Happy Birthday, Snow Whiteby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
This year is the 75th anniversary of the release of Disney’s animated feature milestone Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
The Fairest One of All: The Making of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, written by J.B. Kaufman, will be released this fall and I am eagerly looking forward to that book. To tie-in with the release of the book, there will be a special exhibition at the Walt Disney Family Museum in November devoted to the film.
Kaufman is an outstanding historian and writer and his book Walt in Wonderland, co-authored with Russell Merritt, is one of my favorite Disney books of all time.
“Snow White is a beautifully produced, and thoroughly captivating, film. It’s not just for children but for all ages. It takes a traditional fairy tale that’s older than recorded literature, and interprets it in a uniquely 20th century art—animated film—in its most accomplished and heartfelt. I hope that’s a fair description, but that’s what I feel,” Kaufman told interviewer Dominic von Riedemann in 2009.
There is a terrific website devoted specifically to Disney’s Snow White and I love visiting it because it always features tons of stuff I never knew:
For this column, I thought I might pull out some oddball Snow White information.
SNOW WHITE ISLAND
First up, here is an article from Movie Mirror 1938 talking about part of the outdoor display the Disney Studios put up for the premiere of the film at the Carthay Circle Theater.
“Snow White Island: Maybe you think that the dwarf’s cottage, their mine, the mountain climbed by the wicked queen, and all those strange scenes you saw in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs exist only on paper, just so many colored lines drawn by a cartoonist. Actually all these things existed to be touched, felt, and photographed by some half million people who visited The Island during the four months’ run of the movie at Carthay Circle in Los Angeles.
“Since so much interest was aroused by travelers to the dwarfs’ country, we delved into the matter and came up with some pertinent information. The Island is a park, surrounded by a road, which is owned by the Native Sons and Daughters of California. It is almost 900 feet long, and on this was built the land of the seven dwarfs. It cost nearly $10,000 to erect, and bills for lighting and watchmen (there were four) ran $6,500.
“You could see the mountain, the wishing well, the fantastic forest—all real as life and twice as exciting. The first day it was finished, a guard counted 1,010 cars circling the display in one hour. That was just a starter.
“The gnomes were first made of plaster, but inquisitive kids, poking Dopey to see if he’d talk, forced Disney to remake them all in more enduring concrete. Souvenir hunters were a constant menace, one fellow stealing a bat out of a tree and flying off with it before the guard could catch him.
“Thousands of requests came in offering to buy sections; all were refused. When the movie ended its run at Carthay Circle, the entire forest, the mountain, the cottage—all disappeared to be stored away. In three days, like magic, green grass covered the park and the Island once more dozed in the sun, as if Snow White and her crew had never been.”
THE MAGIC MIRROR SPEAKS
Next, from The Illustrated London News, January 22, 1938 is a paragraph about how the Disney Studio made the voice of the Magic Mirror sound so scary:
“One of the problems solved was: ‘How would a talking mirror sound and what type of voice should it have?’ The answer was that there would emerge from its silvered surface a sepulchral, slightly masculine voice. For weeks, voices were recorded in boxes through sheets and before sounding boards.
“At last the sound director hit upon the idea of building a square box with old drum-heads stretched taut over the sides leaving an opening at the bottom. Through that opening a sound man placed his head and spoke the prescribed lines into a microphone close by. And so the mirror spoke!”
(The voice of the Magic Mirror in the film was supplied by actor Moroni Olsen. Olsen also supplied the voice for the angel Joseph, one of the angels reviewing George Bailey’s life, in the film It’s A Wonderful Life. Primarily a stage rather than film actor, Olsen was born to Mormon parents who named him after the prophet Moroni.)
LITTLE KNOWN INK AND PAINT FACTS
Now from The Mouse Club Newsletter March/April 1987 here is a bit of an article titled Little Known Facts About The Making of Snow White written by Ron Stark of S/R Laboratories:
“A small special unit of 20 men and women at the studio assembled set-ups for sale through Courvoisier’s gallery. Of the more than 475,000 pieces of art used in the making of Snow White, only 8,000 pieces were sold. Many of the now hard-to-find witch cels were finally thrown out because they were too scary to hang in a child’s room, then thought to be the appropriate place of Disney art. Even more difficult to find, however, is the Huntsman character.
“The nose and cheek shadow area on the dwarfs was first inked on the front of the cels and then painted on the rear in the traditional manner. Then, in order for the shadow to look more natural, the ink lines were removed.
“The texture of Snow White’s hair was achieved by using ‘dry brush’ on the top of the cel. Dry brush is a technique in which most of the paint on the brush is removed and the brush lightly stroked on the cel to leave a soft, wispy effect.
“Both Snow White and the Queen have two lip colors, with the upper lip being darker. This gives dimension to the character’s mouth and is another example of the detailed time-consuming work that made Snow White so extraordinary.
“The draft of the script from Snow White indicates only two multiplane shots. How many were actually used? Over 40!”
At the fifth annual Mouse Club Disneyana Convention in August 1987, Kendall O’Connor, Ken Anderson, and Ward Kimball talked about working on the film. The Mouse Club did videotape this presentation so it is resting undisturbed in somebody’s collection somewhere. I hope this treasure will be uncovered and fully transcribed.
Many of the now familiar stories were shared but O’Connor shared one that I don’t think is generally known. I wish I had a transcription of the entire panel for historical purposes but here is a great story from O’Connor from that panel that I was lucky to get that not only talks about the making of the film but about Walt Disney and how he interacted with his artists:
“Walt Disney could sell refrigerators to Eskimos,” said O’Connor, whose first job on Snow White was the tedious job of tracing frame by frame the live action film that was shot to be used as reference for the animators.
“Working on Snow White was a mixture of tragic news and good news. I considered myself a talented artist and felt that Michelangelo would not put up with these rotoscope tracings. I was phrasing my resignation one day when Walt walked in to see what I was doing.
“Walt said, ‘Ken, boy, are you lucky!’ I was about to tell him how lucky I felt I was when Walt lashed into a big dissertation on how the animators now had an action analysis class so they could learn which end of a cow gets up first when it is trying to stand up. ‘They only get a little bit at a time because they’re animators,’ Walt persuaded, ‘Ken, you’re getting a wonderful chance to study action!’ Walt got me so damn steamed up that I did about 50 more tracings that day!”
After Ken worked on the rotoscope all day tracing, he would go home and think up gags since at the time artists could earn an extra $5. None of the ones he submitted were used.
“I illustrated the devil out of these drawings to where Rembrandt would be proud," he said. "Beautiful drawings of terrible gags. I was hoping that someone would notice and get me out of working on the rotoscope!”
His talents were noticed and he was placed in the Layout department and was assigned the climatic “Witch Chase Scene” in the last portion of the film.
CARTHAY CIRCLE PREMIERE ENGAGEMENT
News clippings from the time quote theatre manager Ray Ducerne, who reported that advance ticket sales outpaced every other picture ever booked at the theatre, resulting in a sold-out opening night. The price for a ticket for that premiere? $5
The Playgoer: The Magazine in the Theater (The Official Publication of the Carthay Circle Theater) was the playbill for films shown at that theater and published by John F. Huber. For the premiere engagement of Snow White, it listed the cast as Snow White, The Prince, The Wicked Witch, The Huntsman, and the Seven Dwarfs.
At the bottom of the page was a paragraph titled “Disneygrams” with the following statement: “Most of the names of those supplying the voices of Walt Disney’s first full length production, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, are well known to radio, stage and motion picture audiences. However, Disney will not allow the names to be divulged as he feels it would detract from the audiences’ acceptance of the voice as part of a character.”
On that same premiere engagement bill was the latest March of Times newsreel distributed by RKO Pictures and A Friend Indeed, an MGM Pete Smith specialty.
During its long run at the theater, one of the theater posters displayed featured the Seven Dwarfs with the following text:
“His first full-length feature production. Three years in the making…an hour and a half in the showing…and a lifetime in the remembering. All in marvelous multiplane Technicolor. Don’t let anything keep you away!”
“As exciting as a Western, as funny as a haywire comedy, as sad as a symphony…Will be beloved by new generations long after the current crop of Hollywood stars are sleeping where no prince’s kiss can wake them.”—Time
“In all my 19 years of reviewing I have never met screen characters that more completely captured my heart than did Snow White and the seven dwarfs. Children, young folks, men and women—put it on your ‘must’ list.” –Jimmy Fidler
(Fidler wrote a Hollywood gossip column that was syndicated in 187 outlets including the New York Post and the Los Angeles Times. A very powerful writer who could make or break a celebrity, Fidler also hosted a radio show, interviewed celebrities for newsreels and worked in television.)
SNOW WHITE ON RECORD
The original soundtrack of Snow White was released on a three-disc set (one song on each side of a 78RPM 10” record) by RCA Victor Records in 1938 (packaged in an illustrated paper envelope instead of the hard-spined album that was more common) and was the very first feature-length movie soundtrack album ever released. The album jacket doesn’t state that it is the official soundtrack album but “With The Same Characters, and Sound Effects As In the Film…”
Shortly afterward, RCA Victor began a series of children’s recordings, featuring some of their contract vocalists. The Snow White entry in the series was called Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs As Told and Sung by Dennis Day. However, the voice of Snow White on this album was performed by Illene Woods, the voice of Cinderella in the Disney animated feature film.
Decca also released a Snow White album, but it was not a soundtrack. It featured Lyn Murray with his orchestra and chorus. Throughout the years, many popular vocalists have recorded songs from Snow White, including Mary Martin for the Disney label and Gracie Fields, who recorded five songs from Snow White for the British Regal Label. (And the Golden Records version had Anne Lloyd, a stock vocalist for that label, singing as Snow White.)
In 1975, Buena Vista Records issued a Special Commemorative Three-Record Long Playing Album of the entire Snow White soundtrack. These records were packaged in an attractive box and accompanied by an illustrated storybook.