The trouble with Walt Disney was he was never satisfied: no sooner had he
achieved one thing than he was striving to achieve something else.
he once admitted, 'I am an experimenter.'
He had scarcely created Mickey Mouse
and made two movies with him (Plane Crazy and Gallopin’ Gaucho) than he decided
cartoons would only have a future if they had sound.
He promptly made the
world’s first animated talkie, Steamboat Willie (1928); and he hardly had time
to savour the success of that picture and the fame which it brought his star,
before he decided to make a cartoon 'to get… away from the cut-and-dried little
stock type of character', and produced his first Silly Symphony, Skeleton Dance
The moment the Silly Symphonies had established the animated film as
possessing greater cinematic potential than had ever been realised, he began
fretting about the inadequacies of black-and-white film, in consequence of
which he added colour to the series with Flowers and Trees (1932) and won him his first
Oscar for Best Cartoon.
Small wonder then that he should have eventually decided to extend the
cartoon film beyond the confines of the seven minute short. However, when Disney announced that he was intending to make a
feature-length animated film, several critics, many of his contemporaries in
the animation industry and even his own brother and business manager, Roy
Disney, told him he was crazy and dubbed the project 'Disney’s Folly'.
Convinced he was right, Disney ignored the voices of pessimism and derision.
Instinct told him that there was little future for cartoon shorts – which were
costly to make, brought in far too little revenue and were being increasingly
crowded out of theatre programming by the growing demand for the 'double bill'.
Disney first toyed with the idea in the early ‘30s, when he considered
making a feature film of Alice in Wonderland, which would star his friend Mary
Pickford as a real Alice in an animated Wonderland, in the manner of his early
'Alice in Cartoonland' series.
When that project fell through, he talked with Will Rogers about the possibility of
their making a film version of Rip Van Winkle, that would again combine
live-action and animation. And when that proposal came to nothing, Disney had
discussions with Menan C. Cooper (producer of King Kong) about a cartoon feature
based on Victor Herbert’s popular operetta, Babes in Toyland.
It was only when all of these projects failed, that he turned to a fairy-
tale already being considered for a Silly Symphony – Snow White and the Seven
The story of Snow White had fascinated Walt Disney ever since he was a boy
in Kansas City and he had been given a ticket to a free screening for the
city’s newsboys of the 1916 film of Snow White, starring Marguerite Clark.
film had been projected simultaneously onto four giant screens and, from where
he sat, the young Walt had been able to watch two sets of images, an experience
that made a powerful impact on his imagination.
By the time he announced to his artists, in 1934, that they were going to
film a full-length cartoon, the studio was already making tremendous strides
with animation in such Silly Symphonies as King Neptune, Lullaby Land and The
Night Before Christmas. And when, in 1934, Disney won his second Oscar for
Three Little Pigs, it was in recognition of the fact that the Disney studio had
transformed the cartoon film from crude comic capers into something approaching
an art form.
With his subsequent Silly Symphonies – among them The Grasshopper and the
Ants, Funny Little Bunnies and The Flying Mouse – as well as with the
increasing sophistication of the Mickey Mouse cartoons (albeit still in black
and white), Disney was gradually paving the way for what was at first called
‘The Feature Symphony’.
To help develop the animator’s skills, Disney sent them to evening classes at
Los Angeles’ Chouinard Art School, and later employed one of the school’s
finest teachers, Don Graham, to give lectures at the studio. One or two of the
older, more experienced artists didn’t take too kindly to going back to school,
but they soon found there was much to be learned, and it wasn’t long before
everyone was enthusiastically studying all forms of art and entertainment: from
opera, ballet and great paintings, to popular films, comic book art and
burlesque comedy. The studio once known as The Mouse Factory became, as one
artist put it, like 'a Renaissance craft hall'.
Much of this remarkable atmosphere
was generated by Disney himself and his visionary approach to animation.
Everyone, as animator Ken Anderson has recalled, was carried along by Walt’s
personal enthusiasm for the Snow White project: 'We had no concept that we were
ever going to do anything else or ever want to do anything else'.
To add depth and sophistication to the animation, the studio developed what was known as the 'Muliplane Camera' that could film through many layers of foreground and background paintings giving zoom and pan-shots that had the feel of live action. This expensive (and time-consuming) technology was showcased in the 1937 Oscar-winning short, The Old Mill...
Closely following the Grimm
Brothers’ version of the fairy-tale, but with such Disneyesque embellishments
as Snow White travelling through a variety of strange countries, including
Backwardland and Upsidedownland, the first outline for the story was drafted by
Walt Disney in August 1934.
This treatment established the
concept of giving each of the dwarfs an individual personality signified by
their name, and fifty possible names were suggested including Scrappy, Cranky,
Dumpy, Thrifty, Nifty, Weepy, Gaspy, Snoopy, Graceful and Dirty, as well as
five of the seven names that were eventually chosen: Happy, Sleepy,
Sneezy, Bashful and Grumpy.
A character called Biggo-Ego (‘a pompous… know-it-all’), was developed into
Doc, the fussy leader of the dwarfs, and then only one of the group remained to
be christened. In the earliest treatments he was called Awful and described as 'the most lovable and interesting… He steals and drinks and is very dirty'. But
he gradually underwent a transformation into a well-meaning clown who didn’t
speak – because he’d never tried. For a while he was simply known as 'Seventh';
later, he became Dopey and, modelled on a little-known vaudeville comic Eddie
Collins, became the most endearing of the dwarfs.
The trouble with Snow White as a
subject was Snow White herself. The animators had plenty of experience in
drawing animals and there was nothing particularly difficult about the dwarfs,
since gnomes and elves had already appeared in such Silly Symphonies as The
Merry Dwarfs, Babes in the Wood and Santa’s Workshop. As for the Witch, she was
a cinch, and even the wicked Queen wasn’t too hard to visualise once Disney had
abandoned an early treatment of her as a 'fat, cartoon-type, sort of
vain-batty, self-satisfied' and settled, instead, on making her ‘a mixture of
Lady Macbeth and the Big Bad Wolf.
But Snow White – and also her Prince –
presented many problems. By way of experiment, the studio
made The Goddess of Spring, a Silly Symphony based on the Greek legend of
Persephone. But although animator Ham Luske attempted to model the heroine on
movements acted out for him by his wife, Persephone emerged as an unconvincing,
willowy character with the kind of rubbery limbs usually possessed by comic
Undaunted, Disney pushed on with the
feature, while Don Graham stepped up the number of life classes which he was
running at the studio. By studying figure-drawing from models, the artists’
techniques began to improve.
To help with the specific difficulties of
animating the characters in Snow White, live performers acted out scenes from
the story before a camera, and the resulting footage was studied and used in
creating the animation. Lewis Hightower posed for the Prince; a troupe of real
dwarfs – named Ernie, Tom and Major George – provided their own particular
authenticity; while a young dancer, Marge Belcher (later one-half of the movie
dance-partnership Marge and Gower Champion), acted for Snow White.
Finding appropriate voices for the
characters was also far from easy, since the studio had only limited experience
in this field, most of the shorts having featured song and pantomime rather than
extensive dialogue. Disney instinctively turned to film, radio and burlesque
comics for the dwarfs, casting Billy Gilbert (who had a celebrated sneezing
routine) as Sneezy, Otis Harlan as Happy, Scotty Mattraw as Bashful and Roy
Attwell (whose radio act featured hopelessly muddled sentences) as the easily
befuddled Doc. Pinto Colvig (below), who had voiced the Practical Pig in Three Little
Pigs and the Grasshopper in The Grasshopper and the Ants as well as Mickey’s
pal Goofy, spoke for both Grumpy and Sleepy.
The largely singing role of the
Prince went to Harry Stockwell, who sang the title song for Broadway Melody of
1936; movie heavy, Moroni Olsen was signed to speak for the Slave of the Magic
Mirror; and Lucille La Verne, who had played several nasty movie crones was
cast as the Witch and, when no one more suitable was found, as the Queen as
Again it was Snow White who gave the
most problems, and over a hundred hopefuls were auditioned and rejected —
including the popular young star, Deanna Durbin (whom Disney thought ‘too
mature’) — before Adriana Caselotti, the 19-year old daughter of a Los Angeles
singing coach, performed Snow White’s numbers in a voice that combined
child-like innocence with a crystalline coloratura. Listening to her audition
on a loudspeaker in another room, Disney shouted: 'That’s the girl! That’s Snow
White!' and the role was cast.
Adriana Caselotti was paid $970 for
the recording, which took 48 days, but although she provided one of the most distinctive cartoon voices of all time, she – like
the rest of the vocal performers – received no credit on the completed film.
The songs by Frank Churchill (who
had composed the Disney hit ‘Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?’) and Larry
Morey, became an integral part of the storytelling and numbers like ‘Whistle
While You Work’, ‘Heigh Ho’ and ‘Some Day My Prince Will Come’ made Snow White
the first screen musical to use songs to advance the plot and establish
'There was only one way we could successfully do Snow White,' Disney later
recalled, 'and that was to go for broke —shoot the works.' There could be no
compromise on money, talent or time. But by now there were heavy demands on the
animation team, since in addition to the feature the studio was also making
some fourteen shorts each year. As a result, Disney decided to dramatically increase
the number of staff, and a major recruiting drive began in 1937, with
advertisements in the press and a talent-search in New York by Don Graham.
The look of the characters in Snow White was established through the art of illustrator Gustav Tenggren...
Grant, a newspaper caricaturist who had joined the studio to provide cartoons
of movie stars for Mickey’s Gala Premier (1933)...
The dwarfs, who began life as
earthy, ugly little men, were animated in a rather more endearing style by Fred
Moore (who had been responsible for the roly-poly look of the Three Little
Pigs), Bill Tytla, Fred Spencer and Frank Thomas. Three of the studio’s
youngest animators – Milt Kahl, Eric Larson and Jim Algar – drew the delightful
birds and animals who befriend Snow White in the forest; Art Babbitt animated
the Queen and Norm Ferguson handled her depiction as a hag, while Wolfgang
Reitherman was responsible for the face in the Magic Mirror. Grim Natwick (an
experienced animator of Betty Boop) had the thankless task of drawing the
Prince as well as assisting Ham Luske to animate Snow White. Of Luske’s work on
the film, Disney later said that it had 'held the picture together', while
fellow artist, Dick Huemer, rated his Snow White drawings as 'a sensational
advance in the history of animation of serious human characters'.
The storyline was planned with
meticulous care at regular conferences with Disney when everything would be
discussed (and recorded by a stenographer) from character motivation and
dialogue to costumes and props:
WALT: Happy has a waddle – he’s a
little fat guy – Grumpy has that intent, matter of fact movement. Dopy is
stumbling and tripping…
DAVE: We could open on an exterior of
the mine, bringing in the song as they march out…
WALT: If you don’t attempt gags so
much, we can get quainter things at the mine. Couldn’t we bring the animals in
MAC: Could use more animals at the
WALT: If you take the pattern of the
song, it might work in very well. You get all the pistons and what not working
in the same rhythm. Work right into the vibration of the thing… Do you think
the supports in the mine should be carved? A squirrel as a support, bracing
himself. Figures of men in terrible straining positions — holding up the roof…
STALLINGS: It might be good to have
an old forge in the background.
WALT: That’s good atmosphere – it
could have bellows with faces to do the blowing. The tail is the pump handle.
Some devils holding the pot some way.
STALLINGS: Squirrels bringing in
wood for the fire…
Much of the original fairy-tale was
simplified – the three attempts made by the Queen to destroy Snow White, for
example, were reduced to one – and many of Disney’s more extravagant ideas
(including the rock crusher and the forge) were abandoned.
One deleted sequence, set in the
Queen’s dungeons, was to have shown the Prince chained to a wall while
skeletons of former prisoners were magically brought to life and made to dance
for the Prince’s entertainment before the Queen flooded the dungeon and left
him to drown. They also cut one of Disney’s favourite episodes in which Snow
White dreams that her Prince carries her away across a sea of clouds in a
swan-boat drawn by anthropomorphic stars; and an elaborate sequence showing the
dwarfs building a bed for Snow White from the living trees in the forest.
Disney’s skilful editing – however
ruthless – allowed nothing to hold up the story, and a sequence in which the
Dwarfs make a messy business of eating soup (and try to retrieve a spoon
swallowed by Dopey) was cut even though it had reached the stage of pencil
As a result of all the pruning and
refining, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has a tightly-paced story, full of
dramatically contrasting scenes, and – though few people realise it – the whole
action takes place in a period of less than 36 hours.
Animating the film involved a great
deal of trial and error and the pioneering of the multiplane camera to give an
illusion of depth as well as several other major developments in the art of
All in all, Snow White and the Seven
Dwarfs represented an extraordinary commitment: by the artists who worked day
and night and weekends for the final six months to complete the film; and by
Disney who had all his personal assets tied up in the venture.
The proposed budget for the film in
1934 had been $250,000, but that figure quickly doubled and – to Roy Disney’s
horror – kept on growing. On one occasion, it seemed as if the project would
founder for lack of finance when the Bank of America baulked at loaning the
money needed to complete the film. In desperation, Disney screened an
incomplete version of the picture – made up from finished animation,
pencil-tests and storyboard and layout sketches. The banker, Joseph Rosenberg
watched the makeshift movie in disconcerting silence, despite an enthusiastic
running-commentary from Disney. Only as he was on the point of leaving the studio, did he reveal his intention to give Disney
another loan when he said: 'That thing’s going to make you a hatful of money!'
Finally – containing two million
drawings, and at the cost of $1,488,423 – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was
premiered at the Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles; when, as Disney later
recalled: 'All the Hollywood brass turned out for my cartoon!'
For 83 minutes, the celebrity
audience sat entranced – frequently moved to laughter, often to tears. And when
Snow White and her Prince at last rode off towards their castle in the clouds,
the theatre erupted with cheers and applause.
The verdict of the reviewers was
unanimous: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was 'a classic' to be ranked 'with
the few great masterpieces of the screen'. Writing in the New York Herald
Tribune, Howard Barnes declared the film 'one of those rare works of inspired
artistry that weaves an irresistible spell around the beholder… Snow White and
the Seven Dwarfs is more than a completely satisfying entertainment, more than
a perfect moving picture, in the full sense of that term. It offers one
memorable and deeply enriching experience.'
Seventy-five years on, that
appraisal holds good. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the film that was once
dismissed as 'Disney’s Folly', can be seen for its true worth: the first of
Walt Disney’s many feature-length animated films and – like its heroine – still
the Fairest One of All.
A version of this article first appeared as Snow White
and the Seven Dwarfs – Disney‘s Fabulous Folly in Animator Magazine, 20 Autumn 1987
Pop over to my Brian Sibley blog to read a tribute to Adriana Caselotti with some fascinating audio clips!