Framing Snow White: Preservation, Nostalgia and the American Way in the 1930s

Batkin, Jane (2021) Framing Snow White: Preservation, Nostalgia and the American Way in the 1930s. In: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: New Perspectives on Production, Reception, Legacy. Animation Key Films/Filmmakers . Bloomsbury, New York, London, pp. 149-162. ISBN 9781501351228

Full content URL:

Framing Snow White: Preservation, Nostalgia and the American Way in the 1930s
Published Open Access manuscript
PDF - Whole Document

Item Type:Book Section
Item Status:Live Archive


If the reach of the past pervades the present, it seems to be within American culture that it is fully embraced, as part of the composition of life. The power of memory has seeped into U.S. thought and discussion about nationhood and has created a nostalgic framework within which society, politics and philosophy sit. As cultural historian Warren Susman states: ‘not only do Americans believe they cannot escape history; few seem to want to’. The period between the 1920s and 1930s represented a transition that was stark and shocking and, from a decade of decadence and selfhood, came an era of hunger and fear. Robert Harrison suggests that ‘the Depression of the 1930s bit into the fabric of American life’. In this challenging climate, the nation turned away from hedonism and embraced what became coined as the ‘American Way’, forming a collective society to support Roosevelt’s New Deal politics. The 1930s represented a critical turning point for America; whilst its politics signalled a new age of thinking, the overriding feeling was one of nostalgia for what had been lost – not the recklessness of the 1920s and its obsession with consumer wealth and stockmarkets – but a time before, where Puritanism and self-restraint were markers of a Victorian sensibility. The 1930s was therefore a period of change and reflection, and cinema became a mirror to the struggles and achievements of the everyman. Hollywood told stories of escapism, of the ability to rise up out of the Depression, yet was condemned by some critics for not addressing reality. Margaret Thorp, writing in 1939, asserted that audiences wanted escapism, to be ‘cheered up’ by cinema rather than seeing ‘the squalor and misery of which there was all too much at home’; conversely, Lawrence Levine argued that cinema was ‘deeply grounded in the realities and the intricacies of the Depression’. Then Walt Disney Studios stepped into the void in 1937 with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (David Hand, 1937), a feature film that captured the sensibilities and struggles of an entire decade within its animated looking glass. It had a curious power to frame the 1930s in terms of cultural and political contexts and became a critically important work to view on many different levels. How exactly, then, do we frame Snow White within these wider contextual, historical and ideological paradigms?
This chapter will explore the U.S landscape within which Disney’s first feature-length animation sat: from Depression to New Deal politics, to the idea of collective memory and nostalgia. It will dissect culture and the contradictions of restraint and change that defined the 1930s, and journey into the film itself to discover how Snow White reflected America and came to represent Americana. The chapter presents an ideological reading of Snow White as a product of its time; there is much at stake in focusing on the film symptomatically in this way, but I believe that the politics of the era and the shifting identity of its nation and people are clearly, strikingly, reflected in Disney’s work. The 1930s depicted the Hooverville kids, living in makeshift shelters after being displaced by the country’s worst droughts, which led to an exodus of 2.5 million from the Great Plains. This era revealed the folly of optimism and selfish individualism, and illustrated, visually, how hunger and unemployment became the new Fear. Significantly, the 1930s represented a violent shift from self to society and a re-emerging puritanism within an inherently conservative country. Within the dusty, drought-ridden landscape of a shocked and struggling nation, and amid snapshot faces of hungry, destitute families, Disney captured a critical moment of American history and presented its own solution to the American ‘problem’: collectivism, hard work and, above all, preservation of the Past.

Keywords:Snow White, Animation, Disney, America, Nostalgia, Preservation, 1930s
Subjects:P Mass Communications and Documentation > P303 Film studies
Divisions:College of Arts > Lincoln School of Film & Media > Lincoln School of Film & Media (Film)
Related URLs:
ID Code:44786
Deposited On:15 Jun 2021 09:51

Repository Staff Only: item control page