The Life of Emile Zola (Directed by William Dieterle)
The Nominees: The Awful Truth, Captains Courageous, Dead End, The Good Earth, In Old Chicago, Lost Horizon, One Hundred Men and a Girl, Stage Door, A Star is Born
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Directed by David Hand)
My Nominees: Dead End (William Wyler), The Prisoner of Zenda (John Cromwell),
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (David Hand), Topper (Norman Z. McLeod)
In selecting my personal choice for Best Picture of the year, I always asked myself one question: "Which film could I immediately watch right now, without hesitation." I went back and forth over the films of 1937, rubbing my chin over The Awful Truth, Captains Courageous, A Star is Born, Dead End, Kid Galahad, The Prisoner of Zenda, Topper, King Solomon's Mines, Saratoga and Stella Dallas among many others.
Yet I kept coming back, over and over, to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, resisting the urge to give my first Armchair Oscar to an animated film. I resisted it and resisted it and then had to resist it again. Then it dawned on me that this is the kind of technological innovation and storytelling that the awards were supposed to honor. Snow White was as much a leap forward in the advancement of motion pictures as Metropolis, Citizen Kane, 2001 or Star Wars, especially when you consider what came before.
Before Snow White, animation was three minutes of motion as chickens sang, cows and dogs played instruments and all to tinny pre-school music. For this film, the animators under Walt Disney's supervision had to create an entirely new process, they had to create not just well-rounded characters but they had to create an entirely new world and a new method of using the camera to tell a story.
The world inside the film is populated in every inch of the screen with supporting characters: rabbits, birds, turtles, deer, skunks, chipmunks, squirrels, mice, etc. They packed the frame so that everything is always in motion and we never notice negative space. Where most films are interested in the two or four characters in the center, the animator's genius was to create a population, a full-rounded world that suggested that space existed just off camera.
The technological marvel was the multi-plane camera which allowed objects in the foreground and the background to move independently of one another and independently of the central action. It also allowed the object to move at various speeds and various distances to create a three-dimensional feel. This was long before computers, when animation was a painstaking practice in which each cell was drawn and painted one-by-one by hand (production actually began in 1934). On the multi-plane camera, pieces of the artwork were lain on various platters on the camera that moved independently of one another so the various cells could move opposite of one another. The result was that a house in the background could have objects moving independently in the foreground.
The animators had the talent to create a palette that was alive. Take, for example, Snow White's nightmare journey through the forest as the branches of the trees reach out and the eyes bear down upon her. It would be enough just to have a girl frightened by the forest but to see it through her eyes to visualize the nightmare is part of the extra step, the further burst of inspiration. It wasn't entirely necessary to give the trees eyes or to draw them in such detail that they have twisted, angry faces, but it adds a level of generosity to the visuals.
But the palette would be nothing without expressive characters to put in front of it. The seven dwarfs have faces that are expressive, with big eyes, wide mouths and soft-round bodies, much like a child. And with the details in character design, they were also infused with emotions. Take for example the scene in which the dwarfs mourn for Snow White, their teary faces hung down in true expression. It would be one thing if the dwarfs simply cried, but note how the light and shadow play across their sad faces. No two characters are alike, no two characters move alive. There's real sadness in that scene. The whole movie is like that. The Dwarfs are seen as individuals, and we can easily tell them apart by more than their names and corresponding tics.
The same can be said for the wicked queen, whose face glows with stunning beauty and whose disguise, an old crone, is round and somewhat inviting (we can understand the trap that Snow White falls into).
Ironically, the least impressive characters are Snow White and Prince Charming. They look and act and movie with such realism that they aren't quite as interesting. How would Snow White have lasted in history if the Disney animators had given her more animated dimension, more to the tone of the dwarfs? And despite the title, the dwarfs and the evil Queen actually dominate the picture. They are so exaggerated that they have more room to play. The Queen too has exaggerated movements but only after she is transformed into the old crone.
What Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs offers is the full experience of what the canvas of an animated feature can do. It explores a storytelling medium that would be severely limited in a live-action movie and frees it up to expand imagination. Others have come along and others have done better, but Snow White came first and it's was a major step from what had come before. What genius. What generosity of the visuals. What imagination.