Snow White is a mind-boggling film…When Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel created Un Chien Andalou in 1929, their stated intention was to produce a surreal, completely nonlinear film in which one image had no logical link to the next. Their work was widely heralded. But Fleischer’s Snow White, made four years later, achieves some of those same goals (though unstated and likely unintended) and no one ever took notice of it until recent years.
— Leonard Maltin
Against all rules of linear time, the black-and-white cartoons of the ‘30s have replaced the color slapstick cartoons of the ‘40s and ‘50s as the face of “classic animation” in the public imagination. Even Mickey Mouse has reverted to his ‘30s design for the first time in 80 years. Series like Over the Garden Wall and video games like Cuphead and Epic Mickey have appropriated the style of the era while adding a heavy dose of the creeps, when they’re not diving headfirst into horror like Bendy and the Ink Machine.
And no wonder — the best of these cartoons create a nightmare atmosphere well beyond all but the best live-action horrors of the era. The Fleischer Brothers were master frighteners, even if their reputation as Disney’s cooler cousin is based more on underdog bias than the actual quality of the shorts.
But it’s easy to see where that impression came from when you look at their masterpiece, Snow White. Four years before Disney’s more famous version, it’s a far better approximation of the skewed logic of fairy tales, and even dreams. It’s also an even looser adaptation than Disney mounted — the Seven Dwarfs (in their helpfully labeled house) are barely more than cameos, for one thing. And it’s hard to say it follow the Brothers Grimm’s plot when “plot” barely describes the cartoon’s non-narrative weirdness.
Fleischer’s flagship star Betty Boop (at least until a certain sailor man debuted a few months later, but we’ll get to that) appears as Snow White, and bits and bobs of the fairy tale are scattered at random throughout the cartoon — Betty’s “stepmama” turns herself into a hag for no real reason, and Betty ends up in a glass coffin of sorts when she slides into a frozen river and bobs back up in an ice block.
But the story, such as it is, isn’t the point anyway. Maltin surely knew that Snow White was far from unique in its disconnected imagery. In fact, you could say the idea of connections between images was a relatively recent innovation in the cartoon world. I tried to watch some of Walt Disney’s pre-studio mogul Alice in Cartoonland shorts years ago and concluded they could have been dada, but they don’t even make enough sense for that.
What separates Snow White is the quality and quantity of the images. Disney would later pride itself on its attention to detail, but at this point in their respective careers, the Fleischers make them look like pikers. Writing for a pre-home video audience in his essential history Of Mice and Magic, Maltin spends three pages describing the short’s events in great detail, but throws up his hands at trying to convey the full experience and says you need to watch it yourself, multiple times, since “Snow White is so full of bizarre images and crazy ideas that it’s difficult to absorb it all in one or two viewings.”
We’re so used to limited animation now it can be hard to comprehend the full sensory overload of the Fleischers’ limitless animation. The characters never take a moment to stand still, and there’s dozens of them playing out their own little stories behind and below and around the leads. And in the best dream-logic tradition, the forms of things themselves can’t stay fixed. The entrance to the Mystery Cave flips over into a giant skull. The Queen turns into a dragon decades before Disney would do the same for their own villainess in Sleeping Beauty, and Betty’s pal Bimbo defeats her by yanking on her tongue until she turns inside-out. She uses her mirror as a shovel and a magic carpet and somehow passes it straight through her body to turn into the hag, all in the space of five seconds.
She repeats that last trick for Betty’s friend Koko the Clown, turning him into a long-legged ghost. Even then, Koko can’t maintain a single shape, his legs becoming even longer and then telescoping again as he dances around to Cab Calloway’s “Saint James Infirmary.” When sings about a twenty-dollar gold piece on a watch chain, his head flattens into the gold piece and his limbs twist into the chain, and later he pops off his head and turns it into a bottle of “boo-oo-oo-oo-oooze.” And then there’s the just plain inexplicable — when the Queen freezes Betty and Koko into pedestaled statues, somehow Bimbo ends up stuck as some kind of indescribable skull thing with daisies for ears.
Many shorts of the period were the prehistoric version of music videos — Busby Berkeley fans might recognize the titles of contemporary Looney Tunes shorts like “We’re in the Money” and “Shuffle Off to Buffalo.” Well, Calloway couldn’t ask for a better ad than this. Who knows, maybe this is the reason “Infirmary” has become his signature song. The White Stripes certainly seem to think so, since they open their cover with an impression of Betty calling “Oh, Koko!” After all, Calloway’s other signature song, “Minnie the Moocher” was the basis for an only slightly less astonishing Betty Boop cartoon.
The Fleischers were certainly the men for the job. Way back in the silent era, they invented the rotoscope process for the Out of the Inkwell cartoons that introduced Koko. Put simply, it allowed them to trace live-action footage onto their animation and imitate Calloway’s otherwise inimitable dance moves. Other, lazier artists (hi, Ralph Bakshi!) have misused the Fleischers’ tech to merely copy the reference footage, but the Fleischer’s combine it with their boundless imagination to warp Calloway into entirely new forms.
It would be two years before the Fleischers debuted another revolutionary technology, the “setback” camera, which allowed them to film two-dimensional cels against three-dimensional miniatures. But they were already running circles around Disney in their portrayal of 3D space, whether in the scene of Betty rolling down a hill the animators redrew every frame or the long pan through the Mystery Cave. And that right there’s another example of Snow White’s overwhelming wealth of detail, as the backdrop illustrates Calloway’s lyrics, sometimes straightforwardly (the “crap-shooting pallbearers” as skeletons shooting dice) other times more sardonically (the “chorus-girl” is a wide-mouthed cow) or punnily (“let her go” is accompanied by a skeletal crossing guard). And then there’s the strange figures floating behind Koko, in a frame so packed with invention they almost disappear even though they keep jumping into the camera — except for the undulating fishbone, which I doubt I’ll forget any time soon. I’ve already spent a thousand words on this remarkable short, and I could easily spend 10,000 more just cataloging all the wild-ass shit the Fleischers throw at the screen. Best you just see for yourself: