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Book Review: 'The Fairest One of All: The Making of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs'

Fred Patten looks at the incredible new book detailing the art and history of Disney’s animated classic.

The Fairest One of All: The Making of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, by J. B. Kaufman.  Foreword by Diane Disney Miller.

San Francisco, Weldon Owen, October 2012, hardcover $75.00 (320 pages).

Wow!

I have seen most of the coffee-table art-and-making-of books on the animated features of the past three or four years, but the giant (12.6” x 11.2”; over one inch thick and weighing over five pounds) The Fairest One of All is something else again.  It would be inaccurate to say that it is the same kind of making-of book, since it does not have the same total access to the production while the production was going on that the books documenting the contemporary films do.  But the modern books are also handicapped in that they are about original stories, and timed to end with that feature’s release.  The Fairest One of All goes back centuries to the origins of the Snow White folk tale, and then devotes almost a hundred pages to telling what Disney has done with the characters in the 75 years after the movie was finished.

The Fairest One of All, published to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the movie’s release, is divided into three parts.  “Before 1934”, pages 12 to 27, presents the earliest forms of the Snow White folk tale, going back hundreds of years before the Grimm Brothers’ version.  (Did you know that in the original 1812 edition of the tale, recorded as the Grimm Brothers heard it told, Snow White’s oppressor was her mother, not her stepmother?  And that it was Wilhelm Grimm himself who changed the story in later editions to make it more palatable to parents and children, when he realized that their book was selling more as a book of fantasies for children than for scholars of Germanic folk tales?)  But this part concentrates mostly on the other dramatic productions of Snow White before the Disney feature, from 19th and early 20th century stage plays to the live-action movies of the 1910s and 1920s and the Fleischer Studios’ Snow-White starring Betty Boop of 1933.

Part 2, “The Making of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, runs from pages 28 to 233.  This is the meat of the volume.  Kaufman traces in detail, with dozens of pieces of production art to illustrate his points, how the film progressed from its beginning in 1934 until its premiere in 1937.

And I mean in detail.  For example, there have been reams of publicity over the decades that Snow White was the first feature-length animated film, which animation experts have known is not true. Kaufman manages to both acknowledge the earlier features and dismiss them.  “Strictly speaking, of course, there had been other animated features before this one.  From the beginnings of the animation industry, the sheer difficulty of producing one reel of animated cartoons had inspired ambitious filmmakers to consider the possibility of even longer subjects.  One little-known animated feature had been produced in Argentina as early as 1917.  […]  Today the most famous animated feature of the silent period is probably Lotte Reiniger’s silhouette-animated The Adventures of Prince Achmed, produced in Germany in 1926.  [….]  Clearly, however, while all these films technically could be described as a) feature-length and b) wholly or partly animated, none of them was anything like the picture Walt now had in mind.”  (p. 32)  Kaufman convincingly explains why the 40-minute-+ animated features existing before Disney conceived of making one were not really “animated features” in the sense that the public thinks of them.

There is little new information here, but what has been mentioned briefly elsewhere is gone into in depth here.  The soup sequence that was cut from the movie?  Kaufman devotes several pages to it (especially pages 165 to 167, including 4 animation drawings).  Walt’s worries about getting increased production funding from the Bank of America?  Kaufman not only covers it, a sidebar with photos (p. 225) describes the Giannini brothers who founded the bank. 

Part 3, “After 1937”, pages 234 to 283, covers how the movie did internationally; the World War II propaganda shorts starring the dwarfs; the anti-malaria The Winged Scourge showing the dwarfs vs. malaria-carrying mosquitoes; and Snow White on television in the 1950s and in the theme parks more recently; also how story sequences that were squeezed out of Snow White were used in later Disney features (notably Cinderella), and Disney’s use of Technicolor in Snow White.  Part 4, “Resources”, pages 284 to 320, are the appendices:  production credits, notes, bibliography, index, non-Disney images credits, and acknowledgements.

The artwork in this book cannot be praised highly enough.  Practically every page has colored production art from the movie; some pages are nothing but double-page spreads.  Among the more interesting artwork and text are preliminary designs for Snow White (unused) by legendary animator Grim Natwick; discarded early names and designs for the dwarfs (Deafy, Fatty or Chubby, Awful, Weepy, and over a dozen others); and other movie influences on the development of the production (Lillian Gish in the 1919 Broken Blossoms on Snow White; the shrouded mirrors in Dracula on the Queen’s Magic Mirror).

Everybody is going to want to read this book, from the casual movie fan to the serious cinema (not just animation) scholar!  Libraries are going to have to either buy multiple copies (at $75.00?), or chain this to the Reference shelf. 

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Fred Patten has been a fan of animation since the first theatrical rerelease of Pinocchio (1945).  He co-founded the first American fan club for Japanese anime in 1977, and was awarded the Comic-Con International's Inkpot Award in 1980 for introducing anime to American fandom.  He began writing about anime for Animation WorldMagazine sinceits #5, August 1996.  A major stroke in 2005 sidelined him for severalyears, but now he is back. He can be reached at fredpatten@earthlink.net.

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