One can only speculate how different the world of entertainment would look today if 75 years ago, Walt Disney had heeded the advice of those around him. Once called Disney’s folly, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was the first full-length animated feature film in motion picture history, and was the breakthrough project that set in motion the chain of events that eventually led Walt Disney to becoming a show business giant. Premiering in 1937, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” will be presented on Saturday, February 12th at 8 pm on the Family Channel.
By the early 1930’s, Walt Disney’s studio had already carved out a fair sized niche in Hollywood, with the popularity of his Mickey Mouse cartoons, and the hugely successful “Three Little Pigs.” The usual running time for most animated shorts was around eight minutes, so it came as somewhat of a shock in early 1934 when Walt began planning the first feature-length, totally animated film. Disney immediately ran into opposition from both business advisors and family members, who considered the project too costly and time consuming. I gnoring warnings of financial and commercial disaster, Walt Disney moved ahead with the project, choosing the Brothers Grimm classic fairy tale “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” to be basis for the film.
Although Disney felt the “Snow White” story had enough of a plot to carry a 90 minute film, he also wanted to add two key elements to the picture, music and comedy. Frank Churchill and Larry Morey were hired by Walt to provide the songs for “Snow White,” the results including “Heigh-Ho” and “Some Day My Prince Will Come.” To give the movie a humorous touch, it was decided that, unlike the Grimm story, each of the dwarfs would have a name and individual personality. As many as 50 potential names were considered until the field was narrowed down to the seven finalists, Dopey, Doc, Sneezy, Sleepy, Grumpy, Bashful and Happy.
When production for “Snow White” began, Walt Disney anticipated the project costing $250,000, which was ten times the budget of the typical Mickey Mouse cartoon. As time wore on, costs ran far beyond the quarter million dollar figure, but instead of giving into the pleas of his wife Lillian and brother Roy to abandon “Snow White, “ Walt pressed forward , even mortgaging his house to help finance his film. Eventually, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was completed at a cost of $1.5 million. By the time of “Snow White’s” December 1937 premiere, Disney had risked everything on its success.
Despite Lillian Disney’s prediction that “no one is ever going to spend a dime on a dwarf picture, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was a huge hit with audiences, and became, up to that time, the top moneymaker in motion picture history. The film was awarded an Academy Honorary Award, and Walt Disney was presented with a full sized Oscar, along with seven miniature ones. But the significance of “Snow White” reached far beyond box office returns. The public’s willing acceptance of the first full-length animated feature motion picture encouraged Disney to continue on this new path, and within two years, the Disney studio had completed “Pinocchio” and “Fantasia,” and had started work on “Dumbo,” “Bambi” and “Peter Pan.” But more importantly, Walt Disney had received validation for his instincts. In the early 1950’s, Disney had an idea for an amusement park, and was met with the same kind of skepticism he faced when he announced his plans for “Snow White.” By 1955, “Disneyland” had been completed, and Walt Disney had moved into live action features and television…his reputation as simply a maker of eight minute cartoons far behind him.
Notes: “Snow White” held the title of the highest grossing film ever for exactly one year before being knocked off by “Gone with the Wind” in 1939. “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was the first film to have its musical soundtrack released as an album, and one of the first to have related merchandise available at the time of its release.