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Interview: Author J.B. Kaufman on 'The Fairest One of All'

Weldon Owen (publisher)

“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” may not have been the first animated film, but as author and film historian J.B. Kaufman points out, Walt Disney “completely redefined the concept of what an animated feature could be” with his 1937 film, celebrating 75 years this December.

Kaufman’s new book, “The Fairest One of All,” chronicles the making of this historic first feature film from the Walt Disney studios. It’s a hefty tome, over 300 pages long, and filled with rare behind-the-scenes photos and concept artwork.

The Disney studio had been building toward a feature film throughout the 1930s, with Walt dropping hints to his animators early in the decade. The popular “Silly Symphony” cartoons served as a workshop for the artists at the studio to experiment with new techniques, while Walt refined the story.

Walt Disney had been bowled-over by a roadshow presentation of Paramount Pictures’ silent “Snow White” when he was a young boy. Now, as the head of the Disney studio, he was in a position to take all of the previous versions of the story that had been filmed before, and do what he did best -- improve upon them through character animation and great storytelling.

"There's something really golden about the Walt Disney studio in the 1930s. There's a tremendous explosion of creativity that went on in that decade. 'Snow White' is the perfect culmination of that."

“If you look at the chain of adaptations, they all kind of left their mark on the Disney film,” says Kaufman. “But along with that, in many cases, [Walt Disney] would eliminate some of these extraneous ideas that other people had introduced, and deliberately take the story back closer to the Grimm Brothers’ version.”

“He was a ruthless story editor,” Kaufman adds. “They probably came up with enough ideas for three of four feature length films...but he knew the needs of the medium.” And so, at 83 minutes, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” wastes little time in storytelling. Even the most famous song from the film, “Someday My Prince Will Come,” establishes character and serves a storytelling purpose, similar to the way MGM would begin to integrate songs into their musical films.

As for the famous seven dwarfs, more than 50 names were considered before Disney finally settled on Bashful, Grumpy, Happy, Sneezy, Sleepy, Dopey, and Doc. Dopey’s character owes much to the great silent comedians of the 1920s, but at one point in the story’s development, says Kaufman, “Dopey not only talked, but he never stopped talking. He was a real chatterbox.” Happily, that idea was shelved.

Asked why he loves “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” so much, Kaufman says he admires firstly the work of the Disney studio as a whole during that time.

“There’s something really golden about the Walt Disney studio in the 1930s….there’s a tremendous explosion of creativity that went on in that decade. ‘Snow White’ is the perfect culmination of that. That includes both technical things like their use of color and the multiplane camera, but also the art of character animation, personality animation. Everything about this film has such artistic integrity and timelessness.”

Read more about the celebration of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" at the Walt Disney Family History Museum website.