Today's examination of The Wicked Queen/Old Hag in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs owes a lot to the writing of screenwriter and blogger Todd Alcott. Alcott writes engrossing, detailed examinations of movies in his blog, and those examinations often center around the two questions he has learned are the most important to the screenwriter: who is the protagonist, and what does the protagonist want?
Who is the protagonist of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs? If we take the simplest definition of "protagonist" meaning the principal character, then the answer is simple: Snow White herself. However, if we look at the more challenging and literary definition: "the character whose desires and actions drive the plot of the story", then the question becomes a bit more complicated.
What does Snow White want? This we do learn. At the beginning of the movie she meets the prince, and despite running away from him in terror, we later learn that she has fallen in love with him and hopes to one day marry him. What actions does she take to make this happen? Nothing at all. Not only does she run away from him at their first encounter, she then never makes any effort to see him again (beyond wishing anyway). When she runs from the murderous queen to take refuge in the Dwarfs' cottage, she makes no effort to find Prince No-name, get word out to him about where she is, or assist him in any other way. "Someday my prince will come," she sings, but she will take no action in helping him find her.
Snow White isn't the only character in the movie's title, though. If she's not the protagonist, surely the Seven Dwarfs must be, right? OK: What do the seven dwarfs want? Nothing much that I can tell. When we first meet them they're happily working away in their mine full of untold riches. They're so wealthy that extracting the precious gems from their mine seem to only interest them as an activity ("We dig up diamonds by the score - a thousand rubies, sometimes more, but we don't know what we dig 'em for. "). They care so little about material wealth that they barely protect their fortune (Dopey hilariously hangs the key to the vault right next to the locked door) and live in filthy cramped quarters in seeming complete contentment. Sure, once they meet Snow White and fall for her charms they want her to be safe, but they don't really take any actions to help her until it's too late, and that desire could hardly be said to drive the plot.
What about the movie's only other good guy, then - the Prince? Please. He's hardly in the movie at all and is only fractionally less passive than Snow White.
So if the movie's protagonist isn't one of the good guys... Bingo: it's the Wicked Queen. Think about it. At every turn, the queen's desires and actions drive the plot forward.
What does the Wicked Queen want? To be the fairest in all the land? What stands in her way? Snow White is prettier than she is. What is she going to do about it? Kill her.
Everything that happens in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs happens because of this. Now, it's not uncommon that a villain's desires and actions provide the initial catalyst for a story's plot, but it is very rare that the hero of the story never takes any action whatsoever in opposition to the villain's actions (beyond hiding). If it weren't for the Queen ordering the Huntsman to kill Snow White, the princess would never have met the dwarfs at all. If she didn't then come after her in the guise of the Old Hag, it's likely Snow White would've lived the next several decades hiding the cottage and cleaning up after the dwarfs. If the Queen didn't poison Snow White, the prince would likely never find her - remember, he only does when he hears of a beautiful girl in a deathless sleep, displayed in a glass coffin.
She's deliciously evil. If the heroine has skin as white as snow, the villain has blood as cold as ice. She's utterly ruthless and will stop at nothing to pursue a goal that is both petty and - even if achieved, inevitably temporary. She has everything: political and magical power, enormous wealth, cowering servants to carry out her every whim, and great looks. It's just not enough, though. She must have everything.
One of my favorite aspects of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is that the Queen pursues her secondary goal (killing Snow White), that she loses sight of her primary goal (be the fairest in the land) to the point that she destroys her own beauty - becomes old and ugly - in order to kill Snow White. Now the transformation spell might be temporary or reversible, but there's nothing in the movie to indicate that it is. The spell seems new to the Queen and she doesn't read further to look for a reversing potion. It sure looks like she's knocked herself a lot further away from being fairest of them all* having been driven mad by blood lust. Her murderous actions reveal her true inner-nature, she's always been hideous, but now she has become literally so.
Reversible or not, the transformation scene is a highlight of the movie. The dark, moody atmosphere of the laboratory, the quick cuts, the increasingly tense music all build to the reveal of the Old Hag in her jeering, toothless, bug-eyed glory. It's a terrifying moment for small children, and I love it so.
In addition to the art and animation, I have much respect for Lucille La Verne who provides the Queen's voice. For a long time, I assumed two women voiced this character: one for the form of the cold, beautiful Queen, and one for the form of the cackling Old Hag. Not so - La Verne provides both voices, transforming her vocal performance as thoroughly as the artist transformed the physical appearance. La Verne's vocal dexterity was achieved in part by removing her false teeth when performing as the Hag. An inspired move, but surely one that only amplified what her talent already provided.
Finally, the Wicked Queen is the template for so many Disney villains that follow. Take this bare-bones description: driven by jealousy, the villain turns to magic to take revenge against the hero. When the initial attempt fails, the villain transforms into a hideous form in a final attempt at vengeance before meeting its final defeat. That's our Wicked Queen, of course, but also Maleficent, Ursula, and Jafar (and maybe Yzma? I'll admit I haven't seen Emperor's New Groove yet).
* Unless The Queen and Snow White are the only two women in the kingdom. I suppose this is possible given that they're the only two we ever see.