Disney in 1938

For the Made in 1938 Blogathon, I’ve decided to go over all the Disney releases from this year. Outside of their usual shorts output, Disney also created a radio show, comics, and widely released their first ever feature film. There’s a lot to cover, so let’s dive right into Disney’s output for 1938.

The Mickey Mouse Theater of The Air


Considering that Disney was one of the first film producers to make the leap to television, creating such shows as The Mickey Mouse Club and the Disneyland TV series, it’s surprising to learn that the Disney studio only produced one radio series during radio’s Golden Age. Just as the Disneyland series was created mainly to promote the theme park of the same name, this radio show’s main purpose was to promote Disney’s full-length feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It premiered on January 2, 1938 and a week later, a whole episode specifically dedicated to the feature aired. It featured several of the actors and actresses from the film, including Lucille La Verne as the Evil Queen, in what may be one of her final performances. Afterwards, the series’s main connection to the film was the Magic Mirror, who each week would take Mickey and his friends to visit other famous storybook characters, including Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, long before Disney tackled those stories as animated features.

The series is OK. The writing could have been a bit better and the song interludes could sometimes drag quite a bit, even if they sometimes featured Disney classics. The loss of the visuals was especially hindering for the major Disney characters, proving how much they relied on the animation over personality. Donald, of course, is impossible to understand and Mickey especially comes across as rather dull, in a way that makes you feel anyone could fill the roll. It’s not that he’s written wrong or anything, but when the animation is lost, it becomes clear how little character there really was to him by this point.

The major appeal to this is listening to the voice cast. Clarence Nash and Florence Gill reprised their roles as Donald Duck and Clara Cluck respectively and Walt Disney even provided Mickey’s voice in the early episodes. Meanwhile, many of the one-shot parts were provided by radio actors like Mel Blanc and Bea Benaderet, who didn’t appear in many Disney productions, so it is nice to hear some of the most versatile actors and actresses of that time getting more chances to actually take part in this.

The Mickey Mouse Theater of The Air did not last long, airing its final show on May 15, 1938. While there was definitely room for improvement, it still is fascinating to hear Disney’s attempt at recreating their motion picture success on another medium long before they attempted to do it again years later when television eclipsed radio in popularity. For more information on this forgotten aspect of Disney’s past, I highly recommend Wade Sampson’s very informative article on the show.

Disney Comics


Disney had been producing comic strips featuring their famous characters for several years now and, in contrast to the radio show, they actually managed to maintain the visual spirit of the cartoons, albeit in a much shorter format. In fact, some cartoons would eventually adapt elements from the comic strips (most notably Huey, Dewey, and Louie).

Notably, 1938 saw the official start of the Donald Duck series of comic strips. Donald had been appearing in comics since 1934, but it wasn’t until this point that he was popular enough to finally headline his own official series. This would be one of the first steps towards Donald’s incredibly successful career in comics which, later under the guidance of Carl Barks, would become more and more focused on adventuring.

Silly Symphonies


Up to this point, the Silly Symphonies series had been considered Disney’s major artistic triumph. Whereas the other series focused on recurring characters, this series mainly consisted of one-shot
cartoons, which allowed for more room to innovate animation techniques. The basic idea, credited to Carl Stalling, was that the cartoons would be animated to sync up to the music, but since then the cartoons had evolved to introduce three-strip Technicolor to the cartoon industry and a multiplane camera that was more refined than previous attempts. In addition, they also put a heavier focus on the stories. These innovations were of much help to the production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which ended up being the Silly Symphonies’ downfall.

Since so much effort was being put into Snow White, the animators couldn't give the Silly Symphonies cartoons the effort that had made them so successful in the first place. As a result, it's generally considered that the later cartoons were inferior to the earlier ones.

Disney released a total of 5 Silly Symphonies in 1938. They had released only 3 the previous year, so it seems as though they were attempting to give the series back the attention it needed shortly after Snow White finished production. The first Silly Symphony of 1938 was Moth and the Flame, a pretty boring entry in the series.

A group of moths invade a costume shop in the middle of the night in Moth and the Flame. One of the female moths, having been abandoned by her boyfriend, starts flirting with a flame. When the flame continually bothers her, all the moths come together to put out the flame.


Moth and the Flame is basically a silent cartoon with music. There’s no dialogue and no singing; it’s instead an attempt to do a strictly visually-based cartoon. The Silly Symphonies had done cartoons without dialogue before. Heck, the earliest cartoons in the series, like The Skeleton Dance, were able to do this successfully. However, The Skeleton Dance had a certain rhythmic perfection to it that made it so endearing. The music and animation combined so well that it was so fascinating to watch, even without any dialogue. Moth and the Flame doesn’t have this advantage. The music is rather generic and its setting feels dark and restricted.


Then there are the characters. The characters are really bland here. They try to give the boyfriend a bit of a goofy design and personality, but he really doesn’t have much to do. Compare this to another Silly Symphony without dialogue, The Country Cousin, which actually makes multiple attempts to inject humor into its characters throughout the cartoon, rather than just part of it. The flame is your standard villain and besides the girlfriend, the rest of the moths are pretty indistinguishable from each other. The lack of dialogue goes to further point out how bland the characters are.

Forgettable.

Disney followed this up with Wynken, Blynken and Nod, based off of the poem of the same name by Eugene Field. In this cartoon, three children fly on a shoe boat and attempt to catch fish. After several mishaps with the fish, they eventually come across problems with several storms that eventually blow them back into reality.


Like Moth and the Flame, this is mainly a cartoon without dialogue, though there is actually singing this time. Wynken, Blynken and Nod is a slight improvement over its predecessor, mostly due to the dreamy atmosphere (with help from the multiplane camera) as well as some pretty cool animation involving the storms. The main problem with this cartoon is that its major characters are human children, who just don’t make for very good subjects, at least in a comedy. Even if it is a cartoon (not to mention a dream), there still is something unsettling about seeing a child being put into so much comedic danger, which it’s not supposed to be. The three children are also pretty interchangeable, which makes sense in regards to the ending, but makes the three seem just as boring as the moths in Moth and the Flame. Despite some impressive animation, this is another pretty boring cartoon.

They're literally the same character. What was the point of this?

The Silly Symphonies animators did better with their next entry, Farmyard Symphony. In this cartoon, farm animals do some jokes while also having some of their animation timed to popular classical music pieces. Not every joke hits, but the timing between the animal sound effects and the music is so much better than the most recent Silly Symphonies and unlike the previous two entries, you can spot a little bit of an influence towards their 1940 masterpiece, Fantasia. The highlight here is getting to hear the music build up, as well as seeing more and more animals take part. While it still doesn’t compare with some of the earlier Silly Symphonies or the later Fantasia, this cartoon did seem like a step in the right direction. They make much use of the farm setting and while I don’t think every joke work, the ones that do are really good, particularly the little pig who keeps getting in everyone’s way.


Unfortunately, Disney followed this slight improvement with Merbabies. It’s basically what you’d think from the title: it’s about baby mermaids. There are more moments focusing on gags involving sea animals, making this a slight improvement over Wynken, Blynken and Nod and the earlier Silly Symphony, Water Babies, but outside of some moments involving a tiny snail, very few of the gags work. This cartoon actually wasn’t directly produced at the Disney studio. Instead, it was subcontracted to former Disney animators Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising’s studio. Harman and Ising were great artists, but especially early on in their careers, they often aspired to be Disney and their cartoons could come across as derivative, so in a way it does make sense that they would be hired to work on this. Unfortunately, besides the snail gags and a pretty impressive shot of the ocean at the end, this was another dud in the Silly Symphonies series.

One of the few fun moments from Merbabies.

Thankfully, the Silly Symphonies series finished on a high note this year with Mother Goose Goes Hollywood. The concept of this cartoon involves putting caricatures of famous celebrities into fairy tales. Katharine Hepburn is Little Bo Peep, Laurel and Hardy are Simple Simon and the Pieman, W.C. Fields is Humpty Dumpty (a role he actually had played in Paramount’s Alice in Wonderland), and the Marx Brothers are Old King Cole’s fiddlers, among other cameos. The energy in this short really shines through. You can really see the respect the animators had for these performers and this results in great gags based off of the performers’ established personalities. For example, Laurel grabs a pie from inside a stack and manages to do so without any falling, but when Hardy attempts to do so, they all are ruined, which is very similar to how Laurel and Hardy would handle several gags like the thumb trick in Way Out West. The cartoon does unfortunately feature some slightly racist caricatures, but otherwise the cartoon really feels like a return to form for the Silly Symphony series.

Trivia: Hal Roach originally intended for Laurel and Hardy to play Simple Simon and the Pieman in Babes in Toyland.

The Silly Symphonies series had been in a rut most of the year, but Mother Goose Goes Hollywood and 1939’s The Ugly Duckling showed that the cartoons could have kept going successfully had the animators been able to give them more attention. Unfortunately, The Ugly Duckling would be the last entry in the series. The Disney studio shifted its focus towards its features and the Silly Symphonies series was abandoned as a result. However, Disney would never forget their importance and the influence of the cartoons would continue to be seen in their features, especially Fantasia.

Really it would.

Mickey Mouse


The Disney studio owes its very existence to Mickey Mouse, something Walt Disney himself would make clear in his later years. Unfortunately, by this point he had lost most of the rambunctious personality that had helped make him popular in the first place. Although he did star in five cartoons this year, only the last two were solo cartoons. The first three featured him as part of a trio with Donald Duck and Goofy in a formula that had been producing successful cartoons since 1935.

The first Mickey-Donald-Goofy cartoon this year was Boat Builders. In this cartoon, Mickey, Donald, and Goofy attempt to build a boat based off of seemingly simple instructions, but chaos ensues. Most of the laughs come from Goofy, especially his problems with an uncooperative board and his delayed reaction in falling on a barrel full of nails. Mickey himself doesn’t have any particularly funny moments, but instead serves as the catalyst for several gags, including one in which Donald is attempting to paint the ship’s rudder as Mickey is cleaning it and another in which Mickey inadvertently makes Goofy think a fake mermaid is flirting with him. Boat Builders is a very funny cartoon that takes great advantage of its concept and ranks up there with some of the best cartoons in the Mickey-Donald-Goofy series.


This was followed by Mickey’s Trailer. The concept of this one is that the three live in a trailer that is driven by Goofy. This one starts off a bit slow, since Goofy is stuck driving while Donald takes a while to wake up. However, things really pick up when they inadvertently enter a dangerous area. There are some funny gags involving Goofy’s lunch being ruined by surrounding drawers that keep opening and closing and there’s a really fun climax involving the trailer going out of control down a mountain slope with Donald and Mickey stuck in it. Although not as good as Boat Builders, Mickey’s Trailer still has enough good animation and gags to it that it’s worth checking out at least once.


The last Mickey-Donald-Goofy cartoon of 1938 was The Whalers. As the title suggests, Mickey, Donald, and Goofy are on a boat attempting to hunt whales. Unfortunately, Goofy and Donald end up in a mishap that results in a whale following them instead. This is another great cartoon that also ranks among the best Mickey-Donald-Goofy cartoons along with Boat Builders. Goofy has a good amount of funny moments with an uncooperative cannon and accidentally sets himself on fire in a few instances. Donald has some funny moments regarding birds trying to eat his sandwich and even Mickey gets a pretty good scene in which a bucket of water keeps following him. The storm atmosphere is also really cool and contributes to another really entertaining climax involving Goofy, Donald, the whale, and Mickey’s ship.

...We're gonna need a bigger boat.

As a whole, the Mickey-Donald-Goofy cartoons this year were pretty fun and definitely better than the Silly Symphonies produced at the same time. However, this was more due to Donald and Goofy than it was Mickey and it quickly became clear that they could carry on without him. Donald already was starring in his own series and the next year Goofy would also be given his own. It was clear that Mickey’s role was becoming less and less important, something that’s also clear in the first of his two solo cartoons of 1938, Mickey’s Parrot.

In Mickey’s Parrot, Mickey and Pluto learn from the radio that a killer is on the loose. When a parrot breaks into their house, the two become paranoid and think the killer is after them. While the animators tried to insert some gags in the beginning involving Mickey, most of the cartoon actually features Pluto, in his only appearance this year. Pluto’s antics with the parrot and Mickey’s pet fish are pretty funny, but this only further goes to show how unnecessary Mickey was at this point. Now he was being upstaged by two dogs, one of whom couldn’t even talk. Even Pluto himself was starting to star in shorts without his master. The cartoon itself is good enough, though not quite as funny as Boat Builders or The Whalers.

Outshone by a parrot and a dog. That's not a good sign.

The studio attempted to bring back some of the adventurous spirit from the old Mickey cartoons for his final film of the year, Brave Little Tailor. Based off the fairy tale, The Valiant Little Tailor, this cartoon establishes Mickey as a tailor who is being annoyed by flies. He kills seven of them with one swat and, proud of what he considers an accomplishment, announces it to the whole village. At this time, the villagers are discussing a problem they’re having with a giant and they misinterpret his announcement as a declaration that he once killed seven giants. By handling the story this way, the animators managed to keep the nicer Mickey they were using at this point while still being able to establish him in the role of someone who had a large task to take on.


With the entire village expecting such a task from him, Mickey sets out to find the giant, only to accidentally come across the giant while the giant is trying to take a break. In an excellent climax, Mickey manages to apply his tailor skills and trap the giant inside sewing thread despite the giant’s attempts to catch him.


What helps make Brave Little Tailor so great is the attention to detail on the story. It’s a classic underdog story that fits so well with Mickey and this allows the cartoon to build up to that incredibly entertaining climax. It’s not a particularly gag heavy cartoon, but the pacing of the story and the fantastic medieval designs make this stand out as not only the best Mickey Mouse cartoon of 1938, but also one of the best Mickey Mouse cartoons in general.

He killed seven with one blow!

Unfortunately, despite the promise shown in Brave Little Tailor, the Mickey Mouse cartoons continued to go on a downward spiral afterwards. There was an occasional exception like The Sorceror’s Apprentice, but with other characters branching out into their own series and Mickey’s personality continuing to get more and more dull, Mickey’s number of cartoon appearances were reduced in the next decade. Thankfully, Mickey at least had a good boost in 1938, appearing in serveral cartoons that ranged from good to excellent.


Donald Duck


By this point, it had become clear that Donald Duck was the character who was going to keep the Disney shorts department afloat. He first appeared in the 1934 Silly Symphony, The Wise Little Hen, and shortly afterwards began making appearances in Mickey Mouse cartoons. 1937 saw the official debut of Donald’s own solo cartoon series and the number of his appearances continued to increase. Of the 18 shorts the Disney studio released in 1938, Donald appeared in 11 of them, which includes his appearances in the Mickey-Donald-Goofy series and his cameo in Mother Goose Goes Hollywood. Of these 11 cartoons, Donald was the official star of 7.

Donald’s first starring role in 1938 was in Self Control. In this cartoon, Donald is listening to a radio program that gives advice on how to control temper and tries to apply that advice to his own life. While it seems like a good idea, the problem is that Donald doesn’t actually do a whole lot in this cartoon. Throughout the entire cartoon, he’s just trying to sleep in his hammock and other characters keep piling up on him. They try to add variety by having characters of different species, but overall it doesn’t amount to much and we’re left with a pretty dull cartoon, although Donald’s reaction to the radio at the very end was pretty funny.

What did he really do to deserve this?

Donald’s Better Self was much better. While this one isn’t particularly great as far as gags go, the concept itself makes for a really entertaining story. An angel version of Donald attempts to get him to school, but a devil version of him leads him to skip school and go fishing instead. The devil tricks him into smoking a pipe and getting sick, and Donald’s angel comes to his rescue, fighting him plane-style.


Again, it’s mainly the story itself that makes this cartoon so good. This feels more dramatic than an average Donald cartoon, especially when we see Donald’s reaction after smoking the pipe, which is a nice change of pace for someone who is usually portrayed as easily frustrated. This isn’t the kind of cartoon to show a first-time Donald fan, but it’s definitely one that fans who’ve seen their fair share of Donald cartoons would appreciate.

Donald finally chooses the right path.

Donald’s Nephews marked the theatrical debut of Huey, Dewey, and Louie, who had been introduced in the Donald Duck comic strip the previous year. In the cartoon, Donald’s sister Dumbella (Della in all other media) sends her three nephews to live with Donald. The three arrive and immediately cause chaos, so Donald resorts to a book on parenting to control them.


Huey, Dewey, and Louie definitely helped to liven up the cartoons and make them more focused, as compared to Self Control which simply had random characters piling up on Donald. One interesting thing about this is that Huey and Louie are actually dressed in the colors they’re usually associated with (red and green respectively), considering that the colors were often randomized in the theatrical cartoons (for the record, Dewey’s dressed in orange). Among the best gags here are the four fighting over dinner as soon as they stop praying as well as the tricks Huey, Dewey, and Louie pull with the instruments when performing with Donald. They do come across as unnecessarily cruel, but that’s something you have to accept in order to enjoy just about any Donald Duck cartoon. Huey, Dewey, and Louie soon became mainstays and would appear in two more cartoons later in 1938.

Huey, Dewey, and Louie have fun with instruments in their theatrical debut.

Donald and Goofy’s first pairing without Mickey was in Polar Trappers. Here, Donald and Goofy run a food trapping business, but they separately fail at catching any animals. In Goofy’s case, he attempts to catch a walrus while in Donald’s case, he attempts to catch penguins. There are some pretty good gags involving Goofy inside a cave as well as a well-animated sequence of Donald leading a penguin parade to “The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers.” Things eventually tie together towards the end, with Donald and Goofy both getting chased by a giant snowball. It isn’t quite as good as the Mickey-Donald-Goofy cartoons from this year, but it still manages to be decently funny.


Huey, Dewey, and Louie returned for the next Donald cartoon, Good Scouts. Here, Donald takes his nephews on a camping trip, where they run into problems with a bear and a geyser. Donald comes across as rather rude towards the beginning, which makes the nephews’ behavior more justified, and it is nice to see one of them actually try to warn Donald that the tree he wants to chop down is a petrified tree. The highlights here are Donald’s attempt to guilt his nephews, a song they perform while marching in the forest, and a fun climax involving Donald’s problems with the bear and geyser. This is another consistently funny cartoon.


For Donald’s next appearance in The Fox Hunt, he was once again paired with Goofy, although this time they don’t ever appear on screen together and their only interaction is when Goofy informs Donald where the fox is. This cartoon has some really good gags involving Donald’s troubles with his dogs and Goofy’s troubles with his horse. Donald mainly overtakes the final third, attempting to catch the fox himself. This part has clever gags involving holes in the ground and the fox’s use of them to escape Donald’s clutch. There are even cameos from Mickey, Minnie, Horace Horsecollar, and Clara Cluck. Of the two cartoons pairing Donald and Goofy this year, this is the better one.


Donald’s final starring role in 1938 was in Donald’s Golf Game. Here, Donald takes Huey, Dewey, and Louie to a golf course as his caddies and they take the opportunity to play several tricks on him. The best gags here involve the use of trick golf clubs and a trick golf ball with a grasshopper inside. The ending with the triplets hitting golf balls towards him is rather annoying, making this less enjoyable than Good Scouts, but the gags that work still work really well.

Just your average, everyday golfing problems.

Unlike Mickey and the Silly Symphonies series, Donald’s career only continued to go up from here, continuing to appear regularly in shorts, merchandise, and even having significant roles in three feature films (Saludos Amigos, The Three Caballeros, and Fun and Fancy Free). Donald’s output in 1938 was not perfect, but as a whole it was clear that he had tons of star potential and as a result, they would need him as a major source of funding for their larger projects.


Ferdinand the Bull


Ferdinand the Bull was the only short this year to not be officially classified as part of a series; rather, it was its own standalone cartoon. Based off of a children’s book by Munro Leaf, it tells the story of a bull who is different from other bulls. Unlike the others, who like to run, jump, and butt their heads together, Ferdinand prefers to sit and smell the flowers.


The cartoon begins by establishing Ferdinand’s backstory. Even when he was little and the other bulls were playing with each other, he’d continue sitting under a tree and sniffing the flowers. His mother was a cow (something that the narrator enjoys poking fun at) and she also encouraged him to play with the other bulls, but no matter what, Ferdinand had no interest in being a regular bull.


Fast forward three years later, and Ferdinand is still under a tree enjoying the smell of flowers. The other bulls aspire to be part of a bullfight and when some men come along looking for bulls for such an occasion, they attempt to show off to them. At this point, Ferdinand is stung by a bee and ends up going out of control, which convinces the men to pick him to take part in their bullfight.

This is what bees cause.

The day of the bullfight, Ferdinand is summoned to fight a matador, but all he wants to do is sniff the flowers the matador has in his hand. The majority of the gags come from this sequence. The matador, despite having been scared out of his mind at first, suddenly becomes enraged when the bull refuses to fight and his frustration continues to build as Ferdinand licks his chest, which has a tattoo of a flower on it. Ferdinand is returned home and goes back to sitting under his tree, enjoying the smell of flowers.


Ferdinand the Bull succeeds especially at its story. Though there are a few gags, the main focus is on the character of Ferdinand himself, making him a lovable outsider who doesn’t care what the others think of him. I really like these kinds of stories; it’s nice to see when filmmakers put outsiders in the lead roles and don’t pick on them because they don’t do what society expects of them. Sure, they make some gags out of it, but that’s more from the reactions of an unaccepting society and we can laugh at that because we as an audience don’t want to see Ferdinand change his ways just for the amusement of others.


The one sad thing about the story of Ferdinand was that people took it the wrong way. Reviewers of the time misinterpreted the original book as having a variety of political messages. While I think it can be argued that the story promotes anti-conformism, some of these interpretations were ridiculous, to the point where some thought that Ferdinand represented Nazis!


Don’t let the misinterpreted political messages keep you from watching this. Ferdinand the Bull is a very enjoyable cartoon with great animation, a really likable lead character, and a story with lots of heart.


Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs


Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is usually associated with the year 1937, but a closer examination of the dates shows that that was when the film had its premiere at the Carthay Circle Theatre. The rest of America actually didn’t get to see it until February 1938.

First, let’s clear up a common misconception: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was not the first animated feature film. There had been several animated features made during the silent and early sound eras. Coincidentally, Pinto Colvig, the voice of Grumpy and Sleepy in this film, is believed to have contributed to one of these, 1915’s Creation. But none of these features had the same impact as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which changed animation and made way for a future industry in animated features.

Snow White (voiced by Adriana Caselotti) lives in the castles with her wicked and jealous stepmother, the Queen (Lucille La Verne). After the Queen orders her to be killed so she’ll be fairest in the land, Snow White runs away and takes refuge in a cottage belonging to the Seven Dwarfs. The Queen finds out she’s still alive and sets out to kill her herself.

Looking back, Snow White’s more realistic-looking human characters tend to be rather uninteresting and underdeveloped, including the Prince and even the Queen before her transformation. Snow White herself doesn’t get as much development as she should, but she’s developed enough to the point where she’s at least likable. Little moments like her helping the lost bird are clearly there to help make clear that she is the person we’re supposed to care about, and because of this, we do, even if she could have been developed a little more as a character.

...Meh.

The Dwarfs, on the other hand, are designed to be more cartoony and to give the film a more lighthearted, comedic touch, but ironically, they’re actually the ones who carry the story best out of anyone. It is interesting to look at just how much they’ve developed more towards the end. At first, they’re more fearful, being frightened at the mere mention of the Queen, but as the film goes along, they become more brave and set out to actually kill the Queen when they discover she’s come to get Snow White.

Looking at each of them individually, Doc is more like a backwards leader; someone who wants to be the leader and acts as such, but constantly keeps stuttering over his word choice and can even be rather indecisive. Towards the end, he’s still somewhat indecisive, but the stuttering becomes less frequent and he truly takes charge whenever he wants to please Snow White, especially during “The Washing Song.”


Then there’s Sleepy. Sleepy really doesn’t make much of an impression early on, but it is interesting to see how even he can change towards the end due to Snow White’s presence. He becomes more aware of what’s going on as the film goes along and he even is the only one who correctly deduces that Snow White could possibly be in danger towards the end.

Should Sleepy really be entrusted with moving the diamonds? Then again, I don't know what else he really could do.

Bashful is the shy one, the one who gets tongue-tied at even the slightest attention thrown his way. He is mostly a follower throughout the film, backing up Doc just about any moment, but he actually does have more initiative towards the end, especially since he’s the second one to start racing to save Snow White in the climax, before even Doc is able to do so.


Of the Dwarfs, Happy’s the most forgettable. Granted, like Bashful, he does show some initiative towards the end before Doc, but as a personality, he doesn’t stand out as much, outside of his number during “The Silly Song.”


Sneezy is one of the two Dwarfs who stand out most as a comic personality. Sure, his main thing is literally just sneezing at inconvenient times, but the timing between Billy Gilbert’s sneezes and the animators’ exaggerated situations make this one-note routine surprisingly very memorable. As far as development goes, he doesn’t have a whole lot, but is still interesting to look at simply as a funny personality.

Poor Sneezy.

Then there’s Dopey. I’ve seen some mixed reactions to him today, but back then, he was considered a major reason behind the film’s success, with newspapers sometimes referring to him as “the famous Dopey.” Of course, looking at Dopey, it is easy to see why he’d be so popular with kids, since he seems to be the youngest and has the most childlike personality.


He’s also interesting to look at in how his style is a callback to the silent era. Dopey was modeled after actor Eddie Collins, and comparing the two, there is a pretty noticeable facial resemblance. However, it also seems as though Harry Langdon might have been an influence as well, given Dopey’s over-the-top expressions and mannerisms. It makes me wonder if the Langdon influence may have been a reason that adults gravitated towards Dopey as well, especially since this was at a time when Langdon was no longer appearing regularly in “A” pictures. Regardless, Dopey has the most cartoon antics which are usually pretty fun to watch.

Eddie Collins (top) was the inspiration for Dopey. However, Harry Langdon may have also had some influence.

But even Dopey can have his sad moments. His entranced reaction to Snow White’s performance of “Someday My Prince Will Come,” like the others, is pretty touching, and his reaction to her in the glass case towards the end is heartbreaking. But none of the Dwarfs’ reactions come close to being as sad as Grumpy’s.

Of all the characters in the film, Grumpy is definitely the most interesting, since he’s the one who changes so much. At first, he’s exactly like his name. He’s the only one to show disdain towards Snow White and how she’s disrupted their lifestyles, and he’s even the one who brings up the issue of the Queen finding Snow White in their home. We accept this at first because that’s what he’s named and he shows no signs of changing. It’s also played more comedically at first, with embarrassing things happening to him like knocking into the door or being dressed in ribbons by the others.


However, the animators really go far in visually developing his personality. Look at the scene where Snow White is singing “Someday My Prince Will Come.” All the other Dwarfs are entranced and happy, while Grumpy is in the corner refusing to join in on the dreamy atmosphere. He acts like he doesn’t care, but the dark tone conveys something that is lonely and miserable, not to the point that Grumpy wants to join in, but to the point where the audience wants to see him join in and actually be happy for once. Moments like this make him more than just a grumpy character who’s sometimes a laughingstock.

Depressing.

In the end, Grumpy learns to become more caring towards Snow White, and when they find out she’s in trouble, he leads the hunt to kill the Queen. Remember that this is the guy who specifically warned against facing her wrath, and by the end, his caring for Snow White overtakes that fear, even more than the other Dwarfs. And his crying scene...don’t even get me started on that!

Heartbreaking.

Looking back, from an animation standpoint, there was some room for improvement. The more realistic characters have a tendency to look awkward when put next to the Dwarfs and there are also some continuity errors regarding the animation. For example, when Dopey and Sneezy are dancing with Snow White during “The Silly Song,” they cut to a shot of Dopey’s hands clapping with the other Dwarfs, even though he’s supposed to be on the dance floor!

Despite these problems with the animation, there still are many things about it that work. The designs when Snow White is running through the forest and the Queen’s lair are really out there and help to convey the more serious tone of an animated feature compared to a short. The background designs are also really impressive to look at, especially in establishing shots like at the beginning when the audience is first introduced to the castle.


Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is not a perfect movie, but its combination of likable characters, memorable songs, and animation that takes risk makes it easy to see why it still continues to have such an impact 80 years later. For a film that people referred to as “Disney’s Folly,” it did quite exceed expectations.


Accolades

Though some stuff like their radio show was quickly forgotten, Disney did receive a good amount of recognition this year. Snow White did very well at the box office, for a while maintaining the title of highest-grossing film ever. In fact, it even inspired the making of another classic film that was released a year later: MGM’s The Wizard of Oz.

The Academy Awards also took extra special notice of Disney this year. Of the five entries nominated for Best Short Subject, Cartoon from 1938, four were Disney cartoons: Mother Goose Goes Hollywood, Good Scouts, Brave Little Tailor, and the short that went on to win the award, Ferdinand the Bull. Disney also received a special Honorary Academy Award for the creation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Not every short released this year was a masterpiece, but their best material showed strong signs of a lasting future for the company.

Special thanks to In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Pop Culture Reverie for creating this blogathon and for allowing me to take part in it. Click on the banner below to read more of the entries in this blogathon.

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Comments

  1. Very thorough and very interesting. I appreciated your critiques and the historical backgrounds. I found myself nodding in agreement with much of your well-expressed opinion.

    I grew up a Disney fan and remained one into adulthood. That is a very good thing because my autistic/developmentally delayed son is obsessed with the studio's output, particularly from this era. Every title, the faves and the not-this-again's have been viewed countless times. Currently, he's on a Mickey kick.

    A line from Ferdinand established our relationship early in his life. When the narrator says "..because she was an understand mother, even if she was a cow..." my toddler son turned, looked at me and smiled. He does the same thing now in his twenties!

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  2. It seems strange to think of just hearing the characters voices without seeing them! I can understand why the radio program wasn't a hit.

    Oh, I love the Brave Little Tailor! I watched it all the time with my grandma. Now, I'm not sure what I'd think of it if I had never seen it, but it has a lot of nostalgia for me.

    It was very interesting to read this article!

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  3. I grew up watching many of these Silly Symphony and Mickey/Donald/Goofy cartoons as a kid. Donald Duck was always my favorite. I wish that these were more easily attainable today. But I'm grateful that TCM occasionally airs some of them on their channel. Your article brings back some great memories.

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  4. Wow! What a detailed and in-depth look at Disney! Some fantastic insights into Disney's work and your analysis only enhances the enjoyment of these wonderful cartoons. I've only just discovered your blog, so I', very glad that I did. You have to love blogathons! Best regards!

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  5. I'm not familiar with most of the Disney shorts. I'm surprised they had such a huge output. The only one I'd heard of before reading this was Ferdinand. Now I'm ashamed at how limited my knowledge of the shorts is. I'll have to rectify that.

    I can't imagine Disney on radio. It's products were so visual I can understand why the experiment failed.

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