BOOTLEG FILES 264 “The Snow Queen” (1957 Russian animated feature).
LAST SEEN: We cannot confirm the last public screening of this film.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: It has been released by labels specializing in public domain films, even though it is not a public domain title.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: People assume it has a lapsed copyright – surprise!
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: There is an official release, amid the endless bootleg dupes.
About 10 or 11 years ago, I received a telephone call from a lady who wanted to know if I was the Phil Hall who wrote a review in Wired Magazine about a video release of the 1957 Russian animated feature “The Snow Queen.” When I stated I was that person, the lady began yelling me – it seems her company owned the U.S. rights to the film and the video company whose release I reviewed was selling an unauthorized version. I mentioned to the caller that it might make more sense if she directed her wrath at the company selling the video, rather than yelling at the guy who wrote a review of the title. She kept yelling anyway.
I think I gave away that video copy, but around 2002 I was in a Pathmark supermarket waiting to get a prescription filled at the in-store pharmacy. I was wasting time in the store’s video bin and I found another copy of “The Snow Queen” on sale for $1.00. Having forgotten most of the film that got me an earful of hate, I picked up the video. About a month or so later, I was on an eBay selling kick and I put the video up for sale at $1.00 – and someone bid it up all the way to $50.00, if you can believe that!
Fast forward to early December 2008, when I was in my local Walgreen’s. I passed by the bargain DVD bin, which is always packed with cheapo offerings from companies specializing in public domain titles. And imagine my surprise when I found a $2.00 DVD featuring four films being packaged together for Christmas release – and one of the films was “The Snow Queen.” I wondered if that angry woman from a decade ago was aware of that bit of bootlegging – or if that person who bought my $1.00 Pathmark video copy for a ridiculously marked up price ever added two and two and realized it didn’t equal 50.
The funny thing about all of this is the film itself – I never liked “The Snow Queen.” Not unlike the animated films created during Soviet-era Russia, it comes across more as a curio than a classic. The animation is adequate, but there is no sense of magic anywhere in the proceedings. Granted, I’ve never seen the film properly – I’ve been stuck with faded bootleg prints and the sticky-icky Hollywood dubbed soundtrack. But even cutting the film slack, it comes out with problems.
“The Snow Queen” has an on-screen narrator called Old Dreamy in the English version. He’s sort of a mystical elf who whispers wild tales in the ear of the sleeping Hans Christian Andersen, who then wakes up and writes down the stories as if they were his own. One such tale is “The Snow Queen.”
Somewhere in frigid Scandinavia, the young children Kay (a boy) and Gerda (a girl) are planting flowers. Gerda’s granny tells them the legend of the Snow Queen and Kay boastfully claims he will stick the icy regent in a hot stove if she ever shows up in his neighborhood. Needless to say, the Snow Queen gets word of that insult and sends out a storm that throws ice splinters into Kay’s eyes and heart. His personality changes and he becomes hostile to Gerda (which isn’t that difficult, since she really is a bit of a bore). The Snow Queen then shows up and pulls a cougar act, taking young Kay with her back to her castle.
The remainder of the film involves Gerda’s extensive efforts to find the Snow Queen’s castle (this took place a couple of centuries before Google and Mapquest – otherwise, the film would be over much faster). Instead, she makes inquiries of various birds, beasts and even Old Dreamy (how he got into the story is not clear). Gerda gets sidetracked by a kindly old sorceress who detains her, but the kid gives the old witch the slip.
Things pick up when Gerda mixes it up with a bunch of singing robbers and a strapping reindeer named Bucky Boy (which sort of makes this a stag film). Gerda eventually makes it to the palace and (spoiler alert!) gives Kay a big hug, which disrupts the Snow Queen’s spell. The queen herself winds up melting, along with her icy palace, and Kay and Gerda return home. Old Dreamy wobbles back on screen to let everyone know that Kay and Gerda grow up and get married – adding, “But that’s another story.” (Thank God!)
“The Snow Queen” was created by the government-run Soviet film industry, under the direction of Lev Atamanov. The Soviets believed (incorrectly) that they could create animated films that matched the capitalist excesses of Walt Disney. Instead, the Soviet animation was charmless and devoid of personality. Even the Snow Queen herself was monotonous: what could have been the ultimate camp villainess was little more than a blue cipher with arched eyebrows. You couldn’t hate her because she gave you no reason to feel any emotion except boredom.
Maybe it was the Communist state that stamped out all signs of genuine emotion or offbeat animation – even second-rate Disney had more oomph and vibrancy than the best of the Russian counterparts. But during that era, it was fashionable in leftist European art circles to dis Uncle Walt in favor of the Kremlin cartoonists – “The Snow Queen” won awards at the Venice, Cannes and London film festivals (it also won a prize at the Moscow Film Festival, but that was no big surprise).
The big surprise, however, came when Universal Pictures decided to acquire the film for U.S. theatrical release. It was very unusual for a Hollywood studio to pick up a Soviet movie during the Cold War. Rather than offer the original Russian language version with English subtitles, Universal threw out the soundtrack and recorded a new version with contract players Tommy Kirk and Sandra Dee as the voices of Kay and Gerda. New syrupy songs were also concocted for this version.
Even more bizarre was the decision to shoot a six-minute prologue featuring TV personality Art Linkletter, who introduces the film while sitting around with a bunch of obnoxious kids. This opening has absolutely nothing to do with the film, and Linkletter (who clearly is not happy on screen) abruptly puts an end to his screen time with the squealing moppets by chanting “One snowflake, two / three snowflakes, four / now you’ll see the Snow Queen / if you count a million more.”
“The Snow Queen” did wind up in the public domain, which is where those bootleg dupes came in. But a company called Films by Jove was able to regain the copyright. In 1999, the company offered a new version of the film with another English-language soundtrack starring Kathleen Turner as the voice of the Snow Queen. This was broadcast on U.S. television in a syndicated offering called “Mikhail Baryshnikov’s Stories from My Childhood” (that may explain why the ballet star wound up defecting from Russia!). Films by Jove later put out the original Russian language version on DVD.
However, the Universal-mangled version is still being made available from companies specializing in public domain titles. I did a quickie check of my favorite PD labels and found they all have the film for sale at dirt cheap prices (which should provide endless amusement to that poor eBay buyer who paid $50.00 for this).
But at the end of the day, “The Snow Queen” is just not worth chasing after, let alone getting angry over. As with most of the notions put forth by the Soviet Union, it was just a lousy idea.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!