The magic of Disney has brought joy to generations of movie lovers all over the world, but things could have been very different were it not for the success of 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Walt Disney’s first foray into feature-length animation was a hugely ambitious step – a commercial and creative risk.
Disney had made its name with a series of animated shorts, but nobody had made an animated feature film before and the level of sophistication that Disney was attempting with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was totally unprecedented, in terms of the quality of animation, the storytelling, and the soundtrack. Indeed, when news of the film spread among the film industry, it was met with skepticism and dubbed “Disney’s Folly.”
Despite the naysayers, Walt Disney forged ahead. As he later said, “It was prophesized that nobody would sit through such a thing. But there was only one way we could do it successfully and that was to plunge ahead and go for broke: shoot the works. There could be no compromising on money, talent or time […] and this was at a time when the whole country was in the midst of a crippling depression.”
The original budget for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was between $150,000 and $250,000 – the final cost was nearly $1.5 million. It would’ve bankrupted the studio had Disney not persuaded the Bank Of America to grant them a loan on the basis of an incomplete edit of the film. In total, the film took nearly five years to complete, and it’s thought that as many as 750 crew members worked on it.
No expense was spared. Pioneering new techniques were used to give the animation a realism that hadn’t been seen before; Disney brought in specialists to help with composition and use of color; animators were given lessons in capturing movement and studied life drawing. But however technically impressive Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs may have been, the efforts would have been in vain were it not for Disney’s tweaks to the Brothers Grimm fairy tale.
Walt Disney knew the story had pathos and romance. But he also knew that it lacked humor. Giving distinct personalities to the seven generous miners who take in Snow White in her hour of need and naming them accordingly – Dopey, Sneezy, Bashful, Happy, Sleepy, Grumpy, and Doc – was a masterstroke. While previous adaptations had seen them acting as one, their contrasting personalities in Disney’s version allowed for hilarious japes and, crucially, allowed for some unforgettable musical sequences, with songs written by Larry Morey (lyrics) and Frank Churchill (music).
We’re introduced to the seven titular characters with a scene featuring one of Disney’s most famous songs. The rollicking “Heigh-Ho” might be a song of up-and-at-’em industry, but viewers soon realize that some dwarfs work more than others, making for a comedic first look at the characters. Also credited to “The Dwarfs Chorus” – Roy Atwell, Pinto Colvig, Billy Gilbert, Otis Harlan & Scotty Mattraw – is the delightful “The Silly Song (The Dwarfs’ Yodel Song),” a brisk, country-inspired tune that nods to the yodeling country forefather, Jimmy Rodgers, while soundtracking a scene that shows Snow White’s hosts letting off some steam.
Elsewhere, Morey and Churchill’s original songs aren’t quite so raucous. “Someday My Prince Will Come” (sung by Snow White, voiced by Adriana Caselotti) is a sweeping ballad of yearning, the first in a long line of romantic show-stoppers that would grace Disney’s best-loved films. More upbeat was the jaunty “Whistle While You Work,” sung by Snow White as she enlists the help of a myriad of woodland creatures to spruce up the decidedly unloved home of her seven hosts.
The songs were such a huge part of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ appeal that it became the first movie to have its complete soundtrack released – it was issued as a collection of three 78rpm singles, each of which made it into the US Top 10.
On its February 1938 release, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a phenomenon. Walt Disney’s gamble paid off as it took over $8 million on its initial release, a staggering amount at the time. It was critically acclaimed too – in 1939, Walt Disney received an honorary Oscar® for the film, and 50 years later the United States Library of Congress selected it as one of the first 25 films for preservation in the National Film Registry. Most importantly, it paved the way for decades of much-loved and innovative movies that changed the face of filmmaking. “Heigh-ho” indeed!