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“For I’ll be your prince, and you’ll be my…dwarf.”
– The Prince’s tune after receiving a surprise audience
I have a confession to make: I feel like I skimped out on Thumbelina’s origins last month. Had circumstances not prevented me from doing so, I would have done a deep dive into other thumb-sized characters in folklore around the world, how they fed into her creation, and the similarities and differences between them. Well this month’s review isn’t gonna leave the history buffs high and dry, baby. I’m going the full hog with Snow White, one of the most iconic fairy tales with a rich, detailed historical background to match, so strap in!
The Fairest One of All might just hold the record for most variants of her story worldwide. In the Aarne-Thompson-Uther classification of folklore, she has a category all to herself! Richilde, Gold-tree and Silver-tree, Myrsina, The Young Slave, Bella Venezia, Bright Star of Ireland, Hajir, La petite Toute-Belle, Der zauberspiegel, Rose-Neige, Lé Roi Pan, La hermosa hijastra, and Anghjulina are but a few folktales from around the globe that retell Snow White’s adventures. Each one shares the tropes common to the story we know (a jealous queen, a magical fairness-rating artifact, multiple assassination attempts, poisoned objects, glass coffins, a prince partly responsible for waking her, etc.) though the details vary. For example, the dwarfs who take Snow White in aren’t always dwarfs, or even miners. Sometimes they’re robbers, sometimes they’re the twelve months personified, sometimes they’re purely magical characters like djinns and dragons!
The biggest revelation one can take away from these retellings, however, is that Snow White usually isn’t menaced by a wicked stepmother but her own mother. Indeed, the German oral tale recorded by the Brothers Grimm in 1812 had the evil Queen be Snow White’s birth mother, until they revised it seven years later to keep the fable more in line with their patriarchal beliefs. See, Jacob and Wilhelm envisioned motherhood as something pure and infallible. They didn’t want to rock the familial boat by suggesting mothers could be capable of spite and cruelty. So they pinned the queen’s jealousy and murderous tendencies on a figure that was already on the outs with the family unit, one seen as new, unfamiliar and untrustworthy: the stepmother. It also doesn’t help that the Queen is the most proactive character in the story, spinning the narrative that clever women with agency and authority are evil, self-serving and dangerous. Between this, Cinderella, and Hansel and Gretel, it’s not much of a stretch to say that the Grimms are the source of the evil stepmother/queen stereotype that’s plagued so many narratives and even negatively colors real women to this day.
As for her origins, Snow White and her assorted fair counterparts have roots going all the way back to Ovid’s Metamorphoses. One story featured within, the legend of Chione (whose name translates to “Snow”, by the way) is about a woman described as the most beautiful in the land, which earns her the enmity of the goddess Diana and the lust of gods Apollo and Mercury. Apollo visits Chione disguised as an old woman and…has his way with her, as deities do (blegh). One could also draw parallels to Adam and Eve and the infamous apple, if you’re willing to dig that deep.
That’s not the half of it, though. Scholars may have found precedence that the tale of Snow White might be based on actual historical figures. According to German historian Eckhard Sander, young countess Margaretha von Waldeck fits the bill for a real life Snow White. She was renowned for her beauty, raised by her stepmother, her father owned several copper mines that employed child labor (which explains the dwarfs), she had to travel to the next kingdom “seven hills” over for a goodwill mission, and she died tragically young; the rumor circulating the court was that she was poisoned. Another theory that was initially tongue-in-cheek but turned out to have some credibility was that Snow White was inspired by Baroness Maria Sophia Margarethe Catharine of Lohr. Mirrors from Lohr were said to always speak the truth thanks to their high quality, hence the Magic Mirror. One such Lohr mirror that still exists was owned by Maria’s stepmother, Claudia Elizabeth von Reichenstein. Claudia is described as a domineering woman who favored the children from her first marriage. There’s a history of nightshade poison growing in abundance in Lohr, a mining town stood close to there, and the glass coffin may be another nod to the city’s famous glassworks. While there are sound arguments disproving these hypotheses, I find it fascinating that Snow White has taken such root into culture as a whole that historians and folklorists alike are willing to connect the dots between the story and factual occurrences.
When it comes to modern iterations, though, the Disney film is the one that obviously stands foremost in the public consciousness. It’s inspired nearly every adaptation going forward since 1937, and Faerie Tale Theatre’s is no exception…
One winter’s day, a queen pricks her finger while doing some embroidery. Inspired by the drops of blood falling onto the frost by the window, she wishes for a child as beauteous and white as the snow, as black as the ivory windowpane, and red as blood. Personally I’d wish for a child with the heart of Jim Henson, the artistic gifts of Van Gogh and Sondheim, and the brains and courage of Malala Yousafzai, but hey, fourteenth-century standards were different. The queen eventually gives birth to a girl with all her desired attributes and names her Snow White. The kingdom rejoices over the little princess. But shortly after, Snow White’s mom dies of protagonistmotheritis, leaving the door open for her husband to marry a vain, ill-tempered woman obsessed with her good looks. Then we learn who’s narrating this is none other than the evil Queen’s Magic Mirror, played by…VINCENT PRICE?!
Iconic horror star, esteemed art and gastronomical connoisseur, bisexual icon, and now Magic Mirror. Damn, what a legend. Vincent elevates the proceedings with his mere presence despite being stuck in one place forced to spout exposition and stroke the Queen’s absurdly huge ego. His snarky asides, whether expressed verbally or simply through his face, are a highlight. You can’t blame him for it either. Forgive me for going blue, but how the Queen talks about her irresistible features in that low, husky voice as she admires her visage makes it look like she’s about to…well…
Snow White interrupts her stepmother’s alone time to show her some juggling she’s learned from the court jester. And remember what I said about Disney’s version influencing all others?
As soon as the Queen kicks Snow White out, the Mirror declares he’s changed his mind about who’s fairest and who’s not. Yes, I know it’s about kindness and inner beauty shining more than superficiality, but the way Vincent sells it, it seems more like the Mirror found an excuse to stick it to the Queen. He denounces her accusations of falsehood since all mirrors shatter from shame if they tell a lie, or so he claims.
Enraged, the Queen orders her Huntsman to kill Snow White and return with her heart as proof. Snow White is horrified when she learns of his intentions but asks that she be permitted to say her prayers first. The Huntsman allows it, and she prays her little heart out, making extra sure to mention she bears no animosity towards her soon-to-be murderer.
The Huntsman can’t bring himself to go through with the hit after that award-winning guilt trip. He tells Snow White to run away and brings the Queen a boar’s heart to convince her of the girl’s death. Snow White wanders through the dark woods until she comes across a tiny cottage. She helps herself to some of the cold dinner laid out at the seven places at the table, and goes to sleep on one of the small beds. The owners of the cottage, seven dwarfs who work at the nearby mines, find her there after marching their way home to a jaunty tune.
Now the dwarfs are a tricky set of characters to get right. Out of the blue we’re introduced to not one, not two, but seven brand new characters you have to keep track of. Disney succeeded by tying their names to their personalities (Happy, Dopey, etc.) Here, we have several little people of varying height and skin color, not a bad start. But then we learn their names begin with a B (Boniface, Barnaby, Bruno, Bubba, Baldwin, Bertram and Bernard) and all that alliteration throws your focus out the window. The easiest one to remember is Bubba, because his oft-correct intuition is always shot down by the others with a caustic “That’s a stupid assumption, Bubba!”
In the morning, the dwarfs and Snow introduce themselves and she apprises them of her situation. We also get to see Snow White’s naivete on full display. Her life must have truly been a sheltered one, because she doesn’t know what dwarfs are and flat out asks Bubba about his height.
Initial insensitivity and my joking aside, I find myself enjoying Elizabeth McGovern’s take on Snow White. She’s kind and helpful as per usual for the character, but there are moments when you recognize that kindness comes from a place of deep sadness and loneliness. This Snow White is given more time to dwell on her stepmother’s attempts on her life and still has difficulty coming to grips with them. She understands the gravity of the acts, yet cannot fathom what moved the only parent she has (the king is conspicuously absent in all this) to commit such violence against her. She runs through any potential misdemeanors on her part in her prayers and in the aftermath of another failed execution but comes up with nothing. Her cry of “But WHY? Why does she want to kill me??” is heartwrenching. All she wants is a simple clear-cut answer, perhaps a chance to redeem herself to someone she cared about, but she receives none in the face of blind jealousy and hatred.
Even Snow White’s girlish attire, despite parts of it being Disney with the serial numbers filed off, ties into her childlike desire to be loved. There’s a near desperateness to make some friends underlying her first encounter with the dwarfs and her earlier scene with the Queen. The Queen also constantly refers to Snow White as a child and herself as a woman. Perhaps, and I admit this is speculation on my part, the Queen kept her isolated from others and dressed that way to enforce the image of an innocent child instead of a contender for Fairest In The Land.
Snow White offers to cook and clean for her hosts in exchange for room and board. The dwarfs are in favor of this, since they’re too tired from work to make a decent hot supper each night.
But the evil Queen can’t go a day without an ego boost from her Mirror, and she discovers her stepdaughter is alive and well. Ignoring the Mirror’s suggestion to maybe let things slide, she brews a potion to disguise herself in her secret lab.
The Queen sets off for the cottage dolled up as an elderly ribbon seller. The dwarfs march off to the mines, not giving her a second glance (except Bubba, of course). They stop to say hello to a friendly prince who wiles away the hours writing love songs for his dream princess. Nice to see they’re introducing the prince early and giving him some personality. The dwarfs shush Bubba before he can tell the prince about Snow White, though; they’re not ready to give up their hot meals yet. I don’t like how this makes the dwarfs look. Withholding potential lovers from each other for the sake of keeping your new housekeeper to yourself will not endear you to the audience. The blow is lessened somewhat when they later admit they’ve grown fond of Snow White as a person and don’t want to lose her, but I wish their reasons for keeping her and the prince apart didn’t start out as completely selfish*.
Meanwhile the Queen finds and entices Snow White with her wares. She offers a ribbon as a gift then proceeds to wind them all around her neck until she can’t breathe. Snow collapses, the life seemingly choked out of her. The Queen returns to the castle for celebratory shots, and the dwarfs discover their dead princess lying out on the lawn. They get the ribbons off by turning her into a maypole.
Luckily, the Queen’s assassination attempt only rendered Snow mostly dead. She comes to once the ribbons are loosened. The dwarfs are thrilled she’s alive, but they quickly figure out that the Queen was behind this. They make Snow White promise to not talk to any strangers.
Snow makes her own bed before the fire and the dwarfs cozy up around her as she regales them with stories about her life in the palace. This moment of her bonding with the dwarfs is actually a rather nice scene. You don’t see most other versions slow down and show Snow White and her protectors becoming close friends. Even Disney kept it to one night of food, song and dance before she bit the big
apple one. There’s no “Someday My Prince Will Come”, but Snow White admits to wishing she could meet a singing prince after Bubba lets slip about the one they know. She also reveals the one thing she misses from her former home is swimming in the castle moat. The dwarfs tell her they can’t swim, however. “We’re too little,” says Bubba. “Fish would eat us.”
I was going to say Peter Dinklage was too hard on Snow White for what he called regressive depictions of little people, but with writing like that, maybe he has a point…
Of course, the Queen finds out about Snow White’s survival once she consults the Mirror again. This time she brews a poison apple – or rather, she poisons half of the apple – and dons a slightly different haggard peddler persona. She runs into Prince Greg Brady and we get a funny bit where she flirts with him until she remembers she’s in her old lady disguise and flees in embarrassment. Bubba susses something is shady about the random fruit seller booking it through the trees, but his brothers shut him up again. Geez, how many problems would have been stopped before they started if people just listened to Bubba for once?
The Queen approaches and at first Snow White seems to do the right thing by not saying a word to her…but she makes the mistake of letting the peddler woman keep talking instead of barricading herself in the cottage. The Queen demonstrates how safe her fruit is by trying the apple first. Naturally, she nibbles on the unpoisoned half. Despite all the warnings from the dwarfs, the obvious red flags, and the fact that this is a fruit someone already tasted (eww), the princess gives it a bite.
You know that voice in the back of your head that tells you when something’s amiss? I’m pretty sure this Snow White doesn’t have one.
Not five seconds pass before the apple’s poison takes effect. The triumphant Queen spins around like Wonder Woman and teleports back to the castle, where the Mirror confirms her fairest-ness with the enthusiasm of a DMV employee filing paperwork. The dwarfs find Snow White dead for real this time and mourn her passing.
The dwarfs build a glass coffin and start carrying it to the highest hilltop so they can admire Snow White’s naturally decaying beauty from afar. They pass the prince and lament that her fate could have been avoided if they had been honest about her. The prince, for his part, is startled by Snow White’s beauty, so much so that he’s convinced her glowing cheeks means she’s alive somehow. Turns out he’s right; the dwarfs stumble while trying to pick up the coffin again, which jostles the bit of poison apple from her throat. Though Snow White doesn’t wake up with a kiss, she and the prince are instantly smitten with each other. He proposes, and she immediately says yes, even after he admits she could use more time to come around after everything that’s happened.
The prince whisks Snow White to his castle where they are wed that very day. The dwarfs join in their happiness and visit them every weekend for a swim in the moat. Later, the prince shares the Queen’s treachery with his court magician, who doles out a horrible vengeance befitting her cruelty: forcing her to dance to death in red-hot iron shoes –
What? They’re not following the original ending? So much for staying true to the story, you cowards.
What the Queen ultimately endures is almost as bad, though. The Mirror rubs in Snow White’s status as the fairest one last time, then happily informs her highness that she will never be able to see her own face again. To the Queen’s horror, every reflective surface she turns to fades to black. As she falls into apoplexy, the Mirror awkwardly tells the audience that this is the end.
Snow White was one of the Faerie Tale Theatre episodes I remember watching on VHS, so I’m rather fond of it. Though some of the creative decisions borrow from Disney’s iconic iteration, there’s no harm in stealing from the best if the result stands on its own two feet. I’m happy to say this outing does. The acting is good, the score runs the gamut of ominous to wistful to playful, and it perfectly realizes both the sinister and sweet aspects of the fable.
- Some fine miniatures are used to show the castle and surrounding forest.
- The dwarfs in this one are all brothers. No one brings up the differences in race, which means this technically predates the 1998 Cinderella AND HBO’s Happily Ever After in terms of progressive fairy tale casting.
- Vincent Price’s discography proves he’s an excellent choice to narrate this retelling. He previously lent his voice to many records of Edgar Allen Poe tales, ghost stories, and some darker obscure fairy tales. Here’s one of my favorites, his retelling of the story of Baba Yaga.
- As you’ve no doubt noticed, the Queen makes at least one attempt on Snow White’s life before giving her the apple. This is a detail from the original Grimm’s fairy tale as well as other variations. The Queen in that story also gives Snow White a poisoned comb, the matter of which is resolved just as quickly as the laces. Of course, Disney omitted these plot points for time, the sake of repetition, and to avoid making Snow White look like an idiot.
- I’ve been informed that the Queen’s conniption at the end was a source of nightmare fuel for many children who watched this. Between her repeated screaming at the camera and dirge-like rendition of her theme, I can see why. I vaguely remembered the scene but don’t recall being terrified of it (unless I just repressed it…)
Hey, Was That…: Legendary actress Vanessa Redgrave plays The Evil Queen. The Prince is singer and actor Rex Smith; his most prominent role is Frederic in the filmed version of The Pirates of Penzance. The Huntsman is Michael Preston, who’s best known as Papagallo from Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. You probably recognized Bubba as Tony Cox from Bad Santa. Billy Curtis, Barnaby, was one of the original Munchkins from The Wizard of Oz. Bernard is Phil Fondacaro, who previously appeared as one of the Witch’s minions in Rapunzel, and was the voice of Creeper in The Black Cauldron. Lou Carry, Bertram’s actor, previously portrayed Sneezy in a live theatrical version of Disney’s Snow White at Radio City. Daniel Frishman, Boniface, was an Ewok (as were most of the little people featured here, but the role is most prominent on Frishman’s IMDB page). Peter Risch‘s (Bruno) career was cut tragically short with his death in 1989, but he had small (forgive the euphemism) character parts in Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Ghoulies, and the Welcome to Pooh Corner video “Too Smart For Strangers” (the flashbacks…) Kevin Thompson (Baldwin) is still working today in an assortment of horror movies and minor (again, sorry for the euphemism) roles in tv and film. Shelley Duvall makes a cameo as Snow White’s first mother, her first appearance in any episode since The Nightingale. Writer Robert C. Jones was a film editor on such classics as It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, The Trouble With Angels, Heaven Can Wait, and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. Director Peter Medak previously directed the Pinocchio episode.
Who’s The Artist?: N.C. Wyeth again, though the Queen does bear an uncanny resemblance to John William Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott. If that choice was intentional, then it’s certainly ironic; the painting is based on a poem where a lady is cursed to view the world reflected through a mirror on pain of death despite her longing to be a part of it, whereas the Queen loves gazing at mirrors so much that she’s driven mad when she no longer can.
Better Or Worse Than…?: While the Disney movie will always be numero uno in my book, this take on Snow White rests among the upper-ranking ones. I can’t say I’m looking forward to the live-action remake of said Disney classic, but one can desperately hope that it doesn’t completely suck. You’d be hard-pressed to find a good live-action adaptation at any rate. Mirror Mirror? No, no. Snow White and the Three Stooges? The crossover NOBODY asked for. Snow White and the Huntsman? Kristen Stewart, hard pass. Snow White: A Tale of Terror? Well, Sigourney Weaver as the Evil Queen is pretty awesome, I’ll give it that. The massive fairytale-crossover TV series Once Upon A Time also has Snow White and her story play a huge part, to the point of hogging the spotlight in later seasons and screwing over the Queen time and again for her happy ending (yeah, I’ve got a few bones to pick, but maybe another time…)
In the field of animation, Snow White tends to skew towards parody or a ripoff of the Disney film. Merrie Melodies’ Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs has excellent animation and music (if you can get past some of the negative stereotypes). Garfield and Friends’ “Snow White and the 77 Dwarfs” is pretty humorous, as is the Muppet Babies’ “Snow White and the Seven Muppets”, where a jealous Piggy forced to play the Queen goes all in on the role and the dwarfs are now hairdressers instead of miners. Believe it or not, I’m rather fond of the story as featured in The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo (he plays all seven dwarfs, and the Queen sells her soul to a demon to best Snow White. Awesome!) I also enjoy the Happily Ever After episode that moves the setting to a Native American tribe in the southwest, though the jury’s out as to whether the culture is appropriated for the story or not. Though I’ve heard good things about the animated film Red Shoes and the Seven Dwarfs, I haven’t seen it yet. What I have watched is Filmation’s Happily Ever After, an attempt at an unofficial sequel to Disney’s Snow White and it’s…odd. Again, this is a movie that’s worthy of it’s own review because there’s a lot to discuss, both good and bad.
Ranking: Thanks to its splendid casting, expanding on some of the story elements, and not compromising when it comes to the tale’s scarier aspects, it gets the new Number Four spot between The Tale of the Frog Prince and Pinocchio.
Rather than leave you with a gif relating to said placement, please enjoy Vincent Price doing what he does best: hamming it up with an assortment of friendly freaks and weirdos.
Next time on Faerie Tale Theatre Reviews, there’s something sweet and almost kind, if a bit too refined. Time to revisit a tale as old as time with Beauty and the Beast.
* – There’s a simple workaround to this: have the dwarfs not say anything about Snow White to the prince for fear of her whereabouts reaching the Queen’s ears. Even though the dialogue establishes that the prince and dwarfs are friends, you know what they say about loose lips and ships.
Thank you for reading! Faerie Tale Theatre reviews are posted on the 6th of each month. Special thanks to my generous patrons Amelia Jones, Sam Flemming and Robert Barnette. Anyone who joins the Patreon party can get such fun perks as sneak peeks of reviews, extra votes, movie requests and more!
Disney Snow White screencaps courtesy of animationscreencaps.com