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The Light That Might Have Failed

Dr. Toon takes a philosophical look at the possible economic, artistic/aesthetic and cultural effects that may have occurred if Walt Disney's gamble on Snow White would have failed.

What if Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was never released or if it had flopped? This classic almost wasnt meant to be. © Disney Enterprises Inc. All rights reserved.

A favorite pastime among historians (and military strategists) involves conjectures as to how nations or even entire civilizations might have been affected if certain events had different outcomes. This intriguing hobby has even taken the form of formal academic debates, and it is interesting to ponder on how a single pivotal event may have had the potential to change every life on Earth. Suppose that Xerxes had triumphed in the Peleponnesian War, or that the automobile had been invented in China, or that the outcome of Gettysburg had been reversed? What if Hitler had never opened a second front, if Martin Luther King Jr. had lived, or if Khrushchev decided that Cuba would be stocked with nuclear weapons no matter how many threats JFK issued?

Animation has been faced with several pivotal events during the past century, and it's entertaining to engage in conjecture about any one of them, or indeed what they might even be. One of the most interesting questions an animation historian may be tempted to ask concern events that occurred in 1937. At that time the Disney studio was taking one of its greatest gambles and the outcome was by no means certain until the curtain rose on opening night. What indeed would have happened to the history of animation if Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had been too expensive to produce or, just as bad, flopped?

That notion is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Many executives at other studios were astounded that Walt Disney would even attempt such an endeavor. During the time Snow White was in production, it was widely and openly being referred to as "Disney's Folly." As the costs mounted and production time lengthened, Walt himself began referring to the film as "Frankenstein." At a final cost of $1,480,000, Snow White cost the studio every dime it had. The average first-run film released in 1937, by comparison, was produced on a budget of roughly $250,000. At one point the money actually dried up. Disney was forced to screen bits and pieces of Snow White for Bank of America director Joseph Rosenberg in hopes of securing a loan; whatever could not be shown was desperately acted out by Walt himself.

Inkers, painters and animators worked seven days a week without overtime to finish the film, and there was absolutely no guarantee or precedent to ensure that an audience would actually watch 90 minutes of any animated cartoon, let alone one produced by Disney. We know well what happened on Dec. 21, 1937. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered at the Carthay Circle Theater in Hollywood to the astonishment and praise of all who saw it. Millions more would follow suit. The Disney studio had served up a quality film, to be sure, but Snow White was still an expensive risk that dodged more than a few poisoned apples on its way to immortality.

Forced to screen bits of the unfinished movie to Bank of America to secure a loan, Walt Disney (left) seen here with legendary animator Ub Iwerks, circa 1932, almost lost his studio over Snow White. © Disney Enterprises Inc.

Had this gamble not paid off due to financial pitfalls or mediocre box office, animation history may have been irrevocably changed. Aside from conjecture about which individuals might have gone where or done what with their careers, it would be as interesting to speculate what might have happened in a more global sense. There are three significant areas where animation might have been affected: economic, artistic/aesthetic and cultural. It is important to note that animation would not have degenerated or even suffered greatly had Snow White been unsuccessful or economically unfeasible. The art form was far too vital and its styles diverse enough not to be plowed under by the failure of any one film. Animation simply might have changed course in several areas and here's how it could have happened.

In examining the economic domain, the most obvious occurrence may have been the elimination of the animated feature, perhaps for decades. It has been stated that other studios thought Disney's idea too risky in the first place, and they would have been vindicated. Disney may have had to stay with shorts for the long haul. The tremendous loss of funds might have meant that Walt Disney Prods. turned into a public company well before it actually did in April of 1940. Stockholders, remembering the fate of Snow White, may well have voted against considering a feature film in the future.

If Snow White had failed, more than likely Fantasia couldnt have been made, financially or technically. © Disney Enterprises Inc. All rights reserved.

An even greater portion of Disney's income would then have to come from licensing, and it is possible that other animation companies would have invested more in licensing and marketing as well, since features were a proven loser. There may have been more Fleischer, Terrytoons and Lantz product on the market, and animation may have been used to sell merchandise much in the same way that baseball cards were originally used to sell bubble gum.

It is also possible that Disney may have gone into live-action films much earlier in the studio's history and his shorts would have been used to sell his features. Mickey Mouse could have been animated more actively (he was falling into disuse in the late 1930s) and the studio might have been more aggressive in the creation of new characters and the licensing of existing ones. Another scenario may have been an industry-wide disenchantment with commercial animation in general. The failure of animation to move into the realm of feature films may have meant the rise of independent animation to a degree where America's animation scene began to resemble Europe's. It is almost certain that this new strain of animation would have contained several (if not countless) radical departures from the prevailing commercial style.

The greatest changes to American animation would indeed have been artistic/aesthetic in nature. Some of the consequences of Disney's success, as exemplified in Snow White, were attempts by other studios to copy Disney's formula. Fleischer eventually fell into this trap, as did Hugh Harman at MGM and Charles Mintz at Screen Gems. Had Disney failed to impress anyone by introducing increasing realism into his story-driven films, we may have seen an increasing diversity in animation styles throughout the 1940s and beyond. It had already been shown that the Fleischer's surrealist approach to animated shorts was a viable and popular alternative to what Disney had been doing. Animation across the industry might have become wilder and far less concerned with naturalism or coherent narrative.

Cartoons may also have become far more gag-driven, with less emphasis placed on story and personality development. This would have played well into the hands of studios such as Warner Bros, which never for a moment considered doing an animated feature film. The introduction of more mature themes, such as those portrayed in Snow White, might have become the province of independent animators.

Another issue to be raised is one of technology. Had Snow White been too expensive to complete or poorly received, animation may have become bereft of the technological advances that accompanied Pinocchio or Fantasia. Although there were some technical geniuses working in the field such as Max Fleischer and Ub Iwerks, independents may not have had the money to advance animation technology to the degree Disney did. Animation units owned by major film studios might have been advised or forced to keep the costs down even more, lest "Disney's Folly" be repeated, a factor that would have worked against the importation or development of any equipment that raised the costs of animated shorts.

There may have been a partial return to shorts as they appeared in the 1920s, with significant portions of the film being shot in live-action accompanied by animated characters or cheaper forms of animation (such as using cutouts) might have developed. Perhaps, more abstract, graphic efforts may have been made in approach to design, layout and character animation much earlier than those attempted by UPA in the 1950s. Again, this would be an artistic revolution only in part; the rest would be dictated by finance, capital and audience response.

Cultural changes are more difficult to predict, but it is to be remembered that art generally follows public dictates. Had people not been willing or able to watch 90 minutes of animation or been less than enchanted with what they saw, animation might have missed a chance to be accepted as one of the higher arts. Mickey Mouse, Betty Boop, Popeye and Porky Pig were popular stars in their own right and many of their cartoons were imaginative and beautifully crafted. However, the studios producing them never saw these shorts as "art" or even as aesthetic statements. Neither did critics or the public, despite some pretentious period pieces about the deep significance of Mickey Mouse as a cultural icon.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs made a very strong case for animation as an elevated art form rather than simple entertainment. At the same time the animated film became the equal of the live-action feature film in the eyes of both critics and paying customers. Had Snow White not made such an impact or folded due to its exorbitant cost, these perceptions may not have formed. Animation might have remained a poor cousin to other forms of cinematic expression, a second-class entertainment to be hastily enjoyed seven minutes prior to a live-action feature.

The technical advancements of Pinocchio might not have been achieved had Disneys Folly halted Disneys animation plans. © Disney Enterprises Inc. All rights reserved.

These developments would have resulted in less critical attention and a cultural mentality that the animated film could never aspire to an art. Not only would Disney have been financially unable to produce Fantasia, the ne plus ultra of animation's attempt at "high art," it is likely the project would never have been given a second thought at all.

This possibility would not be unrealistic; it should be recalled that prior to the early 1970s there was no serious historical study of the animated short. The first historians were basically cultists. In the hands of independents, animation could have gained recognition as an avant-garde novelty, but the distribution of independent shorts would have been sorely lacking. Animation may have ended up seeing its greatest service in advertising, especially after the theatrical short died out in the mid-1950s.

Might animation have been better or worse off if Snow White (and by extension the direction taken by Disney animation) had stalled out? The answer truly depends on two factors: what might have risen or continued to develop as an alternative and how audiences would have reacted to it. Since the possibilities are as diverse as individual animators or audience members, that will forever be a matter of guesswork.Some may have produced or welcomed increasing surrealism or abstraction, some wilder humor, some a more mature, aesthetic approach. In time, another studio or consortium of artists might have attempted a full-length feature or an experimental film lasting between 75 and 90 minutes.

The only conjecture that can be made with any amount of certainty is that the art form would have survived in a rich multiplicity of styles. The success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs certainly did influence the development of American animation to a degree, but had the film failed or been unproduceable, animation would not have been devastated.

Animation was well on its way to becoming an established cinematic variant even before Disney had a studio and "Disney animation" was only one evolutionary branch in the medium's development. Artistic evolution would still have taken its course (even at Disney) and simply produced new species, some vibrant and some less so. 2D animation, for example, is unjustly on the verge of disappearing from every major animation studio in favor of CGI, proving this point emphatically. Technology, tastes and economics will continue to influence animated films: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had to negotiate all three. The film's ability to do so successfully allowed its studio to help shape the future of American animation and introduce a set of standards that defined the medium to the general audience and most critics.

Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.