A magical fairytale and one of cinema’s most influential and cherished films
The very first traditional cel animated feature film in history, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was a cinematic milestone which changed the course of animation. Made by one of the most important storytellers in movies, Walt Disney, it proved that fantasy could capture the hearts and legal tender of filmgoers throughout the world. This film also became a cultural phenomenon and launched what would become one of the world’s most revered entertainment enterprises, The Walt Disney Company. Its success influenced countless subsequent films, including prompting MGM Studios to green-light their big-budget film "The Wizard of Oz". This fairytale about the power of beauty and the dangers of jealousy is enchantingly reenacted with unforgettable characters, memorable songs, and spellbinding visuals. The American Film Institute (AFI) named “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” the #1 Greatest Animated Film of All-Time, the 34th Greatest American Film Of All Time, and Insider listed it among the 20 Most Influential Movies of All-Time. It was the very first film I ever saw (in the basement of a friend’s house at a birthday party on an 8mm or 16mm print when I was very young), and to this day I never grow tired of watching it.
“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” is such a popular classic that a majority of the world’s population have probably seen it and/or recognize its characters. As a result, practically everyone knows its story of a vain and evil “Queen” whose beauty has to outshine everyone else. She asks her truth-telling “Magic Mirror”, “Who is the fairest one of all?”, and when he answers with the name of her stepdaughter “Snow White”, she tells her “Huntsman” to take “Snow White" into the woods and kill her. Meanwhile, “Snow White” has fallen in love with a charming “Prince”. Once in the woods she flees, meets up with friendly birds, animals, and seven little men known as the “Seven Dwarfs”. The “Queen” doesn’t give up and sets out to put an evil spell on “Snow White” that can only be broken by love’s first kiss. I’ll omit the other details in case someone reading this hasn’t seen the film or doesn’t know the story.
This story originated as an ancient folktale and was first published as “Little Snow White” in 1812 by the Brothers Grimm. When Walt Disney (whom I’ll now call Walt, and refer to his studio as Disney) decided to embark on his first animated feature film, he chose “Snow White”. He altered the story to best suit animation and by doing so, gave electrifying life to this tale. Spellbinding from the moment it begins with the turning of a page in a book and the “Queen” ascending stairs to her ominous “Magic Mirror”, the film continues to overflow with rousing adventure, sweet romance, joyous laughter, and frightening suspense – creating all the wonder, enchantment, and magic one could wish for in a fairytale. The images, characters and story are depicted so superbly and with such aliveness that this version is often regarded as the “official” “Snow White” (above all versions that came before or after).
This film was made when film animation was almost exclusively relegated to short films. The first animation films is credited as beginning in 1906 with British-American filmmaker J. Stuart Blackton’s three-minute short, "Humorous Phases of Funny Faces”. As animation grew more popular, eight to ten minute animated shorts (cartoons) began to be shown prior to feature films. These almost exclusively featured weak stories with characters devoid of personality, mostly in a series of funny gags. And only about a half dozen animated features had been made using cutouts, silhouettes, and stop motion – but not one that was a traditionally hand drawn cartoon.
Not only was “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” cinema’s first feature length cartoon, but it gave full personalities to almost every one of its characters. This was unprecedented, and because people only knew animation through the shorts they’d been seeing, the entire industry thought Walt was crazy for embarking on an animated feature (they even called his venture, “Disney’s Folly”). No one thought audiences would sit through a feature length film of cartoon gags, and to top it off, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was to be filmed in Technicolor and it was inconceivable that people could sit that long looking at bright colors on the screen. But being a visionary, Walt saw what no one else could see and enthusiastically drove his staff beyond the boundaries to create the most realistic animation ever seen.
Walt insisted that all the human characters (“Snow White”, “The Queen”, "The Huntsman", and “Prince Charming”) look and move as lifelike as possible. Other characters such as the “Seven Dwarfs”, birds, and animals could be cartoon-like and do comedy gags, but not the humans. To make the humans look real, actors and dancers were filmed acting out scenes which animators would study in detail frame by frame (body movements, proportions, how clothing moved, timing, and more).
The live-action model for “Snow White” was fourteen year old dancer Marjorie Celeste Belcher (who a decade later became the renowned dancer/choreographer/actress Marge Champion), and the inspiration for the character was the number one box-office star of the early 1930s, Janet Gaynor (who you can read about in my “Sunrise” post). With Belcher’s grace and Gaynor’s sweetness, “Snow White” evolved into a Princess with an otherworldly majesty, even when cleaning steps and singing "I'm Wishing” around a wishing well or kissing each “Dwarf” goodbye as they leave for work. Her movements are so delicately beautiful, they alone evoke fairytale magic. Because we are so accustomed today to seeing animated films, it is hard to imagine how revolutionary this was for audiences at the time. Nothing like it had ever been seen.
Also vital to “Snow White” was her voice. Not wanting to be influenced by someone's looks, Walt installed a speaker in his office where he could listen to auditions taking place on the soundstage without seeing the actors. After hearing and rejecting many voices (including upcoming star Deanna Durbin), casting director Roy Scott called a respected Los Angeles vocal coach for recommendations, and his daughter Adriana (who trained a bit in opera) happened to be listening in on their conversation. She started singing in a falsetto-y childlike voice and was brought in for Walt’s approval. The second Walt heard her he knew he found his “Snow White”.
Just 19 at the time (she told Walt she was 17), Adriana Caselotti had worked briefly as a chorus girl and session singer for MGM Studios before playing "Snow White” (including an uncredited role in the 1935 Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy musical, "Naughty Marietta”). She's not seen or credited in "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" and rumors say Walt put it in her contract that her voice could only be used in this film, keeping "Snow White" mysterious (and preventing Caselotti from having a career). Whether true or not, she only "appeared" in three more films, including as the voice of "Juliet" in "The Wizard of Oz" (she says "Wherefore art thou Romeo?" during the "Tin Man's" song, "If I Only Had a Heart"), and her final film, "It's a Wonderful Life", where she is heard singing at “Martini's Bar" when James Stewart is praying. After pursuing opera and real estate, in her later years Caselotti wrote a book on singing and appeared in promotional events for "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs", including television appearances on "The Julie Andrews Hour” and "The Mike Douglas Show". She was married four times. Adriana Caselotti died in 1997 at the age of 80. She lived somewhat near my first apartment in Los Angeles and I met her once. She had a wishing well in her front yard and when you rang her doorbell you heard her sing "I'm Wishing" from "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs".
Perhaps the most impactful change Walt made to the story of “Snow White” was to make each of the “Dwarfs” distinct. In Grimm’s tale, they are referred to as a group without individual traits. Walt decided each would have a name that described their personality. After compiling a huge list of names (which included the likes of “Puffy”, “Jumpy”, “Wheezy”, “Tearful”, and “Baldy”), they settled on the seven they felt could best be animated: “Doc”, the self-appointed leader;“Sleepy” who is always sleepy; “Bashful”, who is bashful and has a secret crush on “Snow White”; “Sneezy”, who has hay fever; “Happy”, who is always happy; “Grumpy”, who is always grumpy and thinks he hates women; and “Dopey”, who is childlike and a bit slow and daffy. In the film, “Snow White” reads their names from their beds and tries to match the names with each “Dwarf”, giving us an opportunity to do the same. It is a very clever way of establishing the particular traits that separate each “Dwarf”.
One of the best examples of a character brimming with personality is “Dopey”, by far the youngest of the “Seven Dwarfs”. He is the only “Dwarf” with no facial hair, blue eyes, and who doesn’t dig for diamonds in the mine (but cleans up and plays with the jewels much like a child). To deepen his uniqueness and make him even more of an individual, he has to take and extra step or two just to keep up with the others. He even gets to show his talent for playing the drums and dancing during the jolly unrestrained fe, and in 1930 signed with Walt Disney Productions. He voiced "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit", barks for "Pluto" and became the voice of "Goofy", among others. After a brief falling-out with Walt in 1937, he worked for Fleischer Studios, where he voiced "Gabby", and "Bluto" in the "Popeye" cartoons. He also voiced a "Munchkin" in s a delayed take? That’s the way ‘Dopey’ was”. "Dopey" can move his ears, and moves and whimpers like a dog in his sleep, and is completely lovable. Again, when people first saw this film they were in shock that they could fall (and feel) so deeply for an animated character. It was unthinkable.
Though “Dopey" doesn't speak, the noises he makes were provided by Eddie Collins (with hiccups sounded by Pinto Colvig). Being a vaudevillian comedian, actor, and singer, Collins also served as the live-action reference model for "Dopey", and additionally provided sneezing sounds for the chipmunks and squirrels. He or his voice appeared in twenty-five films, which also include "The Young Mr. Lincoln", "In Old Chicago", "Drums Along the Mohawk", and one of his most famous roles, as "Tylo" in "The Blue Bird", with Shirley Temple. He was married once until his death. Eddie Collins died in 1940 at the age of 57.
In addition to "Dopey's" hiccups, Pinto Colvig also voiced the perpetually tired "Sleepy" and the guff "Grumpy". "Grumpy" also stands out among the "Dwarfs", as he has a marvelous arc in his journey. A natural born clown and mimic, Pinto Colvig played the clarinet, worked in the circus, vaudeville, and was a cartoonist and animator before becoming a prolific voice actor. After writing, directing and starring in the 1916 film "Creation", he began appearing in short films in 1924, briefly worked with Walter Lantz, and in 1930 signed with Walt Disney Productions. He voiced "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit", the barks for "Pluto" and became the voice of "Goofy", among others. After a brief falling-out with Walt in 1937, he worked for Fleischer Studios, where he voiced "Gabby", and "Bluto" in the "Popeye" cartoons. He also voiced a "Munchkin" in "The Wizard of Oz", and in 1946 became the first "Bozo the Clown" on records and TV. He returned to Disney in 1940, resuming the voices of "Goofy" and "Pluto", and among others, voiced "Maleficent's Goon" in Disney's "Sleeping Beauty". He voiced well over three hundred films, was honored as a Disney Legend in 1993, and inducted into Wisconsin's International Clown Hall of Fame in 2004. He was married twice. Pinto Colvig died in 1967 at the age of 75.
Once humanlike movements and characters with personality were attained, the next giant challenge in creating the most realistic animation ever seen was to generate depth from a flat drawing. Head of the camera department William Garity, came up with the idea of using up to six different moveable planes stacked below the camera. Each plane could hold a different drawn element, with the background on the bottom (watercolor paintings painted by background artists), characters and other elements in the middle levels, and any foreground elements on top. As the camera moved downwards, the foreground elements would disappear, the middle ground would become larger and the background would only slightly enlarge. Levels could also be moved side to side. Garity called his gargantuan contraption the multi-plane camera. One of the most obvious examples of its thrilling effects is when "Snow White" is running through the woods. As she runs she gets smaller and smaller while several rows of trees in the foreground remain the same size as the camera seemingly pans. The sequence has so many independent levels of action it no longer looks like a flat drawing but becomes an illustrated world with depth. The multi-plane camera opened up an enormous new universe of possibilities in animation, and that year Walt Disney Productions was awarded a Technical Academy Award for their invention.
Three years in production (1934 to 1937), "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” utilized approximately 750 artists (including twenty-five background artists, thirty-two animators, over sixty effect animators, and over 150 ink and paint artists), over 700 different painted backgrounds, and over 2,000,000 drawings. Overseeing everything was Walt, who stood by his vision and surrounded himself with (and offered training to) a crew of first-rate talent who could make it happen. Among those who worked on "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” were nine core animators who came to be known as "Disney's Nine Old Men” – Les Clark, Marc Davis, Ollie Johnston, Milt Kahl, Ward Kimball, Eric Larson, John Lounsbery, Wolfgang Reitherman, and Frank Thomas. They all worked for Walt before this film and continued to work on shorts and features, including many of Disney's most famous early animated classics. Each of the nine were later awarded the Hall of Fame Disney Legends Award.
Already a trailblazer in animation, ”Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” placed Walt on the path to being recognized as one of cinema’s (and entertainment’s) most inventive and important geniuses, though his path getting there was anything but smooth. Chicago-born Walt Disney began drawing as a young boy. When he was ten he moved to Kansas City where he soon discovered a love for vaudeville and movies (he first feature film he recalled seeing was the 1916 silent film "Snow White”, which made a big impression). He began cartooning for his high school paper, and after serving in WWI, returned to Missouri and worked as an artist for the Pesmen-Rubin Commercial Art Studio where he befriended Ubbe (Ub) Iwerks. After both were laid off, they tried starting their own business only to end up working for the Kansas City Film Ad Company, producing cutout animation commercials. Experimenting with animation at home, Walt became more interested in cel animation and opened his own business with Fred Harman, making cartoon shorts titled "Newman's Laugh-O-Grams” (promoting the local Newman Theater). That success led to Walt starting Laugh-O-Gram Studio, hiring Harman and Iwerks among others. Not making enough money, to generate more income he began producing a silent short, "Alice's Wonderland" based on "Alices's Adventures in Wonderland", which mixed live action with animation. But his Laugh-O-Gram Studio went bankrupt. So in 1923 he moved to Hollywood (were his brother Roy lived) and got a distributor for "Alice's Wonderland", signing a contract to create six additional "Alice" comedies. Walt and Roy formed the Disney Brothers Studio (later, The Walt Disney Company), hired Iwerks, and produced more “Alice” comedies distributed by Margaret Winkler, and subsequently her husband Charles Mintz. Iwerks and Walt also created the animated character "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit”, also distributed by Mintz. Mintz began stealing Walt’s other artists and owned the intellectual property rights to Oswald. He threatened to produce the cartoons himself, so Walt left (with Iwerks) vowing never again to work for someone else.
To replace "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit", Walt and Iwerks created the character of "Mickey Mouse", in his first cartoon "Plane Crazy", followed by "The Gallopin' Gaucho", both in 1928. This was the year talkies began replacing silent films, so Walt created a third "Mickey Mouse" short in 1928, "Steamboat Willie", which was one of the first cartoons with synchronized sound and the first with a fully post-produced soundtrack. It was released before “Mickey Mouse’s” first two cartoons (which were both given soundtracks and rereleased in 1929), and became the most popular cartoon of its day, making both Walt and "Mickey Mouse" internationally famous. By the mid-1930s, “Mickey Mouse” was so popular he was featured on merchandise, had a comic strip, fan clubs, became a world-famous icon, and later the symbol of the Walt Disney Company. Starting in 1929 with “The Skeleton Dance”, Walt also produced a successful series of over seventy animated short musical cartoons named "Silly Symphony”. Pat Powers was his distributor, and after another bout of being taken advantage of (Powers even poached Iwerks from him), Walt suffered a nervous breakdown in 1931. Powers was replaced by Columbia Pictures as distributor. Being quite the innovator and using the "Silly Symphony" shorts to test new technology, in 1932 Walt produced "Flowers and Trees", the first commercially released film to be produced in full three-strip Technicolor, which earned him his first Academy Award (for Best Short Cartoon). That same year he was awarded a Special Oscar for the creation of "Mickey Mouse". He won his next Academy Award for the 1933 “Silly Symphony” short "Three Little Pigs”, which to this day is considered one of the greatest cartoons of all-time. It contains Walt's first hit song (written by Frank Churchill), "Who's Afraid of the Big Bag Wolf?", and is credited with being among the first cartoons to add personality to their characters.
With success, his company grew and Walt was no longer satisfied with simply making shorts. He believed features would generate more money and give him freedom to explore animation. So in 1934 he began working on "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs". He worked tirelessly, trimming scenes, cutting frames, and okaying every detail, continuing to do so days before the film’s premiere. The premiere became a historic night at Carthay Circle Theater in Los Angeles, with attendees that included Shirley Temple, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester. The audience laughed, applauded, and cried, and the lights rose to a standing ovation. By far the #1 film of the year, it grossed $8,500,000 in its first year (a stunning feat considering much of the audience were children who paid on average twenty cents a ticket), and became the most successful sound film made to date (until “Gone with the Wind” surpassed it in 1940). Dubbed into more than twenty languages, custom art was created for each, including changing the names of the “Dwarfs” at the heads of each bed into specific languages. A game-changing blockbuster phenomenon, it made animation a certified art form and a viable feature film genre. It earned one Academy Award nomination (Best Music Score by Frank Churchill, Leigh Harline and Paul J. Smith). The following year Walt was awarded a special Academy Award for “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, “recognized as a significant screen innovation which has charmed millions and pioneered a great new entertainment field for the motion picture cartoon”. The statue was one-of-a-kind, with one large Oscar standing next to seven miniatures. Walt also graced the cover of Time magazine one week after the film’s premiere holding figurines of the “Seven Dwarfs” with the headline, “Happy, Grumpy, Bashful, Sneezy, Sleepy, Doc, Dopey, Disney: The boss is no more a cartoonist than Whistler”.
With millions of dollars in profit from "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs", Walt and Roy purchased 51 acres in Burbank, California and built the Walt Disney Studios (where its headquarters remain today). Walt continued to create and release short films, animated features, war propaganda films during WWII, and eventually live-action documentaries and features. His many classics include “Pinocchio", “Fantasia”, “Dumbo", “Bambi”, "Cinderella", "Peter Pan", "Alice in Wonderland", "Lady and the Tramp", "Sleeping Beauty", "One Hundred and One Dalmatians", "The Jungle Book", and "Mary Poppins" (already on this blog, where you can read a bit more about Walt Disney). In 1953, Disney created Buena Vista Distribution within the Walt Disney Company to take over their own distribution. Walt also ventured into television in the 1950s, including such successful series as "The Mickey Mouse Club", "Walt Disney's Disneyland", and "The Wonderful World of Disney". In 1955, Walt opened the Disneyland Theme Park, which by the end of the year had attracted several million visitors. Because of its success, Walt made plans for a larger version of Disneyland in Orlando, Florida to be called Disney World, which he wouldn’t live to see. In addition to his countless international awards and honors, he holds the record for the person with the most Oscar nominations (59), and the most wins (22 competitive Oscars). The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences also awarded him four Special Academy Awards (for the creation of "Mickey Mouse", for "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs", for the advancement of the use of sound with "Fantasia", and the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for his body of work as a producer). In 1964, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1968. He was married to former ink and paint artist Lillian Disney for just over forty years until his death. Walt Disney died in 1966 at the age of 65. After Walt's death, Disney continued to produce films, leading a resurgence in animation beginning in 1989 with the classic, "The Little Mermaid", followed by more classics including "Beauty and the Beast", "Aladdin", "The Lion King", and their productions through the computer animated studio Pixar, such as "Toy Story", "Finding Nemo", "The Incredibles", "Cars", and most recently "Luca".
The characters in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" have become beloved icons for children and adults. This includes the vain and jealous “Queen”, who has also become one of cinema’s favorite villains (AFI voted her the 10th Greatest Movie Villain of All-Time). Beautiful, mysterious, and filled with black magic, her hatred and evilness are always apparent, even if below the surface. And when she turns herself into the “The Witch”, she does so with immense glee.
The “Queen’s” looks were inspired by actress Helen Gahagan, who played the title role in the 1935 film “She”, and the voices of the “Queen” and the “Witch” were both provided by acclaimed stage actress Lucille La Verne, who also served as a model for the animators. Born in Tennessee, La Verne began in theater, making it to Broadway in 1895. Her Broadway career was so successful that a theatre was briefly named after her and she was nominated several times for induction into the Theatre Hall of Fame. La Verne also produced and directed two Broadway shows. She began working in silent films in 1915 and appeared in 44 films (primarily as a character actress) until "Show White and the Seven Dwarfs", after which she retired and co-owned a nightclub. She married and divorced once. Lucille La Verne died in 1945 at the age of 72.
A brief mention of some other voice actors:
Moroni Olsen voiced the "Magic Mirror" - an actor who appeared in over 100 films, including "Notorious", "Mildred Pierce", and voiced the "Senior Angel" in "It's a Wonderful Life".
Billy Gilbert voiced "Sneezy" - I wrote about him in my "His Girl Friday" post. Please check it out for more on this comic actor.
Scotty Mattraw voiced "Bashful" - an actor who appeared in twenty-six films (mostly uncredited roles) including "The Thief of Bagdad", "In Old Chicago", and his final film, as a migrant in "The Grapes of Wrath”.
Otis Harlan voiced "Happy" - an actor who appeared in over 130 films including "Show Boat", "A Midsummer Night's Dream", "Diamond Jim", and his final role, as the voice of "Mr. Mole" in Disney's “Bambi".
Roy Atwell voiced "Doc" - an actor who appeared in thirty-six films, including "The Fleet's In" and "Grand Larceny”.
Harry Stockwell voiced the "Prince" - a singer and actor who appeared on Broadway and in eight films including "Broadway Melody of 1936" and "Here Comes the Band". He was the father of actors Dean and Gary Stockwell. Because artists had trouble animating the “Prince”, his role was severely shortened in the final film.
“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” contains eight songs (almost all of which became hits), including "I'm Wishing", "Whistle While You Work", "Heigh-Ho", and "Someday My Prince Will Come" (which AFI voted the 19th Greatest Song in American Films). The animators worked with the composers to make sure the songs were integrated into the storyline, and that music and character movements were synchronized (such as when the turtle falls down the stairs). A soundtrack was released in January of 1938 titled, "Songs from Walt Disney's ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (with the Same Characters and Sound Effects as in the Film of That Title)", which became the first commercially issued feature film soundtrack.
This week’s pioneering film enchantingly captures all the joys and nightmares found in fairytales. Though it is most likely a film you’ve seen, I highly recommend revisiting it for its groundbreaking characters and animation, and for how it leaves one with a feeling of “happily ever after”. Enjoy the incredibly magical, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”!
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