The fairest film of all – Snow White reassessed

Fifty years ago, this year, the cinema shifted course, slightly perhaps, but nevertheless shifted, because the first American animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, was produced in Hollywood, writes Robin Allan.

Not only was Snow White a product of the studio system itself but it would in turn influence that system and spread waves of influence outside the cinema generally, pouring over into popular musical form, literature, art and commerce.

The genesis of the film, the risks Disney took in making it, its technical innovation and its triumphant and immediate critical and popular success, is discussed elsewhere. My purpose here is to reassess the film and to examine the rich source of European and American influences upon it, and how it in turn came to influence the films that followed it. It is revived, on average, every seven years, and continues to attract cinema audiences of both adults and children. Snow White has never been shown on TV or given video release; how many films of this vintage can attract large box office attendances, or indeed are ever revived for the big screens of today?

Disney was an instinctive artist. James Algar, a close associate who worked on the film, recalls: “He was an intuitive person, very intuitive, he had more ideas going in the back of his head than any two men alive and he was something of an enigma. We worked for him because we loved it. We loved the work. We loved Snow White, and we knew we were in on something tremendous”. (All quotations, except where indicated, come from interviews in California with the author, 1985 and 1986.) Disney, not given to confidences, told the whole story one evening to his senior artists. Ken Anderson, an art director for the film remembers the occasion: “We went to the sound stage where there was a tier of seats and Walt told us the story of Snow White. It started about 7.30 and went on till 11. We were spellbound. The lights were all on, and they were on us, not him. He was all by himself and he acted out this fantastic story. He would become the Queen. He would become the dwarfs. He was an incredible actor, a born mime”.

Snow White’s strength lies in its visual narrative without recourse to a narrator and with only a brief opening credit title in the form of a book. Disney is a story-teller in the tradition of the great tellers of tales, using the medium of film for his narration. Deny story, deny the need for narrative and we deny imagination and what Laurens van der Post calls “the wisdom of the dark.., the night in which we have our being, the base degrees by which we ascend into the day” (from Venture to the Interior, Hogarth Press, 1952).

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