The Little Princess: Snow White

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Snow White was the first official Disney princess and her animated feature was so successful critically and financially that Walt Disney produced two more movies spotlighting fairy tale princesses.

She suffers no angst that she has no parents, no friends (except for a handful of birds) and spends her day cleaning the castle like a servant rather than living like a member of the royalty.

Her only personality traits are that she is kind, cheerful and like to clean. Like many girls of the 1930s, her primary goal is to get married and live happily ever after.

According to the Queen's Magic Mirror, Snow White has "hair as black as ebony, lips as red as the rose, skin as white as snow" and that she is "the fairest one of all".

Actress Loni Anderson from the television series WKRP in Cincinnati said, "I really am Snow White in my fantasies. My dad used to call me Snow White when I was little because I had hair black as night, skin as white as snow and lips as red as rose.

"Snow White was the only princess around I could identify with. Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty were all blondes." Loni did not become a blonde until the mid-1970s and Snow White remained the only brunette Disney princess for decades.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first full-length animated feature.

Walt Disney said, "Snow White is a kind, simple little girl who believed in wishing and waiting for her Prince Charming to come along."

Disney's Snow White was fourteen years old. An outline dated October 22, 1934 from the Disney Studio once Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs went into production stated: "Snow White: Janet Gaynor type – 14 years old". The prince was to be eighteen years old.

In the time period that the story took place in the sixteenth century, it was not unusual for a girl of fourteen or fifteen to get married given the shorter life expectancy. In the original story the character was closer to eight years old, but Walt realized she needed to be a few years older to believably fall in love with the prince.

The studio auditioned over a hundred and fifty young girls for the role. They auditioned Deanna Durbin, who was actually fourteen years old, but after hearing her, Walt rejected her saying, "She's too mature. She sounds twenty."

Adriana Caselotti, who was eventually cast, remembered, "They asked me how old I was and although I was already eighteen, I said I was just turning seventeen because I realized after they had talked to me for a couple of minutes that they wanted someone who would be a fourteen-year-old sounding girl. So I never told them my real age until we were well into the film."

Snow White was not classically beautiful but still very appealing in a girl-next-door prettiness with still some adolescent "baby fat" plumpness. Her head is proportionally larger than normal and her waist smaller to make her seem younger, especially compared to the queen.

Supervising animator Grim Natwick told writer John Canemaker, "They didn't want her to look like a princess really. They wanted her look like a cute little girl who could be a princess. Snow White was a sweet and graceful little girl and we just tried not to clown her up. Nobody had ever done a (human) character like this. It was a new problem for all of us."

Hamilton Luske was picked by Walt to make Snow White a believable human being and not a cartoony caricature. Ham was the only artist Walt was sure could draw a realistic girl.

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".

His work was later refined by Grim Natwick (who had previously designed and animated Betty Boop) and had a greater understanding of anatomy. Natwick animated roughly 120 scenes with six assistants, one of whom was Marc Davis.

A German movie poster for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

As Davis recalled to writer David Johnson, "There was a conflict between the two men because neither liked the work that the other's unit was producing. Ham was a hell of a fine animator but as an artist I don't think he was too great. Grim was a man who had studied drawing in Europe over in Vienna and he was a tremendously skilled draftsman.

"Ham saw the character more like a balloon-headed, cutesy little doll who didn't have any personality. Grim saw her as something more. It's not just anatomy, it's bringing a thing to life that you can accept, and it looks good and feels good. That's not just anatomy. He was trying for a little more vitality.

"Ham was involved with the live action filming because he was the lead on the character but I don't think Grim was involved in any of that at all. Jack Campbell was Ham's assistant and did a lot of the animation the way Ham wanted it. Ham was a very important man at the studio at the time. The greatest thing that Walt Disney ever did was getting all these artists to work together and not kill one another."

Walt had several ideas to make his first feature length animated film including a version of Rip Van Winkle (with a live action Will Rogers interacting with animation) and Alice in Wonderland (with a live action Mary Pickford interacting with animation).

Walt recalled, "I don't know why I picked Snow White. It's a thing I remembered as a kid. I saw Marguerite Clark in it in Kansas City one time when I was a newsboy. They had a big showing for all the newsboys. And I went and saw Snow White. It was probably one of my first big feature pictures I'd ever seen. That was back in 1916 or something. Somewhere way back.

"But anyways, to me I thought it was a perfect story. I had the sympathetic dwarfs and things. I had the heavy. I had the prince and the girl. The romance. I just thought it was a perfect story.

"For years afterwards, I hated Snow White because every time I'd make a feature after that, they'd always compare it with Snow White and I actually got around to the point I hated Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."

Kansas City newsboys like Walt had been invited in 1915 to the silent, black-and-white version of Snow White starring Marguerite Clark (who was 33 years old at the time) at the Convention Hall. The movie was projected on four screens at the same time in the huge auditorium, and from where he was sitting. Walt could watch two of screens that were just slightly out-of-sync so it made an impression.

Charles Perrault did not include Snow White in his collection of stories, so the 1812 Grimms' version was the one that inspired the Disney theatrical version with several significant differences.

Production began in late 1934 and was completed in 1937. Actual animation did not begin until 1936, although story work had been proceeding for two years. More than 750 artists worked on the film, including 32 animators, 102 assistants, 107 in-betweeners, 20 layout men, 25 background artists, 65 special effects animators, and 158 inkers and painters.

Snow White and the dwarfs dance to A Silly Song.

In all, at least two million sketches were created, of which over 250,000 drawings were used in the film. Studio chemists in the Disney paint laboratories ground their own pigments from special formulas and mixed 1,500 colors and shades for the characters and backgrounds. Snow White had its world premiere on December 21, 1937.

While most of the world hailed the film as a magnificent artistic achievement and the creation of a "new art" for the motion picture, there were also detractors.

In The New York Times newspaper for January 30, 1938, artist Al Hirschfeld wrote a column where he commented, "The characters Snow White, Prince Charming and the Queen are badly drawn attempts at realism.

"Disney's treatment of these characters belongs in the oopsy-woopsy school of art practiced by etchers who portray dogs with cute sayings. The lovely voice with which she is given only heightens the effect of a ventriloquist's dummy."

In a 1994 biography of actress Marlene Dietrich written by her daughter, Maria Riva, Maria recalls her mother's reaction to being at the premiere for Disney Snow White in 1937 : "Now, tell me one thing! Who is going to see that? A full length picture of nothing but 'cutesy-poo'? There's a 'cleaning scene'…I nearly peed in my pants! Little 'birdies' and fluffy squirrels, all helping the village idiot! Sweetheart, I tell you one thing…it will never make any money!"

Snow White took over three years to produce and cost the studio over two million dollars, which was unheard of sum for animation at the time. Disney marketing genius Kay Kamen organized an intensive marketing campaign for the film, turning out a cornucopia of Snow White merchandise.

By 1938, more than two million dollars worth of Snow White merchandise was sold. Over 117 manufacturers were licensed by Kamen to produce the characters from the film. That plethora of merchandise based on the character and the film continues to this day.

The young lady who ended up providing the voice for the character was Adriana Caselotti.

In 1934, Walt Disney's casting director, Roy Scott, sought the help of Los Angeles singing coach Guido Caselotti to find a suitable voice for the character. Caselotti's youngest daughter, 18-year old Adriana, who had no formal music training, was listening on a phone extension when Scott asked for Guido's help in locating a girl who could sing and speak as a child and yet sing high notes. His daughter pleaded for a chance to audition.

Despite her father's objections, she went to the Disney studio on Hyperion where she auditioned for music director Frank Churchill and told him she was barely 17, knowing Disney was looking for a 14 year old. Walt Disney was eavesdropping in his office that was wired to the sound stage so he could hear the auditions but not be distracted by how the girls looked.

Walt heard her sing and told Churchill, "That's our Snow White!" Although that decision did not prevent Walt from auditioning another 148 hopefuls, including Deanna Durbin—who was only 13 but didn't get the job because her voice sounded too mature. Reportedly, Walt asked why a 30 year old was auditioning.

Adriana Caselotti provided the voice of Snow White.

It wasn't that Caselotti had a better voice than the other singers, but that Walt liked the quality in her voice. Documents from the time state that the Disney Studios was looking for a voice that was "ageless, friendly, natural and innocent" for the character.

Caselotti was photographed when she sang and did dialog to help the animators envision the character. She was paid $20 a day for a total of about $970. She didn't have tickets for the premiere at the Carthay Circle Theater, so she snuck in and got up to the balcony over to the side to watch the film.

Caselotti remembered, "I didn't understand this thing until the opening night. They never let me see any rushes. We started on the film in 1934 when I was 18 and it went on until I was 21. I am a very happy person for having been given the opportunity to be the voice of Snow White. I get so much happiness out of it that I live in a cloud. I've never come out of it."

Originally, Walt had attempted to keep the character voices anonymous on the assumption that the voice was just a small part of the overall character who had contributions from animators, live-action reference models, writers, and more.

After the film became a smash hit, she was told by Jack Benny that he had asked Walt Disney for permission to use her on his radio show and was told, "I'm sorry, but that voice can't be used anywhere. I don't want to spoil the illusion of Snow White."

However, when Snow White was re-released in 1944, it was accompanied by a massive publicity campaign. To help publicize the film, Adriana Caselotti was sent on a promotional tour of America accompanied by Pinto Colvig (who had voiced the dwarves Sleepy and Grumpy as well as Goofy) and Clarence Nash (the voice of Donald Duck).

Until 1951, she would tour radio stations, schools and children's hospitals as Snow White.

"I'm not complaining though, as there were a lot of compensations," Caselotti said. "I toured America as Snow White and they paid me $300 a week, which was a lot of money in those days, especially for a kid."

Caselotti was also called to help promote other Disney movies including Song of the South. On each tour, she dressed in a costume identical to the one worn by the film's heroine with the puff sleeves.

"On one occasion, I lost all of my luggage, except for my Snow White costume and for two weeks I had to travel around in this silly dress. I felt very foolish. I was 35 years old, and I overheard one little girl say to another, 'Oh, isn't she old!'" Caselotti told Disney historian Brian Sibley.

A poster for a rerelease of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

She did not do any more Disney Studios tours after the film was re-released in 1952, although in later years she did do additional promotional work for the film.

She re-recorded the voice of Snow White for the Wishing Well in Snow White's Grotto at Disneyland in 1983. After several unsuccessful takes to reach the necessary high notes and realizing that she was going to be replaced by another voice artist, Adriana Caselotti reportedly turned away from the mike and looked skyward and said quietly: "Mr. Disney, if you are up there, please help me find Snow White's voice."

She turned back for one final take and she got each and every note perfectly. That final take was used for the Wishing Well. She died January 19, 1997.

To aid the animators in capturing live-action movements accurately, Walt hired a young dancer, Marjorie Belcher, to be filmed doing some of the movement including dancing in a Snow White costume.

Layout man Ken O'Connor was given the onerous task of tracing the live-action directly off the Moviola. These tracings were then used as a loose guide by the animators. Proportions of figures and live-action timing were altered to avoid the stilted, unreal look that direct copying would have created.

Years later, Marjorie married dancer Gower Champion and went on to great fame as part of the Marge and Gower Champion dance team that performed on stage and in movie musicals like Showboat.

Life Magazine's April 4, 1938 edition had a two-page spread that declared "The real life Snow White, Miss Marjorie Belcher, is the 18-year-old daughter of a Los Angeles dancing teacher. Disney was delighted to find a girl who could not only dance and act but also looked like his conception of Snow White".

In between pictures of Belcher modeling for Snow White, and one of her modeling for the Blue Fairy from Pinocchio, the article stated, "Princess Snow White is the creature of Disney's imagination but the Disney animators, like all artists, had to have a model. Miss Belcher was the model—a real life Snow White who enacted all the scenes of the story so that animators could study her expressions and poses. Marjorie Belcher's performance of Snow White began and ended within the studio walls. It will never appear on a screen. Life herewith presents her pictures for the first time."

The pictures even included photos of her with Louis Hightower, the live-action reference for the Prince. One photo caption stated: "Miss Belcher's Prince Charming in private life is Arthur Babbitt, one of Disney's animators, whom she married last summer."

For the earlier modeling session, Belcher wore a football helmet on her head to try to indicate Snow White's larger head but it was soon abandoned.

Babbitt, a legendary animator, married Marjorie Celeste Belcher, who was then almost 18 years old, on August 8, 1937. He was 29 years old at the time.

Publicity art shows tree branches catching at Snow White's clothing.

On January 1, 1938 for the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California, the theme was "Playland Fantasies" and Marge Belcher sat on a float going down Colorado Boulevard attired as Snow White. She sat shaded underneath a huge mushroom and was surrounded by seven people in dwarf masks dressed as the Seven Dwarfs who were scattered near smaller mushrooms to publicize the recently released film.

Instead of the costume she used for filming the live action reference, Disney got a colorfully bright sequined vest for her to wear over a fancier outfit.

Walt did briefly consider a sequel entitled Snow White Returns (using the animation that had been cut from the original film like the soup-eating and bed-making scenes with some additional new animation as Snow White returned for her annual visit with her friends) but either because of the outbreak of World War II or his dislike for repeating himself with sequels, the film was never made, even though he could have done it at a fraction of the cost.

On Sunday, June 28, 1987, Snow White was bestowed the 1,850th star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Special guests included Ward Kimball, Marc Davis and Art Babbitt as well as Adriana Caselotti.

A Snow White from Disneyland, along with the Seven Dwarfs, attended. Snow White told the excited crowd of nearly 1,000 fans that this was the highlight of her career but also reminded everyone that she shared this moment with the seven little men who co-starred with her.

"After all," she smiled," if it hadn't been for them, well, there just would not have been a picture!"

Her star is located at 6910 Hollywood Boulevard, across the street from Grauman's Chinese Theatre.