This November marks the 72nd Anniversary of Disney’s “Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs.”
The importance of this film is codified. It’s considered one of the American Film Institute’s 100 Most Important Movies of the 20th Century (#34).
Its popularity is also undeniable. One little known fact is “Snow White” was the #1 box office film of all time, until “Gone With the Wind,” came out in 1939. As Disney historian and official librarian would state, “That’s a lot of nickels,” referring to what it actually cost to see the movie back in 1937.
Not that there weren’t full-length animated feature films before “Snow White.” In fact, there were at least two: Cristiani’s “The Apostle” and Lotte Reininger’s “The Adventures of Prince Achmed.” Still, it was Disney’s project that caught the imaginations and box office. One can finally start truly learning how with the latest DVD release of the movie, which is being called the “Diamond Edition.”
Working from Disney’s Animation Research Library, Smith overseas a collection of notes, sketches, story boards, cels, maquettes and more associated with every Disney production as far back as "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit". This includes a ton of work by Uncle Walt, supervising director David Hand and many other hallowed names from the animation’s golden age devoted to what was initially called “Disney’s Folly.”
“When I say that we have 60 million pieces of art,” Smith said, “people often think that I made a mistake. But indeed it’s in that number. We want it to last for a long time. So we have acid-free boxes, acid-free folders. That’s a process that’s been going on for several years to try to get it all archived the way we want it. We’re getting there, but I’m not certain it will happen before I retire. It’s a big effort and it’s ongoing.”
In fact, even though Disney set up a library for himself and his artists pretty much from the get go, that didn’t mean all the current collection was kept from the onset.
“The elements of animation kept were not as comprehensive in the early days,” says Smith. “Walt always kept the animation because he knew that he might reuse it in another cartoon or he might want to go back and look at how a specific turn or something was done. But in the early days the concept art and those sorts of things were not kept.
“Now we were very, very fortunate about three years ago to acquire a Snow White collection from a gentleman by the name of Steve Ison. He had collected over 35 years. A lot of story gags, a lot of live action reference material. When he got ready to retire and give up his collection, he thought of us and we were so pleased to get it back because there wasn't a lot of that early material there.
“[Also] family members have it. People took it home. He actually bought some of it from artists who had taken it home because there wasn't the necessity to keep it. As time went on the word got out to people to leave this at the studio. It has helped our research immensely.”
What many don’t realize is “Snow White” was an important film in more ways than one. Up to that time, the studio had only produced shorts. Even though there were many incredible artists now working at Disney’s production facility, Walt himself felt they had to reschool the entire team to come up with a visual style that would work on a feature film level. To do this, Disney imported a number of European artists to re-educate his artists.
“There were actually several European artists who joined the studio,” says Smith.
Primary among these Europeans was Gustav Tenggren. He not only did the primary concept art for the film but books that were later done but also the picture books that were later issued.
One of the sticking points of the entire project though, was the Dwarfs. Nailing their visual image down was a monumental job for the artists.
“That was one of the main frustrations that the folks working on the film had in the beginning,” says Smith. Hand kept saying to the artist, “I can’t tell them apart, we’ve got to work on a way to tell the dwarfs apart.”
There was even a problem coming up with their names. They would go through 50 different suggestions before finally coming up with Doc, Bashful, Grumpy, Sneezy, Happy, Sleepy and Dopey. For example, one of the names put up for consideration was “Snoopy.” Remember, this was nearly two decades before Charles Schultz created Charlie Brown’s ultra-cool pet. In fact, the earliest story notes, from 1934, list Doc, Sneezy, Happy, Grumpy, Jumpy and Baldy…and no seventh dwarf.
“The Dwarfs look nothing like they did in the end,” says Smith. “They were probably inspired by illustrators, story illustrators like Arthur Rackham because they have a gnome-like appearance. You might notice too they do have three fingers which was something that was kept, but they really look nothing like the final dwarfs.
“I think Walt understood early on that these would be the guys who would steal the show. He needed to have them in the film for a number of reasons, not the least is which was that they still wanted the Seven Dwarfs for humor as the film can be somber in places. He felt that the Dwarfs would give the opportunity to have comic relief and also would be characters that people would relate to.
“I think initially he [Disney] thought that Doc would be the leader of the pack, but in the end it was Dopey who stole the show. Everybody wanted more Dopey. Here are some of the names that weren’t chosen: Hicky, Gabby, Nifty, Sniffy, Lazy, Puffy, Stuffy, Shorty, Wheezy, Burpy, Dizzy, and Tubby.”
Naming the Dwarfs was a very important element to the entire creation process.
“The names were supposed to inspire the drawing and the characteristics of the Dwarfs,” Smith explains. “What would you do to draw Nifty? It would be difficult to draw. How would you draw Stuffy? It comes to mind but it might get old soon. So they were not among the final choices.”
As it turned out, one of the biggest challenges was getting Grumpy right. A number of incredible names were attached to that particular dwarf.
“He had a lot of animators work on him,” Smith acknowledges. “He was mostly worked on by Bill Tytla, but he was also worked on by Freddie Moore, Dick Lundy and Fred Spencer. So Bill Tytla was one of the greatest animators who worked at Disney and he enjoyed the challenge of working on Grumpy.”
The trials and tribulations also went to Snow White herself. Some initial drawings of her bore the eyed design of a then top-draw animation attraction, Max Fleischer’s Betty Boop. It was probably safe to speculate that this was due to Snow White’s lead animator was Grim Natwick, the man who had previously created Boop’s signature curves and garters.
“We have a Snow White, probably a blonde,” says Smith. “You have Snow White [who] almost looks like a queen. If you look at Snow White early on she's younger, she got older as the film went on.”
Finally, Disney decided to cut through this Gordian knot of indecision by putting his own indelible stamp on the matter. He basically threw the Grimm’s story out the window.
“Walt Disney thought it would be much funnier if they [the Dwarfs] didn't take a lot of baths and worked in a diamond mine and their house was a mess,” says Smith. “Snow White comes to the house and helps them get their lives together. That wasn't the case in the Grimms' version.
“I think that by the minor changes made to the story, which incidentally, Walt was sometimes criticized about, the story become a better story. The fact that Snow White was a stepdaughter, not the daughter of the queen from the Grimms' version…I know that Snow White in the original Grimms' version was seven-years-old and the queen was her mother. Walt Disney said I just can't deal with the mother killing Snow White.
“So there were changes to the story that made it something people could relate to. The queen in the original version died a painful death dancing in shoes that had been put on hot coals. Well Walt said, let's have the queen fall off a cliff early on before Snow White is awakened by the prince so that they can celebrate the love that is created between these two individuals. So I think those things made it a stronger story.”
In all, the film took four years to create, from initial story conferences to its debut in 1937. As said before, “Disney’s Folly” proved itself both as an artistic and financial success.
“Nobody knew because it hadn't been done,” says Smith. “A color film like this just had not been done, so no one knew exactly what would happen. You all know that it was called Walt Disney's Folly because everybody said he's nuts to try something like this…But he believed in it, because he believed if you gave it a good story and you made the characters have a lot of empathy and made them real that it would be something that people would relate to.”
For over 70 years and beyond.