In the Mid 1930s, Walt Disney had established himself as a well off Hollywood animated-short producer. Mickey Mouse’s cartoon career was established, along with his new friends; Goofy, Pluto, and the popular Donald Duck. Because of the depression, Theater owners had to provide more entertainment for viewers, adding double features.
Even though Disney shorts drew crowds into theaters, theater owners weren’t booking cartoons. At the same time, costs began to rise on animated production. Walt knew that animated features would come eventually, all his planning had been pointed in that direction; with quality animators, sound, and color. Walt Disney’s “Silly Symphonies” were providing tests for new mediums and techniques in animation.
In 1934, Walt declared it was time to move forward and create an animated feature-length film. Roy (Walt’s brother, and financial officer) was alarmed at Walt’s decision. Fiscal returns from previous films came in slow. Profits were down. Walt wanted to spend at least $50,000 to make this film. Lilly (Walt’s wife) and Roy were both appalled at Walt’s decision. Walt’s choice could not be changed.
Disney animators were first told of this new film by Walt himself. After returning from the cafe across from the studio Walt called a few of them into the sound stage. “C’mon in the sound stage. I’ve got something to tell you guys.” Walt preceded to tell the story ofSnow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The story took two hours to tell, the animators sat teary eyed from the wonderful tale. “That’s going to be our first Feature!” Walt proudly announced.
By late 1934, Walt had created a special unit of men to work on developing a better story. The plot had been transformed from Walt’s story, and characters were forming. Walt established the “seven dwarfs” characterization, by giving each character the name of their most recognizable quality.
Happy “A glad boy, addicted to happy proverbs”
Sleepy “Sterling, Always going to sleep.”
Doc “Leader and Spokesperson for the Dwarfs. Dignified, and Pompous
Bashful “Has a high peaked skull. Blushing, squirmy.” (not planned originally)
Sneezy Always sneezing. Dwarfs try to stop him from sneezing
Grumpy “Grouch, Woman-hater. Last to befriend Snow White.
Dopey “Deaf, happy, quick movements.” (not planned originally)
Walt kept working on Snow White throughout 1935 while overseeing the production of regular shorts. In 1935 Walt came near another nervous breakdown and was persuaded by Roy to take a trip to Europe.
After his relaxing trip Walt returned to a mess of problems. Animators were having trouble creating a human like figure in the animation. Walt hired dancer Marge Champion to model for the animators. Her movements helped animators better create life like “Snow White.” To compensate for the virtual “flatness” of the animated film a revolutionary process was created. The Multi-plane Camera provided more dimension in the film.
This tower of glass and steel held scenes of background for use in a film. Walt used his Silly Symphonies as testing ground. “The Old Mill” was the first short to use this new film technique. “The Old Mill” was a smash hit. Winning an Academy Award, it provided a marker for the accomplishments and great work Disney Animators could do.
After story development had come near an end, Walt began to select his animators for this ground breaking film. He used a team of men, including: Frank Thomas, Milt Kahl, and Grim Natwick. Walt stayed with every moment of the film throughout it’s development.
Walt’s original estimate of $500,000 was extremely low for the cost of Snow White. Walt had praise, and discouragement from every direction. He needed more money. Roy went to Joe Rosenberg for more backup, but Rosenberg kept at caution. “You’ve got to show Joe what you’ve done!” Roy told Walt.
“I can’t do it,” Walt replied, “All I’ve got is bits and pieces. You know I never like to show anybody a picture when it’s all cut up. It’s too dangerous!”
“You have to,” Roy said. “The only way we’re going to get more money is to show them what they’re lending money for.”
Rosenberg and Walt were alone in the projection room. The film played, with bits of color, and long spans of sketched drawings. Sound flickered in and out. After the presentation, Walt followed Rosenberg to his car. “Thanks, Goodbye,” Rosenberg told Walt. “That thing is going to make a hatful of money!” Financing was assured, and production on Snow White could continue!
Before the film was released Walt signed with RKO to distribute the film. Executives said to Walt “We’ve got to sell it as just ‘Snow White’….we’ve got to play down the Fair Tale angle…audiences don’t buy Fair Tales.”
“No!” Walt insisted “it’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs! It’s a Fairy Tale. That’s what I put a million and a half into, and that’s the way it’s going to be sold.”
Finally, on December 21, 1937, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfsopened to the public at the Carthay Circle Theater, in Los Angeles. The “Who’s Who” of Hollywood appeared at the engagement. The audience laughed at Dopey’s antics, and cried at the death sleep of Snow White, in the end the audience gave a standing ovation for the film.
The film first grossed Eight Million Dollars in the United States. Over the years it has made well over that. The popularity of Snow White allowed Walt Disney to build a new studio. The Walt Disney Studios moved to Burbank, a huge place with large areas of space.
Today animation is a huge business. Grossing billions yearly, the Animated Feature film has become a part of American Popular Culture. Thanks to Walt Disney’s continuing efforts to make the first color Feature Length film. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Some information from “Walt Disney, An American Original.”