Friday, December 21, 2007

"Snow White Christmas" 70 years ago...

International Photographer. March 1938. Courtesy the collection of Dennis Books.

In 1934 Walt Disney called a special evening meeting of his top artists in one of the Studio sound stages. After they arrived and took their seats, Walt Disney strode onstage and proceeded to act out what would become their next project – an adaptation of the German fairytale, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. By all accounts Disney mesmerized the group. Disney artist Ken Anderson attended that fateful meeting and later recalled, "Walt told the story of Snow White better than we put it on the screen."

Story development began immediately. Artists started to script the plot, develop characters, compose music and write dialog. Animation on the film began in 1936 and eventually over 750 artists were employed to produce Walt Disney's first full-length animated feature.

While Walt saw great potential in the film, his brother and partner Roy voiced concerns from the outset. Roy argued the Studio should stay with the proven Mickey Mouse short cartoons. Walt countered, saying the shorts would never gross large amounts of money, because as production costs increased, profits remained constant.

Snow White's original budget of $150 thousand ballooned quickly as Walt Disney constantly raised his standards. Disney had experimented with new techniques through his Silly Symphony cartoons - this series of shorts became the Studio's proving grounds for innovative production methods, including the new multi-plane camera, various special effects and the first attempts at the realistic portrayal of human characters in animation. In the end, Snow White cost Walt Disney an astounding $1.5 million to produce.

Original release poster. 1938. private collection.

When news of Disney's feature became public, several of Hollywood's motion picture moguls predicted the film would bankrupt the house of the mouse. In some social circles, the film was snidely referred to as "Disney's Folly." features a great interview with Wilfred Jackson, one of Snow White's sequence directors. Jackson revealed that Walt Disney previewed Snow White at a Fox theatre (in Pomona according to Disney researcher and friend Jim Korkis), in early December.

According to Jackson, halfway through the preview several audience members got up and left. Devastated by this unexpected turn of events, Walt Disney wandered into the lobby to see if he could find out why so many had vacated their seats. The theatre manager told Disney the patrons were leaving because they were college kids who had exams to write, not because the film was a bomb.

As an indication of his stature in Hollywood at the time, and because of the historical importance of his film, Walt Disney appeared on famed director Cecile B. DeMille's Lux Radio Theater. DeMille was both the director and host of the immensely popular weekly broadcast, which was heard across the nation every Monday night. On the eve of Snow White's premiere, DeMille and Disney engaged in conversation about the next night's screening:

Cecile B. DeMille: Hollywood, land of perpetual sunshine, roses and rising temperatures, is going to have a Snow White Christmas. Yes, it’s true. But before I completely confound our Chamber of Commerce, let me explain myself. Tomorrow night, in the Carthay Circle Theatre, scene of epic Hollywood premieres, another chapter in motion picture history will be written when Walt Disney presents the first full-length animated film ever made, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. For giving us Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and the Silly Symphony’s the world owes Walt a great debt. He was the first to make animated cartoons in sound and then in color and with Snow White he pioneers once again, in a picture that took three years to make and envowed more than two million individual drawings. Walt Disney is standing beside me now. I should say he is quaking beside me now. He’s nervous, trembling and out of breath. What’s up Mr. Disney? What’s wrong?

Walt Disney: Oh, ah, nothing, nothing much, except I’ve been running around in circles so long it’s getting to be a habit.
CbD: Carthay circles?
WD: Well, that’s just one of them. I think I’ve got stage fright.
CbD: You’ve got premiere fright, which is much worst.
WD: You ought to know, you’ve produced and opened more than 200 pictures.
CbD: And I’m just as scared the 200th time, as I was the first. But I hear Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is the screen’s greatest innovation in years.
WD: Well, your own first full-length picture the Squaw Man was considered quite a departure. After all, people had only seen two reelers up ‘til then.
CbD: So I can forgive your condition tonight, even though you like as though you’ve done all the work yourself.
WD: Oh, far from it. If I had tried to make this picture by myself, working eight hours a day and going to a sanitarium for two weeks each summer, it would have taken me 250 years.
CbD: And you figure that wasn’t quite fast enough? Anyway, lots of luck.
WD: Pardon me did you say lots of Lux?
CbD: I said luck. But the name Snow White suggests Lux Flakes. So, Lux Flakes maybe, maybe played a part in your production?
WD: Well, I’m grateful to Lux Flakes. It made Snow White a household word to women who wash their own fine things, long before I ever thought of putting her on the screen. I also understand that Lux Flakes play a large part in cutting down Hollywood’s wardrobe bill, which reminds me how costly a young lady like Snow White was to clothe. We figure her costumes cost about a hundred thousand dollars.
CbD: Just a minute Walt, how do you figure that when all her costumes were made with paint and
WD: Well, it’s true. Even though she wears only two dresses and both of them are drawings. You take the salary of the artists and the animators, and there are hundreds of them, the costs of the paints, colors, photography in Technicolor and little Snow White’s two dresses add up to a hundred thousand dollars. The cost of our entire picture is almost as much as your own new film, The Buccaneer.
CbD: And yet you didn’t have to pay the salary of a single star. We who produce pictures with human beings figure their salaries alone consume 25 percent of our budgets. So with a million-and-a-half dollars invested I can understand in more ways than one why you may be nervous.
WD: I guess it wouldn’t be normal if I weren’t nervous. But Snow White is a goal we’ve been aiming at for 10 years. There won’t be any Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck to attract the people. They’ll all be brand new characters.
CbD: And I suppose after Snow White is successfully launched you’ll sit back and take it easy for a while?
WD: Are you going to stop work after Buccaneer?
CbD: I haven't begun to work yet.
WD: Well, we won’t stop either. It’s just the beginning for us. We’re going to make more feature length animated productions and try to make use of all that we’ve learned in the three years required to produce Snow White. We don’t think we know so much even now and we are using all the outside advice we can get.
CbD: What sort of outside advice?
WD: We’ll there’s Sidney Franklin, for example, the man who directed Good Earth. He seems to think our cartoon medium is important and he’s offered to work with us in directing Bambi, the famous story of the little deer. We’ve also started work on Pinocchio.
CbD: Yes, but what’s going to happen to Mickey and Minnie and Donald Duck?
WD: Oh, they’ll continue to be just as important as they’ve ever been. We wouldn’t dream of anything else. But we’re growing Mr. DeMille and experimenting. Leopold Stokowski, the famous conductor is going to work with us on an idea of combining fine music with animated cartoons. He wants to make great symphonies popular with people all over the world. After that we’re, gosh, look at the clock. I’ve got to start running again. Good night.
CbD: I wish you the greatest success of your career Walt. Good night.

The night after his appearance on DeMille's radio show, Walt Disney attended Snow White's official premiere, on December 21, 1937, at the Carthay Circle Theatre in Hollywood. The Carthay was one of the most important theatres in the Fox west coast chain at the time, second only to the Chinese Theatre. The Carthay was the venue for many important Hollywood premieres, including Gone With The Wind.

The Carthay was located in an area of former vegetable fields, developed between 1922 and 1944 by Harvey McCarthy. Bounded by Wilshire Blvd to the north, Fairfax Blvd to the east, Olympic Blvd to the south and Beverley Hills to the west, McCarthy envisioned a planned community that included a theatre, church, school, commercial center and housing. (The actual address of the Carthay Theatre was 6317 Vicentes Blvd).

In the above photo I have tried to pinpoint the locations of the photos that follow. Red lines "A" and "B" are two of the bleacher scenes. The green circle is the Christmas tree seen in a couple of photos, while the blue line represents the canopy the stars walked down to get to the entrance of the theatre. The pink dot gives the approximate location, on the other side of the theatre's tower, of the art exhibit that was on display. "X" marks the location of the miner statue.

All of the homes in the so-called Carthay Circle, as the area would eventually came to be known, were designed by architects and no two were alike - many featured Spanish and American Colonial Revival, Tudor, or French design elements. The area was also the first Los Angeles subdivision to be planned with underground utilities.

In honor of California’s early pioneers, McCarthy named many of the streets after famous California Gold Rush personalities. A statue of a California miner was erected on a traffic island within eyesight of the Carthay Theatre.

Architect A. Dwight Gibbs designed the sprawling theatre complex, complete with open park space. (Gibbs also designed the Mesa Theatre in Costa Mesa). The Carthay could accommodate an amazing 1,518 patrols when it first opened - 996 on the main floor and 522 in the mezzanine and balcony areas.

On December 21, 1937, every seat in the theatre was filled for Walt Disney's big premiere and while the main event had been sold out in many days in advance, dozens of patrons stood in line at the theatre's advance sales window hoping to buy a ticket for the next available date.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Carthay Circle Theatre. December 21, 1938.

The mood at the Carthay was extraordinary that star lit night. As spotlights mounted on trucks swept the sky and illuminated the street, a towering Christmas tree strung with dozens of colorful bulbs, stood sparkling at the side of the canopied walkway, adding to the festive spirit.

Bleachers in location "A"

Thousands of fans crowded into the area around the theatre hoping to catch a glimpse of their favorite Hollywood personalities. Hundreds of spectators sat on bleachers erected for the special event, while thousands more occupied every available space on the surrounding sidewalks and boulevards. A crew of over 150 police officers maintained the peace as onlookers cheered wildly as their favorite stars arrived on scene.

Bleachers "B" Note the Snow White figurines in the garden.

As invited guests stepped out of their limousines, they walked along a blue carpet under a long canopy to the theatre’s entrance. Still and motion picture cameramen huddled in front of the Christmas tree recording the event for posterity. Further along the carpeted walkway stood an elevated platform, where guests were invited to speak to the live radio audience.

Many of Hollywood’s brightest attended the sold-out gala, which cost $5 to attend. As befitting any important Hollywood premiere, NBC broadcast the event on live radio. Stars in attendance included Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Mary Pickford, Judy Garland, Marelene Dietrich, Milton Berle, Ginger Rogers, Jack Benny, George Burns, Gracie Allen and Fred McMurray.

Fred McMurray attended premiere night. McMurray would later go on to star in several Disney films and was the first artist honered with a Disney Legend award.

Those stopping to say a few words into the microphone included Charles Chaplin, Amos and Andy stars Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, vaudeville star Joe Penner and columnist Ed Sullivan.
Leo Spitz, President of RKO Pictures: "I have seen this picture and I can truthfully say, it is a thing of beauty and will be a joy forever to millions of people."

Jesse L. Lasky, director: "Who says there is no Santy Claus? It seems to me that Walt Disney tonight, in giving this wonderful feature to the children of the world, is indeed a modern Santa Claus and to Walt Disney and his associates, I wish everything that their great picture deserves."

Comedian Bob Burns and the Dwarfs.

Comedian Bob Burns: "I just want to tell you I didn’t come out here tonight to see all these stars that you’ve been hearing about…I came here to see the stars of all stars. That’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. And the reason I came tonight is just because I couldn’t wait any longer to see the picture. I know it’s going to be the nicest Christmas present I’ll have."

Helen Vincent: "Ever since I was five years old I’ve been waiting for the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to come true. Thank you Mr. Disney, and Merry Christmas to all the Mickey Mouse fans which I’m sure must include everybody in the whole world."

Walt Disney spoke on air, following his idol, Charlie Chaplin. The NBC staffer who was helping Don Wilson with the broadcast, spoke briefly with Walt Disney, whose voice audibly cracked with nervous tension:

NBC: And now here’s a gentleman that I’m sure you’ll all want to meet. It’s Walt Disney, the creator of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and he’s just arrived. Mr. Disney, will you come up please?

Walt Disney: Well, I’m very happy about everything.

NBC: Well Walt, I think you’re due to do all the talking tonight. Tell us a little bit about this picture, will you?
WD: Well, it’s been a lot of fun making it and we’re very happy that it’s being given this big premiere here tonight and all these people are turning out to take a look at it and I hope they’re not too disappointed.
NBC: Well I’m sure they won’t be. I’ve seen the picture Walt and you’re to be congratulated. Can you tell us something about some of the characters in the picture particularly Snow White and possibly the seven Dwarfs. What about them?
WD: Well, our favorites are the little dwarfs. There’s seven of them. We’ve got names for them all that sort of fit their personality, such as Doc who’s the pompous leader, and then there’s old Happy, the smiling little fellow, and Grumpy the old sourpuss, the woman-hater, and I can’t remember them all here tonight. And little Dopey.
NBC: What about Dopey?
WD: Well, he’s sort of our pet you know.
NBC: Is that so? What are some of his lines in the picture, some of his funny lines for instance?
WD: Well, he hasn’t any lines. He doesn’t talk.
NBC: Why not Walt?
WD: Well I don’t know. I guess he just never tried.
NBC: That’s as good a reason as any. Are you going in to watch the preview yourself now Walt?
WD: Yes, and have my wife hold my hand.
NBC: Good luck to you.

The film’s supervising director David Hand also spoke on air, while the voice of Donald Duck, Clarence “Ducky” Nash, participated in an on-air skit that had the duck engaging in friendly banter with Mickey and Minnie Mouse.

In the background 40 musicians played various arrangements from the film. Adriana Caselotti, an 18-year old Italian opera soprano who was cast as the voice of Snow White, sang several numbers from the film including With A Smile And A Song. Audiences were captivated by her lilting voice and up until the day she passed away, Caselotti could still sing just as she did when she first recorded the film's songs.

Adriana Caselotti, the voice of Snow White, poses beside a Snow White poster outside Mann's Theatre in Hollywood in the fall of 1987.
In a 1980's interview with talk show host Michael Jackson (no relation to the singer), Caselotti told the story of how she and Harry Stockwell, the voice of the Prince, had to sneak into the theatre to see the show that night, as they had no admission ticket.

To add a finishing touch, real dwarfs dressed in costume as the Dwarf characters from the film, frolicked about the entranceway to the theater. At one point during the radio broadcast the dwarfs are asked to clear the way to the microphone so a celebrity could address the listening audience.

The costumed Dwarfs also promoted the film several blocks away from the theater on Wilshire Boulevard, where a life-sized cottage, millwheel, diamond mine and garden had been built to promote the event.

An unidentified actress with the costumed Dwarfs on Wilshire Blvd. The sign for Musso's can be seen in the background. The italian restaurant was a favorite with teh Hollywood crowd and was run by Joseph Musso, former owner of the Frank and Mussos eatery established in 1919 and still in business today.

The all-star audience was completely enthralled by the film. They laughed at the Dwarf’s antics and they cried as the Dwarf’s paid their respects to the Princess as she lay in her glass coffin. As the film’s credits rolled, all of Hollywood’s greatest rose and gave Walt Disney a prolonged standing ovation.

Disney's "Folly" soon became Disney's box office sensation. Typical of the glowing reviews that appeared in print media across the country, film critic Harry Mines of the Los Angeles Daily News wrote: "Yes there is a Santa Claus. His name is Walt Disney and as a Yuletide gift for all those young in spirit and mind he has brought unforgettable experience."

1938 Motion Picture Almanac.
Adding to the sentiment, Westbrook Pegler wrote: “Not knowing Walt Disney, I feel free to propose that his countrymen take some means of letting him know, that in an era of trouble, worry and meanness he has given the human race more man-hours of pure, innocent, joy and escape than anyone else on earth.”

To help explain the process involved in making Snow White, a large display of original art was set-up in a gallery-type setting on the grounds of the Carthay complex. The first portion of the display used enlarged black and white photos to explain how the feature was made. Cels of the Huntsman, Snow White and the Queen as the Hag are visible, as are backgrounds and layout drawings.

Art exhibit outside the Carthay.

It's not known how long the display lasted, or what happened to the art that was used in the exhibit. The large three-dimensional Dwarf heads mounted above the display and the figures of the characters attached to the lattice below the display appear to be Old King Cole point-of-sale display pieces.
Snow White went on to gross over $8 million worldwide and was the box office champion until Gone With the Wind knocked the film from first place. During this early post-Depression era, children paid 10 cents and adults 25 cents to see a movie. The windfall enabled Walt Disney to produce other films including Pinocchio, Bambi, Dumbo, and Fantasia. Some of the money was also used to build the new Studio in Burbank.

In February 1939, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored Walt Disney with a Special Award "for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, recognized as a significant screen innovation, which has charmed millions and pioneered a great new entertainment field for the motion picture cartoon."

Child star Shirley Temple presented Walt Disney with an Oscar consisting of one large and seven smaller statuettes.The award was Walt Disney's second Special Award (the first was in honor of the creation of Mickey Mouse given to him in 1932), and his ninth Oscar. He would go on to win one more Special Award and 15 more Oscars in his lifetime.

Walt Disney's Academy Awards are currently on display at The Walt Disney Family Foundation's warehouse in San Francisco. The Oscars, as well as many other awards, will be on display at the new Walt Disney Museum
currently under construction on the grounds of the Presidio.

A proliferation of Snow White character merchandise quickly flooded the market and for the first time, most of the associated merchandise was targeted towards young girls. Snow White and Dopey items quickly became the most popular and prominent items stocked on toy department shelves. (I have access to two great collections of vintage Snow White memorabilia and plan to post images of Snow White merchandise in the coming year).

Disney's master merchandiser, Kay Kamen, joined forced with Old King Cole of Canton, Ohio, to produce amazing retail displays pieces. Coles’ chief artist and staff of designers and sculptors produced stunning three-dimensional point-of-sale items constructed of papier-mâché.In 1938 Snow White displays and merchandise were used extensively in the holiday windows of many of America's biggest retailers. Click this link to see one such former display, which has miraculously survived the ravages of time.

While Snow White and her friends enjoy the limelight of another milestone, the Carthay Circle Theatre was sadly demolished in the 1970s, replaced by a non-descript multi-story office building. And while the film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has reached its 70th anniversary, none of the original magic created by Walt Disney and his staff of talented artists has diminished. Some 70 years later, Snow White is still, indeed, "the fairest in the land."

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