“See for yourself what the genius of Walt Disney has created in his first full length feature production,” proclaimed the original trailer for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, released on this day in 1938.
Based on the famous fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm, Snow White opened with the Wicked Queen asking her magic mirror the question “Who is the fairest one of all?” The mirror gives its fateful answer: Snow White, the queen’s young stepdaughter. Ordered by the queen to kill the young princess, a sympathetic woodsman instead urges Snow White to hide in the forest; there she encounters a host of friendly animals, who lead her to a cottage inhabited by the Seven Dwarfs: Sleepy, Dopey, Doc, Sneezy, Grumpy, Bashful and Happy. Eventually, in the classic happy ending viewers would come to expect as a Disney trademark, love conquers all as the dwarfs defeat the villainous queen and Snow White finds love with a handsome prince.
Walt Disney’s decision to make Snow White, which was the first animated feature to be produced in English and in Technicolor, flew in the face of the popular wisdom at the time. Naysayers, including his wife Lillian, warned him that audiences, especially adults, wouldn’t sit through a feature-length cartoon fantasy about dwarfs. But Disney put his future on the line, borrowing most of the $1.5 million that he used to make the film. Snow White premiered in Hollywood on December 21, 1937, earning a standing ovation from the star-studded crowd. When it was released to the public the following February, the film quickly grossed $8 million, a staggering sum during the Great Depression and the most made by any film up to that time.
Critics were virtually unanimous in their admiration for Snow White. Charlie Chaplin, who attended the Hollywood premiere, told the Los Angeles Times that the film “even surpassed our high expectations. In Dwarf Dopey, Disney has created one of the greatest comedians of all time.” The movie’s innovative use of story, color, animation, sound, direction and background, among other elements, later inspired directors like Federico Fellini and Orson Welles. In fact, Welles’ Citizen Kane features an opening shot of a castle at night with one lighted window that is strikingly similar to the first shot of the Wicked Queen’s castle in Snow White.
Disney won an honorary Academy Award for his pioneering achievement, while the music for the film, featuring Snow White’s famous ballad, “Some Day My Prince Will Come” and other songs by Frank Churchill, Larry Morey, Paul J. Smith and Leigh Harline, was also nominated for an Oscar. The studio re-released Snow White for the first time in 1944, during World War II; thereafter, it was released repeatedly every decade or so, a pattern that became a tradition for Disney’s animated films. For its 50th anniversary in 1987, Snow White was restored, but cropped into a wide-screen format, a choice that irked some critics. Disney released a more complete digital restoration of the film in 1993. Its power continues to endure: In June 2008, more than 60 years after its U.S. release, the American Film Institute chose Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as the No. 1 animated film of all time in its listing of “America’s 10 Greatest Films in 10 Classic Genres.”