It took 50 years for Disney’s Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs to be granted a U certificate – here’s the story of the film’s unexpected battles with the BBFC.
This feature contains spoilers for Disney’s Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs.
It may have minted the Walt Disney brand of animated fairy-tale films, but the studio’s first full-length feature, 1937’s Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs has a deserved reputation for its scary scenes. From the sequence where Snow White goes out into the woods alone, to the evil Queen’s iconic transformation scenes, there’s a lot in there to spook the youngest viewers.
Nevertheless, by today’s standards, it may be surprising to learn that the British Board of Film Censors (as the BBFC was then known) originally gave Snow White an A certificate. Much like the A in the modern 12A, this certificate meant that the Board deemed the film unsuitable for viewers under 16, unless accompanied by a parent or guardian.
In fairness, most of the younger target audience for Snow White would have been seeing them with an adult – the problem with a 5-year-old wandering into a cinema unaccompanied is not that the film might be a bit scary. It’s not the same as the later battle with the BBFC over Mrs Doubtfire’s 12 certificate, which we’ve written about previously:
However, it does mean Snow White is an outlier in the early history of Disney’s family-friendly animated films, which almost all received U certificates, and also an instructive case on how the BBFC has evolved over time by adapting to media literacy and pop culture.
The original release
Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs had its UK premiere in London’s West End on 24th February 1938. Since 1923, local authorities had made it a term of licensing for UK cinemas to refuse entry to A-certificate films for children under 16 without a parent of guardian. However, Disney’s distributor RKO Pictures didn’t object to the BBFC’s ruling and so, the film was released uncut with the A certificate.
The censors granted films either one of two purely advisory certificates – U, (Universal, same as today) or A, (Adults) – or from 1932 onwards, a compulsory H, (Horrific) for adults only. It was a long while before PG, 12, or even 15 certificates came along, so when the film didn’t pass at U, it was passed uncut with an A certificate.
Heck, these were the days before widespread television ownership, and the H certificate had only recently been introduced in response to discourse about children seeing horror films. Plus, as the first animated feature, Snow White was a hitherto-unseen technical marvel, and so, as with stuff like Netflix’s Squid Game nowadays, there was a bit of a furore about its scary content in the press.
The Times initially reported that the BBFC found parts of the film “nightmarish” and “undesirable for children” and followed up couple of days later with a lead column attacking the A certificate as a concoction by child psychologists. (Translated for today, think of headlines like “You couldn’t make Only Fools And Horses today”, except you really couldn’t in those days, cos it was 1937 and its creator John Sullivan wasn’t even born yet.)
In the main, this didn’t hurt the film’s box-office, especially as most contemporary reviews sung the film’s praises from the rooftops and declared it a great watch for all ages. The release expanded nationwide six weeks later, and the film was not only commercially successful but a genuine cultural phenomenon over the years that followed.
25 years later…
As mentioned, RKO hadn’t objected to the A certificate upon its original release, but it was a different story when the film got one of its periodic re-releases in 1953, for its 25th anniversary. The H had since been replaced by the infamous X certificate and debates about what children were allowed to see had moved on accordingly.
Despite Snow White’s cultural cachet, the distributor sought clarity that the film wasn’t as objectionable as some of the scarier A-certificate films around and requested that the censors grant a U certificate for the re-release. The BBFC watched the film again and stuck to its guns, this time citing cuts that the studio could make to make it suitable for U audiences. These included sound effects and snippets of Snow White’s journey through the woods, the Queen’s transformation, and the climactic scene where the witch falls to her death.
Disney and RKO didn’t agree, and so accepted the A certificate. Instead, they used the same recourse that was later successfully deployed by cinema owners on contentious rulings like Mrs Doubtfire and Spider-Man. RKO appealed directly to local authorities, which have the power to overrule the BBFC and exhibit the film with a U certificate. Some of these authorities agreed and approved the film as a U while others upheld the original classification.
This led to some confusion about the film’s certification for that re-release – it was U in some cinemas and A in others. In 1964, when Disney came to release the film in UK cinemas again, it relented and made the suggested cuts to the scariest scenes, which largely involved taking out screams and sound effects rather than the peril itself. The cut version was granted a U certificate.
50 years and counting
The next time Disney brought the film to the BBFC was for its 50th-anniversary re-release in the late 1980s. By then, the board had rebranded itself as the British Board of Film Classification and overhauled the certificate system, replacing A with the advisory PG certificate and adding new compulsory 15 and 18 certificates.
But this time, examiners waived the 1964 cuts and passed the film with a U certificate, with notes on the decision referring to the cultural context of the film. By this stage, everyone knew Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, and in any case, the kids watching it in 1987 had much more experience of animation and media than those in 1937. And frankly, anxieties about what children saw were much further along than a few scary bits in an animated classic.
The bigger debate about classification throughout the decade was about the gulf between the PG and 15 certificates as America introduced the PG-13 rating. And funnily enough, one film that fell into that gap was 1984’s Gremlins, which famously features the title characters going to see Snow White – it wasn’t the Disney bit that gave examiners pause either.
At least the UK was a little way ahead of Sweden, where the film was finally released uncut in 1992, but it was still a surprisingly long road to get the film cleared as a U. It was last classified by the BBFC for a home release in 2016, and its most up-to-date summary guidance cites “very mild scary scenes and threat”.
For that cultural context point, this was a couple of years after 2012 gave us three other Snow White films that received different higher certificates. Mirror Mirror was granted a PG (for “mild threat, violence, and infrequent mild language”) while Snow White And The Huntsman (“moderate violence and threat”) and the cracking Spanish silent film Blancanieves (“bullfighting scenes and infrequent moderate sex references”) both passed at 12A.
Although the studio has previously backed international releases for Touchstone and Miramax films at 15 and 18, Disney doesn’t tend to go above the bounds of 12 or 12A for releases under its banner nowadays. Without exception, its animated films have been granted either U or PG certificates without any need for cuts.
If there are any more 15-certificate films coming from the House of Mouse, you’d have to look to Marvel’s plans for live-action Blade and Deadpool movies. And with today’s standards, we’re sure that viewers aged 15 and under will have no bother getting in to see Marc Webb’s upcoming Snow White reimagining when it comes along…
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