So did anyone really believe it would snow like this? I mean, “they” are always predicting what are called “weather events” that either don’t happen at all, or that fall far short of being much of an event of any kind. This time, however, I’m fully expecting that my old rear-wheel drive truck is grounded for the foreseeable future—and so am I. (At this moment, I’m glad I dragged myself to screen Avatar at 8 a.m. yesterday, since that covered my actual theatergoing needs this weekend.) Ah, well, I have coffee, cigarettes and movies and that’ll keep me set——at least unless the power goes out at some point.
Since we have snow, let’s take a cursory glance at snow in the movies. Most cineastes are, of course, well aware that most of the time movie snow has only the slightest relation to real snow. Anyone who’s seen Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973) knows that it might easily be soapy foam. Anyone who doubts this should look at the feet of Woody Allen and Harold Gould during the snowy duel scene in Allen’s Love and Death (1975). That’s merely the tip of the snowflake. You can find feathers and cornflakes being palmed off as snow, along with various Hollywood concoctions standing in for the genuine article—not to mention the creative use of instant mashed potato flakes pictured in Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind (2008).
Occasionally, you do find the real deal, but all in all, movie snow is magical snow. And that’s fine, since the movies mostly concern themselves with snow for romantic or picturesque purposes. When it’s not doing that, snow tends to be either part of the plot, an horrific elemrment, or used for comedic purposes. It’s rarely just there and while it may represent some kind of danger, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen snow pictured as an inconvenience. And let’s face it, after the initial burst of admiration over its beauty fades (for me, that’s usually about as long as it takes to watch it fall while listening to the Tchaikovsky First Symphony, “Winter Dreams,” or roughly 45 minutes), that’s what it turns into.
When I first started thinking about writing something on movie snow, I thought it would be easy to compile a list of movies that featured snow as a major element or at least was part of a key scene. The truth—at least for me—turned out to be somewhat different. Yes, there are some wonderful scenes involving snow, but not as many as I had assumed. I did, however, come up with a few that strike me as memorable. Hopefully, readers will jog my memory with other examples.
I suppose if I was trying to be anything like authoritative, I’d have to cite such things as the “into the snow you go” melordrama of D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East (1920). And there’s no denying that this hoary drama with its seduced-and-abandoned heroine (Lillian Gish) driven into the full blast of winter by her self-righteous tormenters is a landmark of its type, it’s not really a film that has etched itself into my memory. For all its excitement with Miss Gish heading for certain doom on an ice floe, I actually have a stronger memory of her at a much later date in a much simpler snow scene when she goes out to check the mail in Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1955).
My earliest choice for notable snow scenes is James Whale’s The Invisible Man (1933), a movie that sets its wintry tone before the first image by having wind sound effects mixed into the opening credits. Here’s a film that begins in snow—as a mood setting device—with the title character on the snowy road to the village of Iping. It’s a perfect—and truly memorable—opening, but one that is overshadowed, I suspect, by the film’s more famous plot-driven ending where the Invisible Man’s footprints in the newly-fallen snow prove to be his undoing. (Yes, I know, it seems rather curious that his bare feet leave prints that strongly suggest shoes.)
That same year we have the W.C. Fields short film The Fatal Glass of Beer. This is perhaps the ultimate in movie fakery snow—not because it’s in any way believable, but because it dares the viewer not to notice how fraudulent the whole thing is. Nothing—not one single moment—ever suggests that anyone involved in the movie ever got near a single flake. Oh, sure, there’s plenty of stock footage—really battered stock footage—of snow and even (wildly out of proportion) rear-projections of a herd of reindeer, but you’re not meant to buy it. That’s part of the joke (a joke that merely perplexed and annoyed 1933 viewers). In fact, Fields constantly points out how unreal it all is, noting at one point that the snow “tastes more like cornflakes,” and repeatedly opening the door to his Klondike cabin to opine, “And it ain’t a fit night out for man nor beast,” only be hit in the face with a handful of obviously prop snow.
In an altogether different key—and one of the very first things that occurs to me when I think of movie snow scenes—there’s George Stevens’ Swing Time (1936). Now, this lovely Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie isn’t all about snow. In fact, only one scene—and the climactic shots—have anything to do with snow, but that one scene is a keeper. It’s the scene where Fred and Ginger perform the song “A Fine Romance,” and it’s a mostly comic scene as befits the tone of the song. It’s also charming and presents a wholly romanticized vision of the pleasures of a day spent out in the snowy countryside. If only real snow was actually like this.
In the realm of the utterly preposterous, there’s always Phil Rosen’s The Return the Ape Man (1944), one of Bela Lugosi’s infamous “Monogram Nine.” This decidedly idiotic thriller gets off on the wrong foot from its very title, since it claims to be a sequel to the previous year’s equally notorious The Ape Man. Well, they both star Lugosi and were both made for Monogram and that’s about the only connection. This is more the return of an ape man, which in Monogram logic means a defrosted caveman (billed as being played by George Zucco and Frank Moran, even if Zucco only appears in one shot) that mad scientist Bela and his crony John Carradine find in a glacier. This required a trip to the Arctic—consisting of a few stock shots, some inappropriate canned music, a couple extras with picks taking care not to hit the studio floor, and our heroes in cheesy furs standing in front of blown-up photo of craggy, snow-covered mountains. It may be funnier than The Fatal Glass of Beer, but that wasn’t the idea.
In 1945 there was Hal Walker’s Road to Utopia, the fourth of the “Road Pictures” that starred Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour. In this case, Utopia is Alaska during the gold rush era. It’s a somewhat more believable soundstage-bound vision of the frozen north than the ones depicted in The Fatal Glass of Beer and Return of the Ape Man, but it’s hardly bursting with realism. After all, here’s a movie in which an Alaskan mountain suddenly becomes the Paramount logo and where Bing and Bob run into Santa Claus, who was going to give them a couple of chorus girls for Christmas, but doesn’t when they express disbelief in the old gent. For romance, there’s a scene where Dotty sings “Would You” to a fur-clad Bob, who gets so hot that he melts the snowbank he’s sitting on.
In terms of unfettered romance, there’s Richard Quine’s Bell Book and Candle (1958), the film version of John Van Druten’s play starring James Stewart and Kim Novak. The play—and by extension the film—is a subversive take on New York’s gay underground culture with witches and warlocks standing in for gays. That to one side, the film is gloriously romantic and much of that tone is accomplished by its soundstage image of a snowy New York City. No one is likely to mistake this pristine snow as having any even tenuous relationship to the sooty slush of the real thing, but no one is likely to care. The image of being magically transported to the snowy roof of the Flatiron Building by Kim Novak is more than adequate fantasy compensation.
Real snow—in the real Swiss Alps—shows up in Richard Lester’s second Beatles movie Help! (1965). It serves no real function except perhaps to demonstrate that the budget allowed for extensive location work on the boys’ second movie (they also go to the Bahamas). But function is of little concern here. The idea is simply that it would be fun to watch the Beatles playing in a picturesque snow-covered setting—and it is. The scenes also include the most elaborate of the film’s musical numbers, “Ticket to Ride,” for which Lester and company had some hapless grips transport a grand piano into the snow for the fab four to cluster around. I don’t know if it’s surrealism or merely an outburst of good humor (the film mostly exists to be fun), but it’s striking and charming.
More real snow crops up in two of Ken Russell’s earlier theatrical films, Billion Dollar Brain (1967) and Women in Love (1969). (It also figures in the opening of The Music Lovers , but more for visual excitement than anything else.) The snowy settings both come from the literary sources of both movies, though Russell certainly takes it to extremes in the Cold War spy thriller Billion Dollar Brain where he presents his own version of the “Battle on the Ice” from Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938). But there’s an interesting difference between these memorable snow scenes and any that I can think of that predate them, because the snow isn’t romanticized. It offers a nice backdrop in Billion Dollar Brain and the battle on the ice requires it. But the image one is left with is Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer (the “thinking man’s James Bond”) as a solitary figure in a vast space of frozen emptiness trudging off into the distance.
Women in Love is a bit different. Its snow scenes start in a romantic—and slightly comic—tone with what is supposed to be a pleasant holiday for the main characters—Oliver Reed, Alan Bates, Glenda Jackson, Jennie Linden. They arrive in Zermat, Switzerland in high spirits—matched by Georges Delerue’s musical score—and proceed to frolic in the snow, indulging in a snowball fight that ultimately turns into the four smacking each other with huge slabs of snow. But as the mood of the holiday changes, the snowbound setting becomes sinister and unsettling. By the time Oliver Reed commits suicide by walking off into the snow to die of exposure, the landscape becomes so unforgiving and foreign that it almost appears to be on another planet.
In 1980 Stanley Kubrick brought something new to the snow scene—unrelenting horror—with The Shining, which is perhaps the most disturbing depiction of snow ever committed to film. The climactic scenes of the film with the completely unhinged or possessed or both Jack Nicholson pursuing young Danny Lloyd the snow and ice-encrusted maze of the Overlook Hotel is one of the most harrowing horror sequences of all time. As brilliant and chilling—literally—sequence as could be imagined with a final iconic shot that is only second to the film’s image of the “bleeding” elevators in terms of horror.
While there’s nothing romantic in the last films named, there’s nothing but romance in the meeting of Tim Burton and snow in Edward Scissorhands (1990). It would not be the last time that Burton created memorable snow scenes, but it is almost certainly the most unabashed in its pure joy. It’s virtually a celebration of snow—and one that creates its own myth to explain the existence of the stuff. That it’s also perhaps the living embodiment of the old Preston Sturges addage that “people always like what they don’t know anything about” is interesting and telling, since it’s the brainchild of a guy who grew up and spent most of his life in southern California. It’s more an idea of snow than snow itself. It’s virtually snow as described in The Ruling Class (1972) by the 14th Earl of Gurney as “candied dew.”
Burton’s cinematic love affair with snow is evident from the very first frame of the film with its 20th Century Fox logo depicted (minus the Alfred Newman fanfare) in monochromatic blue with snow falling on it. From there he goes on to envision a fantasticated image of winter that turns out to be the result of his title character (Johnny Depp) created ice scupltures with his makeshift scissor hands. Since the film is finallly a bittersweet love story of a romance that can never be, the making of snow becomes his expression of love for the girl of his dreams (Winona Ryder), since he saw that it made her happy. In his self-imposed exile, he continues to create this snow for her. There may in fact be no more romantic depiction of snow in the history of film. It’s without a doubt the first thing that comes to my mind when snow and movies are mentioned.
I’m going to end this very haphazard and personal look at snow in the movies with Edward Scissorhands, but feel free to point out any obvious snowy delights I’ve overlooked. At least four have already occurred to me.