After excoriating contemporary Hollywood these past two weeks for its evident surrender to the forces of digitization, it may seem a little incongruous to be extolling the virtues of a film that, in its day, represented a kind of technological revolution of its own. No comparable challenge to the existing order in American narrative cinema would come along again until the advent of Star Wars some 40 years later. (I consider Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey  to be more experimental than narrative.) The concept of a feature-length movie without human representation—and in Technicolor to boot—must have riled many traditionalists who had endured the innovation of sound only a decade earlier. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which premiered during Christmas week in 1937, was the inevitable culmination of Walt Disney’s financial and artistic success. The film ultimately cost up to 10 times the original budgeted amount. Requiring some five years of work and employing hundreds of people, the film could not have been made by anyone else. There are six directors and an army of technicians listed in the credits, but Disney is the auteur (with a little help from the Brothers Grimm).
John Canemaker and Neil Gabler, among others, have written extensively about Disney and the film. Snow White broke all records at Radio City Music Hall and elsewhere. Ticket scalpers got as much $7.70—imagine paying that much for a movie. The film was even shown at Buckingham Palace to the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, in spite of the British censors warning that the witch was too scary, and Walt got a special Oscar. Disney went on to make a string of masterpieces: Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, Bambi (perhaps now that dragons are back in fashion, The Reluctant Dragon will get its due), and his studio provided a Herculean effort during World War II.
Things changed after the war. Disney began to make live-action films, and his animated films were generally not as innovative. He expanded his empire beyond film, building his theme parks, becoming a lovable TV star, and marketing his merchandise. It would be kind of unfair to blame Disney too much for the current Fantasyland of American society, but Neil Gabler touches on something inadvertently in praising Uncle Walt. Gabler subtitled his Disney biography “The Triumph of the American Imagination.” At the end of the book, summing up Disney’s contributions, Gabler topped them off by noting that “he demonstrated how one could assert one’s will on the world…. He had been a master of order.” Certainly Gabler did not intend to compare Disney with Hitler (as filtered through the lenses of Leni Riefenstahl), but Disney’s record as an authoritarian employer contradicted the sweet gentleness of the whistle-while-you-work dwarfs. (In 1938, while the rest of Hollywood was shunning her, Disney invited Riefenstahl to tour his studio.) Not that he was the wicked witch—that trophy belongs to a coven of contemporary politicians who appear never to have paid much attention in the fifth grade when rudimentary history and established science were being taught. Perhaps, like Pinocchio, they had been lured away from school by “Honest John” to pursue dreams of (reality) show business glory. In any event, they, very likely, were members of the Mickey Mouse Club. Nor could one cogently argue that animation director Vladimir Tytla’s Stromboli (the entertainment entrepreneur who kidnaps and enslaves Pinocchio) was a parody of Disney. Yet Disney’s life and excursions outside the art of cinema seem somehow out of step with the films he signed. Since auteurism is ultimately about a body of films reflecting the personality and values of a creative artist, Disney is perplexing.