Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – Disney‘s fabulous folly

Shirley Temple presents Walt Disney with Hollywood’s acknowledgement of the genius of Snow White - one regular-sized Oscar and seven dwarf-sized ones.

Brian Sibley tells the story behind the making of Walt Disney’s first animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, fifty years ago this year (1987).

The trouble with Walt Disney was he was never satisfied: no sooner had he achieved one thing than he was striving to achieve something else. “By nature,” he once admitted, “I am an experimenter.” He had scarcely created Mickey Mouse and made two movies with him (Plane Crazy and Gallopin’ Gaucho) than he decided cartoons would only have a future if they had sound and promptly made the world’s first animated talkie, Steamboat Willie (1928); and he hardly had time to savour the success of that picture and the fame which it brought his star, before he decided to make a cartoon “to get… away from the cut-and-dried little stock type of character”, and produced his first Silly Symphony, Skeleton Dance (1929).

The moment the Silly Symphonies had established the animated film as possessing greater cinematic potential than had ever been realised, he began fretting about the inadequacies of black-and-white film, in consequence of which he added colour to the series with Flowers and Trees (1932) and won an Oscar. Small wonder then that he should have eventually decided to extend the cartoon film beyond the confines of the seven minute short.

However, when Disney announced that he was intending to make a feature-length animated film, several critics, many of his contemporaries in the animation industry and even his own brother and business manager, Roy Disney, told him he was crazy and dubbed the project “Disney’s Folly”.

Convinced he was right, Disney ignored the voices of pessimism and derision. Instinct told him that there was little future for cartoon shorts – which were costly to make, brought in far too little revenue and were being increasingly crowded out of theatre programming by the growing demand for the “double bill”.

Disney first toyed with the idea in the early ‘30s, when he considered making a feature film of Alice in Wonderland, which would star his friend Mary Pickford as a real Alice in an animated Wonderland, in the manner of his early Alice in Cartoonland series.

When that fell through, he talked with Will Rogers about the possibility of their making a film version of Rip Van Winkle, that would again combine live-action and animation. And when that proposal came to nothing, Disney had discussions with Menan C. Cooper (producer of King Kong) about a cartoon feature based on Victor Herbert’s popular operetta, Babes in Toyland.

It was only when all of these projects failed, that he turned to a fairy- tale already being considered for a Silly Symphony – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

The story of Snow White had fascinated Walt Disney ever since he was a boy in Kansas City and he had been given a ticket to a free screening for the city’s newsboys of the 1916 film of Snow White, starring Marguerite Clark. The film had been projected simultaneously onto four giant screens and, from where he sat, the young Walt had been able to watch two sets of images, an experience that made a powerful impact on his imagination.

By the time he announced to his artists, in 1934, that they were going to film a full-length cartoon, the studio was already making tremendous strides with animation in such Silly Symphonies as King Neptune, Lullaby Land and The Night Before Christmas. And when, in 1934, Disney won his second Oscar for Three Little Pigs, it was in recognition of the fact that the Disney studio had transformed the cartoon film from crude comic capers into something approaching an art form.

With his subsequent Silly Symphonies – among them The Grasshopper and the Ants, Funny Little Bunnies and The Flying Mouse – as well as with the increasing sophistication of the Mickey Mouse cartoons (albeit still in black and white), Disney was gradually paving the way for what was at first called ‘The Feature Symphony’.

To help develop the animator’s skills, Disney sent them to evening classes at Los Angeles’ Chouinard Art School, and later employed one of the school’s finest teachers, Don Graham, to give lectures at the studio. One or two of the older, more experienced artists didn’t take too kindly to going back to school, but they soon found there was much to be learned, and it wasn’t long before everyone was enthusiastically studying all forms of art and entertainment: from opera, ballet and great paintings, to popular films, comic book art and burlesque comedy. The studio once known as The Mouse Factory became, as one artist put it, like “a Renaissance craft hall”.

Much of this remarkable atmosphere was generated by Disney himself and his visionary approach to animation. Everyone, as animator Ken Anderson has recalled, was

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