Snow White Storytellingby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of Walt Disney’s first innovative animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, it might seem that there is little more to say about the film.
There have been several books devoted just to the film itself including, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs & the Making of the Classic Film by Richard Holliss and Brian Sibley and Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, An Art in Its Making - Featuring the Collection of Stephen H. Ison. (The Disney Company purchased Ison’s impressive collection, so I hope there are plans for it to be displayed this year or go on tour.)
I predict that the final word on the film will be the two books by one of my favorite Disney historians, J.B. Kaufman, coming out later this year: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: The Art and Creation of Walt Disney's Classic Animated Film and The Fairest One of All: The Making of Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
I am a huge fan of animator and Oscar-winning director Brad Bird (ever since I first became aware of him for his work with the 1987 “Family Dog” segment of Spielberg’s television anthology, Amazing Stories). On May 19, he was a guest speaker at the Disney Family Museum in San Francisco for a presentation titled “The Disney Treatment: Walt's Versions of Classic Stories.”
The museum has been the home for many exciting monthly presentations on Disney history and it saddens me that more Disney fans are unable to experience these events in person. Thankfully, the museum is making documentation videos of the presentations as well as doing some nice summaries on its blog.
Bird, an insightful storyteller, pointed out some story elements in several films, but I was especially struck by something that had never occurred to me about Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. When the book at the beginning of the film opens, it has a bit of a “silent movie” approach, with text that audiences have to read that gets them instantly involved interactively with the story.
When the Queen’s castle is revealed, Bird noted, “Instead of happy music it begins with mysterious music, which immediately puts you in a different state of mind. The coolest thing is he [Walt] instinctively begins with not only the Queen, but also the mirror. He shows right away she is a slave to her own image.”
Snow White is rich is storytelling details. It is not simply that a familiar fairytale was handled like a live-action screenplay, but that every scene provides the audience with information that they might not consciously process at the time—but do so immediately on an emotional level.
One of the more than 200 classes I used to teach at for cast members and Disney corporate clients at Walt Disney World was an oft-requested one I developed on Disney storytelling. I now have an expanded, revised version that I have used when I present at colleges.
One of the examples I use in the presentation, about how stories can be told quickly and visually without pounding audiences over the head with the key points, is from Snow White.
In the opening scene with the dwarfs in the diamond mine, they are all working hard and efficiently and without complaint. In fact, they are singing happily. It is not a hardship to do this difficult physical labor. At the end of the day, they lock up the mine with all its riches.
Who do they give the key to in order to lock the door? Dopey. What does he do with the key? He hangs it on a nail right next to the door.
Most people just look at that brief moment as an amusing comedic interlude to close out the mine scene and begin the march to the cottage scene. Nope. That one short incident tells the audience an amazing amount of information, not just that Dopey is kind of “silly” as Walt once said.
By giving the least competent dwarf the task of securing the mine and Dopey placing the key right by the door where anyone could get it, reveals that this is not going to be a story about the diamonds. The riches are not going to be important to the story. The wealth is not going to be threatened or used as a story point to ransom Snow White or become something that will stop the witch or whatever. Working in the mine is just a job for the dwarfs just as if they were greeters at Wal-Mart, cashiers at a bank, or waiters at a restaurant. It is their job. That’s all.
They go each day and do their job and when they finish they come home. They don’t hoard the diamonds in secret vaults. They don’t use the diamonds to buy things, including servants, to cook them meals and clean up the house. They don’t fight and argue over the gems. It is a non-issue.
So, in a handful of seconds, Walt has told the audience that they don’t need to worry about any of this stuff. He just wanted to let you know what the dwarfs do all day so they are not hanging around the cottage. It’s important that they are not hanging around the cottage, because it provides the opportunity for Snow White to find it in the forest, explore it, and, later, to put her in danger because she is alone and unprotected when the Old Hag shows up with the poison apple.
There is a depth and authenticity to the storytelling in Snow White throughout the film. For instance, many things are revealed about the characters and their world just in the iconic dinner scene.
In the classic Disney animated features, a meal is often a pivotal moment in the story—from the romantic nudging of a meatball across a plate of spaghetti in Lady and the Tramp to the humorous table manners of the hapless Beast as he tries desperately to impress the lovely Belle in Beauty and the Beast with his use of utensils. I’m surprised that Disney hasn’t come up with more dining activities at the parks themed to all these classic scenes of eating in Disney films.
Dinner for the hungry Seven Dwarfs provided an opportunity for them to bond closely with the little princess, and to reveal how helpless these woodland bachelors actually were when it came to the most important meal of the day.
For the hardworking dwarfs, dinner might have been their only meal of their day. They wake early in the morning for the scenic hike to their distant diamond mine and put in a full day of work—and yet do not have a bite of breakfast nor do they carry along any lunch pails.
They return very late in the evening and, because they are so tired from their arduous labors, they must prepare something simple and quick for their evening meal before they finally collapse into their tiny beds.
In that storybook era, meat was expensive, and even game like venison was usually reserved only for the tables of the nobility, especially since preserving meat by smoking or salting was not completely perfected.
In addition, the empathetic dwarfs clearly have a symbiotic relationship with the shy wild animals of the forest and there is no evidence in the miners’ unkempt cottage of any bones littered among nearly everything else. So it is apparent that their repast never included any animal entrees. The animated animals exhibit no sense of fear or danger about the house or its residents.
What did hardworking people eat in those days and was reasonably easy to make? Soup! Glorious soup! “Oyle Soppe,” an onion soup that included flat ale with stale bread and a pinch of saffron, and “Soup Tredure," a soup made of vegetable stock, eggs, lemon juice and a pinch of saffron, were extremely popular with workers who lived in rural areas.
The hungry dwarfs clearly loved having steaming hot and hearty soup for dinner. When the dwarfs realize that helpful Snow White has prepared fresh soup for dinner, they unanimously let out an immediate loud cheer as they eagerly race to the wooden table. I doubt that anyone, except in Campbell's Soup commercials, has ever let out such an enthusiastic yelp of joy at the thought that they are only getting soup for dinner after a long, hard day of work.
In a scene deleted from the final film, all the dwarfs, even the persnickety Grumpy, consume the soup with great abandon and even indicate they intend to have not just a second helping but a “third encore,” as well.
When Snow White first sees the interior of the cottage, she comments with alarm on “what a pile of dirty dishes” but what she and her animal friends are really looking at are precarious stacks of soup bowls, spoons and cups (that were probably also used for soup) stacked in towering piles, not only on the table but in the unique wooden tub that served as a kitchen sink.
Snow White’s exclamation probably originated from an October 31, 1935 story conference where Supervising Animator Hamilton Luske remarked, “Dish-tub as well as table should be piled with dishes as if the dwarfs had all kinds of dishes but never got around to washing them.”
In the final film, there are almost 10 times as many dirty bowls and cups as un-cleaned plates and dishes, and all of them unwashed not because of laziness, since the dwarfs had no aversion to hard work, but simply because they were too exhausted at the end of their lengthy work day to do the task. If paper cups and disposable Styrofoam bowls had been available at the time, they probably would have used those items.
The delicious soup is cooked on a dark covered cauldron that swings over a roaring fire in the fireplace with an arc-shaped hanger. This large blackish-gray metal pot is one of the few items not covered in cobwebs, indicating that it has frequently been used by the dwarfs.
Cereal grains were the most important staples during this time period, since rice and potatoes were not introduced into the European diet until much later. In particular, barley and rye were eaten as bread, porridge, and gruel. The dwarfs’ dinner table includes two large flat pewter plates piled high with enough tasty small bread rolls for each ravenous dwarf to have two or more apiece.
At this time in history, fearful concerns over the purity of water made a variety of beverages like ale more preferred at dinner as being safer and better to aid in digestion than water. While handleless, long-stemmed goblets are on the dinner table, it is obvious that the dwarfs prefer using a variety of decorated German drinking steins with handles and hinged lids that are scattered throughout the homey cottage.
Much of the design for the traditional dinner came from inspirational artwork by talented Disney artists, especially Gustaf Tenggren, who was greatly influenced by tradtional German folklore when he provided detailed paintings of the interior of the the dwarfs’ domicile as references for the animators.
The only significant item missing from the enthusiastic meal is a dessert as the dwarfs revealed to amused Snow White that they were exhilarated at the thought of her making apple dumplings, plum pudding and, most especially, gooseberry pie. However, these delicious treats are more time consuming and labor intensive to make so are a rarity as part of their supper.
Dinner for the dwarfs was a simple but enthusiastic affair that was used as a time of good fellowship and, unknowingly, curious Snow White discovered among their cupboards exactly what was needed to appease their appetties—the ingredients for glorious soup!
So visually and quickly, Walt’s storytelling has conveyed information about the dwarfs and Snow White and their world so that the audience understands them better, and that understanding leads to an emotional connection that pays off big time by the end of the film.
I’ve written some previous columns about some obscure aspects of Snow White:
Once again, for all the Disney Snow White fanatics out there, there is no better website than Snow White Sanctum that I continue to give my highest recommendation for preserving important artifacts about Disney’s Snow White. For those who are bigger fans of Alice in Wonderland, I highly recommend Matt Crandall’s outstanding site