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Although onscreen credits note that the film was adapted from "Grimms' Fairy Tales," only "Schneewittchen" has been identified as a literary source. "Schneewittchen" was first translated into English as "Little Snowdrop" in Edgar Taylor's 1823 collection German Popular Stories. According to an April 1938 Photo article, although the Grimms' fairy tale was in the public domain, Disney bought the rights to a play based on the work, but did not use it for this adaptation. The opening credits include the following written acknowledgment from Walt Disney: "My sincere appreciation to the members of my staff whose loyalty and creative endeavor made possible this production." Although contemporary reviews list different running times for the picture, studio records give the running time as 83 minutes and the footage as 7,462 feet.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was Walt Disney's first feature-length production. Items from the film's pressbook and a 1937 study guide provide the following information about the production: Disney "crystallized" the idea for Snow White in 1933. In an essay in the study guide, Disney states that he chose the "Snow White" tale because, among other things, the seven dwarfs would be "naturals for the medium," and "with most of the action taking place in and around the dwarfs' cottage in the woods...there were good opportunities for introducing appealing little birds and animals." Disney continues that by 1934, a "rather complete adaptation of the Grimm brothers' story" had been written and "thousands of sketches, gags, backgrounds, and character models had been worked out. By 1935, the voices for the characters were decided upon and the detailed preparation of the story was in full swing....Actual animation began in 1936...." (According to a contemporary article, however, camera work began on 26 September 1937.) Modern sources note that Disney wanted each dwarf to have his own distinct personality and look, and spent much time creating their characters.
According to publicity material, the production employed from 570 to 750 crew members, including thirty-two animators, 102 assistants, 167 "in-betweeners" (those who filled in bits of action), twenty lay-out artists, twenty-five artists doing water color backgrounds, sixty-five effects animators and 158 "young women adept at inking and painting." Approximately 2,000,000 illustrations were prepared with 1,500 colors and shades of paints. A February 1938 article in Christian Science Monitor added that up to 100 feet of film were exposed per day. The same article notes that, after the first six months of work, Disney "threw away all that had been done" because he felt the product was "too crude" and ordered that the figures be drawn to great scale and then reduced by photography in order to achieve the desired fine lines. According to a February 1938 article in AC, "living actors, suitably costumed," were "photographed going through the desired actions." The live-action footage was then studied by the animators, both in motion and frame-by-frame on a Moviola. Over sixty percent of the film was animated with the guide of live action filming, according to AC. An April 1938 Life article notes that dancer Marge Belcher (later known as Marge Champion) was the movement model for Snow White, and Louis Hightower, who was one of Belcher's dance partners, was the model for the Prince. According to Life, Disney liked Hightower's "sturdy legs."
A 1938 Popular Science Monthly article relates the following additional information about the production: Disney wanted to achieve a "soft-focus" effect on the film's backgrounds by "illuminating the various levels of each scene individually, and separating background from foregound." To accomplish this effect, his production crew perfected their recently invented "multiplane" camera. (Publicity items note that the camera, which cost $75,000 to build, was first used on a 1937 Walt Disney animated short called "The Old Mill" and was awarded a special Academy Award that year.) The camera consisted of "four vertical steel posts, each carrying a rack along which as many as eight carriages," were "shifted both horizontally and vertically." Each carriage held a frame containing a pane of glass or a sheet of celluloid, on which part of the action or background was painted. The camera allowed animators to photograph foreground and background cels accurately, even when the first carriage was very close to the lens and the lowest was nine feet away. When the script called for the camera to "'truck up' for a close-up," the lens remained stationary, while the cels moved upward. "By this means, houses, trees, the moon, and any other background features," retained their relative sizes. Approximately three to seven levels were used for a single shot, depending on the complexity of the action and characters. "Since this cartoon required an average of twenty-two individual painted cels for each foot of completed picture, 166,352 finished paintings were exposed to the camera."
Photo reported that a total of twenty-five songs were written for the film at the start of production, but only seven were used in the final picture. Modern sources state that score composer Leigh Harline took over the song writing from Frank Churchill and Larry Morey and composed in their style, but only Churchill and Morey are credited in copyright and biographical sources as songwriters. According to modern sources, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first film to have its own soundtrack album. Two songs that were written for but not used in the film-"Music in Your Soup" and "You're Never Too Old to Be Young"-were included in the album The Seven Dwarfs and Their Diamond Mine, and the dwarfs's "yodel song" was issued on another album that included a new dance called "Doin' the Dopey." Photo notes that each "dwarf had his own little musical figurations worked into the music when he took the center of the attention."
According to the Photo article, Deanna Durbin auditioned for the voice of "Snow White" but was not chosen because Disney felt that her voice was too mature. Adriana Caselotti, who eventually got the part, was the daughter of a well-known Los Angeles vocal coach. Hollywood Reporter reported in November 1939 that Caselotti (who modern sources claim was paid $14,000 for her work on the picture) sued Disney for $200,000 for alleged use of her recorded singing without her permission. The final disposition of the lawsuit has not been discovered. Modern sources add the following voices to the cast: Pinto Colvig (Sleepy and Grumpy), Scotty Mattraw (Bashful), Roy Atwell (Doc), Stuart Buchanan (Humbert, the Queen's huntsman), Marion Darlington (Bird sounds and warbling) and the Fraunfelder Family and Jim Macdonald (Yodeling). Modern sources note that "Sneezy's" name and personality were inspired by the man who provided his voice, Billy Gilbert, a comic actor who was known for his onscreen sneezing fits, and "Dopey" was originally conceived as a talking character, but when a suitable voice could not be found, he became mute. Photo and a Hollywood Reporter news item note that comic actor Eddie Collins was the inspiration for "Dopey" and personally suggested some "funny walks" for the dwarfs. A December 1937 Time article adds that because of the unexpected success of Dopey as a character, Disney considered starring him in a series, but it was never made. The visual characterization of the "Wicked Witch" was based on Lucille LaVerne's portrayal of "The Vengeance" in M-G-M's 1935 film A Tale of Two Cities, according to modern sources. LaVerne also provided the animated character's voice.
According to a studio letter dated October 4, 1937, Walt Disney Productions hired thirty "inkers and/or painters" from Harman-Ising Pictures, a Hollywood animation company, to work for a minimum of four weeks. In a modern interview, Rudy Ising contends that Disney approached the company to help with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs when the production fell behind schedule and was in danger of missing its premiere date.
Modern sources add the following information about the production: Some animators were assigned to specific characters: Grim Natwick, the creator of the Betty Boop character, was assigned to the Prince, Fred Moore to Dopey, Vladimir Tytla to Grumpy, Norman Ferguson to the Queen, Frank Thomas to the dwarfs, Eric Larson, Milton Kahl and Jim Algar to the forest animals, and Hamilton Luske to Snow White. Natwick's assistants were Les Novros and Marc Davis. Davis became a well-known Disney animator and worked on such films as Cinderella. After the story-sketch department was unable to come up a design for Snow White's costume, Disney went to his sister-in-law, Hazel Sewell, the head of the ink-and-paint department, and asked her if any of her "girls" would be interested in submitting design proposals. Inker Virginia Lockwood's design was finally selected. The "ink-and-paint girls" also came up with the idea to use real rouge on Snow White's cheeks to give them a rosy glow. Various sequences were dropped before and during filming. A sequence in which the dwarfs build a bed for Snow White was dropped half-way through filming, and a knock-down brawl between Grumpy and Doc was scrapped in the sketch phase. Also cut in the pencil animation stage was a long, comic scene in which the dwarfs eat soup. (An incomplete version of that sequence was first shown twenty years later on a Disney television program called "The Plausible Impossible.") The song "Some Day My Prince Will Come" was originally intended as an accompaniment to a dream sequence in which Snow White describes her longed-for prince to the dwarfs. The sequence was dropped in the advanced stages of planning. Another song, "The Lady in the Moon," was written to accompany a scene in which the dwarfs entertain Snow White and, in so doing, display their individual characters. Neither the song nor the scene was used in the final film, however. Modern sources credit Kendall O'Connor as a layout artist.
Contemporary sources estimate the film's negative cost at $1,488,423. Modern sources note that the original budget was between $150,000 and $250,000. According to the December 1937 Time article, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was referred to in film circles as "Disney's Folly," because while the average "Mickey Mouse" or "Silly Symphony" cartoon cost between fifty and seventy-five dollars a foot, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs cost two hundred. In order to assure completion of the picture, the article notes, Disney had to acquire a $1,000,000 loan from Bank of America.
The film broke attendance records at Radio City Music Hall and other theaters around the country, according to contemporary sources. A program for the Carthay Circle Theatre relates the following information about the Los Angeles opening: A full-scale model of the "magic land of 'Snow White,'" was "formally opened in the parkway" of the theater. "Small maskers disguised as the Seven Dwarfs, along with other Disney characters" greeted audience members and spectators outside the theater and were scheduled to make their appearance twice daily during the run of the film. Inside the theater, detailed photographs and sketches of the production were on display. Open air concerts, featuring music from the movie, played by the forty-piece Disney Recording Orchestra, were presented to the public during the run. Events of the premiere, including voices of famous Disney characters and interviews with celebrities, were described over the NBC radio's special remote hook-up for the "Blue Network." Tickets for the Los Angeles premiere sold for five dollars each. Hollywood Reporter reported in April 1938 that the film grossed $199,468 during its first sixteen weeks at the Carthay Circle and was scheduled to play for an additional three weeks.
According to Motion Picture Herald, "scalpers" at Radio City Music Hall sold $1.65 reserved seats for the picture for $5.00 and $7.70 a piece. In Nashville, TN, a parade was staged by the manager of a theater showing the film in which Governor Gordon Brown rode in a convertible with "Seven Dwarf" impersonators. In addition to ticket sales, Disney received substantial income from the sale of books, dolls, coloring books and novelties related to the picture. According to an April 1938 Life article, twenty million people saw Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in its first three months.
According to contemporary sources, Disney produced seven foreign versions of the film in 1937. "Native" singers and actors re-recorded the picture's voice track in Spanish, French, German, Italian, Norwegian, Swedish and Dutch. The Spanish language version featured dialogue and lyrics by Chilean consulate Rafael McClure Elizaldo, according to Hollywood Reporter. Modern sources add that other foreign language versions were made in 1940. Hollywood Reporter reported in April 1938 that the British Board of Film Censors declared that the film was "harmful for children" and gave it an "A" rating, which required adults to accompany children to the screenings; four local "councils" overrode the national board, however, and allowed children to view the picture without adult supervision. The picture was screened for the royal children in a Command Performance at Buckingham Palace, according to the same Hollywood Reporter news item.
In 1939, Walt Disney won a special Academy Award for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. He received from presenter Shirley Temple one full size statuette and seven miniature ones. The film was voted as one of the ten best pictures of 1938 in the annual Film Daily critics poll. Disney and clay models of the dwarfs were featured on the cover of Time in December 1937. In 1987, as part of a year-long celebration of the film's fiftieth anniversary, "Snow White" received a star on Hollywood's "Walk of Fame," and Congress declared the week of July 17, 1987 as "Snow White Week." The picture was re-issued seven times: February 1944, February 1952, April 1958, June 1967, December 1975, July 1983 and July 1987. All re-issues were box-office successes, according to modern sources. In the summer of 1993, the film was re-issued for the eighth time. Although RKO had no share in the merchandizing profits, the picture grossed $8,500,000 for the studio in its first year and was the biggest box office money-maker until the release of Gone with the Wind in the early 1940s, according to modern sources. Modern sources add that as of 1987, the picture had grossed $330,000,000.
Among the many films based on the Grimms' fairy tale are Snow White, a 1916 Famous Players Film Co. live-action silent starring Marguerite Clark and Dorothy G. Cumming and directed by J. Searle Dawley (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1911-20; F1.4108). (Modern sources contend that Disney was inspired by this version when he saw it as a child in Kansas City.) In 1917, Universal produced a three-reel version of the tale called Snow White, and in 1933 Max Fleischer produced a short animated version, also called Snow White. A live-action television series called The Charmings, which was inspired by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, was presented in 1987 on the ABC television network.