75 years old & still charming
Rockwell exhibit highlights original art from Disney’s ‘Snow White’
Detailed drawings of each performer was essential for continuity as many different artists work on the same character. It’s estimated that more than a million drawings were created during the course of the project. (Color Model Sheet of Dwarfs. Graphite copy on paper. Courtesy Walt Disney Animation Research Library; ©Disney.)
A 14-year-old Marge Belcher models Snow White’s dress. She would later marry Gower Champion and the two would dance their way through seven MGM musicals and the Broadway stage. Courtesy Marge Champion. ©Disney.
In creating Snow White the artists copied Marge Champion’s eyes. When she was asked to improvise, the 14-year-old asked “What?” She had no idea what the word meant. Snow White Greets a Baby Bird. (Disney Studio Artist Reproduction cel setup; airbrushed post production background on paper. Courtesy Walt Disney Animation Research Library; ©Disney.)
Marge Champion has been a Berkshires summer resident since 1979 and a major player in the development of Jacob’s Pillow where she is now director emerita. Last April she was photographed at her New York city apartment. (Photo by Jeremy Clowe. Courtesy Norman Rockwell Museum. All rights reserved.)
In the first year of its release Snow White was translated into 10 different languages, appearing in 46 countries. Disney won an honorary Oscar and seven smaller statuettes were created for each dwarf. Five years ago the American Film Institute voted the film as the greatest animated movie of all time. Above, Poster with Snow White and Dwarfs Lobby card; print on paper. Courtesy Walt Disney Animation Research Library; ©Disney.
"Snow White Dancing with Dopey and Sneezy. Doc, Happy, Bashful, Sleepy Playing Music." Disney Studio Artist Reproduction cel setup; ink and acrylic on cellulose acetate. Courtesy Walt Disney Animation Research Library. ©Disney.
Once upon a time in the Midwest, a boy was raised by a stern father who used physical punishment as a discipline. The father frequently took the youngster and his three older brothers to the basement for a “strapping,” using a leather belt as a whip.
The boy received no allowance. There were no toys at Christmastime, just practical gifts of shoes or clothes. When he was 9 years old, he was awoken each morning at 3:30 to begin a paper route. For the next seven years, his father withheld the route’s wages from him. When the boy’s three brothers came of age, they all ran away from home.
When the boy turned 16, he saw a silent Paramount movie, “Snow White.” The young Walt Disney was spellbound. The fairy tale was never forgotten.
On December 21,1937, Disney unveiled a groundbreaking version of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” the world’s first feature-length, full-color, celluloid-animated film and the earliest blockbuster of the sound era.
Now through Oct. 27, Stockbridge’s Norman Rockwell Museum displays a four-gallery exhibit of some 150 original drawings, animations, movie shorts and recreated cel paintings highlighting the art of the 75-year-old film. The unique showing arrived directly from San Francisco’s Walt Disney Family Museum, where it premiered last November. The exhibit’s companion catalogue is “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: The Art and Creation of Walt Disney’s Classic Animated Film” by J.B. Kaufman (Walt Disney Press; 256 pages, $35).
Still dancing at age 93
“It’s hard for us to imagine that there was a time when colorful, feature-length animation films were not commonplace,” the exhibit’s curator, Lella Smith said during a press reception. She’s the creative director of Disney’s Animation Research Library.
“If Walt had listened to all his critics who called this his ‘folly,’ and not made the film, there’s no doubt that the development of animated film would have been delayed for a significant period of time.”
Smith was joined at the microphone by the dancer and actress Marge Champion who, as a teen, was the model for Snow White. She later modeled as the Blue Princess in “Pinocchio” and, despite her petite frame, Champion winningly conveyed the balletic hippopotamus-with-tutu in “Fantasia.”
She worked on the fairy tale two to three days a month for almost two years, receiving $10 a day, graduating to $25 per diem for Fantasia.
“It was not lucrative in that way, but it was endlessly lucrative for the training that I got,” Champion said. “It was a series of good luck for a just 14-year-old girl who had no actual acting experience and who certainly didn’t know how to ‘lip-sync.’”
Champion synchronized her lips to the piercingly sweet singing voice of 18-year-old Adriana Caselotti. To create Snow White, the two young women learned how to work with imaginary characters.
“(When) I was speaking to anyone, there was no one talking to me ... I had to be that happy little girl (singing) as if there was a big orchestra there, but there was no one,” Caselotti said in a 1986 interview.
Champion, who went on to star with her husband, Gower, in MGM musicals and Broadway shows, said she had an edge over other applicants for the Snow White role. Her British father ran the largest dance studio in Los Angeles and was known as “the dancing teacher to the stars.”
From her parents she acquired that rarest of qualities in Hollywood — sincere politeness. Among her refined table manners she learned to say, “I’ve had an elegant sufficiency and I would like to be excused.”
“Snow White” marked the first time Disney artists animated people, a challenge graphically light years away from the bottom-heavy, extraordinarily rounded mice, ducks and dogs they’d made famous.
The dancer was filmed and her frame-by-frame images were traced over, a process known as rotoscoping.
The technique, however, was only partially successful as animator Grim Natwick recalled in Leonard Maltin’s “Of Mice and Magic” (New American Library; 485 pages, $14.95)
“We went way beyond rotoscope,” Natwick said. He recalled one scene with 101 photographic tracings. “I used drawing one and drawing 101 and I filled in the rest ... there wasn’t enough in it for us to animate.”
Champion was key to the animation. Artists had to see her head, arms and body in motion, from when she escaped through the forest to her dance with imaginary dwarfs.
“By watching a dancer they could see how delicately a person can move, the way her skirt turns and the way a belly moves on a dwarf,” Champion said.
“It was a very crude set,” she said. “When I was running through the forest, I was just pushing ropes away and when I was caught by the bushes that was the animators down on the floor holding my skirt.”
The artists found the Prince extremely difficult to animate and so relegated him to brief cameos.
Both Snow White and her evil stepmother, the Queen, went through several transformations. Snow originally mirrored 1930s oversexed legend Betty Boop, since one of the animators formerly drew her at the Max Fleischer Studios. The princess was blonde, red-haired and finally, brunette.
In the Brothers Grimm story, decidedly more ghastly than Disney’s creation, it’s Snow’s mother who attempts to kill her. Disney artists based the looks of the wicked Queen upon the face of actress Katherine Hepburn. Seeking to add distance to the relationship, Disney made the Queen Snow’s stepmother.
“Therefore making it hell for every stepmother who followed,” Smith joked.
“I can tell you that’s true,” Champion said, smiling. “I’ve been a stepmother.”
Champion last appeared on Broadway 12 years ago and can still gracefully lift her toes up over her head in a high kick. Try it sometime.
At 20, Disney owned his own modest film studio and, less than 10 years later, was wowing audiences with the first synchronized sound cartoon. In 1932, “Flowers and Trees,” the earliest Technicolor cartoon, won the first of numerous Academy Awards for the studio. Soon Disney was producing some 20 cartoons each year and embracing new technologies.
In 1937, while “Snow White” was in production, “The Old Mill” highlighted the use of the multiplane camera. With a lens shooting through several celluloid layers of artwork, the viewer sees not flat animation, but remarkable depth.
“All the pioneering work in animation work at Disney was leading up to something,” Walt’s nephew Roy Disney Jr. said during the film’s 50th anniversary.
In 1934, when Disney first assembled his key artists to explain his ground-breaking idea, he masterfully acted out every role.
“That one performance lasted us three years,” one animator recalled. “Whenever we got stuck, we’d remember how Walt did it.”
The conventional wisdom was that no one on the planet would sit still for a feature-length cartoon. Disney artists muted their colors and avoided frantic cartoon pacing. Much of the artwork was already completed when the multiplane was available so its use was infrequent.
For some scenes, the animators embarked upon a Mount Everest of geometrical calculation. Although less than a minute on screen, it took four artists a half year to animate the seven dwarfs leaving their diamond mine for home in a diminishing perspective.
“Each dwarf had a different style of walking. They were always in a row and they had to stay even,” animator Shamus Culhane told Maltin.
Added to this, the dwarfs all wore different clothes and Dopey walked out-of-step.
“You couldn’t possibly realize all the things we had to learn, and unlearn in doing ‘Snow White,’” Disney told a reporter at the time.
The animators intently studied the movements of small animals, the amount of light a candle would cast and figured the length of the Prince’s shadow when he arrived at 3 in the afternoon.
The budget zoomed upward.
“We’ve considered changing the name of the picture from ‘Snow White’ to ‘Frankenstein,’” Disney said to a reporter during production.
He initially estimated “Snow White’s” overall costs at $250,000. By its completion, the project rang in at $1.5 million.
There were frequent trips to the Bank of America for more loans. At one point, Disney nervously showed the bank’s vice-president Joe Rosenberg some completed segments and animated pencil sketches. The businessman was silent throughout the presentation while Disney sat in a cold sweat. When it was over, it wasn’t clear what the banker was thinking.
“Goodbye,” Rosenberg said. “That thing is going to make a hatful of money.”
Within three months, 20 million people had seen the fairy tale in an era when a movie ticket could be as low as a quarter. In its first year, it grossed $8.5 million.
Disney’s folly became the greatest adventure of his youth and a movie for the ages.
“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: The Creation of a Classic” continues at the Norman Rockwell Museum through Oct. 27. Open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission: adults $16; seniors, $14.50; college students, $10; ages 6 to 18, $5.
Directions: The museum is less than 3 miles from downtown Stockbridge. Signs direct motorists to Route 102.
Don Stewart is a freelance writer who lives in Plainfield. He has written for The Recorder since 1994.