Thursday 15 November 2012


With the first of The Hobbit movies due to premiere next month and thirteen dwarfs (or as Tolkien insisted on spelling them, 'dwarves') set to become movie stars, this is the perfect opportunity to recall a cinematic event that took place 75 years ago...

Despite only featuring seven dwarves (or, as Walt preferred, 'dwarfs'), Disney's first-ever feature-length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, was ground-breaking and epoch-making.

It may be that youngsters watching the latest Pixar film for the umpteenth time would think it quaint, old-fashioned, even seriously out-dated, but, the fact is, the picture which premiered in Hollywood on 21 December 1937, is the  true ancestor of every animated feature made since.

That is why it is the subject of a major exhibition –  Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: The Creation of a Classic– that goes on show today at The Walt Disney Family Museum in The Presidio of San Francisco.

Accompanying that exhibition is not one but two books devoted to the movie by film and animation historian, J B Kaufman. The first of these volumes, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Art and Creation of Walt Disney's Classic Animated Film (below) is essentially a catalogue to the exhibition, but if you haven't seen the companion volume (of which more anon), you would easily categorise it as it a major Disney art book in its own right!

Essentially, it is – or, at least, I imagine – pretty much like taking the exhibits home with you: beautifully reproduced and lavishly displayed examples of Snow White's rich treasury of art..

Turning the pages, one is struck by the astonishing extent of the preparation and detailing undertaken by the personnel at the Disney Studio in embarking on a project that, at the time, was considered so revolutionary that Hollywood dismissively dubbed it 'Disney's Folly'.

It is difficult, today, to understand not just how innovative it was, but also what daring Walt Disney displayed in taking the decision to move from making short animated films lasting 7-minutes to one that would run for twelve times that length. There were nay-sayers who argued that it would be impossible for audiences to sit through an 83-minute cartoon film because the colour and movement would simply be too much for their eyes!

Undaunted, Disney personally bankrolled the venture (selling his car, mortgaging his home) and so infected his artists with his passionately held fervour that they committed themselves to his seemingly crackpot vision. He was ably supported by a talented and dedicated staff including the gifted Joe Grant who defined Snow White's cruel nemesis, the Wicked Queen and her homicidal alter ego the Hag...

As a result, within just nine years from Mickey Mouse's rickety-rackety black-and-white debut in Steamboat Willie, the stars of Hollywood turned out in force for the the premiere of the first feature-length animated film with colour and synchronised sound.

In retelling the Grimm Brothers fairy-tale, Disney continued the oral tradition by which this and other stories had been handed down across the generations, adding his own embellishments such as Snow White's Cinderella-like slavery in the Wicked Queen's castle and, for the first time, giving the dwarfs individual personalities and names that defined their character...

At the same time, however, he indelibly stamped his imprint on the story for all eternity, so that anyone now making an image of Snow White finds it almost impossible not to clothe her in a yellow dress with a black bodice, a white collar and blue-and-red puff-sleeves.

What Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs proved beyond doubt was that animated characters – creations of nothing more than pencil, ink and paint – were capable of embodying human emotions: not simply of making people laugh (as the cartoon capers of all the early animation studios could do) but also of moving audiences to care for – even shed tears over – the celluloid actors.

It also proved that Walt Disney and his artists had full command of the craft of storytelling. Snow White is one of the most economic films ever made, using its songs to help define character and advance the story.

From the moment that the Queen's Huntsman takes the Princess into the forest and, refusing to kill her, sends her running for her life to the moment when the Dwarfs find her dead from the Queen's poison apple is, incredibly, a period of just 24-hoursd; and yet, the character relationships are so strongly drawn that it feels as if Snow White has been living with the Dwarfs for many weeks.  

All this and more is recounted in J B Kaufman's second book, The Fairest One of All: The Making of Walt Disney's Sow White and the Seven Dwarfs...

This weighty, large-format, 320-page tome aims to be the last word on Miss White and her diminutive friends: tracing the origins of the story back to its Germanic origins and examining the stage and film precursors to the Disney version, one of which, made in 1916 and starring Marguerite Clark, had made a powerful impact on the young Walt Disney. "It was," he later recalled, "one of the first big feature pictures I'd ever seen. I thought it was the perfect story. It had the sympathetic dwarfs... It had the heavy, it had the prince and the girl. The romance. I just thought it was a perfect story."

Kaufman charts Walt's all-consuming ambition for the project and examines the studio's early experiments at producing convincing animation of the human figure that were part of the protracted preparations for the project and which involved the studio's greatest  talents including two brilliant illustrators, Ferdinand Hovarth...

...and Gustav Tenggren who, between them, helped craft the film's 'European', Art Deco style..

Having established the history, Kaufman embarks on a detailed, scene-by-scene deconstruction of the action – including sequences that were planned, but later abandoned.

As such it is a tour de force of research and analysis, sensationally illustrated with hundreds of photographs, sketches, layouts, backgrounds and animation paintings – among them many full-page and double-page spreads. The illustrations are a combination of previously unseen art jostling with oft-reproduced images: an inevitable side-effect of dealing with such a famous and repeatedly celebrated film.

Disney art has always been well served by the coffee-table format and this volume is no exception: animation fans will spend as long poring over the superbly reproduced art as in reading the text.

Kaufman is, I think, needlessly harsh in his judgement of my old friend Adriana Caselotti, whose operatic trills he condemns but which were as vital a part of Snow White's screen persona as the live action footage filmed by Marge Belcher (later Marge Champion) who acted out all the heroine's movements for the animators.

The author gives full credit to the various artists and animators whose genius was subsumed into the 'Walt Disney' signature, while acknowledging the fact that it was Walt's driving vision and shot-by-shot involvement in the scripting and animation that guarantreed the film's success.

The book concludes with the story what happened following the film's tumultuously-acclaimed opening: the Oscars (one full-size and seven miniatures); the film's re-releases, world-wide distribution and marketing and its eventual restoration.

The books are fondly introduced by Diane Disney Miller, Walt's daughter, through whose devoted energies, the Disney Family Museum came into being.

Here she is with J B Kaufman discussing the publication...

I have a couple of quibbles: firstly, as might be expected, there's a measure of pictorial duplication between the two volumes which means that the true devotee will find it difficult not to feel an overwhelming urge to purchase both, only to then experience some frustration at finding so many repeated images – all the more so if they are also aware of what has not been included.

Secondly, for a volume that clearly sets out to be a definitive work, the 'Bibliography' in the book's final 34-page 'Resources' section ought, more accurately, to have be called a 'Select Bibliography', since it fails to list a number of major works.

Obviously, the first omission I spotted was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and The Making of the Classic Film, (right), written by Richard Holliss and myself twenty-five years ago to celebrate the movie's 50th anniversary, which featured the first publication of a number of the pieces of art now reprised by Mr Kaufman.

Initially, I was apt to put the absence of our volume down to a paranoid
belief that Holliss and Sibley just didn't meet the necessary academic criteria, but then I began to notice that  other significant volumes were also conspicuously not there...

Where were (left) Christian Renault's Les Heroines Disney? Or Pierre Lambert's superb Walt Disney L'Age D'Or and the same author's lavish Blanche-Neige that featured much of the same imagery as is now to be found in these new books...

I could go on and point out that also not listed are R D Feild's seminal 1942 work The Art of Walt Disney, Bob Thomas' The Art of Animation or Leonard Maltin's The Disney Films as well as any number of significant periodical articles, suffice it to say that any future students of Disney's first great classic, will need considerably more than the frustratingly meagre reading-list provided by Mr Kaufman.

Nevertheless, the books will, for many, be a revelation and a way into appreciating the fact that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was an achievement of such courage and audaciousness as places it not just among the greatest films of all time but also among the greatest art masterpieces of the twentieth century.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: The Creation of a Classic remains on show until 14 April 2013 at The Disney Family Museum, 104 Montgomery Street, The Presidio, San Francisco, CA 94129

Opening hours:
Wednesday-Monday: 10:00-18:00
Last ticket sale and entry is 16:45
Closed every Tuesday

Tickets can be booked in advance

You will find a fascinating treasure-trove of information about Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – the film and its many subsequent manifestations – on the blogsite Flimic Light: Snow White Archive.

And, finally, here's one of the pieces of Snow White art from my own collection...

You will find others on my companion blog, Decidedly Disney.


Anonymous said...

Brian - What a lovely tribute. The books are quite wonderful, despite their incomplete bibliography.

Snow White Archive said...

Adriana does get a bum rap by many. Yet, if one takes a good look at what she actually brought to the film, it becomes clear just how important she was to creating the Snow White character that we've all come to know. Walt did indeed choose correctly. And Brian, your book and subsequent writings reveal more about her than any other.

I'm thrilled to have JB's books, but I count yours too among the very best of the Miss White titles.

WendyLady@GoodBooks said...

Hoping we can make it to the Snow White exhibit in S.F. before it leaves. I love the artwork of Gustav Tenggren and the fact that he went from working on Disney films to illustrating Little Golden Books for children. :) All your images from the film are beautiful. I'll never forget going to see Snow White for the first time at a drive-in theatre with my family when I was a little girl. I was so frightened of the hag!