Monday, March 10, 2014

"Snow White" Secrets

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
"Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (1937).
"Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" remains one of the most beloved animation feature films for children of all ages. It is revered as a classic and is one of the most honored films ever made. Over the years, it has earned $416 million at the box office, which may not sound like much in this age of billion-dollar movies, but a lot of those Snow White dollars were earned before World War II. After accounting for inflation, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" remains one of the top ten most profitable films in Hollywood history and the most successful animation film, a title unlikely ever to be lost.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Walt Disney took a huge gamble with "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."
But "Snow White" wasn't always considered a classic or sure winner. Walt Disney went way out on a limb to finance it. Since it was the first animated feature film in Hollywood history, he had nothing to guide him in terms of projected expenses beyond the much-cheaper successful animated shorts he had been making. He budgeted $250,000 of his Mickey Mouse profits for the entire film, but that wound up only financing a fraction of the cost. The complete film ultimately wound up costing $1.5 million, which was a huge sum in those days.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Walt Disney drawing Mickey Mouse.
Neither Walt Disney nor his studio had that much money lying around. The Great Depression was a time when the term "millionaire" still really meant something. Walt was forced to mortgage his own home to keep production going, and, when that didn't cover the remaining costs, he had to turn to bankers. In those days, banker loans for film projects were not given out as easily as today. Walt Disney had to prove to the bankers that he wasn't scamming them, and he did that by showing them a rough cut of "Snow White." Satisfied, they released the funds that completed the picture.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
The pivotal moment in "Snow White."
Word got around town that Walt Disney the animator was putting together an entire animated feature film. Nothing like that ever had been done - while an occasional foreign film had tried doing it without much financial success, animation in Hollywood was purely for the short comedies that played before the real live-action movie was shown. The professionals in Hollywood scoffed and said that it was "Disney's folly." Certainly, some of them probably felt threatened. Disney didn't listen to the doubters, didn't care, and persevered anyway.

Adriana Caselotti Snow White
Adriana Caselotti and Snow White look a lot alike.
Creating the animation was something that Walt could handle himself, with the support of his legendary team of animators. However, Walt desperately needed someone to voice Snow White. He asked Guido Caselotti, a music teacher and vocal coach who had done minor work for him, to find an actress who could give this key character life. Guido knew his music: his wife was a famous opera singer. Today, a studio would hire a "name" actress with a distinctive voice to help promote the film, but Walt was more interested in nailing down just the right sound for his bet-the-studio production. It was a tough challenge for Guido, but the answer lay a lot closer to home than either he or Disney suspected.

Snow White
Snow White is gentle and kind.
Guido's daughter, Adriana, was a 20-year-old chorus girl. When she heard what was up, she prevailed upon her father to allow her to audition. Despite her father's position, Adriana was no shoo-in for the role: she had to beat out other girls, some much younger, to get the part. Walt Disney liked her so much that he hired her and paid her $970 for her role (about $15k now), or $20 per day. Not only did he like her singing: she became the model for how the character was drawn, too. It was the role of a lifetime.

Snow White
Adriana takes the apple and makes a Faustian bargain.
However, knowingly or not, Adriana was making a bargain with the devil. Walt was a sharp businessman whose entire career depended upon the success of "Snow White," and he didn't want the illusion of Snow White ruined by Adriana performing elsewhere. In fact, he so wanted to preserve the illusion of Snow White as being removed from reality and forever in fairytale-land that he didn't even credit Adriana or the other voice actors in "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" at all! Needless to say, he wouldn't get away with that today, but no rules for animated films were yet in place. He kept Adriana under contract, and when others asked her to perform for them, she had to tell them no, she was contractually bound to Disney. Walt himself didn't want Adriana in any of his other films, so she was at loose ends. However, she did manage uncredited voice jobs in two other feature films, both of which also became classics: "The Wizard of Oz" (1939) and "It's A Wonderful Life" (1946). Clearly, Adriana was a good luck charm of the highest order. The studio pretty much forgot about her for many years except when trotting her out to promote re-issues of the film, and Adriana began to resent all the money being made from her voice and likeness without any finding its way to her. Finally and belatedly - and also appropriately - the studio honored Adriana with "Legend" status in 1994, shortly before her death.

Lucille La Verne Wicked Witch Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Lucille La Verne as the Evil Queen.
Casting for the legendary role of the Evil Queen took a more traditional route. Lucille La Verne was an acclaimed actress who had begun film acting during the silent-film era. While largely forgotten now - unlike Adriana, she was middle-aged, but just like her, "Snow White" was her last film - she was a known commodity who could be relied upon to give the Evil Queen her majestic presence. However, the Evil Queen was a tricky role even for an experienced pro: the Evil Queen goes from being a strong middle-aged woman to a toothless old hag. Told that she wasn't making the metamorphosis convincing enough, La Verne excused herself, left the recording room, and came back a few minutes later with slightly slurred diction that was perfect for the changed character. Asked later how she managed this stunning turn-around so quickly, she is reported to have said, "Oh, I just took my teeth out."

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Doc, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Bashful, Sneezy, and Dopey.
Walt's next major problem was figuring out the names of all those dwarfs. Unlike what many now believe, the fairy tales from which Snow White derived did not have named dwarfs: Walt had to come up with their names himself. Odd names were floating around the studio for months, as everyone wanted the prestige of having "named" a dwarf: Awful ("He steals and drinks and is very dirty"), Biggy-Wiggy or Biggo-Ego, Blabby, Deefy, Dirty, Gabby, Gaspy, Gloomy, Hoppy-Jumpy, Hotsy, Jaunty, Nifty, Shifty, Busy, Crabby, Daffy, Dumpy, Flabby, Helpful, Lazy, Scrappy, Sniffy, Snoopy, Stubby, Thrifty, and Wheezy and many others. Sneezy was a last-minute replacement for Deefy. Along the way, someobdy suggested the name "Dopey," but Walt's people thought that was too modern a word for a traditional fairytale character (which, in fact, the dwarfs were not, but the studio was trying to create that illusion). Walt liked it, though, and ended the controversy by stating that the name "Dopey" was completely traditional, as it was found in Shakespeare. People are still hunting for any such reference in the Immortal Bard's oevure. Ultimately, the names chosen were Doc, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Bashful, Sneezy, and Dopey, but there was nothing obvious at the time about them.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

The dwarfs gradually came to life. Each was based on a real person, though exactly who isn't known. The thing many people remember the most about the dwarfs is their distinctive bushy eyebrows. The Disney animators copied Walt's own eyebrows for them, though Happy was given bushy white eyebrows to make him stand out.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

The dwarfs were important because they gave the very intense drama underlying "Snow White" a comic and musical edge. It was tough, however, to differentiate seven different characters who basically looked and acted the same. Walt told his staff that anyone who contributed a gag for one of the dwarfs that made it into the film would receive $5, which wasn't that far from a full day's pay for many of them. This worked, and suggestions flooded in. Ward Kimball, later one of the famous "Nine Old Men" of Walt Disney Studios' fame, earned his five dollars by suggesting that the dwarfs spy on sleeping Snow White by popping their noses over the bedboard one after the other.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
The unsung women of ink and paint.
Much has been made in modern times of "revelations" that old Hollywood behind the scenes was rampantly sexist and segregated by gender. While not arguing the point here, it is quite easy to misunderstand the actual situation. Claiming that women were systematically excluded from technical jobs actually denigrates the contributions of a lot of highly talented unknown women. Ever wonder who actually gave all those vivid Disney animation cels their bright colors and perfect shadings at a time when every other film was in dreary black and white? It was the unsung women of Disney's Ink and Paint department. In fact, far from being relegated to answering telephones and typing, these women were in charge of coloring in the entire film, with 158 female inkers and painters contributing. Far from being embarrassed about having women do these jobs, the studio proudly used that figure in its advertising for "Snow White." One day, Walt asked one of the ladies how they managed to achieve the perfect shading of Snow White's face, with her rouged cheeks and fair skin. "What do you think we've been doing all our lives?" was the classic retort. Hard to argue with that. This was a department that women dominated down through the years, and some of the best art directors in animation history who happened to be women, such as Mary Blair of "Sleeping Beauty" fame and Kim Irvine of Disneyland, worked tirelessly to get those designs and colors just right.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

"Snow White" premiered at the Carthay Circle Theater on December 21, 1937. It was a major studio premiere, and many top stars of the day were in attendance. One thing that stood out to audiences was that the animated film was in vivid color, a rarity in those days. The film was very well received, and "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" was on its way.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
"As exciting as a Western, as funny as a haywire comedy, as sad as a symphony....."
Despite the mania during the 1930s for films about Broadway musicals - indeed, one of the very first films to win an Oscar for Best Picture was such a film, "The Broadway Melody" (1929) - film studios had never released a soundtrack album. Even such cinema classics as "42nd Street," which was loaded with enduring gems such as "Shuffle Off to Buffalo," or "Gold Diggers of 1933" which featured the Depression classic sung by Ginger Rogers "We're in the Money," did not feature an accompanying album. Walt Disney presciently and perhaps arrogantly figured that the songs in "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" were so good that they merited their very own LP, and he was proven right. Once again he made Hollywood history, as the album was a huge success and led to the accepted practice of releasing soundtrack albums for virtually all musicals made thereafter.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs soundtrack album
The very first soundtrack album in Hollywood history.
The soundtrack wasn't the only "first" for "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." Today, action figures and video games accompany the release of every animated feature film. However, "Snow White" was one of the very first films to have merchandise available in conjunction with its release. Walt Disney contracted with a firm called Chad Valley to produce realistic figurines ("dolls") of Snow White and the seven dwarfs. These naturally have become prized collector's items that are especially treasured if accompanied by their original disposable boxes.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs soundtrack album

One thing that confuses some people about "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" is the name itself. Shouldn't the word "Dwarfs" be spelled "Dwarves"? The answer is no - and yes. "Dwarfs" was the accepted spelling for the little guys at the time, and "dwarves" was unknown. However, the 1930s was a time of great flux for the English language, as portrayed in the Gary Cooper/Barbara Stanwyck comedy "Ball of Fire" (1941), which was inspired by "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" and even directly references it. Writer J.R.R. Tolkien (purposefully, no doubt) misspelled the word in his fanciful novel "The Hobbit." That novel grew in popularity over the years and now is accepted as a literary classic, but in 1937 it was just another novel. When Tolkien eccentrically spelled "dwarfs" as "dwarves," he likely had no idea that he was changing the English language forever. However, only long after "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" was finished did "dwarves" become the more common spelling.

J.R.R. Tolkien The Hobbit book cover
The spelling "dwarves" was incorrect and derived from "The Hobbit."
"Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" went on to earn $8 million in 1938. It was the highest-grossing film of the year, and actually held the title of the highest-grossing film of all time for a year, until the gloriously technicolor "Gone With The Wind" snatched away that title. The uncanny success of "Snow White" saved Walt Disney's studio from probable bankruptcy, and that is no exaggeration. Its success enabled Walt to build a brand new studio in Burbank and create his second animated feature film, "Pinocchio." Unfortunately, "Pinocchio" was a financial disaster upon its first release (though it went on to make the studio many millions of dollars upon re-release, in video, and at theme parks). "Fantasia" also was a critical success but financial disappointment, handicapped by high theater costs. It wasn't until "Dumbo" came out around the time of Pearl Harbor that the studio got back on its feet.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
A scene from the "Snow White" trailer.
While Hollywood loved "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," it didn't know how to honor it properly. The film was nominated for Best Musical Score, but that alone didn't seem adequate for such a game-changing film. The Academy finally decided to give Walt Disney an Honorary Oscar for creating "a significant screen innovation which has charmed millions and pioneered a great new entertainment field." Ten-year-old Shirley Temple presented the award, a full-size Oscar statuette with seven miniature ones, to a beaming Walt at the ceremony. The statue occupied a prominent place of honor in Walt Disney's trophy case for the rest of his life and can be seen below.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
The "Snow White" Oscar is at the top. Walt Disney still holds the record for most Oscars with 22. 


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