Disney's Folly: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Neatorama presents a guest post from actor, comedian, and voiceover artist Eddie Deezen. Visit Eddie at his website.

Although now it is extremely commonplace, in the year 1937, no one had ever tried to make a feature-length animated movie in America. So when Walt Disney, later the most successful and popular animation director in the world, came forth with his idea to do a feature=length version of the fairy tale Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the idea was quickly dubbed "Disney's Folly."

Remember, this was 1937, and it was a very different America. Forced sterilizations were still accepted for people with any kind of abnormality, those deemed "unfit" to bear children. The movies Freaks (1932) and The Terror of Tiny Town (1938), both with real-life dwarfs in starring roles, had both died at the box office. Even Walt's wife Lillian had warned him, "No one will pay to see a dwarf picture."

The most recent animated feature had been made over a decade earlier in Germany, The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926), and it was a massive flop. And as wild as it sounds to us today, there were actually schools of thought that it would "damage people's eyes" if they subjected them to viewing a full-length animated film.

Some say "times make the man" and some say "man makes the times." In the case of Walt Disney and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, it was definitely the latter. Disney first got the idea to do a Snow White film when he was 15, while he was working as a newsboy in Kansas City. It was there he saw a major production of a silent movie version of the classic fairy tale starring Marguerite Clark. The idea had never left the recesses of Walt's mind and so, not heeding the warnings and the precedents, he proceeded with his "sure to fail" adventure.

(YouTube link)

And to be fair, he did seem to be in a bit over his head. The budget for the film eventually grew to over $2 million -an astronomical figure for the time. To put this in perspective, Snow White had gone 400% over budget. It actually ended up costing more than the value of the entire Walt Disney studio. And Disney had never made a feature film of any kind before. Also, this was to be the first-ever animated feature film in color.

One of the biggest differences between Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and current animated features is the lack of billing. For the record, Snow White was voiced by Adriana Caselotti, Prince Charming was Harry Stockwell, and the Wicked Queen voice was dubbed by Lucille La Verne.

There were originally 50 different names in the mix for the names of the seven dwarfs, including the rejected Biggy-Wiggy, Blabby, Deefy, Dirty, Gabby, Gaspy, Blabby, Hoppy-Jumpy, Hotsy, Nifty, and Shifty. And let's not forget Awful ("He steals and drinks, and he's very dirty"). The seven finally chosen were, of course, Doc, Bashful, Sneezy, Sleepy, Grumpy, Happy, and everybody's favorite, Dopey. Sneezy was a last-minute replacement for Deefy.

Doc was the next-to-last dwarf selected and Dopey was originally a talking dwarf and the great Mel Blanc was considered to do the voice. But no one could get the voice quite right, and it was decided to make Dopey go mute. Dopey's character was reputedly based on Harpo Marx, the silent member of the Marx Brothers.

Some of the animators were against the use of the name Dopey because it was a contemporary term used in a classic fairy tale. Disney assured then that William Shakespeare had used the term in several of his works. Although this placated the animators, no one, to this day, has ever found the term "dopey" in any of the bard's writings.

Pinto Colvig, who did the voice of Disney's Goofy, was to voice two dwarfs: Sleepy and Grumpy. The Prince was originally supposed to be a much bigger part, but the Disney animators had a hard time drawing him.

The crew of Snow White was massive, especially for the times. It included 32 animators, 107 assistants, 20 layout artists, 65 effects animators, and 158 female inkers and painters. Two million illustrations were made, using 1,500 shades of paint.

To give Snow White a more natural look, some of he ink and paint ladies started applying their own rouge to her cheeks. Walt asked them how they would ever apply it correctly to each cel. One of the ladies replied, "What do you think we've been doing all our lives?"

As if Walt didn't have enough worries, the word was that the Wicked Witch and the Enchanted Forest would both be "too frightening" for younger audiences. The movie was actually supposed to begin with scenes of Snow White's mother; these were cut to avoid the wrath of the censors.

With Walt Disney and the Disney studio employees all holding their collective breath, and the show business community getting ready to laugh at their "Armageddon," Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered just before Christmas in 1937 and went into nationwide release on February 4, 1938.

(YouTube link)

Nowadays, a film is usually considered successful if it makes over $1oo million. Unbelievably, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was to sell 109 million tickets. That's 109 million tickets at 1938 prices (around a dime or 15 cents a ticket). To put this in perspective, allowing for modern ticket prices, it sold better than Avatar, Titanic, The Dark Knight, or any Star Wars film.

And, like all classic movies, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, to use the show biz term, "has legs." The movie was re-released in 1944, 1952, 1958, 1967, 1975, 1983, 1987, and 1993. It turned a healthy profit every time. In 1993, in its last re-release, the 56-year-old film opened in the top five films of the week.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs hit the DVD market on October 5, 2001. On the first day, more than a million copies were sold. The film broke all records upon its original release and became the highest-grossing movie of all time -to that point. This record was to stand for exactly one year, and was then broken by Gone With The Wind.

The current Disney Studios facility in Burbank, California, was built from the profits of Snow White. Snow White was actually the first film ever to have a soundtrack album released for it. It was also one of the first films to have original merchandise released for it. The film's incredible "ripple effect" was to pave the way for 1939's classic fantasy film The Wizard of Oz.

As a bit of movie trivia, the line "Wherefore art thou, Romeo?" sung in the song "If I Only Had a Brain" in The Wizard of Oz is voiced by Snow White herself, Adriana Caselotti.

At the 1938 Academy Awards ceremony, Walt Disney was awarded eight "special Oscars" for his beloved film, one regular-sized Oscar statuette and and seven mini-statuettes.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first of many Disney films to open at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. At the end of the film's initial engagement there, all the red velvet seat upholstery had to be replaced. The young children in the audience were so frightened of the scene of Snow White lost in the forest, they wet their pants and consequently the seats, each and every showing of the film.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was voted #1 on the American Film Institute's list of the Ten Greatest Animated Films of all time in 2008.


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Hate to be the Mr. Correctomatic schmuck but "Wherefore art thou, Romeo?" is sung in "If I Only Had A Heart," not "...Brain." My 3-year-old makes me sing both those songs at bedtime nearly every night.

Very good read though. Walt had some serious cajones. Wonder whatever became of those tiny Oscars?
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Doesn't matter if the title was wrong Eddie...I knew what you meant : ) Nice article. I always loved SW&7D. In fact, one of my fondest memories as a kid was being on vacation in Ocean City, NJ and my parents taking me to see the film in 1967 at an Ocean City theatre when it was re-released. They knew it was a rare chance to see it. I still remember sitting there in awe of the colors, the dwarfs and of course the evil witch. My favorite Disney cartoon by far! Thanks Eddie...brought back some great memories. Keep them coming!!
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The special Oscar for "Snow White" was kept, many years ago, in the Walt Disney exhibit in Disney World in central Florida. I used to make a special point of going to see it every time I visited. I would stand there, awestruck, and think, "He touched that."

As I recall, it's a one-piece; a regular-sized Oscar with seven smaller ones arranged on a wooden base that looks like a flight of stairs.
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It's worth mentioning that the Snow White ride recently closed at the Magic Kingdom in WDW. This is very disappointing as this was a very classic ride representing the most classic of all Disney films.
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