Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Reel Connections: The Origins of Disney's Evil Queen in "Snow White" (1937): Joan Crawford, She, or Uta

As of yet I have yet to mention the most notable art in Hollywood in the past and present: animation. I love animated films, but in all honesty, I lack the knowledge to blog truthfully about animation processes and such.  So I haven't. But recently I realized that I can however recognize connections in a movies, especially animated movies, with historic examples of fine art. So, I will be posting about animated films, in a way at least. These posts will be found under the category of "Reel Connections:" clever, no?

To begin, I'll start at the very beginning, with the first full length animated film, Disney's 1937 masterpiece Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Even if you don't like the movie, or even any animated movie (do such people exist??), you have to admire the artist effort that went in to all Disney movies, especially those early films. They are so flawlessly beautiful and appealing to the eye.

When I first saw Snow White, like many, I was terrified by the Evil Queen. I mean, for a children's movie, Snow White is very dark. The Queen attempts very violent murder, transforms in a terrifying manner, and is just so plain mean its hard not to be scared. Where did Disney come up with such a character, a woman, supposed to be beautiful (the second fairest in the land, remember), but so ugly inside?

The answer to that rhetorical question, is not clear. As far as I can see, there are three distinct sources. I'll start from least exciting to most exciting.

1. Joan Crawford

Love or hate her, Joan Crawford was a star. And in 1939, despite the slight bump in her career, she would have been very recognizable. And if you look, notice the protruding lips, the high cheekbones, the slight sensuality. Apparently, Disney wanted a more complex villain: a beautiful, yet evil woman in the vein of some interpretations of Lady Macbeth. If this is indeed, true, a perfect model for contemporary beauty would have indeed been Joan Crawford.

2. She (1935)

In 1935, a crazy Art-Deco sci-fi film was released titled She, based on a series of science-fiction novels about a fantasy land. In the story, the land is led by, you guessed it, an evil queen, named mysteriously She Who Must Be Obeyed, abbreviated to simply She. The Queen was played by a certain Helen Gahagan, and the costume certainly looks very similar to that of the Evil Queen. Doubtless, this character played some influence on Disney.

Now, I'm sure you are thinking, this is all well and good, but what about the fine art connection. Are you ready?

3. Uta of Naumburg

This was the "aha" moment. This was the real connection, if not one of the many reel connections.

In 1935, the Disney brothers visited Germany. During his trip, Disney supposedly stopped at the historic Naumburg Cathedral where he would have viewed a lovely statue of Uta and Eckhard dating from Medieval times. Uta and her husband were founders of the cathedral and honored by this lovely statue on the wall. Take a look.

Notice Uta's strikingly beautiful face? Her dramatic cape? Her cold, aloof personality? Her distinct medieval appearance? When I first saw this statue, dating from the 13th century, I knew instantly, that this statue played some part, if not the main part, on Disney's design of his first Evil Queen.

Historically, the twelve founders of the Cathedral were honored with lifelike statues of themselves, similar to the most famous pair, Uta and Eckhard. They were created by the unnamed Naumburg Master and recognized for their stunning realism and striking ability to convey character.

Pinkus, Assaf. "Gothic Symulachra"


  1. "Reel Connections " offers insights I never even imagined! Where do you come up with this stuff ???? : ) Thanks for extending my thinking....This post just might find it's way into the my class room. Here's a blog I think you might enjoy:
    Warm Congratulations on your recent accomplishments! So proud of you and happy for you! Mrs. M

  2. very interesting!
    do you have the source that says that walt disney visited the cathedral where he saw the statue of queen Uta?

  3. “Reel Connections” has a very interesting insight that I’ve enjoyed! Personally, I really love the animated movie of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It was an amazing story but I am so irritated of the Evil Queen. By the way, has the perfect house for filming that can be used to be the mansion of a Queen. It was an amazing place to shoot scenes. Anyway, I am also wondering if do you have the source that says that Walt Disney visited the cathedral where he saw the statue of queen Uta?

    1. There is evidence that Disney visited the Naumburg Cathedral scattered all across the internet. I've included a link here about a book you might find interesting and I've updated my source material to reflect some academic evidence that Disney was in Germany.


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