All Photographs and Copy are Coryright MEL BIRNKRANT
Some of the imagery is Copyright The Walt Disney Company
THE MEL BIRNKRANT COLLECTION
A Guided Tour of
And, lest there is any doubt as to its authenticity, here, is the actual pencil drawing for the background, as well.
The group also includes this curious concept sketch that is so badly drawn, one could believe it might have been done by Disney, himself, to convey the essence of the scene. I have seen another drawing from the series, by the same hand, published by Disney. As rough as this sketch may be, we can still identify some of the key dwarfs, Dopy, Doc, and Grumpy, in the order they appear in the final cel.
Let’s begin this page with the best Snow White item in the Collection. It might well be the best item, of any kind in the Collection. When "Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs" appeared, four days before Christmas, in 1937. The movie had an impact on the World that forever altered Motion Picture History. To this day, it is considered, by many, to be The Greatest Animated Movie of all time. And The Greatest Animated Movie, generated a single "cel" of animation that many would consider the Greatest Animation Cel of all time, as well.
Right from the beginning, this cel came to represent the film in its entirety. For half a Century, this iconic image has been used to symbolize Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs, in Books, publicity, calendars, and anthologies, by everyone, especially, Disney! It depicts the ultimate scene, in which Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs meet, for the first time, and all Seven Dwarfs in a line, peek over the foot (or feet) of Snow White’s bed, as she sits up, surprised.
And by a curious twist of Destiny, this, the most famous and familiar cel, in Disney's history, found its way to me! Here it is now, the Ultimate Snow White Animation Cel, complete with its original background.
This beautiful Snow White cel, begs the question, Is this the fairest cel of all? Art, directly adapted from it appeared, time and again, from the very beginning. Here it is, as it was translated into the watercolor medium, in the first edition of the official Snow White Story book, published by Grosset and Dunlap in 1937.
And here it is, again, as a line drawing in this coloring book from 1938.
MOUSE OVER to SEE PAGE
MOUSE OVER to SEE PAGE
It has appeared as lobby cards, and black and white glossy stills that accompanied the film, displayed in theater lobbies, again and again, every time the movie reappeared, over the years. And each time the photo was reprinted, the colors changed a little bit, while the original cel remained the same.
In recent times, this art was redrawn by Disney, in an awkward attempt to show more of Snow White’s face, at the expense of making her appear to look away from, rather than directly at the dwarfs, in surprise. Her face has now been turned to the right, as if she is viewing someone entering the room, and it is newly prettified, and shrunk considerably in size. Her rouge is redder than before, and she has a look of pleasant passiveness, rather than surprise. Equally unfortunate is the fact that the beautifully modulated brush lines of the original art have been reduced to a lifeless tracing with a spidery thin and timid line. The delicate quilt has become a painting by Mondrian. By the magic of Mouse Over you can compare the original to the newly refurbished version.
MOUSE OVER to SEE ORIGINAL
Why Fate decreed that this Treasure would end up with me, is a mystery. When I loaned Bambergers my Mickey Mouse collection for the now historic Exhibition in 1973, they accommodated my request to add this cel to the display. I found it at a small antique shop, across the river. It was called, Lola’s Antiques. Lola had been given the cel to sell by a woman who had retired to this area. Her late husband had been an executive at the Disney studios in California, a lawyer, possibly. I don’t recall Lola telling me he was an animator, but he might have been. This cel and its accompanying drawings, along with a Snow White Model sheet that was also thrown in, belonged to him.
I hope the heavy dose of imagery, above, will be enough to sustain you, as I relate a story. Or you can skip right over it, and go directly to the pictures.
Beginning at the age of five, I became obsessed with collecting Disney ceramic figurines. Not just any, by the way, I collected only those made by Evens K Shaw of American Pottery. The Gobels figurines, which were available at the J.L. Hudson company, did not, at five, look “accurate” to me. And thus, although they look good to me now, I threw away that opportunity. The series that I did collect came as close as anything made, in those days, to looking like the Disney imagery that one saw, only, in the movies. Even they were not all great. Bambi and his friends were OK, But the Dumbo series was badly painted, in shades of pink and gray. And Fantasia was far from fantastic, but I had them anyway. Then, again, there were a few, Pinocchio on his way to school, especially, that drove me crazy with its sheer beauty.
And I had, briefly, what may have been the rarest Shaw figurine ever made, Jiminy Cricket. I never saw or heard of another, since. He wasn’t that attractive. He was as tall as Pinocchio, a fact that at the time, seemed strange to me; and he was cast in an ugly green clay. I came home from school one day, and it took me all of two minutes to realize that Jiminy had disappeared. The mystery was never solved. I believe the “new” maid, “Lizzy” must have broken him, and foolishly thrown the pieces away. She was a crazy lady, anyway, who could out flutter Butterfly McQueen, and was so superstitious that, every night, she looked for the bogey man, first in the closet, and then, under the bed, before she went to sleep.
Meanwhile, whenever my parents and I went for a ride, my nose was pressed to the car window, certain I would see Disney Figurines on display in every store we passed. It never happened. By seven, I realized that only one gift shop in Detroit carried them! And, whenever new ones were produced, they ordered just one set.
Approaching my eighth birthday, I contracted my first, and worst, case of acute Collector’s Anxiety. Passing that store, one day, I saw Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in the window. They took my breath away. These were nearly good enough to have been done by the Disney character model department. Transfigured, I began my charm campaign. I had mastered the “catch more flies with honey” theory, early on. Or, at least, I thought I was being sweet and charming, actually, I drove my parents crazy. That set of Disney figurines was all I thought about, all I talked about, all I dreamt about! I wanted those amazing images with a passion that exceeded any desire I had ever known, to date. And I was certain, even though, as my parents pointed out, they were too expensive, that they were destined to mine, anyway.
Then disaster struck! Several days later, we went downtown, close enough to where I could run a couple blocks to take a look at my heart’s desire in the window of that shop. As I got nearer, my heart sank, and I went into shock. I could see, from half a block away, that they were gone! And I knew they were the only set that would ever appear in Detroit. I was inconsolable. I cried myself to sleep, that night, and for several nights, thereafter.
With my birthday two weeks away, I was convinced that my heart would break, by the time that day arrived. Finally, my parents could stand it no longer, and took pity on me. One night, they led me from my tear soaked bed to the hall closet, and pointed out, well out of reach, on a high shelf, a plain brown corrugated carton, a big one. “There they are”, they said, “safely waiting for your birthday. But. you can’t have them until then, Now, please calm down. and go back to bed!”
Immediately, a tidal wave of happiness washed over me, and lifted my spirits right up to that high shelf, where I deposited my heart, beside the eight fragile figurines for safe keeping, waiting for my eighth birthday. I have never forgotten that feeling, that moment when I was catapulted, from the depths of despair to the heights of elation. It was a state of exquisite exaltation that I sought to replicate, again and again, in later years. The pattern for my collecting passion was being formed, right there and then.
Was the wait, from that point on, until my birthday, agony? Absolutely Not! It was delicious! During those two weeks, I learned to feast upon the joys of expectation, savoring every morsel of anticipation. And when the day arrived, the glorious figures that I lovingly unwrapped, one at a time, were everything I hoped they’d be. Snow white with her huge hollow yellow dress, so fragile, her face so pleasant, with big brown eyes, perfectly painted. And every dwarf was sculpted to perfection. All had glittering foil labels, each with the character’s name incised. There was nothing that I didn’t like about this, once in a lifetime, birthday present.
And thus, from the age of eight till eighteen, when I went away to college, that set of figurines remained my most treasured possession. It might surprise you to see my bedroom, when I was sixteen. It was really quite Spartan, compared to Mouse Heaven.
I had only a few cherished treasures, and some other crap that is embarrassing, stuff that in my immaturity, I thought was neat, a fish mobile, and a fiberglass fish lamp, so 1950s! My parents chose those awful Grecian heads when they bought the furniture, wholesale, naturally, a desk at which they hoped I would become a scholar. And, there, in a single showcase, beneath the window are for my two most treasured possessions, a book, “The Art of Walt Disney”, that I had sought, since I was four, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Throughout the years, my appreciation of these perfect icons never diminished. I would sometimes stare at them for hours, as my eyes and mind wandered over every form and feature, like a small ant, crawling slowly, and loving every inch of the journey, savoring the scenery.
Now this story takes a twist. The ending is a sad one, in spite of a small Miracle. Fast forward several years, to find Eunice and I, living in a loft on East 26th Street in Manhattan. It was on the top floor of a warehouse, five walk up stories high, and just beneath the roof, which had no insulation. It was sweltering in summer, with little heat in winter; just a vast empty space, 100 feet long by 30 feet wide. Samantha could ride her bike inside. We had no money, most of the year, but the rent was only $100 a month, and we ate a lot of “Metrical” because it was cheap, at $7 a week. Just add water! That is the good part. The bad, is the fact that it was a lot like the Diary of Ann Frank, hiding from the fire inspectors. Lofts were all illegal, then, a detail we didn’t realize when we moved in. Five years passed, while we just minded our own business, called, “Boutique Fantastique.”
My collection of Disney figurines had been left in my mother’s care, carefully wrapped and packed, by me, in several cartons, in the the storage area of the condo that she rented, after the House on Seven mile Road was sold.
It took me years to fully appreciate the depth of the animosity my mother felt towards me for running off to Paris, 9 months after my father died, and leaving her alone with no dutiful son to command, and nothing to do, but continue to play canasta with “the girls,” nine times a week, as she had done all her life, up to that time. And, as if that wasn’t bad enough, I came back from Europe with a "War Bride", which was Eunice in her eyes; and to add insult to injury, got her pregnant, and gave my mother a granddaughter, Samantha, who she was not enchanted by.
And so, it came to be that, four years later, I made the mistake of asking my mother to send me my Disney figurines. I’ll never forget going to the post office to pick them up.
This is how she packed them, or I might better say, unpacked them: Instead of leaving them well padded, in their securely sealed cartons, and pasting on an address label, she carefully unpacked them, about 45 figurines, and placed them, naked, without any wrapping or packing, not even a piece of newspaper to keep them from clinking against one another, in two brown paper grocery bags. This is not even a method I would chance to carry them from one room to another, let alone, what she did next! She taped the top edges of the bags shut, wrote an address on the sides and mailed them, just like that! I guess, it should be no surprise to learn that one bag arrived with no more than a pile of broken pottery, inside. The other bag MIRACULOUSLY survived. It contained Snow White and the Magnificent Seven, as well as Pinocchio who lost his head on the trip. But I was able to glue it on, again.
This Miracle was bitter sweet. On the plus side, she had put some token insurance on the contents, and I was able to collect on the one bag, there and then. The fact was, I needed the money, even though, it was a pittance; small compensation, indeed. In order to collect it, I had to give the Post Office the bag of broken pieces. I handed it over the counter. There might have been something in that pile of Humpty Dumpty fragments that I could have put back together again. But, as they say, “That’s the breaks!”
I wish I could believe that this story had, at least, half a happy ending, because my beloved Snow White set survived. But, sadly, try as I might, I could never see them the same way again. This once precious gift had become toxic to me, a poison Hallmark Valentine, the kind one sends if they care enough to do their very worst. My mother wore her vacuousness, like a coat, mink, naturally, protecting her from all responsibility! It’s that blonde thing, you see! As if she didn’t know that was no way to mail those china figurines; as if she thought they wouldn’t break; as if she wasn’t fully aware of everything they meant to me.
And so the survivors are crammed onto a crowded shelf, along with some other Snow White stuff, in the farthest corner of the showcases upstairs, those that I rarely see. Even though, there are sliding glass doors, the dust has, nonetheless, crept in, over the years, and covered them with a dingy coat of gray. And I forget that they are there. I forget, that is, until some visitor inevitably asks “What item, of all these things, did you get first?” I answer, “These! These Snow White figurines. They were a birthday present from my parents, when I was eight”.
So here they are! On the shelf behind them, are the rather voluptuous velvet dolls made by Krueger. And at the very back (impossible to see) are the nicest Snow White graphics I have seen on any toy, the “Tap-Away” Set.
Here is the rather lyrical and wonderful set of Plaster figurines by Leonardi of Italy. They sit atop the Mickey Mouse Circus Train showcase, in the hall. I know we’ve seen this case, already, but they deserve a photo of their own.
Double click to edit
Sitting, atop a showcase in the foyer, leading to the sunroom, is a curious set of Snow White and the Dwarfs, made of some sort of composition cellulose material that resembles, but is, not quite, porcelain. They were made in England by Wade Ceramics Ltd. in 1938. This is an interesting set. Nothing about them is quite “right”. Yet, either in spite of, or because of their strangeness, and almost grotesque characterizations, as well as the glaringly bright and inaccurate colors, they have become one of my favorite sets.
The figurines, above, are much more exciting than this rather reserved set of toothbrush holders by Maw of England. Maw's earlier Disney tooth brush holders of Mickey and Minnie and their friends were rather exquisitely sculpted. That, alas, is not the case with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, below.
Here is another Snow White item that is as exciting as it is rare and understated. This is the little known Music Box, made by Marx Bros. of Boston, which is no relation to either the Movie star Marx Brothers, or Louis Marx. Marx Bros. made some of the most graphically dynamic Disney items, throughout the 1930s. This item is unique, in that it does not use a generic music box, but actually plays the Dwarf’s marching song, “High Ho!” When the knob is wound, the Dwarf wheel rotates to allow them to appear, one at a time, and pass before Snow White. The material is paper on wood, which was a medium, also used, extensively, by Fischer Price.
Of all the Snow White imagery, the most beautiful is this rendition, drawn by Gustav Tenggren, a Swedish-American Illustrator, seeped in Old World tradition, who designed much of the film. His interpretation, although, far removed from the final Disney stylization of the characters, was chosen to become the Movie Poster.
In the lower corner of the Big showcase in the Hall, is a lovely set of celluloid figures that, in form, are closely related to the Tenggren interpretation of the characters. Dopey here looks as childlike as he does in the movie poster.
Last of all, is this spectacular set of Ceramic Lawn Ornaments. They were made by a renowned French Art Deco Ceramicist of the era. Fully signed and licensed by Disney on the inside, the back of each dwarf has his name, in French, incised in the ceramic. Some of these names are a surprise. The French names of the Dwarfs are:” Atchoum” (Sneezy), “Dormeur” (Sleepy), “Grincheux” (Grumpy), notice that the Grinch was also derived from this French word,” Joyeux” (Happy), “Prof” (Doc), “Simplet” (Dopey) and “Timide” (Bashful).
The thing that I like best about this set is the fact that the artist's hand takes precedence over the Disney imagery. His identity is foremost, and yet, they are also the Disney Characters, but with a twist that is distinctively French. Dopy, especially, has that look of French comic vulgarity, that one sees so often expressed in caricatures in France. And, over all, there is a decorative and fanciful black line that has a life of its own, and wanders across the surface of the entire set.
Getting these through customs, at the air freight depot, was a nail-biting nightmare. I was there with my small station wagon, at the main customs building, at JFK Airport. The ceramics had arrived by plane in a huge wooden crate. When the overzealous customs inspector discovered that there were traces of French soil on the figures feet, he announced that I would have to send them back to France. I said, “I don’t want the dirt! Can’t the figures stay in the United states, and send just the dirt back?” The agriculture inspector had to be summoned. When he didn’t show up, after an excruciating three hour wait, the outraged customs inspector was irate. He shouted, “If they don’t care, neither do I! Get them the Hell out of here!” And, I did! I hurriedly packed them into my small car, and left the crate behind!