I saw Snow White and the Seven Dwarves for the first time when I was 33 years old. It is one of those films that is so famous you feel you must have seen it, but actually, unless I have some kind of repressed memory involving short men and scary trees, I had never actually watched it in full.
Watching a movie like this for the first time when you are an adult gives you different insights than you might have as a child. I was fascinated with what a genuine 30s look Snow White has – her hair, her make-up, and her singing voice are all typical of that era, and she must have seemed quite modern for a fairytale princess. In fact she reminded me quite a bit of another 30s cartoon damsel, Betty Boop. Her facial features are in many ways more realistic than later animated heroines – for instance Belle in Beauty and the Beast, over 50 years later, looks much more cartoonish, with her huge eyes and head, than Snow White, who even seems to have a bit of puppy fat on her chin.
I wanted to find out a bit more about how the animators created the look for Snow White, and came across a truly interesting back story. First of all, it seems there is a good reason Snow White reminded me of Betty Boop – Grim Natwick, one of the two animators, originally was the artist for Betty Boop! Not only that, but Betty had starred in her own short (and extremely surreal) version of Snow White only a few years beforehand.
Grim’s vision for Snow White was that she be realistic (with his 8 years of art training he was one of the few animators at the time who could achieve this), and slightly sexy and knowing. His partner, Hamilton Luske, had a more cartoonish style and saw her as being a gangly and young with big eyes. Walt Disney himself wanted her to be sweet, and aged between 12 and 14 (which the others thought too young to fall in love, so talked him away from). This really was a case of team work coming up trumps – Snow White has components of all the contributors visions, and she is all the better for it.
Another detail which assists Snow White’s natural look are her blushed cheeks, which help to give a more rounded appearance than the flat effect we see on so many other cartoon characters. These were added by some of the female paint artists, who applied their own pots of rouge on to Snow’s cheeks. When Walt Disney asked one girl how they would be able to apply the rouge correctly for each cel, she replied, “What do you think we’ve been doing all our lives?”
With such attention to detail, no wonder the film took three years to create. It paid off though; Snow White was the first ever English-speaking animated feature film, and Disney was awarded a specially created Academy Award that year to honour the innovation. Charmingly, the award consisted of a full size Oscar statuette, and seven miniature versions.
You can see some of Snow White’s facial expressions below – and take note of that blush.