Friday, December 21, 2007

Ms. White's 70th Birthday

Seventy years ago today, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered in Los Angeles at the long-gone Carthay Circle. Of course, the picture had been in work a little bit of a while before that:

"One night early in 1935," said Disney veteran Ken Anderson, "we came back to the studio to work after dinner, and Walt called forty of us onto the small recording stage. We all sat in folding chair, the lights went down, and Walt spent the next four hours telling us the story of Snow White and the seven dwarfs. He didn't just tell the story, he acted out each cahracter and when he got to the end he told us that was going to be our first feature..."

Ken told me this in 1978. Trusting infant that I was, I took everything Mr. Anderson said at face value, and wrote it up that way for a coffee table book on Snow White.

Months later, after the piece had been published, I found out that a lot of dates and info in it were wrong. Old-timers, it seems, get many details wrong on the backside of forty-plus years. Ken was off about the early '35 date. More likely, it was 1936 ...

In any event, to complete Snow White -- by Fall '37 far over its original budget -- in time for a Christmas release, the Disney staff had to bust its collective hump:

"For months about all we did was wake up and go to the studio, work all day and go home to bed," remembered animator Ollie Johnston. "Studio wives got together for company. They were 'Disney widows' the way some wives today are golf or football widows." ...

Staff worked the extra hours without additional compensation, driven by devotion to the project and the promise of later profit-sharing ... if the picture was a success. The profit-sharing never happened, which was at least part of the reason for the '41 strike. But in '37, most everyone was on an adreneline high to see the project through.

"When we were making it," said Ollie Johnston, "we only got to see the sequences we were working on. When I wanted to see some of the others, somebody would tip me off they were screening them and I'd sneak into the projection booth down the hall" ...

After a year-plus of intensive work, the film's unveiling finally happened at Carthay Circle. Johnston again:

"I was plenty nervous when Snow White started that night ... All I could see was the mistakes in our animation. That opening sequence had been one of the first ones completed. But the audience was caught up by Snow White and the birds right away, and I relaxed."

"In the year and a half we worked on the picture," added Frank Thomas, "the advances in animation were pheonomenal. Some of the first animation of the girl has never looked good to me. Her eyes squeegee all over her face ... she moves badly. But by the time we did the last stuff, for instance the scene where she's baking the pie at the dwarfs' cottage, the animation's great."

So mark this date: Seventy years back, the mainstream animated feature was born, and it changed the way the movie industry looked at "cartoons."

The impact of that night -- December 21, 2007 -- is still being felt.


Floyd Norman said...

The promise of profit sharing never happened. It never does. Producers often resort to that carrot whenever they're desperate to finish a project.

Of course, what really motivates everyone is the belief in the project. I've been lucky enough to talk to a number of old codgers who worked on Snow White - - including long hours of overtime. None of them regretted it. They knew they were doing something that would change animation forever.

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