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Revisiting Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Snow_White_1937_posterThe last time I saw Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, I must have been around eleven years old. I had just watched the 1978 Les Miserables with Richard Jordan and Anthony Perkins and, along with my cousin and siblings, found it a stressful experience. None of us knew a thing about the story, so when Javert stood there for what seemed an impossibly long time, pointing a gun at Jean Valjean’s head (with one stressful note of music held for an impossibly long time) we really were concerned. After Les Miserables, we wanted to watch something a little more restful.

But after watching She and reading about how the costumes in that film might have inspired the animators of the Evil Queen in Snow White, I wanted to see it again. Here are my seven main thoughts on the film.

1) It’s like a symphonic poem. I had forgotten how much music is in this film. Not only do characters break into song every five minutes or so, but the musical score (composed by Paul Smith and Leigh Harline) almost never ceases to play. There are multiple examples of “mickey-mousing,” which means using the music to accompany or punctuate a character or animal’s movement or expression. When music is played in time to the steps of the dwarfs, that is mickey-mousing.

But it’s not irritating, but adds considerably to the charm of the film. This is largely because everything in the film seems to be part of the music. The particular sing-song way Snow White talks, the way characters often speak in rhymes, the various noises that animals make, even the noises that characters make (the snoring, the squeaks of shoes, the indelible sound of Doc clearing his throat or Grumpy’s “Humph”), the different timbre of character’s voices. Every sound and every word seems part of one consistent musical whole, making the narrative less important.

I’d also forgotten just how catchy and numerous all the songs are. I spent days singing “With a Smile and a Song” and “I’m Wishing.” Frank Churchill (not Jane Austen’s Frank Churchill) wrote the music for the songs and Larry Morey wrote the lyrics.

Snow-White-and-the-Seven-Dwarfs2) Along with the music, the movements of characters are highly stylized. Nobody walks the way Snow White does; she practically floats. The queen has a way of sweeping her cloak artistically and makes grand gestures with her arms. Hands are particularly fascinating to watch in this film. I’m struggling to find a word to describe it all. Poetic, balletic, operatic? Realism is not the dominant goal of this film. It’s a musical storybook.

3) That forest Snow White runs through at the beginning used to frighten the living daylights out of me. Watching it now, it looks rather German expressionist to me. In fact, I noticed a lot of things this time that never occurred to me previously. Like the cross cutting at the end between the queen offering Snow White the apple and the dwarfs racing to the rescue. I was just reading a book about the silent era that was discussing D.W. Griffith’s famous use of cross cutting in his films, most famously in Birth of a Nation (Diary of a Movie Maniac also makes this observation).

4) Does the magic mirror make house calls? The Evil Queen uses her magic to call him forth and I wonder if there are other homes that he visits.

5) The attitude of Snow White is extremely 1930s. She actually apologizes for being frightened and breaking down in tears. She is a survivor. She just keeps moving forward, bravely ready to face whatever comes next. Snow White is generally considered a rather un-empowered princess, but I think this is partly a product of the Depression. During the Depression, no one was particularly empowered (not even men) and the main thing was to keep moving forward and not complain. Her apology to the animals and then her cheerful “With a Smile and a Song” as she looks for a home in the woods strikes me as typical of the era.

Disney has progressed from “With a Smile and a Song” and keeping on without complaint to “Let It Go,” where Elsa’s practically shaking her fist and shouting, “I’m an individual!” It’s interesting how times change.

Evil_Queen_(Snow_White_and_the_Seven_Dwarfs_1937)As a side note, I was trying to fit the Dwarf’s apparent wealth with a Depression mentality, but if you think about it: their diamonds and rubies don’t actually make them rich. They don’t have any way to sell or use their gems. They even sing a line about how they don’t know why they dig. They lock their gems in a shed with a key hanging right by the door. Their real treasure is Snow White.

6) In The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks, the author mentions in her introduction that Walt Disney wanted his animators to make the prince look like Douglas Fairbanks. As she notes, however, it’s not obvious that they succeeded.

7) Is it just me or does the prince’s castle look like the celestial heavens? Does that make him death? Not sure I like that interpretation.

 
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Posted by on April 15, 2016 in Movies

 

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Disney’s Maleficent – 2014

Maleficent_posterI clearly need to stop being such a pill about new movies. I’ve thrown myself so wholeheartedly into discovering, watching and enjoying classic movies that I’ve developed a snobbish streak about new movies and how “they just don’t make ’em like they used to.” I’ve decided that is not a healthy attitude. I also clearly need to start ignoring movie trailers. I didn’t think I’d like Frozen and I did like it and I was convinced I wouldn’t like Maleficent and I liked it. Angelina Jolie won me over and I’d never liked her in a movie before.

Though perhaps my expectations were just so low that the movie was bound to be better.

It made me think of the days when a studio would put together movies that were specifically vehicles for their greatest stars, like Bette Davis? Jezebel is so totally a movie designed as a tour de force for Bette Davis, who dominates the film and dwarfs the other characters, but that’s what she’s supposed to do. Maleficent is a bit like that. I don’t know if they deliberately set out to do that, but Angelina Jolie completely overshadows everyone else (who I scarcely recall) and it doesn’t seem to matter too much because we’re not watching the movie for anyone else, anyway.

Maleficent did a decent job, I thought, in showing what can be a very difficult feat to accomplish: how Maleficent “goes bad.” That was the problem Star Wars had in trying to show how Anakin could become Darth Vader; they never convinced me that he had sufficient cause to harden his heart so thoroughly and be so murderous. They avoid that pitfall in two ways in Maleficent: they give her sufficient cause to hate and they don’t actually make her evil (which could also be seen as a cheat).

The makers of the film and Angelina Jolie both said that when Stefan drugs her and cuts off her wings near the beginning of the film, it was meant to be a metaphor for rape and it is a very effective scene, especially when she wakes up afterwards and realizes what has happened. Maleficent has been betrayed and violated, essentially by all mankind. They’ve tried before to bring down the moor where all the fairies are, but Stefan, she thought, was her friend and loved her and now he has brutally robbed her of a part of herself.

But she doesn’t become completely hard core evil. She’s not running around committing random acts of unkindness just because she can, like Maleficent does in the animated Disney Sleeping Beauty in 1959. That Maleficent is pure, unadulterated evil. It’s marvelous. But for Jolie’s Maleficent, there is purpose and direction to her evil. She is seeking revenge, without thought of who it will hurt and she has walled herself and the fairies’ moor off from the kingdom of men. She makes herself ruler over the other fairies, but she is not willfully hurting them. And the reason, you could argue, that she has walled herself off and made herself ruler is out of a reflexive reaction for having failed the fairies earlier when she lost her wings. Now, in her mind, the only way she can protect them is to make herself ruler and use her magic.

Where I felt the movie become most interesting is when the three good fairies (remarkably inept and childish fairies, slightly annoying) take Aurora off to the cottage in the woods to hide her for sixteen years. In this movie, Diavel, the raven, discovers Aurora right off the bat and Maleficent strolls by the cottage to see the baby. She sniffs and sneers and makes scary faces, but you can see she is curious and the baby smiles and coos back at her. And then Maleficent sticks around.

Maleficent with unafraid toddler Aurora, played by Jolie's real-life daughter, Vivienne

Maleficent with unafraid toddler Aurora, played by Jolie’s real-life daughter, Vivienne

It absolutely cracked me up how she is always just hanging about as if she has nothing better to do, and she quickly loses focus on her hatred for King Stefan. He has sequestered himself away in his castle, cutting himself off from people and obsessing about how Maleficent wants to kill him and how he will stop her; slowly losing his mind, really. But not Maleficent. She gets distracted by his baby.

The three fairies know nothing about raising babies – they even offer the wailing child radishes – and so in order to keep the baby alive so that her curse can come through, Maleficent has to kind of vicariously raise the child, with the aid of Diavel. She’s always about, causing trouble among the fairies, sneering at the growing child, calling it beastie, watching the child, protecting the child. And the child knows it. She knows that there is someone who is there, watching out for her and calls her, much to Maleficent’s surprise, possible embarrassment and mild chagrin, her fairy godmother. It’s embarrassing to have your persona so easily seen through by a child.

Ostensibly, the reason Maleficent is protecting her is so her curse can come through all right, because after all, if you are going to curse somebody, professional pride dictates that it must come off; but as my cousin pointed out, she also has an instinct to protect. She was the protector of the moor and that instinct rises up again, whether she knows it or not. It’s kind of funny and very realistic how after sixteen years of looking out for her and then meeting her officially and spending time with her, she drifts into caring deeply for Aurora. But she cannot revoke her curse.

It really isn’t a very chatty movie and Jolie’s Maleficent doesn’t monologue. We get all of her character transformations – good to bad, bad to good – by seeing her face and actions. And she doesn’t engage in any histrionics; it’sfairly restrained, actually.

One thing that has fascinated me – and I don’t cite this as a criticism – is how in attempting to subvert and update fairytale and story traditions, Hollywood has essentially created a whole new set of tropes, clichés and traditions. For example, true love’s kiss. It started with Enchanted, when true love’s kiss was not the man that she had supposedly fallen in love with at first sight, but it was still a man she loved. Then Frozen came along and true love was not a kiss, but an act or action, and this time true love came through the sister, and you can probably guess where true love’s kiss comes from in Maleficent.

It’s not nearly as dark a movie as I was expecting and Maleficent’s realm is far brighter than it was in the cartoon from 1959, perhaps symbolic that her soul is not as dark as the other Maleficent’s. It’s actually a fun movie – though the beginning and end drag a bit (it’s the middle I like) – and I enjoyed watching Maleficent’s journey into hate and then back into love again.

 
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Posted by on July 30, 2014 in Fantasy

 

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Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959)

"Once Upon a Dream..."

One thing that fascinates me about Disney’s Sleeping Beauty is that it’s really not about Princess Aurora at all. She’s certainly in the middle of everything – the reason for the story’s being – but truly, the film makes me think of an internecine fairy war between Maleficent and the three good fairies: Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather. They’re the ones causing the tension, pushing the plot along, duking it out amongst themselves, though never quite directly. Prince Philip does have to face Maleficent at the end, but without the fairies’ aid, he would have been scorched toast before he’d even started.Untitled 9

Perhaps it’s inevitable that Aurora does not feature much in Sleeping Beauty. Because the story calls for her to fall asleep, she’s always out of the action…the really climactic action. She’s more a beautiful ideal – the reason all the other characters think and do and love or hate. Even in this modern society of ours, Disney seems to have tacitly acknowledged that there’s not much you can do with her by making their new Sleeping Beauty movie about Maleficent instead of Aurora.

I’ve always loved Sleeping Beauty. It’s one of my top two most cherished animated films from my childhood (the other is Beauty and the Beast), and it was partly because I loved those three fairies. They’re the real heroes, the main protagonists. I’ve read a lot, recently, about the destructive princess myth and how far Disney’s come from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves to Frozen – in terms of women being less helpless and supinely waiting for a prince to kiss and save them. But in Sleeping Beauty, you could argue that it is humans in general, and not specifically women, who are doing pretty badly in terms of empowerment. The fairies have it all – and they are all female.

FairiesIt’s true, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather can be like bumbling, fluttery old maid aunts, but they do have ability…and they have dedication. They are the ones who hide Aurora in an effort to keep her from Maleficent; they are the ones who rescue Prince Philip from Maleficent and aid him (multiple times) in his escape and finally, in his defeat of her. Meanwhile, Aurora sleeps, her father and Philip’s father get drunk and sleep, the kingdom sleeps. Everyone sleeps while the epic fairy battle is waged – vicariously through Philip (apparently the fairies can’t challenge Maleficent directly).

I’ve always felt that Sleeping Beauty is one of the most visually unique and lovely Disney films. Walt Disney had already done two princess films – Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Cinderella – and he wanted to make this one as unlike the others as he could. Disney said that he wanted it to look like “living illustrations.” To do this, he hired Eyvind Earle to do the artwork.

Tapestry

The film took six years to make and went over budget and one of the reasons was how long it took to draw everything because all the animators had to match Earle’s style. Neal Gabler, in his book Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, describes his style as “influenced by Dürer, Van Eyck, and Brueghel, but with a modernist twist in that the images were more abstract and less realistic and three-dimensional…” It was based heavily on Medieval art and architecture – there was a lot of research – and to me it looks like animated medieval mural. It was shot in Super Technirama 70, which was much wider than usual and contributed to that long mural look.

When Sleeping Beauty was released, it didn’t actually do that well with either the critics or the audience. It did much better, however, in subsequent releases throughout the years and become beloved and admired by many people, from animators to young children. Neal Gabler felt that the way the film was drawn made it too cold and that the story suffered with too much fairy interaction and too little Aurora. To me, however it is perfect. I love the fairies and rather than having a cold look, it looks magical – like an art gallery come alive –  but a slightly darker magical as befits a slightly darker, medieval magic.

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Alex Cranz, in her article “Sleeping Beauty (1959) May Not Be Progressive But It Is Critical,” says that “owing largely to that sumptuous artwork and thrilling use of Tchaikovsky’s music, [Sleeping Beauty] is more like a dream. It effortlessly flows from scene to scene, and Aurora, despite being unconscious for more than half the film, is ever-present.” I think a dream is exactly the right assessment of the film.

The music in the film is almost entirely drawn from Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty ballet. The music and the singing is more classical than popular or Broadway-esque. To find a voice for Aurora, Disney took years. He wanted someone with a more operatic voice (if a character has a heavenly gift of song, they probably shouldn’t sound like a pop singer) but also a youthful and clear voice. Finally, he found Mary Costa and felt her voice had absolutely everything he wanted.

UntitledOf course, I don’t think the film would be nearly as memorable without the voicing of Maleficent by Eleanor Audley (click here for my previous post about both character and actor). She is quite simply the most marvelously undiluted villain in the Disney canon – the perfect blend of voice and visual art.

Untitled 8

That always creeped me out when I was a kid

She’s so spiteful and evil that she’s willing to devote sixteen years of her life just to make sure that her curse is fulfilled. That’s dedication. And the three fairies are equally willing to dedicate sixteen years of their lives to ensure that Aurora does not fall victim to the curse. I always wondered what Maleficent and the three fairies did before Aurora was born. What wars they must have had. There’s a prequel I would pay to see.

Notes: Mary Costa is most known for being the voice of Aurora, but after doing the movie, she went on to have a very successful career in opera. The voice for Prince Philip was provided by Bill Shirley, who also provided the singing voice for Jeremy Brett in the film version of My Fair Lady.

A running gag throughout the film is Merryweather and Flora’s fight over what color Aurora’s dress should be: pink or blue. I always wanted blue. Merryweather is my favorite character and I was rooting for her to win…and I like blue. My sister wanted pink. In the closing moments of the film, Flora and Merryweather are alternately changing the color of the dress as Aurora and Philip’s dance morphs into a picture in a book and there was a debate in our house for some time about what color the dress was just before the book closes. After careful viewing, however, we determined that it was pink. However, I like to think that the battle continued after the book closed.

Here is the link to the documentary, “Once Upon a Dream: The Making of Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.”

For a further flavor of the beauty of the animation in Sleeping Beauty, here are some more images.

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Posted by on April 19, 2014 in Movies

 

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