Screen Studies - Adaptations for Children: From Pre-Code to Post-Code Hollywood
Adaptations in the Sound Era: 1927–37
Adaptations in the Sound Era: 1927–37

Deborah Cartmell

Deborah Cartmell is Professor in English at De Montfort University, UK, and Director of the Centre for Adaptations. A founding member of many organisations (including Literature on Screen and the Association of Adaptation Studies), she is Secretary of the Council for College and University English. As well as being general editor of the Screen Adaptations series, in 2010 she authored Screen Adaptations: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (2010). Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Bloomsbury Academic, 2015


Content Type:

Book chapter

Genres, Movements and Styles:

Classical Hollywood cinema

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Adaptations for Children: From Pre-Code to Post-Code Hollywood

DOI: 10.5040/
Page Range: 123–140

Adapting well-loved children’s narratives to the talkie brought with it new challenges and concerns regarding morality and literacy. Stories, meant to be read, and instil a love of reading in children, were seen to be under threat in the era of the new talkie, when a book was no longer needed in order to supply the missing words. Unsurprisingly, a striking feature in the press materials is the prominence of the book with the message that the book will be opened, not closed, by the presence of the film. Adaptations, directed at children, were also relentlessly marketed on their wholesomeness: these films were sold on the basis that they were entertaining, educational and above all, clean. Adaptations, directed at children in the 1930s, are read here in relation to growing concerns about the power of films to corrupt and the consequent threat of shrinking audiences and diminishing box-office returns. Adaptations were, to a degree, reinvented, as guarantors of safe, wholesome and educational entertainment, in an attempt to rescue the movies’ sinking reputation as a promoter of idle and lascivious behaviour.

The imposition of the Production Code during this period encouraged films that were appropriate for children, but as Richard Maltby argues, the Code ‘was a consequence of commercialism and of the particular understanding of the audience and its desires that the industry’s commercialism promoted’.[1] In other words, the Code was not just the brainchild of a few influential moralists and educationalists, but a response to consumer demand. The Catholic National Legion of Decency was formed in 1933, in response to ‘morally objectionable’ films, such as Baby Face and I’m No Angel, as a means to eradicate ‘the pest hole that infects the entire country with its obscene and lascivious motion pictures’.[2] Essentially, arising from the new possibilities of the talkies, the regulation of film content moved from a mode of recommendation to one of enforcement, described by Robert Sklar as ‘The Golden Age of Turbulence’ (1930–33) and ‘The Golden Age of Order’ (1934–).[3] In response to rising concerns about the moral value of cinema and the damaging effects on audiences, particularly on the young, three ‘General Principles’ were devised in 1934:

1. No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience shall never be thrown to the side of crime, wrong-doing, evil or sin.

2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.

3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.[4]

The detrimental effects of motion pictures on children, like mobile phones today, was an unknown quantity and there was much concern surrounding children’s morality and education, in particular literacy, arising from the new talkies. A five-year research programme by the Motion Pictures Research council (1929–33), Pictures and Youth was summarized in Henry James Forman’s best-selling Our Movie-Made Children (1934).[5] In the introduction to the volume, W.W. Charters, Chairman of the Committee on Educational Research of the Payne Fund, recommends that ‘whole-hearted and sincere cooperation of the producers with parents and public is essential to discover how to use motion pictures to the best advantage of children’.[6] Even the fan magazines sided with these anxieties. An article in Picture Play Magazine (October 1933) admits that Movie Made Children touched a sore spot and concludes that ‘it may cause parents to check up on films that children are allowed to see, thereby cutting down box-office receipts’.[7] In response to anxieties regarding Hollywood films’ potentially corrupting influence on young audiences, during the period, 1934–35, study guides sponsored by the National Council of Teachers of English were attached to prestige productions to promote the educational value of these movies. In 1934, Carl Milliken, Secretary of the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributers of America, made the announcement that ‘the list of authors whose works will appear on the screen during the 1934–35 season is headed by Dante, Shakespeare, Dickens, Poe, Tolstoy and Dumas’, emphasizing that these films were in the making prior to ‘the healthy, nation-wide discussion of clean pictures’.[8] Likewise, Will Hays promised cinema audiences that the 1934–35 season would witness ‘a very large increase in the number of films being made from the great classics of literature and the stage and from books that have already won a place in the hearts of millions of readers’.[9] It seems that the National Legion of Decency were, in part, responsible for the rise of ‘classic adaptations’ in this period, perpetuating the view that adaptations of ‘quality’ books are good for you (failing to note the violent landscapes and contentious content of writers such as Dante, Poe and Tolstoy).

In light of concerns over cinema’s effects on the young in the 1930s and the general consensus that adaptations of classic novels are ‘safe’, this chapter will consider the talkie children’s adaptation, in particular The Three Little Pigs (directed by Burt Gillett, scripted by Boris V. Morkovin, 1933), Little Women (directed by George Cukor with a screenplay by Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman, 1933), Alice in Wonderland (directed by Norman Z. McLeod with a screenplay by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and William Cameron Menzies, 1933), Disney’s The Country Cousin (directed by Wilfred Jackson and written by Dick Rickard, 1936), Disney’s Thru the Mirror (directed by David Hand and written by William Cottrell, Joe Grant and Bob Kuwahara, 1936), Wee Willie Winkie (directed by John Ford with a screenplay by Ernest Pascal and Julien Josephson, 1937) Heidi (directed by Alan Dwan with a screenplay by Walter Ferris and Julien Josephson, 1937) and Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (directed by William Cottrell, David Hand, Wilfred Jackson, Larry Morey, Perce Pearce and Ben Sharpsteen and written by Ted Sears, Richard Creedon, Otto Englander, Dick Rickard, Earl Hurd, Merrill De Maris, Dorothy Ann Blank and Webb Smith, 1937), the first sound adaptations of much loved stories.

Martin Rubin sees 1933 as a turning point in Hollywood content. Prior to the creation of the Production Code Administration of 1934 which regulated films’ content to placate women’s groups, religious organizations and educationalists, ‘The film industry was placed on the defensive as never before’.[10] Disney’s Ugly Duckling (1931) is a good example of pre-Code animation. Oblivious to any moral objections, in a new twist to a well-known tale, Ugly Duckling’s birth (in which he emerges as markedly different from his siblings and parents) results in the father abandoning his family in the belief that his partner has indulged in an ‘extra-marital’ relationship. Babes in the Wood (1932), an adaptation of Hansel and Gretel as recorded by the Brothers Grimm, shows the brother and sister beguiled by a witch into entering the Gingerbread Cottage where they encounter children turned into tortured, emaciated animals, cruelly caged and chained by the witch. The children manage to reverse the spells and capture the witch in her own cauldron. She is able to free herself from the cauldron but in pursuit of the children, she is gradually and painfully transformed into stone. It would be impossible to make these films that depict adultery and the abuse of children a few years later. Disney’s animations became more cautious in their choice of content while defensive of the value of entertainment. Rubin describes how Disney’s Three Little Pigs (1933), which was ‘embraced by the public as a Depression-razing allegory’, shows how entertainment coexists with a belief in the moral value of hard work.[11] Practical Pig, while working all day, unlike his layabout brothers, keeps the wolf from the door but also enjoys his music in his spare time: managing a healthy work–play balance. Practical Pig is able to save (and ostensibly reform) his brothers and send the lean, dishevelled and dirty wolf, a symbol of the Depression itself, howling into the distance. But, as Rubin notes, the Pigs’ lives are not destined to be all singing and dancing, as the portraits of Father (a string of sausages and ham hock, on Practical Pig’s wall) augurs that the ultimate sacrifice, for the greater good of the economy, is just around the corner. Although Walt Disney denied any political significance, the film was widely regarded as an allegorical reading of the Depression and interpreted in the left-wing New Theatre & Film as an extension of President Roosevelt’s appeal to the populace to ‘stick together’.[12]

The blockbuster of 1933, Alice in Wonderland, directed by Norman McLeod, was a surprising failure as Variety predicted on 26 December 1933: ‘A series of scattered, unrelated incidents definitely won’t do to hold interest for an hour and a quarter.’[13] Indeed it was regarded as ‘one of the worst flops of the cinema’ by Rob Wagner, finding nothing positive to say about the film.[14] While a box-office flop, due to the costumes, that in an effort to recreate John Tenniel’s illustrations render the stars unrecognizable, the pressbook for Paramount’s Alice in Wonderland, released in December, 1933, boasts the selling power of its stars and the educational benefits of the movie. Lewis Carroll’s books were popular property for film in the early sound era, with Walt Disney thinking about a feature-length movie, before Alice was released in 1931 by the low-budget Commonwealth Pictures Corporation and then by Paramount in 1933. Among the cast of the Paramount film are Gary Cooper, W.C. Fields, Cary Grant, Edna May Oliver and Charlotte Henry playing the role of Alice (and like all actresses playing Alice after her, she remained relatively unknown). The pressbook is awash with ideas as to how to promote the film’s educational value, stressing the movie’s closeness to the book. We are told that ‘Half the charm and selling power of “Alice in Wonderland” lies in the theme: See these delightful characters step out of the book and come to life!’ The pressbook suggests that exhibitors Hire a young girl, dress her in an Alice costume, and place her in the book’. At peak hours, ‘Alice’ pushes the door open, hands circulars to patrons and then steps back into the book closing the door behind her.[15] The pressbook advertises a study guide with forthcoming school competitions and reiterates the film’s fidelity to the book. Indeed, it is described as ‘an exact reproduction of the two famous fantasies “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass” ’.[16]

Alice’s selling power is its innocence. One article in the pressbook, ‘ “ALICE” WILL END Wise-Cracking Era in America’ announces how the film will be wholesome entertainment: ‘Motion picture critics who have, over a span of years, watched the influence of the films on national customs manners and life, today are wondering if Paramount’s filmization of the beloved classic, “Alice in Wonderland” will bring back to public favour the sweet simplicity of the young girl of that era.’[17] The marketing is unequivocally appealing to audiences’ concerns regarding the morality and educational value of cinema. On the whole, it is a very dull film, and wastes its stars behind the costumes with the live action film seeming to emulate an animated feature. Its combination of live action with animation, however, is daring, and the stand out sequence is the animated inset of the Walrus and the Carpenter in which the worldly Walrus with his Carpenter sidekick dupes the baby oysters into leaving their home to follow in a great adventure, an unwitting parallel to the promoters of the picture’s promise to its target audiences of pleasure beyond belief: ‘Wholly unlike anything done before’, ‘an artistic masterpiece’.[18] Introduced by Tweedledee and Tweedledum, through a screen inserted in a tree, we see the cartoon as if we are watching a film within a film, the seemingly innocent duo narrating a tale of adult deception. While the animated sequence is itself ‘a mini masterpiece’, its disturbing content, with children becoming fatal victims of the adults’ greedy pleasures, as in the novel, undermines the spirit of adventure and innocence that the narrative seems to celebrate. The reviewer in Variety is similarly not fooled by the appeal to children: ‘ “Alice” is really a distinctly grown-up book. Juvenile patronage probably won’t be the choice of the kids themselves, but possibly under grown-up duress’.[19] The Betty Boop cartoon, Alice In Blunderland, released a year later more successfully re-presents the story with a not-so-innocent Alice who when falling down the rabbit hole needs to keep her tiny dress from flying up, seemingly acknowledging a more adult audience.

Where Paramount’s Alice failed, RKO’s Little Women (released in November, 1933) triumphed. Martin Rubin points out, the film ‘vied with Mae West’s second release of the year, I’m No Angel, for the title of the year’s biggest fourth-quarter hit’.[20] As Thomas Doherty argues, the film did much to confirm the profitability of rectitude.[21] I’m No Angel and Little Women occupy opposite ends of the spectrum: vamp playing West’s box-office decline and controversial content versus the model of a reformed cinema and the reign of ‘literary-credentialed prestige pictures as Hollywood’s most reliable big earners for the rest of the decade’.[22] Will Hays informed B.B. Kahane (RKO’s studio head) that Little Women ‘may open a new type of source material’.[23] The president of RKO Distribution attributed the film’s success to its wholesome content: ‘the public is hungry for something clean and wholesome – particularly fathers and mothers who have been worried about the movie entertainment that their children have been seeing’.[24] The pressbook covertly addresses audiences’ scepticism regarding the moral and educational benefits of film adaptation in its presentation of a poster designed for schools, insisting that schools will display it (presumably as a response to the refusal of schools in the past to display ‘educational’ film publicity). Educationalists are reassured that the ‘photoplay is mentioned only incidentally in the text’, revealingly acknowledging an awareness of prejudice against movies within educational establishments. But while there is significantly only little mention of the film in the text of the poster, the author of this article in the pressbook adds, ‘the illustrations are all from the photoplay’.[25] The ‘bookishness’ of the film is shamelessly exploited in the suggestion for a ‘TRAFFIC-STOPPING WINDOW EYEFUL’, a display featuring a giant book with stills from the film, suggesting that a ‘pretty girl, perhaps resembling Jo or another of thefour sisters, dressed in the style of the Sixties, can be employed to turn the pages slowly’.[26] In hindsight, the pregnancy of Joan Bennett (who played Amy), if widely leaked, could have resulted in the opposite sort of publicity that the movie sought, as epitomized in an advertisement in Picture Play Magazine: ‘WELCOME, thrice welcome, to the wholesome and reassuring trend in pictures and applause for those who bring to the screen a quartet of heroines who are known in every language …. There isn’t a shady lady among them’.[27] Compare this to an advert in the same magazine for Mae West’s I’m No Angel: ‘Yes’, says MAE WEST, ‘When I’m good, I’m very very good but when I’m bad, I’m better … it’s all about a girl who lost her reputation but never missed it. Come up and see it some time’.[28] Little Women is regarded as the first film of the decade to take a literary work and adapt it into both artistic and commercial success.[29] RKO’s choice of Louisa May Alcott’s novel was an astute one as the story directly addresses the reformation of children in hard times, a topic close to the hearts of those concerned about the evil effects of the movies.

The film (which won an Oscar for Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman for best screenplay) juxtaposes the harshness of the war with domestic comforts, rewriting the novel so that Jo becomes the author of the story; one, which through the auspices of her soon-to-be husband, like the battle between pre- and post-Code film, is not sensational, melodramatic or fantastic, but homely and morally edifying. The girls’ hardships, in particular Meg’s occupation as nursery maid and Jo’s as companion, however, seem to be forgotten after the first six minutes of the film. After their first entry into society in which Jo wears a patched dress and the sisters have to share a pair of gloves, there is little evidence of poverty. Implicitly, with the return of the father is a return of the family’s fortunes and Jo is able to write for pleasure rather than for money, offering audiences during the Depression hope for an end to hard times.

Jo’s Christmas play, performed at the beginning of the film, is reminiscent of an earlier period of melodramatic cinema, with Jo playing a potential rapist to an audience which includes a very disapproving Marmee whose role, like that of the film-makers themselves, is to tone down this dangerous exuberance, transforming Jo, played by Katherine Hepburn, from awkward and daring show-off at the beginning of the film to compliant domestic goddess by the end, from writer of sensational fiction to a writer of homely girls’ stories, a narrative which would chime with those concerned about the dangerous effects of Hollywood film on young viewers. The audience sees an improvement in Jo (perhaps contrary to Alcott’s narrative)[30] and a corresponding improvement in film, from the wooden old-fashioned and unconvincing acting in Jo’s sensational melodrama to the comfortable, secure and homely mood established at the film’s close. The prominence of Hepburn’s name (at least five times the size of Louisa May Alcott’s) and the assertion ‘Twenty million have read the book … Fifty million will love the picture’[31] in a Photoplay advertisement boasts the superior influence of the film over the book, an ambition at the heart of Disney adaptations.

Disney adaptations in the latter half of the 1930s, similarly, can be seen to echo concerns about film’s influence on children, as outlined in Our Movie-Made Children. Disney’s Silly Symphonies offers young viewers a first taste of nursery stories with titles such as The Ugly Duckling (1931), Father Noah’s Ark (1933), The Pied Piper (1933), Who Killed Cock Robin (1935) and The Three Blind Mouseketeers (1936). The Mickey Mouse series, all with Mickey as the central character, feature adaptations, such as Gulliver Mickey (1934) and Mickey’s Man Friday (1935). Silly Symphonies Who Killed Cock Robin stands out in presenting caricatures of Bing Crosby, Mae West and Harpo Marx, culminating in a bird trial scene in which a range of film genres – gangster, musical, romance and slapstick – come together. In the end it is discovered that Cock Robin (the Bing Crosby character) is not dead, merely stunned by Cupid’s arrow, leaving him to pursue a romance with sexy Jenny Wren, the Mae West caricature. The adaptation draws more on Hollywood film, in particular star performances, than it does on the nursery rhyme of its title, presumably aimed at an audience of children who would be more familiar with the movies than with the poem. This is taken a stage further in 1938 in Mother Goose Goes Hollywood, in which nursery rhyme characters are modelled on stars, among them Katherine Hepburn (Little Bo Peep), W.C. Fields (Humpty Dumpty) and Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy (Simple Simon and the Pie Man). In See Saw Margery Daw, Greta Garbo and Edward G. Robinson are on a see saw; Garbo complains ‘I want so much to be alone’, whereupon Robinson responds by getting off the see saw, leaving the precious star an undignified fall. In this adaptation, the stars’ ‘personalities’ take over the characters that they play, just as Disney films usurp their sources, leaving the urtexts all but forgotten.

Anxiety about the contents of cartoons, emanating perhaps from the daring content found at the beginning of the 1930s, was articulated in a 1939 article in Look magazine: ‘We cannot forget that while the cartoon today is excellent entertainment for young and old, it is primarily the motion picture fare of children. Hence, we always must keep their best interest at heart by making our product proper for their impressionable minds’.[32] It seems that Disney’s cartoons are indeed ‘motion picture fare’, as is evident in the content of cartoons of the latter half of the 1930s.

Filmed in Technicolor, The Country Cousin and Thru the Mirror are Disney cartoon adaptations features, described by Susan Ohmer as typical of films of 1936 that ‘lift us out of material existence into another realm’.[33] However, I suggest, while they offer audiences luxurious images of material pleasures, these features sing the praises of restraint and normality. The Country Cousin (1936) portrays Country Mouse’s disillusionment with his slick cousin’s stolen lifestyle and the horrors of a Fritz Lang’s Metropolis-like city life, possibly appealing to a small town American audience, shocked at the excesses of Hollywood. In Thru the Mirror (1936), Mickey Mouse falls asleep with an open copy of Alice Through the Looking Glass on his bed when a second self emerges from the snoring figure to pass through a mirror, evocative of a movie screen, into a room of animated objects. The sequences replicate in cartoon animation numerous popular films of the period, among them Top Hat (1935), Busby Berkeley’s choreography in the overhead shot of dancing cards, The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) in the rotund, disagreeable and jealous King of Hearts, Errol Flynn’s swashbuckling hero and Tarzan with Mickey swinging on a telephone cord through a jungle of furniture. Thru the Mirror concludes with a relieved Mickey back in his bed, safe from a perilous Hollywood-styled world that almost consumed him. The film ‘has its cake and eats it too’: it draws on many of the features of pre-Code Hollywood while rejecting them in preference for safer and more wholesome domestic comforts.

A change in production trends contributed to the elevation of Shirley Temple, signed by Fox in 1933, to a top box-office star. Temple more than filled the gap for wholesome entertainment, so welcome in post-Code Hollywood.[34] The adaptation Wee Willie Winkie, starring Temple, is perhaps most famous for Graham Greene’s review (which brought a libel case against him) in which he challenged Temple’s wholesome status. In the review, Greene writes that Temple’s stardom is ‘clever but it cannot last. Her admirers – middle aged men and clergymen – respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire.’[35] Greene implicitly challenged the studio’s adherence to the Production Code and questioned their motives to provide wholesome, morally uplifting films. Temple’s team took legal action against the writer. Greene lost and Fox (and Temple) won the battle.

Wee Willie Winkie is based on Rudyard Kipling’s short story about a six-year old Colonel’s son growing up in India, nicknamed ‘Wee Willie Winkie’ after the nursery rhyme. The boy rides his pony after a young woman who is defying her fiancée by riding into dangerous territory. When Wee Willie Winkie catches up with her, she has hurt her ankle and is unable to move. The pair become surrounded by malevolent men eager to capture them. However, forward thinking Wee Willie Winkie sends his pony back to his father’s regiment as a signal that he is in danger and the regiment respond quickly and come to his rescue. The father expresses his pride in his son for saving the young woman and Wee Willie Winkie, in Kipling’s concluding words, entered ‘into his manhood’ and asks that he be from this day forward addressed by his real name, Percival William Williams.

Beyond the title, the film bears little resemblance to the short story it is based on although it is very much promoted as an adaptation: ‘A PICTURE WORTHY OF THE AUTHOR WHOSE HEROIC PEN CAPTURED THE SPELL OF INDIA’.[36] In the film, directed by John Ford, set during the British Raj in 1897, Percival becomes Priscilla and through her trusting nature, befriends the leader of the rebelling Afghan tribe, Khoda Khan (played by Cesar Romero). Through her innocence and charm, she manages to stop the bloodshed between her grandfather’s regiment (located in a British colonial outpost near to the Afghan border) and the rebels. While almost unwatchable today, the adaptation challenges Kipling’s rigid gender division where women are described as belonging to the men, with Priscilla continually questioning why she is not allowed to be a soldier, like Mott, a drummer boy only a few years her senior. The American, Priscilla and her mother are the voices of common sense, morally triumphing over the British and the rebels, both groups ridiculed for their unquestioning regimental behaviour and prejudices. Greene is right that the film improves on the short story but he would have done better to locate the unwholesomeness of the film in the racial stereotypes it portrays rather than in what he worryingly perceives as the sexualization of its child star.

Unlike the Kipling adaptation, Heidi, Temple’s next adaptation, did not require radical rewriting. Johanna Spyri’s Heidi, the story of the young girl deserted by her aunt and abandoned in the Swiss Alps in the primitive home of her embittered grandfather who she reforms into a doting guardian seems tailor-made for Temple. Heidi’s pressbook agrees and unites the novel’s character with the movie star: ‘IN THE BELOVED STORY MILLIONS WANTED HER TO MAKE’ with Temple featured on bookmarks with Johanna Spyri’s novel surrounded by letters from fans, all entreating Temple to play Heidi.[37] In the film, Heidi is downtrodden by unscrupulous women: a loveless and opportunistic aunt and the evil governess who attempts to sell Heidi to an even worse Gypsy woman. In contrast, all the men in the film are positive influences, even surrogate mothers, in particular, her grandfather (Jean Hersholt) and the butler (Arthur Treacher) who befriends her in the luxurious home in which she is sold as a companion. Heidi’s final choice of the simple life with her grandfather over wealth and social elevation provides a Depression-weary audience with the moral that family life is more important than riches. The film announces itself throughout as an adaptation, ‘bringing a book to life’, from the opening credits in which the cast are presented through the turning of the pages of the novel to the grandfather’s reading of a story in which Heidi is transported to a song and dance number, ‘In Our Little Wooden Shoes’.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first mainstream animated feature, like the short Disney features discussed earlier, can be read as covertly addressing the concerns of its post-Code audience. It is tempting to see this movie as a response to pre- and post-code Hollywood through the juxtaposition of Snow White and her evil stepmother, a figure Woody Allen’s Alvie in Annie Hall claims to have preferred, a leaning that he feels explains later neurotic tendencies.38 So too, the animators of the Disney film had a preference for drawing the Queen over Snow White, as, in her erotic appeal, her all absorbing vanity and Lady Macbeth-like ambition, she was far more interesting than the younger character.[39] On one hand, we have the adorable, chirpy Snow White, Shirley Temple-like good girl, who in spite of a dreadful life remains steadfastly optimistic. On the other hand, we have the undoubtedly beautiful Mae West-style evil Queen,[38] who is determined to reap revenge on the little girl who is stealing the show. The figure in the Mirror, like a Hollywood mogul, goads the Queen on to re-establishing her reputation at centre stage, with shades of a pre-Code comeback. As Jack Zipes observes, the Queen never sees her reflection, she sees only the male face in the mirror and significantly it is his voice that dictates to her what constitutes beauty.[40]

Elizabeth Bell equates the evil Queen with femme fatales, such as Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, linking her to later figures such as Maleficent and Ursula, from Sleeping Beauty (1959) and The Little Mermaid (1989). These evil Disney female figures, stemming from the evil Queen, participate in what she sees as reconstructions of ‘feminine excess’, the ‘layers of rapacious animal imagery [which] align [their] powers with predatory nature’.[41] Both Zipes and Bell read the film in terms of its construction of female identities, but they also read it ahistorically. While I would not go so far as suggesting that the film is a critique of the patriarchal construction of female beauty, it does seem to speak to a contemporary concern with what is deemed most acceptable for post-Code audience consumption. But whether or not we are meant to believe the Mirror (or the film studios that declare their new preference for wholesome values over the risqué), it is Snow White who is identified as the most beautiful, and the modelling of the good girl (with the exception of the hair) recalls Shirley Temple’s rather stocky form and chubby face, even though the princess was inspired by the actress, Janet Gaynor. Temple was used to indirectly endorse the film: she posed with two of the dwarfs at the film’s premiere and was chosen to present Walt Disney an Honorary Academy Award for the film in 1939. Making cartoons into ‘real’ stars, as we have seen in Mother Goose Goes Hollywood, allows Disney to make the animations seem real. The film invites comparison between animation and live action in order to elevate the status of the former, ultimately suggesting that the film takes over and surpasses its literary ‘sources’.

The film’s narrative structure, especially in its departures from the Brothers Grimm version (Sneewitchen), owes something to the typical Temple film, the charming orphan whose innocent demeanour changes lives and minds. Like Temple, Snow White is able to convert even the harshest of men to her cause, from the Huntsman to Grumpy; her prayer in the dwarfs’ house, ‘Please let Grumpy like me’ echoes that of Temple’s Wee Willie Winkie who similarly prays to God to let her gruff grandfather like her too. The transformation of Grumpy is the most moving moment of the film, with the once cynical Grumpy uncontrollably convulsing in grief over Snow White’s inert body. The sequence depicting the grieving dwarfs is described by John Canemaker as ‘the baptism of a new powerful kind of animation’ capable of bringing tears to the eyes of the audience.[42] The believability of the cartoon characters dominates the effusive reviews of the film. Typical of these is James Shelley Hamilton’s expressions of amazement on first seeing the film: ‘It is astonishing how these pictures create a life in a world of their own, totally unreal in fact but absorbingly real to the entranced imagination.’[43] The film proves that animation can be emotionally gripping and that the audience can be involved in the relationships that the film establishes. But the dwarfs’ relationship with Snow White is slightly questionable. From a twenty-first-century perspective, Snow White (arguably unlike Temple) is explicitly and disturbingly sexualized by the response she receives from the kisses she gives the dwarfs (in particular, Dopey, who tries to kiss Snow White on the lips and undaunted by her refusals, keeps coming back for more).

In spite of offering an arguably sanitized version of the fairy tale (for instance, Snow White does not make the Queen dance in red hot shoes at her wedding), of all the children’s adaptations discussed here, this is ‘the fairest of them all’. In the manner of future mainstream Disney adaptations, this film usurps the fairy tale in the minds of its audiences by creatively adapting the story of the Brothers Grimm, perhaps most memorably in giving the dwarfs names and characters, whilst using familiar cinematic experiences to tell the tale. Most striking is the German Expressionist forest in which Snow White finds herself trapped, a sequence that visually resembles Hermia being engulfed by the forest in the 1935 Midsummer Night’s Dream directed by Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle. The Queen as wicked witch is possibly modelled on the scary ‘The Vengeance’ from Jack Conway’s 1936 Tale of Two Cities (and voiced by the same actress, Lucille La Verne). The Queen’s descent down the winding staircase recalls Tod Browning’s Dracula and her underground laboratory can be likened to that of Frankenstein in James Whale’s film. Her transformation from beautiful Queen to ugly witch is reminiscent of Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Voices in the film were chosen with extreme care, with Disney commenting on the difficulty he had in finding a voice that was suitable for Snow White,[44] with the voice chosen (that of Adriana Caselotti) very much in line with those associated with the musical films of the 1930s. Disney’s ambition was to compete with mainstream Hollywood productions and the film seamlessly adapts popular film features, including pre-Code movies, into an animated feature that succeeds both artistically and commercially.[45] The pressbook, unlike the other pressbooks for films discussed in this chapter, shows a noticeable restraint in its suggestions for marketing the movie. Rather than proposing gimmicks to promote the movie, the pressbook calls attention to the Disney’s artistry. On the re-release, ten years after the first showing, the pressbook focuses on the film’s legacy and its paratexts (party snappers, porcelain figures, jigsaws), positioning it as one of the most loved movies of all times, still on Variety’s list of top grossers.[46] The film made profits for RKO of around $8 million and broke the US box-office record.[47]

Jack Zipes has noted that the film retains the patriarchal structure of the Brothers Grimm version, with an emphasis on ‘cleanliness, control and organized industry’[48] and much of the film’s running time is perhaps not coincidentally devoted to cleaning: Snow White (whose name could be that of a brand of detergent) is first seen in rags scrubbing steps and famously, she cleans the dwarfs’ cabin with the help of the woodland animals she befriends, in order to impress the inhabitants that she is worth keeping. Snow White’s motherly insistence that the dwarfs wash before sitting down to eat provides numerous comic opportunities, with the dwarfs’ stunts possibly echoing the physical comedy, or ‘monkey business’, of the Marx Brothers; but the emphasis on cleanliness throughout the film also could allude to Disney’s commercially astute sanitization of the fairy tale and his embracement of post-Code values in the presentation of clean, wholesome stories. As Eleanor Byrne and Martin McQuillan observe, the dwarf’s washing song becomes ‘Disney’s mantra for the next half-century’: ‘You may be cold and wet when you’re done / But ya gotta admit it’s good clean fun’.[49] ‘Good clean fun’ surely brings to mind ‘post-Code’ values to an audience in 1937. Although it did not entirely escape criticisms for its presentation of violence (in the United Kingdom, the film suffered some cuts),[50] it seems to have established Disney’s reputation as morally uplifting and quality entertainment, as Eric Smoodin observes: ‘one year after the triumph of the feature-length Snow White, no popular source … questioned the quality, either aesthetic or moral, of Disney animation’.[51]

The promised inclusivity of these movies (entertainment for everyone) and their celebration of innocence together with the narrative of rebirth or baptism (from Heidi’s grandfather’s to Grumpy’s conversion) announce a new kind of film, and a new kind of industry, one that seeks to rediscover a lost innocence. Rather than embracing a new modernity, these films look backwards, resurrecting stories deemed to be both edifying and safe, recovering a sense of past innocence. Many of the mainstream children’s adaptations of this period are, like Dickens adaptations, in one manner or another, associated with Christmas, the holiday period that brings families together. Little Women begins at Christmas. Alice in Wonderland released in America in December 1933, clearly was targeted at audiences during Christmas and the pressbook suggests that stores have Alice windows such as ‘An “Alice In Wonderland” Christmas! This is the decision of the nation’s leading department stores this year’.[52] Heidi’s grandfather rescues her on Christmas day and the film offers spectacular Christmas displays, including a magnificent Christmas tree, presents and carol singing. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, released on 21 December 1937, is similarly, targeted at audiences at Christmas, promising wholesome family entertainment: an inexpensive, guaranteed inoffensive, heart warming present for the entire family.

These adaptations are shaped by concerns regarding the potential evil influence of cinema, seemingly willingly embracing post-Code values. The persistently reassuring promotions of the films as ‘safe’ and ‘innocent’, aimed at audiences concerned about the effect of the movies on children, contribute to the stigma attached to film adaptation, one that has never quite gone away. Adaptations, in this period, were often made as antidotes to films presenting crime, violence and sex, and by extension defined themselves through their publicity as morally uplifting, educational and safe. The publicity surrounding the films that unashamedly and unrealistically promised audiences ‘exact’ and ‘definitive’ replications of classic novels, in the end, gave adaptations a bad name. For book lovers, the adaptations were dilutions of literary texts and for film lovers, pale versions of what went before in the pre-Code era of innovation and risk. These promotional materials unwittingly perpetuate a perception that adaptations are ‘safe’ and therefore fundamentally conservative and backwards looking, planting what Robert Stam has identified as ‘the roots of a prejudice’, ‘the intuitive sense of adaptation’s inferiority’.[53]

[1] Richard Maltby, ‘The Production Code and the Hays Office’, in Grand Design: Hollywood as a Modern Business Enterprise, 1930–1939, ed. Tino, Balio (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 37–72, 72.

[2] Quoted in Thomas Doherty, Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930–34 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 320.

[3] Quoted in Maltby, ‘The Production Code and the Hays Office’, 38–9.

[4] ‘A Code to Govern the Making of Talking, Synchronized and Silent Motion Pictures’, MPPDA, 1930, quoted in Maltby, ‘The Production Code and the Hays Office’, 48.

[5] Henry James Forman, Our Movie-Made Children (New York: Macmillan, 1934).

[8] Quoted in Maltby, ‘The Production Code and the Hays Office’, 63.

[9] Quoted in Thomas Doherty, Pre-Code Hollywood, 333.

[10] Martin Rubin, ‘Movies and the New Deal in Entertainment’, in American Cinema of the 1930s: Themes and Variations, ed. Ina, Rae (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007), 92–116, 95.

[11] Ibid., 108.

[12] William Kozlenko, ‘The Animated Cartoon and Walt Disney’, in New Theatre and Film: 134–37, ed. Herbert, Kline (San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace, 1985), 284–94, 285.

[13] Variety 26 December 1933.

[14] Rob Wagner’s Script 10 (250) December 23, 1933, 11–12, reprinted in Anthony Slide, ed. Selected Film Criticism: 1931–1940 (London: Scarecrow Press, 1982), 5–6.

[15] Pressbook, 8.

[16] Ibid., 40.

[17] Alice, Pressbook, 40.

[18] Pressbook, 40.

[19] Variety 26 December 1933.

[20] Rubin, ‘Movies and the New Deal in Entertainment’, 113.

[21] Doherty, Pre-Code Hollywood, 333.

[22] Rubin, ‘Movies and the New Deal in Entertainment’, 113.

[23] Quoted in Maltby, ‘The Production Code and the Hays Office’, 63.

[24] Ibid., 63.

[25] Little Women, Pressbook, 1933.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Picture Play Magazine, October, 1933,, accessed 27 June 2014.

[28] Ibid., November, 1933,, accessed 27 June 2014.

[29] Tino Balio, ed. ‘Production Trends’, in Grand Design: Hollywood as a Modern Business Enterprise 1930–1939 (Berkley: University of California Press, 1993), 179–312, 187.

[30] For a different reading of the novel, see, Deborah Cartmell and Judy Simons, ‘Screening Authorship: Little Women on Screen 1933-1994’, in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction on Screen, ed. R. Barton Palmer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 77–93.

[32] Quoted in Eric Smoodin, Animating Culture: Hollywood Cartoons from the Sound Era (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1993), 15.

[33] Susan Ohmer, ‘1936: Movies and the Possibility of Transcendence’, American Cinema of the 1930s’, 162–81, 81.

[34] Maltby, ‘The Production Code and the Hays Office’, 64.

[36] Wee Willie Winkie, Pressbook, 1937.

[37] Heidi, Pressbook.

[39] Jack Zipes, The Enchanted Screen (New York: Routledge, 2011), 115.

[38] ‘You know, even as a kid, I always went for the wrong women. I think that’s my problem. When my mother took me to see Snow White, everyone fell in love with Snow White. I immediately fell for the Wicked Queen’ Annie Hall, Rollins-Joffe Productions, Woody Allen, 1977.

[40] Jack Zipes, The Enchanted Screen, 122.

[41] Elizabeth Bell, ‘Somatexts at the Disney Shop’, in From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender and Culture, ed. Elizabeth Bell, Lynda Haas and Laura Sells (Bloomington: Indiana University Press,1995), 107–124, 117.

[42] Snow White, 2001 DVD commentary.

[43] James Shelley Hamilton in National Board of Review Magazine 13 (1) (January 1938): 10–11, reprinted in Anthony Slide, ed. Selected Film Criticism, 237–8.

[44] Disney speaking on the Snow White DVD commentary.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pressbook, 1948.

[47] Figures from Douglas Gomery, The Hollywood Studio System: A History (London: BFI, 2005), 153.

[48] Jack Zipes, ‘Breaking the Disney Spell’, in From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender and Culture, ed. Elizabeth Bell, Lynda Haas and Laura Sells (Bloomington: Indiana University Press,1996), 21–42, 40.

[49] Byrne and McQuillan, Deconstructing Disney (London: Pluto, 1999), 62.

[50] Richard Schickel, The Disney Version: The Life, Times, Art and Commerce of Walt Disney (1968; rev. Worcester: Pavilion, 1986), comments on some of the complaints from protesting parents that Disney received about the film’s violent content, 220.

[51] Smoodin, Animating Culture: Hollywood Cartoons from the Sound Era, 14.

[52] Alice, Pressbook.

[53] Stam, ‘The Theory and Practice of Adaptation’, 1–52, 4.