They called it “Disney’s folly” during production: Many people didn’t believe audiences would sit through an 83-minute cartoon, or that any animated film could earn back the staggering $1.5 million Walt Disney was spending on “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

They were wrong, of course. A landmark in the history of animation, “Snow White” (opening Friday citywide) set box-office records as well, earning $8.5 million on its initial release--an enormous sum in 1937-38. In the 50 years since its premiere, the film has earned more than $350 million and ranks among the most popular movies of all time.

And it influenced the development of cartoon features and shorts for the next half-century. For the first time, the artists had to create a heroine the audience would accept as real. Because humans are extremely difficult to draw, animators usually relied on stories involving animals. Except for the comic vamp Betty Boop, female characters were just males with skirts, high heels and long eyelashes.


Because the plot of the film involved more dramatic situations and deeply felt emotions than anything previously attempted in animation, Snow White had to move like a real person. If the viewer didn’t believe she was a vulnerable human being--rather than a moving drawing--the story would simply fall apart.

The animators studied reference footage of a young dancer (the future Marge Champion) and spent four years studying drawing, art and acting in special classes at the studio. As a result, their work with Snow White established a model for all subsequent cartoon heroines, both in their own features and in the films of other studios. One of the earliest examples of other animators’ attempts to copy Snow White was the far less convincing Princess Glory of Lilliputia in the Fleischers’ “Gulliver’s Travels” (1939).

The Seven Dwarfs were almost as much trouble as Snow White herself: In the original Grimm fairy tale, they don’t have individual personalities--or even names. Disney realized that while the dwarfs could provide necessary comic relief, seven identical characters running around the screen would bore the audience. The studio artists and writers spent four years developing seven distinct personalities.

Drawing seven similar-looking characters was an animator’s nightmare: The artists had to find seven different ways to perform each movement that would accentuate each dwarf’s individual personality. The result was a tour de force of character animation: Although the dwarfs look alike, they move differently. Grumpy doesn’t walk like Happy or Doc, and he gestures and stands in a way that forcefully reveals his curmudgeonly nature.

Disney’s dwarfs were the obvious ancestors of modern character groups like the Care Bears, each one of whom is supposed to represent a specific trait. But the Care Bears never become individuals; their films lack the polished animation and carefully structured story that established each of the Seven Dwarfs as a distinct personality. Grumpy Bear is just a generic character with a rain cloud on his stomach: He walks and moves just like the other bears.

“Snow White” also provided the musical model for the choruses of cartoon bears, mice and kids who have serenaded hapless audiences during recent decades. From his first jottings on the film, Disney planned to make “Snow White” a musical--the hit song “Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf?” had ensured the success of the “Three Little Pigs.” The popularity of “Someday My Prince Will Come,” “Whistle While You Work” and “Heigh-Ho” drew additional attention to “Snow White,” and the song-and-story format has been copied in virtually every animated feature made in the United States, up to and including Don Bluth’s “An American Tail.”


Perhaps the most significant innovation in “Snow White” was the introduction of sophisticated film-making techniques to animation. Although Disney’s “Silly Symphonies” had been growing more polished, most cartoons made before 1937 feature only the simplest editing and camera work. In scenes like Snow White’s terrified flight through the forest, skillful editing and constantly shifting camera angles blend with color, motion and sound to produce an emotional intensity unprecedented in an animated film.

“What Disney really did was introduce big-time cinema into animation,” says Brad Bird, director of “Family Dog,” the only animated episode of “Amazing Stories.” “If you look at the best scenes in ‘Snow White’ and compare them to the best film making in 1937, it’s up there.”

The polished craftsmanship in “Snow White” and the subsequent Disney features influenced not only young American artists like Bird, but the current generation of Japanese animation directors who use state-of-the-art editing, cutting and cinematography to compensate for the limited animation in their films. And live-action film makers like Steven Spielberg readily acknowledge their debt to the classic Disney features.

“Snow White” was not the first feature-length animated film: That distinction belongs to “El Apostle,” a lost work made in Argentina in 1917. But “Snow White” established a standard for cartoon features that remained unchallenged until “Yellow Submarine” (1967) and “Fritz the Cat” (1972). Some of the subsequent Disney features--notably “Pinocchio”--are technically superior, but the animators never surpassed the emotional depth they achieved in Walt’s “folly.”

“Snow White” carries her 50 years very lightly.