Friday, January 11, 2013

Movie – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is famously the first feature length, fully animated motion picture that was ever made.  (The German film The Adventures of Prince Achmed preceded it, but that was animated in silhouette only.) Walt Disney had specialized in the animated shorts that would run before the main picture, including winning an Oscar for Three Little Pigs in 1934 (more on that in a bit.)  He decided he wanted to be the main attraction and committed himself and his studio to the huge amount of work it would take to draw and color all of the cells needed for a movie ten times the length of the average short.  And it wasn’t just the images, but also the music that would need to cover the much longer length.  For this Disney turned to Frank Churchill, a man he had been collaborating with since 1930.  The result was magic and Disney films became known not only for their animation, but for the music that accompanied them.

Churchill was born in Maine, but he went to med school in California.  He decided being a doctor wasn’t for him, but stayed on afterwards playing piano in theaters.  He got noticed and Walt Disney hired him.  A few years after that the two put together the animated short Three Little Pigs, which won an Oscar for Best Short Subject, Cartoons.  Churchill was tasked with not only scoring the short, but coming up with a song that could be sung during it.  The result was “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf”, which was immediately very popular.  Disney would go on to win Oscar the next two years as well with The Tortoise and the Hare and Three Orphan Kittens, both also scored by Churchill.

It was only natural that when Disney wanted to make his first feature length animated movie he would turn to Churchill.  Collaborating with lyricist Larry Morey, Churchill wrote such classics as Some Day My Prince Will Come, Whistle While You Work, Heigh Ho, and many others for this film.  Churchill would share an Oscar nomination for Best Score, but would undeservedly lose to One Hundred Men and a Girl.  (Quick, whistle a tune from that movie.  I rest my case.)  Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs became the first film to ever release a soundtrack recording connected with it.  This proved to be as popular as the film.

Churchill would go on to win Oscar for his score for Dumbo, and would also receive nominations for Best Original Song in Dumbo, as well as his score and an original song for Bambi.  It looked like Churchill had a long, successful career ahead of him at Disney Studios, but the story doesn’t end well.  On May 13, 1942 he told co-workers that he was headed to his ranch for some rest.  The next day he was found there, dead from a gunshot wound.  It was ruled a suicide.  He was only 40 years old.

Rather than leave his bio on a depressing note, I will add that Churchill is widely considered the most important composer Disney worked with on any of his films.  Stop to think of Dumbo, Bambi, or Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and it doesn’t take long to think of the music in connection with such scenes as Dumbo flying or Bambi and his mother in the forest.  Can you imagine Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs being as popular as it was without the bouncy music to go along with it?

For anyone who happens to have never seen the film, read the fairy tale it was based on, or seen any of the dozens of other films made of the same story (two in 2012 alone), here is an overview.  A young woman named Snow White flees her evil stepmother and comes to the home of seven dwarfs in the middle of the forest.  They are typical bachelors who wouldn’t recognize a dirty house if they tripped over the mounds of dirt in it, so she sets about making the cottage respectable.  In return they help her when her evil stepmother comes to find her.  There’s also a charming prince – more by name than by actions – but he’s not really that big a presence.  It’s much more about the title characters.  (Technically, the prince has no name in the film, but Snow White refers to him as charming.)

One thing that startles people who are used to more modern Disney films and who see this movie for the first time is the appearance of Snow White.  Her face and hair were drawn in the style of the fashion of the 1930s, and she is decidedly not curvy.  Compare that to more recent animated Disney characters like Belle from Beauty and the Beast or Ariel from The Little Mermaid.

Some people thought Walt Disney was going to ruin himself and his studio by making this film, but Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was extremely popular with the American public.  Much is made of box office numbers for movies when they are released now.  Titanic famously made 600 million dollars in the U.S. alone, and Avatar and The Avengers later surpassed that figure.  Well, none of those three films hold a candle to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, if you adjust for inflation.  This film sold over one billion dollars in tickets in modern dollars.  In movie history it is only surpassed by Gone with the Wind.

I never actually saw this film until a few years ago.  When I was little the only way to see it was the periodic re-release in movie theaters and my family did not have the money to be able to afford to go to the movies.  In later years Disney Studios also limited its release first on videotape, then on DVD.  I believe I finally borrowed it from my niece, who had a collection of Disney films for her young daughter.  To this day I am still seeing a classic Disney film for the first time maybe once a year.  Pinocchio was the latest just a couple months ago.

If you were like me and somehow never got around to watching Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs then you owe it to yourself to see it.  Yes, its story is pretty basic and very well-known, and the animation that was glorious for the time has since been surpassed, but Frank Churchill’s songs are timeless and the film itself holds a special place in movie history.  I recommend that you see this film.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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  1. That is a very interesting portrait of a man I never knew about. Those songs are so memorable. Do you recall if he did pinocchio as well?

    1. I checked Pinocchio's credits and it was a man named Leigh Harline who scored Pinocchio. He appears to have moved on to scoring live action films after that.