Short and Sweet
Nicolas Rapold on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Like much of the Disney oeuvre, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is associated with the home as much as the cinema. The Disney brand is today distinguished by the guarantee of wholesome entertainment for nannying the kinder, and this promise is borne out by the worn videotapes atop TV sets across the nation. Like a parent, Disney represents the home and safe comforts while also introducing the challenges of the world: its films repeatedly spotlight young people (or creatures) at the point of assuming greater independence and obligations.
Disney, however, was no father of mine when it came to Snow White. I have no formative story about snuggling up to the glow of the TV with my coloring pencils or absently humping a couch arm whenever the Queen appeared. (“It was not till years later that I realized…”) Grimm and even (forgive me) Donald Barthelme laid their Germanic-folkloric and postmodernist mitts on me first. Nor could I respectfully approach the film as a landmark of film history, having first seen The Adventures of Prince Achmed, the lovely 1926 Lotte Reiniger film that spoilsports insist predates Snow White as the first feature-length animation (squeaking by at 65 minutes).
Even so unseated from a role in my upbringing or education, Snow White awed me with the power of its anxiety about growing up, or, to use a broader synonym, with maturation, and so with sexuality. This is no revelation, since the Grimm DNA guarantees an earthiness that all Roy Disney’s businessman-auteur management couldn’t contain. The concern with beauty and desire, affection and sexuality—and, in the film’s terms, the full-grown and the half-grown—doesn’t need Barthelme to translate, and the movie finds all sorts of things in the home closest to home, the body.
Disney movies often have a seamless appearance laid over clear moral frameworks, and evil makes its presence known to good through fears that the viewer feels at a primal level (as in Snow White’s unforgettable terrified flight into an expressionistic forest). In Snow White, these emotions and drives are all frighteningly bound up with the body. Snow White’s physical beauty becomes her bane in a kingdom ruled and scried over a murderously vain queen. And the dwarfs are prisoners of their deterministic identities, compelled by single tendencies with a force that feels as inevitable as a sex drive.
At this point I’m perhaps supposed to apologize for analyzing a children’s cartoon (and finding, yawn, sex). Where’s my attempt to feel childlike wonder at the goddamned magic? Part of that Disney magic, masterful and insidious, is to convey these both specific and sweeping sensations and perceptions buried away within inchoate feelings of wonder, fear, love, for the art, the scenario, and, above all, the characters, in all the instantly familiar details of their movement. And the animation of forms is inextricable from the body, in these bodies, about which Disney movies have always had a palpable (and understandable) anxiety, clothing people head to toe or in animal guise, a tradition extended into and by the rise of computer animation and its smooth, plastic(-surgery) surfaces.
The eager artistry of Snow White ends up giving a fine illustration of this not unproductive ambivalence in the person of its heroine. In the heady days of innovation that marked the production of the feature (at least, in the hard-sold image in the making-of materials), a concern for realism, of all things for an animated work, won out when it came to Snow White. Her movement was obsessively modeled upon some of the extensive footage of actual humans doing stuff, in this case, a woman dancing and walking about. And in the fest with her new roommates, the dwarfs, Snow White moves with a grace and flow that rediscovers the beauty in movement.
That’s our Snow White—from the neck down only. Because at the top of all that is someone else’s head: a baby-fat, putty face, shapeless, for all its envied Hollywood-ingénue beauty, compared to the smoothly delineated motion below. Her face embodies her youthful innocence and beauty and makes her the child to the Queen’s adult, the latter having a face that was based on a human being (supposedly Helen Gahagan in She). But atop her finer, elongated figure, she also embodies someone on the boundary between youth and adulthood.
Which makes the real perfect match of the movie not the last-minute prince but the miners whom Snow White mistakes as children: little men and womanchild, together at last. The movie delights in the evergreen gender-education plot, where the lady softens up the slob. You might know someone like this: these guys work all the time, coming home to filth and occasionally partying, but they can’t deal with women.
The Grimm insistence on the grotesque adds brash new life by unabashedly signifying the dwarfs’ stunted socialization and personal upkeep through pint-sized stature. (It takes two to dance with Snow White.) And thanks to truth in advertising in Disney world, if Snow White is marked by soft features and caring nature, the dwarfs are identified by rigid personalities, another sign of their functional but half-formed lives.
Snow White completes them with the old one-two of cleanliness and love (a nice bit of parental propaganda, that washing-up chant). The notion of her inner beauty may be trite, especially against the foil of the Queen, but it’s borne out: it’s a moment of surprising, more-than-meets-the-eye emotional insight when Snow White excuses herself to the forest creatures for the fuss of her flight (“You don’t know what I’ve been through, and all because I was afraid”). What the maiden encounters at the cottage, though, is a universal goosiness about having a woman in the house, a similarly superficially innocuous tension that starts with the question of where everyone will sleep. (At the wash basin: “Do you have to wash where it doesn’t show?”) There are many manifestations to the tension: Grumpy, whom Roy Disney affectionately describes later as a “woman-hater”; the widespread, dopey crushes; and then Dopey himself.
Harpo-like in his muteness and lack of self-control, Dopey, true to the Yellow Kid he resembles (the 19th-century newspaper-comic character who gave the term “yellow journalism”), injects the scandal of a playful id to the proceedings, literally offbeat in his stutter-step behind every procession. He’s the one who triggers all the polite laughter by insisting to be kissed not on the forehead, like his comrades, but right on the lips. Not only that, but he is never sated, trying to trick the good-natured Snow White into kissing him again. She cutely corrects him for getting it wrong, politely but firmly tilting his head by the ears, in a little lesson for anyone with other thoughts about the living arrangement. (Cuteness is the prescription of the day to defuse sexuality—there is an awful lot of rumping it up when Snow White first hits the cottage, with cute little deer and bunny butts buffing dishes and floors clean, or one dwarf fluffing up Dopey’s bottom to sleep on. In the making-of documentary, one of the dwarfs considered and rejected was Helpful Dwarf, whose defining characteristic is a jut-out ass and a grin. Right.)
Dopey, who one can’t even imagine being the subject of a long sentence, seems to remind us of Snow White’s postponement of her own growing pains: on the brink of adulthood, as represented by romance and beauty, with sexuality and desire the unspoken and refigured dangers. Even the dwarfs know that she’s putting off the situation; the queen, in all her sexual jealousy, sees all, and no one can escape. Her beauty is uncontrollable, a question of envy and desire. Yet being aware of and in control of one’s beauty, like the Queen with her mirror and her couture-template wardrobe and her redrawn eyebrows and lipstick, seems an evil proposition. Better that one’s beauty be ratified and defused by a prince (“Someday my prince will come”).
The deus ex machina justice and romance of the ending fall a far second to the full- and half-bodied spectacle that comes before, despite the highlights of terror in the Queen’s blithe cruelty towards the skeleton of a former prisoner, Snow White’s offscreen suffering from the apple, and those undiscriminating vultures. But that bodily growing pains amount to this work’s true signature is written into the production itself, for Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the self-conscious story of the maturation of an industry: kiddie shorts grew up to feature length, dramatic scope, and “realistic” smooth movement. It’s a lucky thing that Roy’s self-described decision to “diversify his business” resulted in a quintessential children’s drama, and one that’s busting out all over.