Snow White Returns: Keeping Up with the Little People's Princess

Kristen Stewart in ‘Snow White and the Huntsman’/Photo © Universal Pictures
Kristen Stewart in ‘Snow White and the Huntsman’/Photo © Universal Pictures

Your name is Pinto Colvig. You've been producing animated cartoons since 1916, but almost two decades later you find yourself in a series of story meetings with none other than Walt Disney discussing what will be the world's first feature-length, celluloid-animated film: “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Disney bet the farm, mortgaging his house to cover a projected budget ten times greater than his previous work. By the time it hit screens, that budget grew six times to a price tag of almost a million and a half dollars, an enormous cost for 1937. “The Life of Emile Zola,” that year's Academy Award winner for best picture, was produced for half that amount.

You were expecting the atmosphere at this story meeting to be tense. The Hollywood press already dubbed the film "Disney's folly." But as staff writer Richard Creedon digs through his twenty-one pages of notes, labeled "Snowwhite suggestions," it's clear that everyone else present – storyboard artist Ted Sears, sequence director Larry Morey, sketch artist Albert Hurter – are only too happy to follow Disney's lead. And Disney's talking dwarfs.

Disney felt the seven dwarfs, who aren't even named in the source German fairy tale by The Brothers Grimm, should not only be christened, but named for their most dominant characteristic. The meeting generates a list of about fifty dwarfs. Jumpy, Deafy, Dizzy, Hickey, Wheezy, Baldy, Gabby, Nifty, Sniffy, Swift, Lazy, Puffy, Stuffy, Tubby, Shorty, and Burpy don't make the final cut, but by meeting's end, Doc, Grumpy, Bashful, Sleepy and Happy are in. Sneezy is added after "Hollywood's most famous sneezer," Billy Gilbert, answers an ad in Variety and is hired on the spot. Dopey, the most enduring of the characters, is added to the lineup during a November meeting in 1934. Disney circulates a studio-wide memo offering five dollars for any dwarf "gags" that make it into the film and some, like the chorus line of dwarf noses popping up at the foot of Snow White's bed, make the cut.

The film is released just before Christmas three years later, earning Disney an honorary Oscar. A few days later he and his dwarfs wind up on the cover of Time Magazine and the film racks up a lifetime gross of $416 million, putting it in the top ten of American-made moneymakers. For your part, both Sleepy and Grumpy speak with your voice before you find fame as Goofy, followed by a decade-long run as the original Bozo the Clown.

Still, not even Sleepy at his most somnambulant could have dreamed 2012, a year that saw a Snow White resurgence that included both Julia Roberts' evil queen in the comic “Mirror Mirror” and Kristen Stewart of “Twilight” making her pallor pay off as one of the titular characters in the gristly “Snow White and the Huntsman.” And this renaissance shows no signs of abating. This summer, Amy Adams leads a mash-up of fairy tale characters in a revival of Stephen Sondheim's 1987 Tony-winning Broadway musical “Into the Woods.” The casting breakdown for Snow White seeks an actress in her twenties who is a "strong singer/dancer with enormous sex appeal" before going on to call the character a "living, breathing trophy." No one ever said fables weren't a tad misogynistic, but the role will be hotly contested as its park production is rumored to be moving direct to Broadway and functions as a two-month audition for Rob Marshall, whose 2002 adaptation of the musical “Chicago” won the best picture Oscar, and who is developing a movie musical of “Into the Woods” for Disney.

But it's not like that studio has the exclusive on our girl Snow. In 1967, postmodernist Donald Barthelme updated the Grimm's tale to a ‘60s commune where Snow White dresses like a Chinese socialist and trades the "Someday My Prince Will Come" ballad for the post-grad "waiting as a mode of existence." ABC also tried its hand in the mid-‘80s with “The Charmings,” which transported Snow and her Prince to modern-day Burbank with two kids. The sitcom did well in its initial Friday night slot, but tanked after ABC positioned it against “The Cosby Show” for its second season. Lily Tomlin even attempted the princess for a fantasy sequence in the 1980 film “Nine to Five” and as animated birds landed on her shoulders, she replaced the Skinny and Sweet in her boss' coffee with a potion tapped from her ring that eats through the spoon as she stirs.

But if all this emphasis on the pushy princess is leaving you feeling a bit like Pinto Colvig's Grumpy, who famously bitched, "She's a female and all females is poison,” fear not. Next year will see the Seven Dwarfs have their own "fine kettle of fish" as an expansion to Walt Disney World's Fantasyland allows for an entire area themed to the film. The highlight of this new land is set to open in 2014: a steel roller coaster called the Seven Dwarves Mine Train where, as the dwarfs themselves sing, "a million diamonds shine."