The animated version of Snow White, produced by Fleischer Studios in 1933, possesses a richly multifaceted oddness. The film barely coheres, leaving for anyone who studies it precious few graspable outcroppings. And perhaps that is the film’s chief strangeness: that, while its various components are already plenty strange in and of themselves, those components interact in such arbitrary and baffling ways as to make the film’s bizarreness quotient greater than the sum of its peculiar parts.
While Snow White is strange in many ways, its unusual approach to narration may provide the best starting point to discuss the film’s weirdness. Before that, though, a narrative summary is in order.
The film’s opening titles themselves introduce an element of narrative uncertainty by indicating that the picture will feature a “vocal chorus” — namely, Cab Calloway singing his famous tune “Saint James Infirmary Blues.” Viewers will be forgiven for wondering what the song has to do with the fairy tale.
The story opens in the castle’s royal chamber, where a queen receives confirmation from her magic mirror that she is, in fact, “the fairest in the land” (cf. fig. 2).
Snow White (fig. 3) visits the castle and announces that she wants to visit her “stepmama the queen”; armor-clad guards (here played by Fleischer regulars Koko the Clown and the faintly doglike character Bimbo) escort her to the royal chamber. When the mirror confirms that Snow White is, in fact, fairer than the queen, the latter orders the former beheaded. The two knights, who apparently agree with the mirror, reluctantly lead Snow White outside, where they weepingly prepare the chopping block.
The knights fall down a vertical chasm, which deposits them at the base of a snowy mountain. Snow White is set free by the very tree to which she is tied, then trips and falls into a huge snowball that rolls down the mountain. The snowball, with Snow White inside, passes through a wooden fence, an action that reshapes the ball into a lidded snow coffin. The coffin plunges into a lake, turning to ice, then slides into the many-windowed home of the seven dwarfs. For some reason, these dwarfs take it upon themselves to carry the coffin, via large skis, to the “Mystery Cave” (cf. fig. 4-7).
Meanwhile, the queen, upon learning from the mirror that Snow White yet lives, turns herself into a witch and rides her flying mirror down the chasm, landing on and awakening the unconscious knights. The queen stomps off toward the Mystery Cave.
At this point, the film is interrupted by a curious musical number, which I shall later address. When the number ends, the queen (who has dewitchified herself), is somehow now turned into a dragon when a cloud of magic smoke passes over her. The same smoke frees Snow White from her coffin and reanimates the knights, who’d been turned into statues. The dragon-queen chases the protagonists through the cave. Then, Bimbo stops, turns around, and yanks the dragon’s tongue. This action turns the dragon inside-out: She now wears her bones on the outside. The dragon scampers away, and Koko, Bimbo and Snow White dance a jig in the snow for a few seconds before the film ends.
In sum: Very few of the actions in this film’s story occur for any sort of reason.
Humorous Riffs on Classic Fairytales
Most films released to a wide audience, such as the cartoons produced by Fleischer Studios in the 1930s, use narrative as their chief structuring principle. In this regard, the makers of Snow White, in ostensibly retelling a familiar fairy tale, had a certain advantage: Its makers could rely on an audience’s near-guaranteed grasp of the film’s key plot points. Because most viewers would already know the story of Snow White, the filmmakers had an occasion to use the core of that story as a point of departure for a new variation on it. The fact that the film “stars” the saucy animated flapper Betty Boop in the title role is perhaps the first sign that this film is a far cry from the Brothers Grimm. Indeed, the Fleischer version of “Snow White” is nigh-unrecognizable.
Other animation studios in the early 1930s often employed a narrative approach generally similar to that in Snow White, creating films that humorously “riff on” classic fairytales. A good example, also from 1933, is Warner Bros.’s “Merrie Melodies” film The Dish Ran away with the Spoon, directed by Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising (cf. fig. 8). This film, which takes its name and premise from the nursery rhyme “Hey Diddle Diddle,” is, for its first five-and-a-half minutes, little more than a series of gags that play loosely with the notion of kitchen implements coming to life. There’s no narrative proper for the first three-quarters of the film; rather, we see sentient silverware showering with seltzer spray, teacups dancing in a conga line, and the like.
The Dish Ran away with the Spoon uses the audience’s familiarity with the (loose) narrative of the source nursery rhyme as a kind of substitute for narrative coherence. “Hey Diddle Diddle” imparts a protonarrative premise — namely, in this case, the idea that kitchenware can fancifully come to life — that provides all the context we need to understand the actions of the film.
In the film’s last 90 seconds, a mass of bread dough, after ingesting yeast and water, inflates and transforms into a malevolent ogre. He roars and runs around the counter, no particular objective in his glutinous mind, and is quickly dispatched by quick-thinking spatulas and saucers wielding weaponized popcorn and waffle irons; at this, the film ends. This extremely thin mini-narrative has nothing to do with the preceding cutlery antics, and seemingly exists solely to grant a sense of closure to the film, which would otherwise be a catalog of themed blackout gags [cf. note].
In a seven-minute film, there is precious little time for complex narrative exposition, which is why the use of established, familiar stories offered an advantage. Fairy tales, folktales, and the like provided already-understood narrative frameworks that, to an extent, freed the filmmakers from the narrative burden. They could devote their energies to the sight gags that are the stuff of early studio animation.
But few films take this liberty to such extremes as the 1933 Snow White. Rather than use the central premise of the familiar folk tale, the film selectively uses isolated tropes and devices from the story, yet deploys them in a nearly arbitrary manner (cf. fig. 9-10).
As a result, the viewer sees a number of disconnected, iconic “signposts” from the familiar story of Snow White, but cannot use them to navigate a path through the film’s story.
Fleischers’ Snow White refers to, for instance, the evil queen and her magic mirror, the seven dwarfs, and the glass coffin in which Snow White is imprisoned in suspended animation (no pun intended). But the film omits just as many familiar plot points as it includes; missing are, for instance, the poisoned apple, the huntsman, and the prince who rescues Snow White. In The Dish Ran away with the Spoon, for example, the source tale’s narrative is rendered so generally as to allow easy embellishment. In Snow White, enough of the story is present as to suggest that the tale will be told in full, yet so many narrative elements are absent as to make comprehension of the film’s story quite difficult.
Moreover, those familiar elements from “Snow White” that do appear in the Fleischer version are used in ways that render them unfamiliar. The main example here is the presence of the seven dwarfs, who, in the Fleischer film, are not only undifferentiated but who appear in and disappear from the film without reason. As a result, these dwarfs, who are so strongly associated for most viewers with the story of Snow White, are reduced to mere references to themselves. They are drawn into the film solely to provide a kind of evidence that, yes, this movie does indeed tell the story of Snow White. Ironically, the effect of their very presence is to demonstrate just how few of the story’s central narrative elements the Fleischer film does, in fact, employ.
Beyond its narrational incompleteness, Snow White also contains an unusual and unexpected digression that renders its story all the more confused. This is the musical number referred to above, and it is the moment at which, I would argue, the film heads down the potholed road to Strangetown, a detour from which it cannot possibly recover.
Moments after the witchy, flying queen lands atop the unconscious knights, they arise. Bimbo and the queen head to the Mystery Cave, but Koko (no longer wearing a knight’s armor but his familiar clown costume) turns to address the audience and commences singing, in Cab Calloway’s unmistakable voice, “Saint James Infirmary Blues.”
This musical number is so bizarre because it is inconsistent on both a macro and a micro level. Structurally, the number brings to a halt the film’s already tenuous narrative. So committed are the animators to the presentation of this song (perhaps for contractual reasons) that, when it ends at about the six-minute mark, precious little time remains in this short film to wrap up the story’s many loose ends. The ending of the story is handled very cursorily, and without recourse to cause-and-effect logic.
In a way, this cursory ending is akin to that of The Dish Ran away with the Spoon (and many other cartoons of this time), in which the last minute or so of running time is given over to a simple “chase” story. In Snow White, though, the film’s story is already so incomplete and confusing that the rushed conclusion feels all the more perfunctory (cf. fig. 11).
At a more granular level, the musical number is peculiar in a number of ways. For one thing, Koko has not even really appeared in the film before this point: previously, he was “playing” a knight in a way that does not refer to Koko’s own familiar character. Yet in the musical scene, he becomes the center of attention. (It should be noted that Betty Boop, ostensibly the star of the picture, utters her last line — save an occasional nonverbal exclamation — at about midway through the film.)
The animation used to present Koko’s performance of the song is unusual in several ways. For one thing, its staging is markedly different from that of the rest of the film. Koko — who, by the way, is transformed at this point by the queen’s magic mirror into a long-legged, raggedy ghost — wails as he walks across what is effectively a proscenium, playing directly to the audience in a series of long shots. At no other point in the film is the staging so directly presentational as in this scene.
Yet the “upstage” area of Koko’s proscenium extends back pretty deeply — all the more space to clog with curiosities. Ghost-Koko strides in front of a background filled with morbid scenes that evoke the lyrics of the song he sings. The line “Let her go, let her go, oh, bless her” is, for instance, illustrated by a tableau of a skeleton traffic cop, standing in a barrel marked “GO,” waving on a skeleton motorist. When Koko sings lines about dying while holding a good hand of cards, the background image is a large, prostrate skeleton that holds out a hand with five aces. Sometimes these background illustrations are literal and sometimes they seize on a single lyrical element: the word “world,” for instance, occasions the inclusion of a large globe.
From Surrealism to Realism
These images’ lyrical connections are not immediately apparent, in part because there is so much going on in the midground and foreground. The midground teems with skeletal birds and odd, top-hatted skull-faced wraiths that swoop around in all directions.
But it’s in the foreground where the weirdest stuff happens — to Koko himself. In at least two ways, the character animation in this scene creates inconsistencies that are difficult to reconcile with the rest of the film; it is, in some ways, the seat of the movie’s instability.
The most fanciful animation in the whole film — which is saying something: This is a film in which even icicles come to life, twist themselves into knots, and sing — occurs during the musical number. Here, ghost-Koko does some really strange things, such as transforming himself into a singing gold necklace (again, a graphical version of a line from the song). Stranger still is when Koko’s head turns into a liquor bottle and he pours himself a glass of head-booze, the contents of which he then tosses into his neckhole before the bottle becomes his head once again. This is surrealism of a kind that would please André Breton.
But what’s really strange about the animation in this scene is that all of its most extravagant qualities “rest” on a foundation of rigorous realism. This is the only scene in the film that employs the technique of rotoscoping, in which animators would create character animation by effectively “tracing over” live-action footage of a living being — in this case, Cab Calloway himself. Ghost-Koko’s movements are animated versions of Calloway’s famed dance moves; as a result, Koko moves with a realistic grace and uncanny humanness that is strongly at odds with his character — and indeed with the narrative itself .
Fleischer animators relied often on rotoscoping, a controversial decision for which some other animators branded them as “cheaters.” I don’t wish to delve into that issue, but will suggest that the tension between realism and far-out whimsy is the chief source of this scene’s strangeness. It is both fantastical and authentic, a combination made all the more curious by the fact that the musical number is the sole site of such “oppositional” stylistic blending.
Yet more oddness lurks inside this short film, though not all of it can here be explored. Most notable are the film’s many one-off “jokes” that fail to pay off: A flower pot falls off of Snow White’s ice-coffin, and then jumps back on top of it; the queen’s long-nosed, big-eyed face turns, for an instant, into a frying pan with two sizzling eggs in it; Koko and Bimbo briefly find themselves in the eye sockets of a round-headed snow creature. There are more. None of them make any particular sense, and thus render the film all the more inconsistent.
And inconsistency really is at the core of Snow White’s bizarreness. It’s inconsistent in its retelling of the “Snow White” story, in its characterizations, its staging, its cause-and-effect logic, its styles of animation, and its overall tone. The film represents a strange confluence of top-notch (even groundbreaking) animation and a curiously lackadaisical attitude toward making sure the film was at least somewhat sensible. One gets the idea that the filmmakers made many of their stylistic and narrative choices simply because they could, not because they adhered to any sort of logic. Such an approach is in many ways commendable, not least because it yielded a film of surpassingly rich weirdness that, eighty years later, still has the power to instill wonder.