UNFORGETTABLE SNOW WHITE
It was not the Prince’s kiss that brought her to life, but the genius of Walt Disney
When Snow White met Walt Disney they lived happily ever after.
Can you name the Seven Dwar fs? If you say Doc, Dopey, Sleepy, Sneezy, Bashf ul, Grumpy and Happy, you have shown what an enduring hold this beloved film has on people. For the dwarfs had no names in the Grimm brothers’ 19th century fairytale. The film in which Walt Disney named them celebrated its golden anniversary last Christmas , and Snow White now has her own star on the Hollywood ‘Walk of Fame’.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is one of the most popular films in history. An estimated 500 million movie goers have seen it since its 1937 première. Last year it was reissued for the seventh time – and it became the first film to ever be shown simultaneously in more than 60 countries (including the USSR and China).
In 1934, Walt Disney was famous for his Mickey Mouse, Goofy, Silly Symphonies and the Three Little Pigs animat ions, but short cartoons didn’t bring in much money. In fact, if it wasn’t for the money Walt’s brother, Roy, got for licensing Disney character merchandise, the partnership might already have been bankrupt.
So Walt decided to tr y for big money. As a boy in Kansas City, he had seen a silent version of Snow White starring Marguerite Clark. “That story has everything: the
prince and princess for romance, the dwarfs for comedy, and a wicked old witch as its heavy. It’s perfect.” So he announced he would make it into an animated feature. “You should have heard the howls,” Walt later recalled. Industry analysts dubbed his idea ‘Disney’s Folly’. They were sure that audiences would walk out on an 83-minute cartoon.
But Disney believed in his idea. “One night,” says veteran Disney art director Ken Anderson, “Walt called 40 of his artists to the recording stage. He spent several hours telling us about Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, acting out each character. At the end he told us that it was going to be our first feature.
“It was a shock,” adds Anderson, “because we knew how hard it was to do a short cartoon. But Walt’s performance inspired us.”
“Walt had everybody believing in the picture so much,” said animator Ollie Johnston, “that when we were discussing Snow White running through the forest, one guy was alarmed at a drawing of her falling. ‘That’s a pretty high cliff she goes over’, he said ‘It might kill her’.”
To bring the characters to life, Disney wanted each dwarf to have a definite personality. “We paced around the studio muttering, ‘Seven of them! My God, seven of them!’” says animator Frank Thomas. The characters all looked similar, so they were di f ferentiated most ly
by gesture, voice and name. “I’ve known some domineering doctors,” said Disney, “so I called the dwarfs’ bossy leader Doc.”
“We made Doc stand well back on his heels, with his wrists pressed to his hips, to convey pompousness,” says Johnston. “We gave Grumpy a slight hunch and a swagger that made him look pugnacious. Sneezy was a serious, responsible citizen – when he wasn’t sneezing.”
Hollywood’s most famous sneezer, comedian Billy Gilbert, who had already delivered his suspenseful ‘ah- CHOOs!’ in other f ilms, did the voice of Sneezy. Pinto Colvig, the voice of Goofy and Pluto, spoke for both Sleepy and Grumpy. Character actors Otis Harlan, Scotty Mattraw and Roy Atwell were cast as Happy, Bashful and Doc respectively.
That left Dopey. In the film, Happy tells Snow White, “This is Dopey. He don’t talk none.” Snow White asks, “You mean he can’t talk?”
“He don’t know,” Happy replies. “He never tried.”
“We won’t give Dopey a voice,” Disney had said, “That will help him be different.”
In search of a natural and an innocent soprano voice for the princess, Disney phoned Hollywood voice coach Guido Caselotti. Caselotti’s daughter, Adriana, was eavesdropping on the extension. Suddenly she blurted out: “How about me?”
Adriana’s clear, bell-like coloratura won her the part. And for her prince, they selected Broadway performer Harry Stockwell.
Di sney rejected several songs by composer Frank Churchill and lyricist Larry Morey before settling on eight titles that still renew our memories, including ‘I’m Wishing’, ‘ Whistle While You Work’, ‘Heigh-Ho’ and, best-loved of all, ‘Some Day My Prince Will Come’.
All through the movie, Disney knew exactly what he wanted. In a 1934 out line, he had said the wicked queen should be “a mixture of Lady Macbeth and the Big Bad Wolf – her beauty is sinister, mature, plenty of curves. Magic fluids transform her into an old witch-like hag.” He cast Lucille LaVerne as the voice of both queen and witch. LaVerne’s normal voice was beautiful and imperious, but her cackle was spine-tingling.
Everything in Disney’s experience seemed to make its way into the film. Animator Ward Kimball recalls that
Disney studied the men’s snores and decided each of his dwarfs would snore in a distinctive way
when Disney went away with a group for a rustic weekend of horse riding, he didn’t get any sleep because the other men in his dormitory snored. Disney studied their snores – and found that every man snored differently. On Monday morning he told his story men he was adding something to the sleeping sequence in which the dwarfs give Snow White their bedroom and find places for themselves downstairs. Each dwarf, Walt said, was going to snore in a distinct way, and together they would add up to “a symphony of snores”.
One after another, great snoring ideas were sketched, pinned up on storyboards and animated.
Grumpy, like Walt, can’t sleep. He lies in the soup pot and listens to the others snore. Bashful, in a drawer, snores in low moans. Happy, in a cupboard, blows snores that end in long whistles. Doc rumbles in the sink and gargles as the tap drips into his throat. Sneezy snores like a chain saw. Dopey with a whimper. Sleepy’s puckering inhalations and lip- smacking exhalations make a snoring duet with a fly (whose snore is a violin’s E-string).
A more impor tant means of
revealing the dwarfs’ personalities was in the variety of their walking styles, according to Frank Thomas. In one scene animated by Thomas, Dopey falls out of step, then does a little hitch step to catch up. “Walt said, ‘Hey, that’s good – we ought to use that all the way through the picture,’” Thomas told me. “A lot of stuff had been animated, but Walt called all those scenes back for revision. That often happened. A better idea would come along – and you would change everything.”
My cousin, Shamus Culhane, animated the scenes in which the dwar fs march home f rom t hei r jewel mine singing ‘Heigh-Ho’. It took Shamus almost six months to make the 2000 drawings. The whole film required about two million. The 90-centimetre-long sheets filled the shelves round the drawing board of Shamus and his assistant, Nick DeTolly.
One day, Shamus looked up in horror: DeTolly’s cigarette had fallen into a pile of rejected drawings on the desk. “Flames leapt from one shelf to the next,” says Shamus. “My whole sequence was on fire in seconds.”
Before DeTol ly smothered the
More than a successful movie, it is a treasured memory shared by succeeding generations of parents and children.
flames with a towel, some drawings had burnt to within half a centimetre of the figures – but none was so badly damaged that it couldn’t be photographed for the film.
The drawings’ loss might have meant the demise of the ‘Heigh-Ho’ sequence – Disney was running out of money. Snow White had already exceeded twice the original $US500,000 budget, and bank officials baulked at lending any more unless they could see what he had done so far.
Once again, Walt had to tell part of the story. Freddy Moore remembered this as Walt’s finest hour, during which he kept leaping to his feet to pantomime the missing action, “including the antics of the dwarfs, the Wicked Witch tempting Snow White into biting the poisoned apple, and the ultimate drama of Snow White being awakened in her glass coffin by the Prince’s kiss.”
“Well, as everyone knows,” Disney said years later, “we got the loan, the picture made money, and if it hadn’t, there wouldn’t be any Disney Studios today.” The final cost was about $US1.5 million.
In 1939, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs won Disney a special Academy Award – a full-sized Oscar with seven miniature Oscars alongside – for having ‘charmed millions and pioneered a great new entertainment field for the motionpicture cartoon’.
Snow White remains on the list of all-time box-office hits, with a worldwide gross of more than $ US500 million. But by now it is more than a successful movie. It is a treasured memory shared by succeeding generations of parents and children.
The week of the f i lm’s 1937 première, Time magazine published a cover story that has proved to be prophetic. Snow White is “a combination of Hollywood, the Grimm Brothers and the sad, searching fantasy of universal childhood,” it said. “It is an authentic masterpiece, to be shown and loved by new generations long after the current crop of Hollywood stars are sleeping where no Prince’s kiss can awaken them.”
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