly, as far as I’m concerned, because looking back, I ask myself: How would I have wanted my small child self to learn about loss and grieving and death? Certainly not through the real-life loss of a beloved family member.
I’m forever grateful to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs for Grumpy and Dopey, and “One Song” and “Heigh Ho.” I’m forever grateful to it for so many other wonderful beautiful scary things — not the least of which was the beginning of my understanding of loss and grieving and death. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a movie with a lot of filmmaking firsts attached to it, but it is truly the first movie that made me me.