The fairest film of all – Snow White reassessed – Page 4

Albert Hurter, a German artist in the tradition of European illustration, was the graphic genius behind much of the film’s detailing. Given a free hand by Disney to produce a series of inspirational sketches, the modelling of the dwarfs’ cottage (Grumpy’s organ, the stairs, beds and woodcarving) owes much to his talent. Gustav Tenggren, a Swede, who was to be a strong influence on the next Disney animated feature, Pinocchio, also influenced the pictorial design of Snow White.

The interior of the dwarfs’ cottage, showing the elaborate pipe organ based on sketches by Albert Hurter, a German artist in the tradition of European illustration.

And what of Snow White herself, so criticised by contemporary reviewers? She appears in all but seven of twenty sequences that make up the film. She holds it together in fact and by virtue of the extraordinarily skilful animation of Hamilton Luske and Grim Natwick, she commands our attention if not our undivided loyalty. She remains ageless, transcending both her flesh-and-blood contemporaries and the vagaries of fashion; her art-deco plasticity has taken on the patina of gold, her yellow dress, rounded puff sleeves and bright red hair ribbon matching the round baby-face and wide-eyed look of the all-American child-innocent. There is little of Gillray or Rowland-son in Snow White’s forebears, much of Burne Jones and Mabel Lucie Attwell. However, were her forebears to be only these, she would be weak indeed. Fortunately, a healthy transfusion of transatlantic blood from the silent cinema gives her some strength and vitality. Mary Pickford and Janet Gaynor are her godmothers. Disney himself issued a circular in autumn 1934 stating that “Snow White is a Janet Gaynor type fourteen years old”.

Although rotoscoping was used, the artists found it impossible to copy live-action directly. Some of the most successful scenes with Snow White are those of lyrical tenderness or exuberance — the evening party and the house cleaning sequences come to mind. Here, imaginative artistic expression has been given full range; one recalls Snow White picking up a broom, shaking the duster out of the window, loading up the deer with the dwarfs’ clothes, dancing with Dopey, taking the candle upstairs. Again, in her nightmare flight through the forest, which includes her fall into a swamp and escape from log-alligators (a passage deleted by the British Board of Film Censors when the film was reclassified ‘U’ from ‘A’) the animation is secure and confident.

Grim Natwick recalls (in Leonard Maltin’s Of Mice and Magic) the difficulties of animating Snow White:

We went way beyond rotoscope. And even when we took a rotoscope drawing, her chin came almost as far down as her bosom would be, so we had to reconstruct the entire body; we did that by making her very short wasted. You see, Snow White was really only about five heads high. I remember one scene I had where there were 101 rotoscoped tracings; I used drawing number one and drawing number one hundred and one, and I fitted in the rest because there wasn’t enough in it to give us anything to animate.

Grim, who must surely be the oldest and most distinguished animator alive (he was born in 1890), also told me:

All the great French heroic art comes very close to being illustration, and one thing on illustration, by studying it, it gave me a pretty good sense of draughtsmanship, because when I arrived at the Disney studio, about nine tenths of the animators could not even draw Snow White. I was very lucky; they were beginning to take the better artists from the art schools and I had them for assistants. They didn’t know how to animate but they drew very well.

The dwarfs and animals are a contrast to Snow White. When the dwarfs talk too much they become tiresome – Doe’s malapropisms and confusions are dated and remind us of the radio shows from which they in fact sprang. Other weaknesses include the Prince, mercifully cut back because Disney knew the artists could not render him adequately.

The dwarfs arc children to Snow White as mother figure, adults to her as child. They can operate for audiences on many levels and though their robust characterisation and the graceful delineation of the animals and birds has been praised by reviewers over the years, these elements are subservient to and supportive of the heroine. So her central position, I claim, is too strong for the film’s success to depend upon its parts. The film must work today because the heroine works, and she works for us partly because of her very plasticity, partly because she lives and moves and has being with her piping operatic warbling as a drawn and idealised figure. Abandoned in the forest and condemned to death, nature in the form of animals and birds comes to her rescue; this is a standard form of wish-fulfilment on behalf of a wronged person and is carried through the film by the Disney artists. As the dwarfs kneel weeping by her bedside, believing her to be dead, a candle drips, echoing “the dwarfs’ tears in both shape and movement as the tears conversely echo the wax drop. Character, whether human or animal, and setting here are alike, all made from the same material. All things are literally animated by the same spirit”. This is a comment by William Paul in a perceptive essay (The Village Voice, 2 August 1973).

There is an emotional centre in the character of Snow White which creates an involvement on the part of the audience to such an extent that we experience a distinct sense of loss; the most identifiable occurs when dwarfs and animals mourn at her bier but a more complex emotional response is identifiable at the end of the film when we adults as children or children as adults-to-be, ‘lose’ Snow White out of our lives – we identify strongly with the dwarfs at this point – as she goes on to marriage and sexual fulfilment in a Maxfield Parrish landscape of trees, sunset and castle in the air. We and the dwarfs are left behind to grow old and die; Snow White, resurrected, moves towards everlasting life.

The continuing appeal of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs combines cinematic and artistic tradition to tell a story of fundamental truths with richness and humour. The first American animated feature touches upon deep and powerful feelings in a way that no other animated feature – either from Disney or elsewhere – has ever done since.

All Snow White illustrations ©MCMLXXX VII The Walt Disney Company.

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Printed in Animator Issue 21 (Winter 1987)