Disney Releases

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs became a milestone in cinema history as the first full-length animated feature film.

Summary of Event

By 1937, Walt Disney was well known by filmmakers and audiences across the country. His animated hero, Mickey Mouse, was a nationally recognized figure and had been enormously popular since Steamboat Willie was released with sound in 1928. Disney’s 1933 cartoon version of The Three Little Pigs often received larger marquee billing than the feature films at the theaters where it played. Disney’s Silly Symphony series had successfully wedded classical music to the use of color animation, and one entry in the series, Flowers and Trees, had won several film awards. [kw]Disney Releases Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Dec. 21, 1937)
[kw]Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Disney Releases (Dec. 21, 1937)
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (film)
Motion pictures;Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Animation, motion pictures
[g]United States;Dec. 21, 1937: Disney Releases Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs[09610]
[c]Motion pictures;Dec. 21, 1937: Disney Releases Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs[09610]
[c]Entertainment;Dec. 21, 1937: Disney Releases Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs[09610]
Disney, Walt
Thomas, Frank
Larson, Eric
Kimball, Ward
Reitherman, Wolfgang
Kahl, Milt
Clark, Les

Yet Walt Disney was far from being content with his position as a leading producer of short animation; he had a grander design in mind. One warm evening in 1934, Disney called his animators together on a soundstage at the studio. He told them the story that would become Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, acting out principal parts complete with voice intonations and facial gestures. He created suspense, filled in details, and even provided jokes and sight gags. At the end of the story, when Snow White was awakened from her deadly sleep by Prince Charming and carried away to his castle, many of the hard-boiled animators were in tears. Disney then told them that he planned to make a feature film of the story—not an eight-minute short—as complete and detailed as the story they had just heard.

Financing was a problem from the outset. Despite Disney’s success with short cartoon features, few lenders were willing to risk the $500,000 that Disney originally projected as the cost of a feature film. The Depression was still stifling the American economy, and no one was sure that Disney could find audiences of adults as well as children who would pay to watch a feature-length cartoon. As production costs skyrocketed toward the $1,488,000 that the finished Snow White cost, Hollywood insiders dubbed the project “Disney’s Folly.” Desperate for financing to complete the film, Disney was forced to show the incomplete film to his banker. He watched, horrified, as the banker remained grim and unmoved throughout the film. At the film’s end, however, the banker turned to Disney and said, “Walt, that film is going to make you a hatful of money.” It did.

Technically, the film was incredibly complex. Although actual animation did not begin until 1936, story work had been proceeding on an almost daily basis since 1934. It is estimated that more than one million drawings were made during the production of the film. Hollywood knew that a big project was afoot when Disney sent out a call for 300 artists—a staggering number for a single film, but short of the real total needed. In fact, more than 750 artists worked on the film, including 32 animators, 102 assistants, 107 “in-betweeners” (who filled in bits of action between the animator’s drawings), 20 layout artists, 25 background artists, 65 special-effects animators, and 158 inkers and painters.

Technicolor was still a new process in 1937; most films, live action and animated, were still produced in black and white. Studio chemists and artists mixed more than fifteen hundred shades of paint to determine the best hues for painting characters and backgrounds. This care provided a far more subtle and realistic effect than did the bright primary colors of other animation. To create the most realistic possible drawings, live models were used for several principal characters. The best known was Marge Belcher, who modeled for Snow White (she later achieved fame as Marge Champion of the Marge and Gower Champion dance team). As was always true in animation, finding the right voices for characters was vital. After auditioning more than 150 women, including the popular singing actor Deanna Durbin, Disney chose Adriana Caselotti, daughter of a Los Angeles vocal coach, to be Snow White. Harry Stockwell voiced the Prince, and Pinto Colvig, better known as the voice of the Disney character Goofy, did the voices of Sleepy and Grumpy.

Disney, sparked by childhood memories of a 1917 silent-film version of Snow White starring Marguerite Clark, nevertheless returned to the classic Brothers Grimm fairy tale as the basis for his film. Parts of the tale were deleted; the film witch, for example, presents Snow White with only a poison apple rather than with the poison lace and combs of the original. Parts of the tale were expanded, especially the roles of the dwarfs, which are only vaguely sketched in the original. Disney experimented with as many as twenty-four dwarf names and personalities (including such alternatives as Deafy, Awful, and Burpy) before settling on the seven that achieved cinematic immortality. The ending was rendered more traditionally romantic; in the Grimm tale, Snow White awakens when the bearers drop her glass coffin and the apple flies from her throat, but Disney had the Prince awaken Snow White with love’s first kiss.

Snow White had its premiere at the Carthay Circle Theater in Hollywood on December 21, 1937, and it was an enormous success with audiences, both immediately and over time. The film made $8.5 million during its first release, an astonishing figure given the fact that in 1937 a child paid a dime for theater admission. Although surpassed in 1939 by Gone with the Wind, Snow White for a time held the record as the highest-grossing motion picture ever. Furthermore, the film had several financially successful rereleases, including a special fiftieth anniversary release in 1987. Snow White was also a critical success. The New York Daily News reported in January, 1938, that “Disney has maintained faith with the Brothers Grimm in transferring the broad outline of the plot of the fairy tale to the screen, but he has drawn on his own delicious sense of humor, and that of his staff, for the delightful details that have been worked into the story.” The New York Herald Tribune also reported in January, 1938, that Disney had “taken a Grimm fairy tale and brought it to such hauntingly beautiful pictorial realization that fantasy and reality are inextricably mingled in a world of fresh wonder and enchantment.”

As a further indication of the acceptance of animation as a serious art form, Snow White received an Academy Award Academy Awards;Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs nomination for best score (for Frank Churchill, Paul Smith, and Leigh Harline) and won a special award for Walt Disney for having produced “a significant screen innovation which has charmed millions and pioneered a great new entertainment field for the motion picture cartoon.” The award, presented by child star Shirley Temple, consisted of one full-size Oscar and seven dwarf Oscars. The Snow White record album was the first “original soundtrack” recording ever released; prior to that time, film music was rerecorded for release on records. Disney’s use of music as a significant feature of his films, not just as background, began with Snow White and continues in the Disney studio’s productions in the twenty-first century.


The impact of Snow White on both Walt Disney’s career and on worldwide filmgoing audiences is hard to overstate. For Disney, the success of Snow White meant a financial and critical base from which he could launch new experiments. Snow White’s pioneering animation was succeeded by more complex animated features such as Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), Alice in Wonderland (1951), and Sleeping Beauty (1959); by ambitious films that combined live action and animation, such as Song of the South (1946) and Mary Poppins (1964); by highly successful pioneer work in television, both fantasy and documentary; and finally by the entertainment triumphs of the Disneyland and Walt Disney World theme parks. As the concrete figures that appear to hold up the roof of the Disney headquarters building in Burbank, California, attest, Disney was indeed an empire built not only by Mickey Mouse but by seven dwarfs as well.

With Snow White, animation came into its own. It was no longer only a backup for feature films or a clever device for commercials; it was a medium for capturing fantasy for an international audience of all ages. Walt Disney steadfastly maintained that he did not make films for children but for the child in himself and in all viewers. The strong personal will and tenacity that propelled him to make Snow White are reflected in his comment: “Sheer animated fantasy is still my first and deepest production impulse. The fable is the best storytelling device ever conceived, and the screen is its best medium.” Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (film)
Motion pictures;Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Animation, motion pictures

Further Reading

  • Canemaker, John. Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men and the Art of Animation. New York: Disney Editions, 2001. Aimed at young adults, this book focuses on the nine men who created many of the most recognizable Disney films. Fully illustrated.

  • The Complete Story of Walt Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987. Illustrated anniversary edition of the Grimm tale that formed the basis of the Disney film. Good beginning point for reference work.
  • Finch, Christopher. The Art of Walt Disney. Rev. ed. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1975. A concise edition of Finch’s much larger earlier work by the same name. Provides a chapter of information on the making of Snow White and places the movie in the larger context of Disney’s developing art form. Contains 251 illustrations, including 170 full-color plates.
  • Hollis, Richard, and Brian Sibley.“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”: The Making of the Classic Film. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987. The best single book on the making of the film. Contains backgrounds, sources, anecdotes, and a wealth of early sketches and film plans.
  • Johnston, Ollie, and Frank Thomas. The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation. New York: Disney Editions, 1995. Johnston and Thomas were two of Disney’s original animators, and in this book they manage to both clearly explain the animation process and to give a readable history of the Disney brand.
  • Schickel, Richard. The Disney Version: The Life, Times, Art, and Commerce of Walt Disney. Rev. ed. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1997. A powerful, provocative analysis. Probably the best biographical study of Disney. This edition adds a new introduction to the 1985 version.
  • Thomas, Bob. Disney’s Art of Animation: From Mickey Mouse to “Beauty and the Beast.” New York: Hyperion, 1991. A panoramic look at the films of Disney, including those made after Walt’s death. Excellent chapter on the making of Snow White, with technical information made available in simple language. Illustrated.

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