Thursday 22 July 2010


Ilene Woods

Ilene Woods - Cinderella (2)

With the death, on 1 July, of Ilene Woods, who spoke and sang for the eponymous heroine of Walt Disney's 1950 animated feature, Cinderella, we lost another of those distinctive Disney voice talents who, whilst unseen, helped create characters who have endured across the generations.

It was chance that brought Miss Woods the role when her songwriting friends Mack David and Jerry Livingstone asked her to make some demo recordings of songs they were writing for a new Disney film. David and Livingstone had known the singer for some time having been guests on her thrice-weekly radio show in New York.

Ilene recorded the Fairy Godmothers magic song, 'Bibbidi-bobbiddi-boo' and Cinderella's songs, 'A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes' and 'So This is Love' and thought nothing more of it than as doing a favour for friends. However, when Walt Disney - who had already rejected several hundred possible voices for his new screen princess - heard Woods' recordings he instinctively knew that he had found his Cinderella.

Working on and off at the studio for a couple of years from 1948, Woods contributed more than just the voice to the character since Marc Davis sketched her during recording sessions and incorporated many of her gestures and mannerisms in his animation. It was Disney's personal idea - brilliantly realised by Woods in performance - to have Cinderella's rendition of 'Sing, Sweet Nightingale' accompanied by a harmonising choir of Cinderellas reflected in the soap bubbles rising from the bucket of soapy water with which she is scrubbing the floor of her stepmother's house.

I had the privilege of spending time with Ilene Woods a few years ago when I was making my BBC Radio series, Disney's Women, and I was struck by her unassuming modesty and her obvious delight in having contributed to one of Disney's finest fairy tales for the cinema.

"I didn't realise what I had," she told me, "until, many years later, an agent said, 'Ilene, that's the longest engagement you will ever have, because as long as children are born and movies are shown, they'll be hearing your voice.'"

It seemed an appropriate quote with which to conclude the obituary that I contributed to the London newspaper, The Guardian, and which you can read here.

Ilene Woods - Cinderella (1)

Monday 5 July 2010


Late last year, I had the privilege of spending three days in the company of an amazing woman: 90-year-old Marge Champion.

Marge, of course, was one-half of the highly successful dance duo, Marge and Gower Champion, whose films include the 1951 version of the Kern/Hammerstein musical, Show Boat and a string of other films - Lovely to Look At, Everything I Have is Yours and Give a Girl a Break - as well as stage appearances and a TV series. Subsequently Gower went on to direct and choreograph (often with Marge's assistance) such famous musicals as Bye Bye Birdie, I Do, I Do! and Hello, Dolly!

Here are Marge and Gower in a wonderful routine (choreographed by the great Jack Cole) from the 1955 film, Three for the Show...

Curiously, Marge's status as a Hollywood legend was not her reason for being in town or for our spending so much time together. She was here to help promote the Blu-ray DVD release of Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs for which, 77 years ago, she provided the live-action reference model for the film's heroine: a performance that was captured on 16 mm film and then used by the animators to create Snow White's animated likeness in the picture.

Marge and I (as one of the 'Disney Historians' featured on the DVD bonuses) were giving press interviews during which she explained her unsung work on this groundbreaking and iconic film.

The fourteen-year-old Marjorie Belcher - as she was back in 1934 - was paid just $10 a day to act out, in pantomime, all Snow White's scenes wearing the famous costume on a virtually deserted sound stage with the minimum of props such as dwarf-sized tables, chairs and beds.

A line with hanging ropes was set up and Marge ran to and fro, brushing them aside as Snow White does when running th, preparing supper and for the scene in which she danced with the dwarfs including Dopey precariously balanced on Sneezy's shoulders.

Here's a still from the footage, with Disney Musical Director, Oliver Wallace, standing in for Sneezy and Dopey...

Along with Snow White's voice - the late Adriana Caselotti - Marge provided, without credit, the personality of this memorable character in a film that was not just a milestone in the art of animation but also in the history of the movies.

Incidentally, the animators (to one of whom, Art Babbitt, Marge was briefly married) had a composite name by which they referred to Snow White's vocal and physical references - Margiana Belchalotti! Someone said it sounded like an Italian ice-cream sundae; I said it sounded more like the after-effects of one!

Here's the lady herself on CBS breakfast show - it's a bit early morning TV-ish, but you do get to see the lady as she was and as she is...

Marge, who as you can see from that clip, still dances every day has a wonderfully indefatigable, life-affirming view of life.

When I asked her the secret of her long and active life she replied: "Celebrate each new decade of life for what it gives you rather than regretting what it takes away..."

Snow White - Marge Champion

By the way, in that photo at the head of this post, Marge is wearing (though you can't see it because of the jacket) a top with Mae West's famous line picked out in glitzy sequined letters: "I used to be Snow White but I drifted"!