by Spencer Howard
Just over 80 years ago, Walt Disney released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first feature length cel animated film, which quickly became both a critical and commercial success. While still popular today, Snow White may seem somewhat quaint compared with more recent animated films, but at the time it was truly revolutionary. Nothing like it had ever been done, and Disney took a real gamble to produce it. The papers of Westbrook Pegler at the Hoover Library provide a glimpse of how the movie was received at the time of its release.
James Westbrook Pegler was a nationally syndicated columnist, best known for his strident opposition to the New Deal and labor unions. From 1933 to 1962, his columns on politics and subjects of his own choosing appeared in more than one hundred forty newspapers. In 1941 he won the Pulitzer Prize for his articles on scandals in the ranks of organized labor. In addition to his political analyses, Pegler was known for his humor and satire, and for his brusque, curmudgeonly prose.
Movie reviews were not part of his typical fare, but upon seeing Snow White shortly after its release, Pegler was inspired to devote an entire column to it.
“You may think it an extravagant opinion, but I will say that Walt Disney’s new film, ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,’ is the happiest thing that has happened in this world since the armistice and stand on that. There are no words on my keyboard capable of appreciating, much less exaggerating, the beauty of this great artist’s achievement in a work which took three years.
“And it would be futile to try to communicate in print the enchantment which, for an hour and a half, soothes the souls of those who go to the theater confidently expecting to be entertained, of course – for this is Disney who never fails – and presently find themselves disembodied and adventuring in a realm that never did exist before. Not even the great authors of fairy tales could have visualized anything like this, and the imagination of children could not hear the songs of the dwarfs or see the fawns and chipmunks, the rabbits and the squirrels tidying up the little house deep in the enchanted forest.
“When the play was over and the rather hard-boiled professional audience in the balcony reluctantly stirred to go, slowly as if loath to return to reality, there were some who made no effort to conceal the moisture in their eyes and others who honked in the handkerchiefs while furtively drying their tears. Disney had made these characters real while retaining the lovely unreality of fancy which may have the sound of a laborious paradox but is only an apologetic attempt to describe a miracle…”
A few weeks later, Walt Disney sent Pegler a letter of thanks, and an original animation cel from the movie. The letter is among Pegler’s papers at the Hoover Library; what happened to the animation cel is unknown.