The fairest film of all – Snow White reassessed – Page 3

I am also indebted to Brian Sibley who points out the similarity of the witch to Lionel Barrymore’s villain who disguises himself as an old woman pedlar, cloak and basket to boot, in Tod Browning’s Devil Doll (1936).

Every brush stroke, colour gradation, angle, composition, special effect, is there by design under Disney’s overall guidance.

The melodramatic gesture and stylised movement of the silent film also have their influence on Snow White. The Queen in particular is in a long tradition of villainous characters dating back through the silent cinema to the melodrama of the Victorian Theatre. She is stylistically similar to the She of Helen Gahagan in the R K 0 film of 1935, but veteran animators at a seminar in Los Angeles in 1986 denied the overt influence of this or of any other film upon either Disney or their own work. Nevertheless this Queen is terrifyingly familiar to us, both original in expression and traditional in role. When she sweeps down her stone staircase, Frank Churchill’s music complementing her with strident brass notes on a descending scale, the clear linear design is breathtaking. Her cloak billows out round her in a swirl of rage, and rats skuttle for shelter. In story meetings of October 1934 Disney wanted her to “be drawn along the lines of the Benda mask type… as a high collar beauty… “. He outlines her character and the atmosphere of her castle and dungeon. “When the Queen gets angry, her face grows menacing – eyes big – fearful, hideous and distorted features… Queen in her laboratory… busy preparing poison for comb” (the story has not yet been fully pared of all the Grimm facets) “cauldron bubbling and change of colours in the flames. Dungeon far down below – stairs leading down — go limit in building up creepy dark shadows, dank and dripping wet – cob-webby musty effect, skeletons in chains… “. It is the linear, cartoony quality of her movement which takes her and the film, and us the audience, outside the incarcerating time scale of 1937. Were the characters live-action they would be as dead as the characters of all the live-action films of the time. Because they are drawn and painted, they escape that deadening effect of realism” that dates all performances on stage or screen. The Queen is both real and yet drawn, her menace established in a series of quick cuts between her and the mirror revealing that Snow White is “the fairest in the land”. In a gesture of alarm and despair the Queen puts her hand to her throat and then spreads out her arm in fury on the words “Snow White”. We then cross dissolve to Snow White herself washing steps by the Wishing Well.

The debt, then, to the 19th century theatre via silent cinema is large and Snow White in turn has influenced Hollywood’s subsequent output, not least Disney’s own work from Pinocchio (1940) to Sleeping Beauty (1959). Though he has denied it, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane owes much of the atmosphere of its first scene to the opening of Snow White. “The fairy tale castle,” Jonathan Rosenbaum reminds us is so rich in suggestions that a near replica, on which former Disney employees collaborated, wound up serving admirably as Xanadu in the powerful opening shots of Citizen Kane:

not only the long-shot vista of it standing on a mountain, but virtually the same lap dissolve to an almost identical grilled window in the subsequent closer shot.”

Other films directly influenced by Snow White include Gulliver’s Travels (1939), The Wizard of Oz (1939), The Bluebird (1940) and Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940). It is doubtful if fantasy and science fiction films would have developed in the way they have without Snow White. Star Wars (1977), Close Encounters (1977) and Labyrinth (1986) are recent examples of the genre.

Another aspect of the film is its rich pictorial design. Jack Cutting, a close associate of Disney who worked with the Company for 47 years, recalls his enthusiasm for the lavishly illustrated picture books emanating from Europe:

When I grew up I was mad about illustrated books – fairy tales with pictures by Rackham and Wyeth, you know. I could look at a Rackham illustration and would be captivated by it, and would be in the scene. After I had been in the studio for a year – this was 1930 – I brought some books of that type, (East of the Moon, West of the Sun illustrated by Kay Nielsen, and books with pictures by Rackham) and showed them to Walt; and I said ‘Walt, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could make animation like these books.’ I remember he looked them over – he may not have been clever at talking about it, but he had innate sensitivity – and he said that it would be difficult and then he said, “Maybe. Someday.”

It was too soon, but by the middle of the l930s many of the artists whom Disney recruited were now art-school trained, aspiring illustrators. The ornate opening shots of the castle, already discussed, shows these influences. Beautifully painted, the castle stands high above a river valley with a framework of trees and even toadstools in the foreground, and a hint of hills in the distance. Rich pictorial detail like this is everywhere in the film, and it always supports the action, is never excessive. The Queen as witch paddling her canoe into the misty dawn is another example of pictorial richness that supports the thrust of the narrative. Benign nature is asleep while the forces of evil are awake and at work. Only two vultures are aware of the Queen’s purpose as she goes towards the dwarfs’ cottage through a bleak landscape, dead trees and a parched wilderness echoing the sterility of the evil Queen.

A character sketch of the Queen as Wicked Witch. It is the linear, cartoony quality of her movement which takes her and the film, and us the audience, outside the incarcerating time scale of 1937.

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