An examination of dominant themes in the director’s or producer’s work and what it tells us about the USA at the time

Subject: Sociology
Type: Analytical Essay
Pages: 7
Word count: 1880
Topics: Discrimination, Emotions, Film Review, Walt Disney
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Introduction

One of the dominant themes of Walt Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” is the story of its production, and the immense confidence of the producer/director to lead it to the citadel of financial success, when America was going through the period of The Great Depression.  Walt Disney directed the movie and his co-director was David Hand.  To produce an animated musical fantasy in the year 1937 with an estimated budget of $250,000 was not an ordinary task. Walt Disney’s confidence was amply rewarded. The movie was released all over the United States, on February 4, 1938, and its first show was at the Carthy Circle Theatre on December 21, 1937. In the early stages of the release, its international earnings were $ 8 million. I argue that there are two main reasons for its super performance at the box office. Firstly, Walt Disney’s name was familiar in the world of animation, as he had produced short movies in this genre before, like highly successful animated shorts in the Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonies series. Secondly, it had best musical score. Apart from the entertainment value of this movie, Walt Disney intelligently clubbed several important themes that had bearing on the life of Americans in the 1930s. He was awarded an honorary Oscar at the 11th Academy Awards. It saw the entry to the United States National Film Registry in 1989. It was hailed as the greatest American animated movie of all time in 2008.

Cultural impact

Fairytale has a strong cultural impact in any branch of entertainment in literature and movies in America. Theme park attractions added to its popularity of all age groups of audience, especially the children. It thus proved to be the greatest family entertainer. Tracey Mollet writes(2013),  “Because of the seemingly innocent nature of Disney animation and its subsequent association with childhood through fairytales and because of Disney’s prominent position within the paradigm of popular culture, scholars have identified Disney films somehow worthy of special treatment.”(109)The popular Hollywood climate was not, however, favorable to Disney. Hollywood movie industry sarcastically mentioned about this movie as “Disney’s Folly.”

Innovative artistic talent together with business acumen

Walt Disney was a visionary. As for the cost involved in producing a full-length movie of this genre, his feet were firmly rooted to the ground to the realities prevailing in America in 1930s.  He took a calculated risk and emerged by creating history and experienced the joy of unprecedented profits. Barrier writes(2007), “his powerful entrepreneurial drive combined with his new artist’s sensibility, that made Disney so inspiring a figure to many of the people who worked with him in the mid-1930s”(99) His movie was hailed as the classic product of family entertainment.   He produced this movie when American economy   was going through a period of great turmoil. The business world, the employment scene, the racial relations, was in doldrums. Walt Disney utilized this vacuum in the social and economic order to his advantage. Even in dire circumstances people seek some entertainment to find mental peace and Walt Disney was a trusted name in the field of producing animation movies, though short ones. David Eldridge writes (2008), “The dominant narratives assigned to a decade can be illuminating, at least when the various ideas about history, life and culture that they serve to represent are explored rather than taken for granted.”(29) He   assessed the situation correctly, and his expectations were right. The movie was a hit .He was a master story teller who duly recognized the merits of technological advancement and proved how important it was for the movie industry. One of his employees said of him, “’he used to come on like a madman, hair hanging down, perspiring…Christ, he was involved’” (Barrier, 2007, 125).  His commitment to this movie was total as he could not possibly afford to be a failure.

The success mantra: Walt Disney’s appeal to the psychological/emotional world of the viewers

The title of the movie makes the strong case for its eventual success. The words ‘Snow White’ bring before the eyes of an American and most of the countries that experience snowfall, pleasant feelings. The physical debility of the ‘Seven Dwarfs’ creates the sympathy wave instantly.  The character, the narcissistic Queen, further kindles curiosity of the viewers. Then that ‘magic mirror on the wall’! Steve Gilliland (2015) highlights the importance of the question and writes,

“Mirror, mirror on the wall,

Who in this realm is the fairest of them all?”(58)

Walt Disney draws the attention and interest of all the female audience with this query. Mirror is an important tool in the personal belongings of a woman. Kirsten Malfroid writes (2009), “The mirror thus serves as a male judge on female beauty, which is seen as the only standard by which to grant women any value.”(24-25)It owns a great symbolic meaning. Nancy van den Berg-Cook writes, “Thus, a mirror symbolizes the threshold between consciousness and the unconscious, and by looking into it, one may look towards the depths of the unconscious. And, the image that a mirror produces is symbolic and can be made sense of in both the unconscious and the conscious worlds.”

The happiness generating mirror proves to be her undoing, when it faithfully reports observation about her beauty stating that a competitor has arrived to challenge her first position on the pedestal of beauty and jealousy overtakes her. Walt Disney’s plot takes an altogether different turn. This mirror throws some reflections on the sociological conditions and family traditions prevailing at that time in USA.

Range of Emotions

Disney proves in this movie that laughter and tears are like the alternative beats of the same heart, in human life. Thus, through this movie Walt Disney does a creditable psychological probing for the American families of the 1930s. He proves himself as a brilliant storyteller, capable of keeping the audience spellbound and entertained for over 83 minutes, thus taking the animation to new heights in American film industry.

Legacy of discrimination against fair-sex

Carly Fiorina writes (2014), “During the entire movie, Snow White was showed as the damsel in suffering, having to wait for a strong and brave prince charming to save her.” (shitumatajrin.wordpress.com)This is the barometer that indicates the level of estimation of women even with the enlightened film producer like Walt Disney. The message in the movie is clear. For her happiness and security, a woman is dependent on male and being possessive of one’s love is the first and final goal of the life of a girl and that a girl has to be beautiful and slim.  The disposition related to Snow White’s progressive development of her character continues throughout the movie and it highlights the plight of women prevailing in America in the 1930s. But Walt Disney does it cleverly, without hurting the sentiments of the female audience much. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs are the typical characters of male, female stereotypes. The former is a maid in her own house and later she takes up the position of housekeeper, under duress though, at the house of the Seven Dwarfs in exchange for shelter.

In the movie, the Queen is the most powerful character yet she is controlled by mirror. Here again, the male supremacy is evident. Snow White ate the poisoned apple against the instructions given by the Seven Dwarfs resulting in her death. She was placed in a glass coffin only to be revived by a kiss from the Prince. The intervention of a male was important in her life and a strong and brave prince charming saved her.

Values have changed much in America during the course of last eight decades. The building process of the female character as articulated by Walt Disney is now outdated. Notwithstanding the common criticism about the heroine in the movie, from the point of view of producing a film of this genre in 1937, he deserves compliments. He did the innovative experiment under adverse circumstances from financial point of view and with no support from the film maker fraternity.  He richly deserved the Award by the Academy with the citation, “significant screen innovation which has charmed millions and pioneered a great new entertainment field.” (www.oscars.org)

New respectability to the genre of animation

Animation was considered as the entertainment for children, with short gags lasting for 5 to 6 minutes. With “Snow White” Walt Disney changed the entire scenario, the imagination of the animators reached great heights with confidence that a full length movie could be produced. He created an astoundingly beautiful movie, when there was not another one to take lessons from. As such it was hailed as the masterpiece. Roger Ebert quotes (2006) the Russian director Sergei Eisenstein who called it “the greatest movie ever made.” (420)Children and people of all age- groups liked the movie.

Love at first sight

In one area, American society seems to have not changed at all, since 1937. The love at first sight theme holds good, with added fervor in the present American society. The Prince and Snow White find true love with just one date. When the Prince first sees her, he falls for her and sings for her. She climbs up to a balcony and watches with adoration. Apart from the dramatic developments shown in the movie, Walt Disney supports the theme that the power of true love is everlasting and with such committed and deep love, wife and the husband can live happily. But Walt Disney would not have liked the present state of ‘true love’ in American society, with divorce rates increasing at an alarming rate.

Conclusion

Just like the rainbow has seven colors and looks beautiful with their combination, Walt Disney has intelligently clubbed most of the facets of the American life prevailing in the 1930s in the movie. He created history in the genre of animation. The character of Snow White is complete and all those who see her, fall in love with her beauty and disposition, including the animals.  This 1937 miracle is one of the most admired and loved animated movies of all time.

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  1. Barrier, Michael (2007) Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney, Berkeley: University of California Press
  2. Ebert, Roger (2006) The Great Movies II Paperback; New York Three Rivers Press; Print
  3. Eldridge, David. (2008)American Culture in the 1930s (Twentieth Century American Culture EUP); Edinburgh; Edinburgh University Press; Print
  4. Gilliland, Steve (2015) .Detour: Developing the Mindset to Navigate Life’s Turns; South Carolina; Advantage Media Group; Print
  5. Fraley, Jason. (2013)Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) The Film Spectrum
  6. Gender Discrimination: Portrayed By Disney Movies | shitumatajrin
  7. Honorary Award | Oscars.org | Academy of Motion Picture Arts and…
  8. Kirsten Malfroid Gender, Class and Ethnicity in the Disney Princesses Series
  9. Fraley, Jason. (2013)Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) The Film Spectrum
  10.  Mollet, Tracey (2013) “With a smile and a song …” Walt Disney and the Birth of the American Fairy Tale; Marvels & Tales Vol. 27, No. 1 (2013), pp. 109-124; Wayne State University Press;
  11. The Magic Mirror in Snow White – CG Jung Vereniging Nederland
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