Sergei Eisenstein reportedly called "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" the greatest movie ever made. That's especially high praise coming from the director who virtually invented avant-garde cinema, but it's hard to argue with Walt Disney's landmark achievement. The first feature-length animated movie, "Snow White" began its record-breaking run in theaters 75 years ago this week (on Feb. 4, 1938), and it was hailed immediately, both for its instant impact in transforming the medium and for what proved to be an enduring work of screen storytelling and vivid artistry.
Before "Snow White," animation was widely dismissed as crudely drawn short films with singing and talking animals, strictly for kids. But Disney proved animation could work at feature length and yield results as artistically satisfying as live-action film. Today, "Snow White" stands as the template for virtually every animated feature made since, as well as the cornerstone of all the Disney family-entertainment empire has built over the past 75 years. Plus, it still holds up as a movie, fully immersing viewers young and old in a fairytale forest of terror and delight.
As familiar as "Snow White" is to the generations who've grown up with it as part of their moviegoing DNA, there may still be plenty you don't know about the movie -- the real-life performers who inspired its characters, the technical innovations it popularized, its fraught production history, or its occasionally rocky pop-culture afterlife. Here, then, are 25 things you may not have known about the Disney classic. Whistle while you read.
1. Walt Disney's plan for the first feature-length animated film was in some ways even more ambitious than what he actually did: a live-action/animation hybrid of "Alice in Wonderland" with Mary Pickford as Alice wandering through an animated universe. (It would be another decade and a half before Disney would release an animated feature version of "Alice.")
2. Disney ultimately chose the fairytale of Snow White for his first animated feature because he recognized that the dwarfs would make great cartoon characters and that the forest setting would be a natural opportunity to animate a variety of "appealing little birds and animals." He also had vivid memories of the 1916 live-action silent version of "Snow White," one of the first movies he ever saw.
3. In 1934, he made a Silly Symphony cartoon short called "The Goddess of Spring," a version of the Persephone myth, whose human-figure heroine and woodland setting made the film essentially a test reel for "Snow White."
4. Tween star Deanna Durbin auditioned for the role of Snow White, but Disney reportedly found her voice too mature. The role ultimately went to 19-year-old Adriana Caselotti, the daughter of Guido Caselotti, a Los Angeles vocal coach, and Maria Orefice, an opera singer. She reportedly earned $970 for her voice work on the movie.
5. The film's production took nearly five years. It took at least 570 crew members (some sources say 750), most of them animators or water-color artists. As many as 2 million sketches and paintings were created, though only about 166,000 of them can be seen in the finished film.
6. Dancer Marge Champion (then known as Marge Belcher) was the movement model for Snow White's animators to study, and her dance partner Louis Hightower provided the same service for the prince.
7. The picture marked the first major use of a Disney technical innovation, the multi-plane camera, which gave the animation the illusion of depth by allowing three to seven cels to be photographed in the same frame. It also allowed the foregrounds and backgrounds to be kept in proportion as the camera angle changed. Disney had used the device once before, on 1937's Oscar-winning cartoon short "The Old Mill," but with "Snow White," it became a key tool for studios making animated features.
8. If the voices of Sleepy and Grumpy sound familiar, it's because they both belong to Pinto Colvig, the longtime voice actor behind Disney's Goofy.
9. Rejected dwarf names: Awful, Biggy, Blabby, Dirty, Gabby, Gaspy, Gloomy, Hoppy, Hotsy, Jaunty, Jumpy, Nifty, and Shifty.
10. Sneezy was inspired by Billy Gilbert, the comic actor who voiced him, whose professional trademark was comic fits of sneezing.
11. Dopey was initially conceived as a speaking character, but when the casting team could find no suitable actor to play him, the character was rewritten as mute.
12. The wicked queen was drawn to resemble the vengeful character played by Lucille La Verne in 1935's "A Tale of Two Cities," and La Verne herself was hired to voice the queen.
13. Several scenes were planned but never fully animated. They included a scene where the wicked queen holds the prince captive in her dungeon and makes skeletons dance before him; a reprise of "Some Day My Prince Will Come" in which Snow White imagines dancing with her prince up in the clouds below an ocean of stars; and a song called "Music in Your Soup" with the dwarfs warbling an ode to the supper Snow White has just cooked for them.
14. Frank Churchill and Larry Morey composed some 25 songs for the film, though only seven were used in the final picture.
15. The movie is believed to be the first to include its own soundtrack album. "Music in Your Soup" and another song cut from the film, "You're Never Too Old to Be Young," both appeared on a subsequent album, "The Seven Dwarfs and Their Diamond Mine." The dwarfs' yodeling song appeared on yet another album, one that included a new dance number, "Doin' the Dopey."
16. The movie's supervising director was David Hand, an animator who went on to make Disney's "Bambi," but he's never received the credit he was due, perhaps because Walt Disney himself maintained final cut, a right he exercised often and ruthlessly over any footage he felt wasn't advancing the story. At one time, Disney reportedly scrapped six months' worth of finished footage because he thought it looked too crude. The completed film would clock in at a lean 83 minutes.
17. Disney had initially budgeted the film between $150,000 and $250,000, but the final cost came to nearly $1.5 million. It cost about four times as much per foot of film ($200) as one of the studio's Mickey Mouse cartoon shorts (about $50 to $75). Hollywood insiders at the time reportedly described the project as "Disney's Folly."
18. The movie premiered in Los Angeles on December 21, 1937 (an event attended by Hollywood royalty from Marlene Dietrich to Donald Duck) but didn't gain wide release across the country until February 4, 1938. The film grossed $8.5 million during its initial release, making it the biggest moneymaker in Hollywood history until "Gone With the Wind" blew the record away in 1939. Disney invested the movie's profits in the construction of the Burbank production facility that Walt Disney Studios occupies to this day.
19. Academy voters nominated "Snow White" for just one award, Best Musical Score, but the film won a special achievement prize at the 1939 Academy Awards. Walt Disney was given one full-size trophy and seven smaller ones, handed out by 10-year-old presenter Shirley Temple.
20. The film set the plot formula for the Disney studio's cartoon features for decades to come. There's a happy princess (or would-be princess), a handsome but dull leading man, an absent parent or two, a jealous villainess, at least one comic-relief animal, some catchy songs, and a happily-ever-after ending. It was a formula that informed such Disney toons as "Cinderella," "Sleeping Beauty," "The Little Mermaid," and with minor modifications, "The Sword in the Stone," "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin," and "The Lion King."
21. In fact, the formula was so durable that the Disney studio finally felt secure enough to spoof it in 2007's "Enchanted." Amy Adams' performance as the chirpy, animal-loving, cheerfully housecleaning princess owes a huge and obvious debt to Caselotti's warbling turn as Snow White.
22. Walt Disney Pictures has re-released "Snow White" in theaters at least nine times, most recently in 1993. Over the years, it has earned some $185 million in theaters; adjusted for inflation, that makes it the tenth highest-grossing movie of all time.
23. The wicked queen made a memorable brief appearance in an animated fantasy sequence in Woody Allen's 1977 romance "Annie Hall." That is, she looks like the evil monarch, but she has the voice of Annie (Diane Keaton).
24. Snow White was part of one of the most notorious moments in the history of the Academy Awards. At the 1989 ceremony, Rob Lowe joined with a singer (Eileen Bowman) dressed as Snow White for a duet of "Proud Mary," a number generally considered the worst musical performance in Oscar history. Within days, the Disney company filed a lawsuit over the unauthorized use of the character but dropped the suit a week later after the Academy apologized.
25. 2012 saw two live-action "Snow White" adaptations on the big screen, the tongue-in-cheek "Mirror Mirror" and the darker "Snow White and the Huntsman." (Only the latter, starring Kristen Stewart, was a hit.) The previous fall saw the debut on Disney's ABC television network of "Once Upon a Time," the weekly drama series in which Snow White, Prince Charming, the wicked queen, the dwarfs, and other fairytale characters find themselves trapped by a curse in a modern-day Maine hamlet, with little or no memory of their magical pasts.
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