Monday, February 8, 2016

SNOW WHITE and THE SEVEN DWARFS: Blu-ray (Walt Disney Productions 1937) Walt Disney Home Video

In 1934, the Hollywood trades rumbled with an insane rumor American entrepreneur, cartoonist, animator, voice actor, and producer, Walt Disney had already begun to lay the groundwork for his first feature-length animated motion picture. As with most ‘firsts’ – having no precedence quickly equated to abject skepticism almost overnight. For many in the industry, to say nothing of the critics, the announcement was fraught with implausibility, pitfalls and certain failure. Oh sure, the two-reel cartoon short had been around practically since the dawn of motion pictures; and, equally the case, Walt and his small army of artists had been at the forefront of that evolution; pushing the boundaries to include Technicolor, the multiplane camera, and, occasionally, the combination of live-action and animation. While these technological advancements had been met with excitement, equally as popular with parents and their kiddies, virtually no one could conceive of a time when animation could hold an audience spellbound in the dark for two hours. We must first, if only in passing, tip our hats to Walt Disney; that composite figure of unwavering audacity, blind constancy and unparalleled ambition, in who all points of our collective 20th century childhood have long since converged. There is a word for men like Walt, however meager and grossly inadequate it remains in adequately summarizing his towering list of achievements; but that word is sheer genius.
Ignoring the seemingly sound counsel of not only his brother and business partner, Roy E. Disney, but also his beloved wife, Lillian (both tried to dissuade Walt from what the critics had already dubbed, ‘his folly’), and borrowing against a life insurance policy and mortgaging his assets when virtually every bank in America refused to loan him the necessary funds to finish the picture, Walt spent the money wisely; hiring noted Chouinard Art Institute professor, Donald Graham to begin the necessary training process, meant to raise the bar in his animators’ art. For the next several years Walt’s lucrative franchise, The Silly Symphonies, provided the ideal platform for the animators to test the new methods gleaned from this expert tutelage: also, to try out burgeoning technologies, including the multiplane camera, that added depth of field to this one dimensional art form. Arguably, without Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) there would never have been a Disney empire. Certainly, the whopping $8 million windfall Snow White earned back on its initial release (equivalent to $134 million today) afforded Walt the opportunity to shudder his cramped Hyperion facilities and move his entire base of operations to the more spacious and campus-styled Burbank Studios, expressly designed to carry on the fledgling ‘tradition’. Today, Snow White harks back to a cultural touchstone in what is today, sadly, the all-but-defunct industry of hand-drawn cell animation; Walt’s coup complete when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded him a special Oscar and seven miniature statuettes to mark the occasion; the award(s) presented to him by an ebullient Shirley Temple, matched by Walt’s own enthrallment, only partly for having achieved his goal. After all, there is a greater satisfaction to be derived from having proven wrong one’s harshest critics.
Indeed, nothing like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had been seen before, certainly not at the world premiere held at the Carthay Circle Theater; its forecourt cluttered in lavish replicas of Snow White’s cabin in the woods (complete with working water wheel) and the queen’s castle; the bleachers packed to capacity with eager fans ready to witness Hollywood’s glitterati descending on mass in their lavish furs, frocks and tuxedos to mark the occasion. The same critics who had condemned Walt’s enterprising notion to spend over a million as a feat of complete ‘idiocy’ now began writing the picture’s epitaph with plaudits. One cannot underestimate, or perhaps even fathom, what that night must have meant to Walt; the first of many affirmations his creative verve had truly come of age.  There is not an individual working in Hollywood today who can hold a candle to Walt Disney’s dedication to a dream; begun under a very dark cloud of skepticism in 1934, only to emerge victorious nearly three years later; the gamble well worth it. A new distribution deal was orchestrated with RKO; Snow White becoming the first picture marketed under the ‘Walt Disney Productions’ banner. Initially, Walt had hoped to produce Snow White for $250,000 (roughly ten times the cost of a single Silly Symphony). But with great hope there arose even greater responsibility to ensure Snow White did not simply match all the efforts thus far put forth, but went far beyond any level of expectation, elevating animation to an art form; the ballooning bottom line of $1,488,422.74 cringe-worthily astronomical by 1937 standards.
From the beginning, Walt was centered on ‘the dwarfs’ as the picture’s stars; given no names or individual personalities in the original Grimm fairy tale, first published in 1812. But Walt wanted seven unique personalities rife in comic relief; the eventual names chosen for these beloved dwarfs distilled from a list of nearly fifty; virtually all of them chosen to reflect a distinguishing characteristic.  Staff writer, Richard Creedon did extensive work to flesh out the story, borrowing from Grimm wherever possible, but also inventing scenarios along the way. In this preliminary outline the story became somewhat more cleverly ‘involved’, overwrought and unnecessarily complex; plans to have the Queen employ a poisoned comb (taken directly from Grimm), entrap the Prince in a plot to marry him for herself under a spell; then, leaving him for dead in a dungeon filling with water, were all eventually discarded. Walt believed firmly in animation to tell stories, but he also felt such meandering narrative threads were getting in the way of the base innocence and charm of the piece. In simplifying the story, Walt chose to almost telescopically focus on Snow White’s gradual warming to the seven diminutive fellows in her midst. Early on, Walt made his most critical decision, ultimately to ensure the picture’s success. Apart from the dwarfs, virtually all the humans would be drawn in an, as yet, uncharted manner of heightened realism; the huntsman, the Queen (and her alter ego, the old hag), Snow White and her Prince Charming affecting a highly romanticized Hollywood-esque charm, but with realistic human behaviors and mannerisms.  As example, it was Walt who reformed the original design of the Queen from portly curmudgeon to stately and statuesque villainess, a critical decision adding an unsettling dimension of wickedness and austerity to her presence. 
By November 1935, the basic story elements were locked into place and Walt and his animators proceeded to concentrate on the stylistic elements in Snow White’s evolution; Walt, refining the particulars while keeping tight reigns on the project as a whole; encouraging his staff to see as many movies as possible to stimulate their creativity and expressly finding inspiration in MGM’s 1936 Romeo and Juliet, for the romantic pas deux between Snow White and Prince Charming, and, 1931’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for the Queen’s transformation into the old hag. The now iconic ‘Heigh Ho’ sequence was animated almost exclusively by Shamus Culhane, although the overriding arc of design was the work of Albert Hunter, with artists, Ferdinand Hovarth and Gustaf Tenggren refining the characters. Ably assisted by Chouinard’s fine artist and art instructor, Donald W. Graham, the animators dove head (and heart) strong into their respective tasks of achieving a heightened sense of realism, the collaboration affectionately dubbed ‘brutal battles’, fueled by a mutual inability to grasp one another’s basic concepts – at first – but gradually buoyed by as an enthusiastic willingness to learn and frenetic creative energy to surpass even their own expectations.  Although rotoscoping (tracing over live action footage) was generally frowned upon, in the final hours of production, several sequences were rotoscoped to expedite finishing the project in time to meet its Christmas release.
Meanwhile, Walt had hired composers, Frank Churchill and Larry Morey to write catchy songs to be interpolated between the more somber and adventurous moments in the picture, relying on Paul J. Smith and Leigh Harline to supply Snow White’s incidental underscore.  Because Walt did not own a music publishing apparatus at the time of Snow White’s release, the rights to all this music fell to Bourne Co. Music Publishers who have long since held onto them, much to Disney Inc.’s chagrin, forcing them to re-license their own work for subsequent reissues of the movie; also, its soundtrack albums, of which Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs proved the forerunner. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs opens with a majestic fanfare, the rest of the score veering from rambunctious melodies like ‘The Silly Song’ and ‘Heigh-Ho’, to melodic ballads (Someday My Prince Will Come, and, I’m Wishing) to the operatic, ‘One Song’. In short order we are introduced to the wicked Queen (voiced by Lucille La Verne); her magical incantations of “Mirror, mirror on the wall…” forcing the ghostly visage (Moroni Olsen) caught in her reflection to confess another as being the ‘fairest in the land’. This, the Queen absolutely will not tolerate. Learning it is Snow White (Adriana Caselotti) whose beauty is far beyond compare, the Queen commits a huntsman to take the girl deep into the woods and commit murder, ordering he should bring back Snow White’s heart in a tiny box as proof the crime has been carried out. Before her outing with the huntsman, Snow White inadvertently meets Prince Charming (Harry Stockwell). The couple are smitten, but deprived of any genuine way to show their affections, other than a very brief musical interlude.  
Snow White is taken into the woods as planned. However, at the last possible moment, the huntsman experiences his own change of heart, begging for her forgiveness and revealing the Queen’s evil plan.  Snow White flees deep into the woods to escape the Queen’s wrath. Terrified and lonely, she eventually comes across a wood cutter’s cottage. Exhausted by her ordeal, she collapses into a deep sleep upon one of the upstairs beds. A short while later, the seven miners who occupy this house; Sleepy, Grumpy (both voiced by Pinto Colvig), Sneezy (Billy Gilbert), Happy (Otis Harlan), Bashful (Scotty Mathraw), Dopey (Eddie Collins) and Doc (Roy Atwell) return to discover Snow White still very much asleep. Doc, the self-appointed leader of the group, demands she leave at once. However, Snow White quickly establishes herself as an integral part in all their lives; the perfect housekeeper and cook, winning support from virtually all the dwarfs – even Doc, who would rather hold stubbornly steadfast to his original conviction, but cannot entirely refuse all her hard work and kindnesses.
As fate would have it, the Queen learns of the huntsman’s treason. She concocts and drinks a hellish magic potion that transforms her stately features into the hunched and gnarled disguise of an old hag. This transformation sequence is one of the most harrowing and haunting of any in a Disney movie; Walt and his artisans tapping into German Expressionism to create a truly memorable and disturbing visualization.  Passing herself off as the peddler of juicy apples, the hag arrives at the cabin. Innocently, the girl takes a bite from one of the poisoned fruit and falls instantly, and presumably, dead. The hag relishes her victory. But the dwarfs, realizing what she has done, make chase through the woods. A terrific storm invigorates their pursuit. The hag makes an attempt to dislodge a bolder from the top of a mountain, surely to crush her pint-sized pursuers. But at the last possible moment she is thwarted in this malignant deed by Mother Nature; a bolt of lightning causing the hag to topple from the mountainside to her death. Returning to the cottage, the dwarves mourn the loss of their beloved Snow White, placing her in a glass coffin. Having learned of the young girl’s demise, the Prince arrives. His farewell kiss breaks the evil spell. Snow White is not dead, but merely in a trance from which she now awakens. The dwarfs rejoice and the Prince leads his beloved to his castle in the clouds where surely they will live, ever predictably, happily ever after.      
In addition to putting his critics to shame and allowing Walt the opportunity to build an even bigger studio to house his future dreams, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs also afforded Walt the ability to pursue two even more ambitious projects; Pinocchio and Fantasia (both released in 1940). Regrettably, neither matched the commercial success of Snow White, and, in fact, sent the new studio’s balance sheet sinking deep into the red. In the lean years that were yet to follow, buffeted by wartime rationing and Walt’s commitment to churning out military training and goodwill short subjects for the U.S. government (an admirable, though hardly profitable endeavor), the 1944 re-issue of Snow White managed to stave off the specter of total ruin, as well as establish a tradition of re-releasing animated features every seven to ten years. Consequently, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs would enjoy re-re-re-issues in 1952, ‘58, ‘67, ‘75, ‘83, ‘87 and ’93 with its lifetime gross surpassing $418.2 million, to say nothing of the profits derived from its various reissues on home video. In 1993, this cornerstone to Walt’s fairy tale kingdom received a much needed and labor-intensive photo-chemical and digital restoration; the files scanned in at 4K resolution for future archival preservation.  Retrospectively, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs remains nothing short of a milestone. Indeed, filmmakers of Walt’s time, Sergei Eisenstein and Charlie Chaplin were quick to add their notable praise; Eisenstein going so far as to suggest Snow White the greatest movie ever made. There is little to deny the picture’s influence on pop culture. It opened up the field of family-orientated fantasy film-making capped off by MGM’s The Wizard of Oz and rival animator, Max Fleischer attempting to breathe life into Gulliver’s Travels (both released in 1939). Snow White also spawned imitators and parodies; Howard Hawk’s 1941’s screwball gem, Ball of Fire, costarring Barbara Stanwyck as a hep cat girl of the jazz age and Gary Cooper as her scholastic Lochinvar; also, Bob Clampett’s unapologetic and irreverent 1943 Merrie Melodies short, Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs; war-themed and with the entire ‘black’ cast warbling jazz tunes.    
To suggest Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs changed the trajectory of animation is an understatement. Once regarded as little more than a minor diversion for tots, suitable only as one reel shorts sandwiched between other features, the movie once dubbed ‘Disney’s folly’ achieved overnight landmark status by which all like-minded endeavors have long since been judged. Today, Snow White continues to entertain us, although, in hindsight, it tends to seem tamer and less ‘appointed’ in direct comparison to Walt’s other ‘princess-themed’ features: Cinderella (1950) and Sleeping Beauty (1959) among them. And yet, what remains perennially appealing is Snow White’s virginal tenderness; Walt and his artisans tapping into the inescapably wholesomeness too often stripped from family-themed entertainments today; replaced by sentimentalized treacle or worse, rank adult cynicism, designed to mature (or rather steal away with) our childhood memories, instead of staving off the specter of adulthood for just a little while longer.
The best of Disney’s animated features – particularly those Walt supervised – tap into childhood with a magically timeless diviner’s rod, capable of bringing forth oft buried remembrances from our own happier, carefree times. In Disney films we escape the realities of life; not by being shielded from them, but rather, gently coaxed out of its darker recesses, safely kept at arm’s length by the proverbial ‘happy ending’. Within this context there is a lot to unpack; virtue triumphant; goodness preserved and/or restored, evil vanquished; the natural order held together by the purity of a take-charge heroine, and so on. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs promises all this and more and for 83 minutes at least, this much rings true; the world is a place where fears are faced, but where any dreams dared to be dreamed can come true. Is it wrong to believe in wishing wells and fairy tales? Do we do our children a disservice by keeping them unawares for a little while longer? Flying in the face of abject scholarship that suggests as much, personally, I think the opposite is true. Stimulating impressionable minds ought to be the ensconced precept of any great work of cinema art endeavored for the young. Walt distinctly understood this as an elemental necessity. His movies thus appeal to the young and young in heart, and, collectively endure because they speak to renewable human longings, despite changing mores, tastes and socio-political upheavals, perennially enjoyed for their undiluted fresh-faced naiveté. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is among these timeless works of art. It lives because Walt never gave up or into the prejudices facing him at the start. For this, I say, ‘Courage, thy name is Disney’…uncle Walt, if you prefer, as I do.                 
'Perennially satisfying’ is also a good way to describe Disney’s Blu-Ray. If you do not already own the previous Diamond Edition Blu-ray, now many years out of print, I suppose it is as good a time as any to pick up this edition, although, already owning the aforementioned, I am really not loving the studio’s new slimmed down look; the cardboard sleeve and homogenized vertical writing having become something of ‘a thing’ with Disney Inc. hi-def releases. The company really did put its best foot forward on the aforementioned 2009 Blu-ray, housed in a handsome blue embossed booklet or, for those with very deep pockets, a red velvet deluxe case also containing a book, lithographs and other sundry bling and tangible extras. So there is not a whole lot of room for improvement this time around, and, in fact, none is forthcoming; the video/audio quality virtually identical to the old 2009 release.
Sourced from a painstaking restoration of the original camera negative, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a sumptuous feast for the eyes and ears. I am always blown away by the resiliency of metal dye transfer Technicolor; its overall fidelity and sensitivity to even the subtlest changes in light and shadow. Contrast levels are again perfectly realized and much – if not – all of the image exhibits razor-sharp clarity; the minor caveats, the result of the source – not the hi-def mastering process. Disney Inc. is somewhat adverse to grain but Snow White escapes the studio-sanctified verve to eradicate it altogether. There’s a light smattering present, indigenous to the source, and without the added distraction of age-old dirt and debris. Just shy of its 80th anniversary, the fairest of the fair can still hold that claim with more than a modicum of pride. Once again, the vintage audio is presented in both original mono (restored) and a splendid new 7.1 Dolby Digital mix. Bottom line: an A-list reference disc to be beloved for as long as the child within remains the centerpiece of life.
Extras are a mixed bag. Disney scholar, John Canemaker hosts a vintage commentary with excised comments from Walt and other Disney staff no longer with us. It’s a comprehensive history and well worth the listen. We also get ‘In Walt’s Words’ almost five minutes of a 1956 interview, but a virtually repeat of the comments interpolated throughout Canemaker’s commentary.  At around the 7 min. mark is Iconography, a chance for current Disney alumni to reminisce about Snow White and then produce sculptures. @DisneyAnimation: Designing Disney’s First Princess is 5 min. of animators recognizing the influences of Snow White on the contemporary Disney heroine, and, clocking in a full minute short of this is, The Fairest Facts of Them All with Disney Channel’s Sofia Carson relating ‘little known’ facts about the movie. Honestly, I could have done without ‘Snow White in Seventy Seconds’ a minute’s worth of gutless rapping meant to contemporize the tale for today’s youth, who seemingly cannot contextualize anything unless it comes with a beat. For a while now, it has become something of a thing at the Mouse House to offer insight into the movie that never was. In Alternate Sequence: The Prince Meets Snow White we get a pseudo-representation of a story meeting and Walt’s original concept for how the fairest of them all and her comely prince should have found true love.
The best extras are all carry-overs from the old Blu-ray release; beginning with The Making of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, at just a little over a half hour, about as densely packed as one might expect with historians, Neal Gabler and John Canemaker telling the tale. Personally, I think it still a tad truncated – condensing four years into 33 min., including the film’s premiere and cultural importance. To flesh out the particulars, we get Andreas Deja, Bringing Snow White to Life – 10 plus min. of intensely discussed animation with his fellow artists. I have always liked Deja and felt the company continues to under-use him as the ‘new’ spokesman for the studio’s rich heritage. He clearly has a passion to become the eminence grise. Hyperion Studios is an interactive tour of the original animation studio. This, and Decoding an Exposure Sheet, a technical look at the record kept on each sequence of the movie, are holdovers from the Platinum edition DVD. Ditto for Snow White Returns: a reconstruction of a never realized animated sequel. There’s also, Story Meeting/Dwarfs, Story Meeting/Huntsman, Deleted Sequence/Soup/Bed, and finally, an all too brief puff piece on the various voical talent. Shameless to the end, Disney Inc. cannot resist giving us theatrical trailers for their new movies, Zootopia and The Good Dinosaur. Bottom line: if you don’t already own Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs you definitely should. This disc comes highly recommended, but only for those who do not already own the fairest of them all in 1080p.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
5+
VIDEO/AUDIO
5+
EXTRAS

4

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