Thursday 27 December 2012

Wednesday 26 December 2012

Tuesday 25 December 2012

A VERY DISNEY CHRISTMAS: Greeting the Eighteenth



Seriglass Christmas card by Yorkraft, York, Pennsylvania, c. 1982

Monday 24 December 2012

A VERY DISNEY CHRISTMAS: Greeting the Seventeenth

Only one more night to go, and Santa's on his way...


Saturday 22 December 2012

A VERY DISNEY CHRISTMAS: Greeting the Fifthteenth

Appropriately for the day after her premiere anniversary: a pop-up Snow White Christmas card...


Friday 21 December 2012


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. 

'By nature,' 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 (1929).

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 Dwarfs.

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. 

The 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 cartoon characters.

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 well.

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 characters.

'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... 

...and Joe 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 here more?

MAC: Could use more animals at the rock crusher.

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 animation.

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 animation.

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!

Thursday 20 December 2012

A VERY DISNEY CHRISTMAS: Greeting the Fourteenth

Hand-painted Mickey Mouse Goose Egg Christmas Decoration...

Wednesday 19 December 2012

A VERY DISNEY CHRISTMAS: Greeting the Thirteenth

Pop-up Mickey-Mouse-Santa-airplane Christmas card! 

Tuesday 18 December 2012

Monday 17 December 2012

Sunday 16 December 2012


Iridescent Disney Parks Christmas card, c.1990...

Saturday 15 December 2012


Mickey's Christmas Carol collectible figures from Avon (including transparent Goofy-Marley's Ghost!)...

Read my blog post about the Death of Walt Disney


Friday 14 December 2012

A VERY DISNEY CHRISTMAS: Greeting the Eighth

 Perspex Disney Christmas Tree decorations, USA, c. 1980s...

Nice to see Figment among the more familiar Disneyites!