In this oral history of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the artists, animators, directors, storymen, and other notables who helped create Walt Disney's greatest film reveal in their own words what it was like to shape cinematic history, and to work at the fledgling Disney Studio.
Few people are left alive today who had a major role in the production of Snow White. But, in the late 1980s, film historian David Johnson conducted an extensive series of interviews with "Snow White's people", from directors and animators to "ink-and-paint girls", to preserve the story of what many said was their proudest achievement.
Johnson's interviews, recorded on cassette tape, were put in a box and placed on a shelf for over twenty years, until he sent the tapes to Theme Park Press for transcription and for editing by Disney historian Didier Ghez, who curates the Walt's People series.
In this volume, over twenty of Snow White's people tell their tales, for the first time anywhere: Wilfred Jackson, Bill Cottrell, Dick Lundy, Grim Natwick, Shamus Culhane, Ollie Johnston, Art Babbitt, George Rowley, Libbie Meador, Eustace Lycett, McLaren Stewart, Ken O'Connor, Claude Coats, Katherine Kerwin, Ink and Paint (Helen Nerbovig McIntosh, Grace Godino, Virginia Pearson), Erna Englander, Elly Horvath, Bob Cook, Eloise Tobleman, and Thor Putnam.
You know the story of Snow White. Now enjoy the stories of Snow White's People!
Ink and Paint
David Johnson wrote a book about the making of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and a book about the Great Depression. It is a huge book. It is an ill-fated book, and a book that has yet to be released. It is a book for which David conducted dozens of interviews with “Snow White’s people,” the men and women who worked on Disney’s cinematic masterpiece, many of whom had never been interviewed before or since.
A decade ago, when I read David’s interview with director Wilfred Jackson, on animationartist.com, I was hooked. I decided that I wanted to find a way to read all of David’s interviews. I was lucky enough to achieve that goal, a few years later, thanks to David’s generosity. But this was still not enough. I knew that other Disney historians and Disney history enthusiasts needed to have access to those interviews and I lobbied David, month after month, year after year, to release his research in book form.
Then, a year ago, I learned from Bob McLain, the owner of Theme Park Press, that David had embraced the idea and had asked if I would be willing to write the foreword of his book. Would I be willing? I would have begged for that honor.
Sadly, over the years, not all of David Johnson’s original interviews survived. Some of the recordings were preserved in their entirety, some only as excerpts. All of them contain information that is of utmost value to understand the making of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
When my good friend and fellow Disney historian Todd James Pierce finished digitizing all the tapes that David could locate, we realized that, thankfully, so much material had actually been preserved that we were faced with an embarrassment of riches. This is why we decided to split the interviews into two volumes, the first of which you hold in your hands, and the second one of which will be released later this year.
One note of caution before turning the page: while reading these testimonies it is important to always keep in mind that no statement from any interview should ever be considered as the absolute truth, since the interviewee might have misremembered the facts, may have seen only part of the project described, or may have his own personal reasons for representing reality in a certain way. Hence the importance of the various perspectives provided in these books.
With this in mind, you are now ready to start your journey, to look behind the curtain and to meet the first of “Snow White’s people.”
It has been so many years since I conducted the interviews presented here that, with my current life in Greece, I had almost forgotten them. Almost. For in the back of my mind I had hoped the bulk of them would be made available to a wider audience (in book form), to be read be many who would then relive those wonderful, long-lost days at Hyperion, where the greatest animated films, e.g., Bambi and Fantasia, were made and gestated. Thanks to Bob McLain and his generosity and patience, some of my “Snow White” dream has been fulfilled.
Re-reading these pages brings back many memories: Elly Horvath, then in her nineties, in her small house in Hemet, California, getting up from her chair and going to her small electric piano and playing and singing for me; Will Jackson, whose wife had so recently passed away and yet was able to summon up the strength of spirit to cope (even enthusiastically) with the barrage of questions I put to him; Eloise Tobelmann, at 82, yet so full of vigor and vitality for life; Grace Godino, a perennially youthful woman in her late 70s, who began to break down in tears of joy upon describing the initial studio-wide screening of a still-very unfinished Snow White; Art Babbitt, always embittered and prickly, whose generous wife insisted that I stay for dinner (she always called him “Bones”); Grim Natwick, who at 98 years of age still had a pair of the most beautiful bright blue eyes that I had ever seen and a mind still alert and overflowing with fascinating details of the past; Libbie Meador, one of the most generous and warm people who ever lived, and who practically adopted me from the start; Erna Englander, in and out of cancer remission, yet never allowing this to prevent our meetings which soon blossomed into a unique friendship; Shamus Culhane, who (like me) was trying to learn ancient Greek if only (also like me) because he felt that that language contained some of the greatest works ever conceived.
Early on in my research into the making of Snow White I realized that its creation depended upon two things: the Great Depression and Walt Disney himself. The former brought to his doorstep countless individuals (many of whom were themselves geniuses) who would never have thought of a cartoon studio as a workplace in more opportune times yet remained and contributed a priceless input to something then considered an inferior form of artistic expression with little business potential. Walt was always something of an enigma. In the words of his long-time confidant and personal nurse Hazel George:
A complex and interesting man, totally unspoiled by his fame—on certain levels he was almost a hick and on others ultra sophisticated. ... He had an individual belief that the origin of creativeness and effort was discontent. That was something that was unique to his way of thinking.
Certainly not something Max Flesicher would have pondered. And while he obviously needed and used the talent around him, Walt made his men, not the other way around. He guided and inspired them to infuse their drawings with life. He labored with them in fashioning a distinct personality for each newly created character. This applied not only to looks or speech but for every movement, down to the last flick of a finger. He was a true revolutionary, and in the words of Erna Englander, “a visionary.”
Through these pages it is my hope that the reader will learn about not only Snow White but its creator as well. Though not perfect, Walt was far from the labels (anti-Semitic, ultra-right conservative, uneducated farm-boy) that still cling to a persona and individual the world could well benefit from today. Walt and the world of the imagination he created will in all likelihood never be seen again.
David Johnson is an authority on the Disney film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. A resident of Athens, Greece, he holds a masters (with distinction) in music from the Manhattan School of Music.
Bill Cottrell directed the Witch and Evil Queen sequences of Snow White. He recalls what it was like working with Lucille Laverne, the voice actress used for those characters. Snow White was Laverne's final film in a career that began in 1914.
BILL COTTRELL: It was hard to develop the story in many respects. We were all so used to working on cartoons [and] we’re getting into a cartoon story that’s pretty much live action. I don’t recall how much she had to rewrite. We all did. It was a matter of determining the personalities as we developed them. I think that had we have had the voices earlier it might have been easier to devise. Lucille Laverne came in.… We had interviewed or I had interviewed [more or less] twenty voices for the queen and the witch.
DAVID JOHNSON: May I ask you who decided who to interview?
BC: A department, I presume, would do research and get people in, mostly from radio. It’s like the casting director will seek out the people that he thinks might be the right voice. And no one really knows what the right voice is.
[Laverne] was mostly a stage actress. When the voices were brought in, there were radio shows that had witches in them, old crones. They all had a pattern that was a cliché, almost as if crones talk this way. “All of us crones talk alike. We all cackle and crack our voice,” and so on. After seeing a bunch of these, they all seemed rather uninteresting because you’d heard the same thing on radio for so many years. Lucille Laverne was brought in late one afternoon, and she came in.
DJ: What was she like when she came in?
BC: She was almost brusque. This was a no-nonsense character. We had a storyboard on the soundstage. She came in and I told her what the character was and I had a script to test and I said, “Would you like to see the storyboard? Let me go through the story and show you what your character would be.” She took the script from me and read it without looking at the storyboard. You could have made a take of that voice that she read as the queen.
DJ: And her voice in real life certainly wasn’t like either one of them apparently, was it?
BC: She was a professional actress, and I think when she was told that the queen is a vain, imperialistic personality she visualized something. She read the lines beautifully and then when she went into the witch with the maniacal laugh, it rang all over the soundstage. It was blood curdling.
DJ: So you knew right at the first that.…
BC: That was the one.
DJ: When you interviewed the others, did they do both parts? In other words, did you think of having one actress for both parts even then?
BC: I doubt it very much.
DJ: Because it would seem to me that she would have been thought of as perfect for the witch. Was it your or her idea that said, “Oh let me read the queen. I might be able to do that too.”
BC: I don’t remember. I couldn’t tell you that for sure. Some of the others might have read the queen’s lines, too. They were all radio actresses. They should have been able to do it. The queen’s voice again: no one read it with any great authority or with anything outstanding. Lucille Laverne was remarkable. She came in at a time when [we had] gone through all the others and [were] wondering, “What are we going to do?” She came in and within a matter of a few minutes she was in, as far as I was concerned. Then we made a test of her voice and ran it for Walt. Same thing: he said, “That’s it!” Lucille Laverne got the part and all throughout the takes that we made with her, we didn’t have to make too many takes. She took direction well.
DJ: Was Walt present during the takes?
BC: I don’t think so. He might have been, but I don’t remember.
DJ: Because Ward [Kimball] thought that he might be since this was the first feature.
BC: He might have been. He wasn’t there on the first test. He might have been on some of the other scenes.
DJ: What was Laverne like as a person? Did she have a lot of fun? Was she a cut-up? Did she like to joke around?
BC: I don’t think so, not a great deal. She was rather serious and she lived in Pasadena, I believe. She wrote me a couple of times. I can only remember a couple of things. I think she asked a couple of questions about some property that she had that was being taxed more than she thought it was being fair and it was rather an argumentative letter about the tax system or something like that.
DJ: Why would she ask you about that?
BC: I don’t know. I guess she wanted someone to talk to. I don’t have the slightest idea. I can’t say that I knew her well. I enjoyed her performance very much and I appreciated it and I enjoyed being with her on the set. But she wasn’t like [Walter] Catlett [the voice of Fox in Pinocchio] who was just great when he got going. He’d just go on and on with great stories. He should have been recorded. Lucille was not that outgoing, at least not with me. I don’t think with anyone. I think it was just a business thing: come in and shoot it and go home.
DJ: Would she have been in on any of the story meetings?
BC: No, everything was ready to be recorded when she came in. She wasn’t in any meetings. I don’t recall her any more than just a few sessions when the story was ready to go to direction.
We wanted to shoot live action of the character in costume to establish [them], particularly with the queen and the witch, to establish certain actions and motions rather than let the animator have to figure it all out. I don’t know if they did it with any others or not, maybe they did. We were doing it to playback and she was not able to do it very well to playback. She just heard it and it’s synced so that her action is synced with the voice so as she moves and as she … particularly on the cauldron, for instance. Even though it was her own voice, somehow or other I think the timing confused her or something wasn’t right. She was not used to that type of thing, so she would act the way she was thinking at the time, regardless of the voice. She was not in sync with the tempo. She was used to a stage play wherein she had time—depending on the director of the play—time to make a speech, time to make a move across the stage and so forth. We were working with a different type of timing that we understood. We have to do it in a certain number of frames. Your scene cannot ramble on forever. It has to be rather concise. So we had to get a substitute.
[A] very handsome, tall girl, like a model, did the queen and she was very good. Because again she doesn’t have to do a lot off walking around. Her scenes were precise. She goes to the mirror, she asks the mirror a question. She reacts. There’s not a lot of wandering around and ad-libbing and lighting a cigarette, like Bette Davis.
She did one scene that was great: we had a staircase for her, for the queen to go down into the dungeon. And she had a long, black velvet robe, and she looked great. She looked like the queen, like Joe Grant’s drawing. She came down, and as she went around the stairway she took her cape and swirled it to follow her down there, and it opened up just beautifully. I can’t describe it except that it was used in animation. You might say she invented that. Just by doing it she invented it. We didn’t say, “Do this.” She did it perhaps to keep her robe from dragging down the stairs or something. Maybe she thought it [looked] good. She did it in a rehearsal and [we’d] say, “Hey, that’s great! Do that next time.” We shot it. I always remember that scene as being an inventive thing from the actress.
Of course, once she got into the witch now you’re into a cartoon character. I think we had more knowledge of how to make that character work than the queen. It was particularly difficult at that time for animators to animate a live-action character. The movement is rather slow, unless they’re striding across the room. That means the drawings have to be accurate, then the tracings on celluloids have to be dead accurate or they’re going to affect the animation slightly. The peg holes have got to be new and not wobbly and the cels the same way. There’re so many things that can cause the paper or the celluloid to go awry between the times the animator does it, the inker does it.… The painter doesn’t use the peg holes, so they’re just painting the inked lines. Then even the camera department has got some cels that have to be taken care of very carefully.
Animation of the human figure was rather new. We hadn’t had too much experience in it and not too much success in it. The queen was well done partly because she struck poses. She was not a hap-happy person. She was not laughing and moving around. She took a serious pose that you would imagine a queen in a fairy tale would. And so when she was talking to the mirror, for instance, she would just stand there and talk and then react.... In all that part of the picture the process was very enjoyable. I enjoyed it.
I’m inclined to think that a great deal of these scenes are determined by the story sketches as to how it’s going to look. You have to plan a scene almost in advance. I think on the drawing board it showed [the queen] sitting, talking, standing up, and you come to a close-up to accentuate certain words or actions.
Before I was even directing those scenes [of the queen, etc.] I was in with the story all the time. Then when that was finished I went to directing. So you know by talking the scene endlessly what’s going to happen. Then Walt comes in and he says, “Perhaps she ought to do this, she should stand up, she should do this.” You’ve got different people saying, “Wouldn’t it be great to do this and this,” and you combine the best of them, and [in] your final story meeting with Walt or [in] any one of your meetings with Walt, pretty soon you’re all talking about the same thing. You’re all talking about how it’s going to look. You don’t have just a bunch of open scenes there with no accents to [them].
Continued in "Snow White's People: Volume 1"!
Erna Englander, the wife of Disney storyman Otto Englander, offers her uncensored view of Walt Disney, a man she admired but who she said also described as a "hick" who could "charm a snake".
DAVID JOHNSON: [Could you tell me about] life at the studio at that time and what were your impressions about Walt.
ERNA ENGLANDER: I tell you, it was the most exciting, intoxicating time for all the artists, because that was the first [feature-length animated movie]. Everybody had so much enthusiasm. They worked overtime, without pay … that goes without saying. They were so excited that.… That was way before drugs or everything else and they were all high, absolutely. They were walking on air. They realized that with this Snow White feature Disney was taking them into another dimension. He had opened all possibilities because when it comes to imagination, there is no limitation where the mind can take you and your creativity. After that, they got excited and everything else, but it was not like this. It was absolutely euphoric. That would be the thing. And every time they could hardly wait for something, any sequence to be filmed, so they could watch it. And they really worked hard. But they were never happier, I will tell you that. Never!
DJ: Even Otto wasn’t happy [afterward]?
EE: They were happy, but I cannot.… This is impossible to describe. It was, as I said, euphoria. I think they were euphoric. They were carried on this enthusiasm, all of them, from the secretaries up to Disney. Everybody was excited. Everybody, including the wives. Because whenever there was a sequence, we would always say, “Can we come and see? Can we come and see?”
DJ: Did you go?
EE: Of course. The studio was only a few minutes from here.
DJ: Do you remember the first time that you saw anything to do with Snow White?
EE: Yes. I remember very well. It was Marjorie Belcher’s thing and they were testing her to see how she would work. The prince they were not very happy with. He was a little stilted, a little stiff. But he didn’t have much to do. That was the first that I saw.
DJ: Had they already filmed her or were they actually filming her when you went?
EE: They filmed her and they were also showing the animation from that.
DJ: You didn’t keep a diary, did you?
EE: No! I had my own business. I was a foreign correspondent. I had my work, [Otto] had his work.
DJ: How often would you go to see the work as it progressed along?
EE: Whenever there was something to be seen, my husband would call and say, “Come on, five o’clock we’re showing.…” And we’d all be there. Here would be ten of us after that going to dinner in twenty cars. It was a very exciting time, I can tell you that.
DJ: Now Otto, after he got on Snow White, did he work on it almost every day?
EE: Of course, from nine till sometimes midnight.
DJ: Did he take the work home here?
EE: Never. But they worked hard. Nobody watched the clock. What carried them was not the pay, not any of that thing. Because at that time they didn’t have the unions. They didn’t get all that, except the executives had good salaries. But I can’t complain either. What carried them was this tremendous enthusiasm. They were all aware that they were doing something that had never been done before. I was very fortunate. I had an assignment in France. And I went there to the opening of Snow White in Paris.
DJ: How did the French take it?
EE: They went wild! ... The premiere here was by invitation only. Not just Disney people but all the important people, the movie stars. I will never forget [it]. My husband and I, Ted Sears and his wife, were walking together. We came together. People on the sidelines [were waiting to see] a group of stars. And somebody said, “Who’s that?” And the one in front said, “That’s nobody!” [Laughs] We were hysterical. We told Disney about it. They were expecting movie stars, but we were nobody as far as they’re concerned. Ted Sears said, “I should have turned around and said, ‘Without him and me, YOU wouldn’t be here! Snow White wouldn’t be there!” But of course he didn’t say it.
Everything had to be just perfect. It was unbelievable. When I think back so many years, I can see their faces: they were absolutely transformed, transfigured, euphoric. All of them. There was not one that did not share this.
DJ: Except Art Babbitt! [Laughs] He was a very unpleasant personality.
EE: Very! He was married to Marge.
DJ: But only for a year.
EE: He was such a homely son-of-a-gun.
I was picketing [during the strike].
DJ: You were !?
EE: Yeah. Most of the wives. We were picketing while our husbands were working in there. They were executives. So Otto was not on strike. That was really quite something. He would come home and I wouldn’t talk to him.
DJ: Because you believed they should strike?
EE: Yeah. I believed in unions.
DJ: But yet you admired Walt at the same time.
EE: [That] had nothing to do with it. I admired him, but I felt that the inkers and painters are losing their eyes. They’re getting $30 a week. Let’s face it. They were being.…
EE: I’m a Yugoslav. All Yugoslavs are fighters. You know, we fought four German divisions during the Second World War. That’s what made possible El Alamein, our victory and everything else. Anyway. I remember when Babbitt was arrested. We were all there picketing. Most of the wives of these guys who worked … that was during the Dumbo thing. But they won and then Disney had to take everybody back, including Babbitt.
DJ: Well, did you ever have a conversation with him personally?
EE: You mean Walt Disney?
EE: Oh, yes! Because I interviewed him for the newspapers that I was writing for.
DJ: You did?
DJ: What was your impression of the man?
EE: I tell you: the man was a visionary. I will tell you a little incident. He would sit in this Coral Room for executives’ luncheon. It was a special room. And we belonged there. I could come and bring guests. Disney would sit with Otto, with Ted Sears, with Les Clark, and whoever he would be sitting with at the table. He would get up and he would come to our table and be as charming and effusive and as polite as he could be. And we would wave back at him. He would go back and would tell, “You see, you little bastards, you’re going to go home tonight, and you’re going to tell your wives what a son-of-a-bitch Disney is. They won’t believe you, I just charmed them!” That’s the kind a guy he was. There was also something very nasty you probably might hear: that he was anti-Semitic. That’s not true. [Note: Erna Englander was herself Jewish.]
He used to say when he would get mad, he would tell the guys, the story department I’m talking about, he’d say, “OK you eggheads, you all have college degrees, you all have this and that. I only have high school but you’re working for me!” That was the meanest thing when he would get mad, he would tell them, when he didn’t like a storyline or whatever. “You smart college boy.”
DJ: “Smart asses” he would say.
EE: Exactly. Not only that. He said “I will chew your ass, if that isn’t ready by tomorrow!” He would say that, yes, he did. He was very vulgar.
DJ: He came from the farm, you know.
EE: My husband would defend him. He’d say, “He’s very earthy, honey. You’re just European. You’re just too formal.” He’s earthy. So what! That’s the way he talked. I said, “Good, that’s nice.”
DJ: What do you think made him unique? Obviously, he was a unique person.
EE: He certainly was.
DJ: In a way he was kind of a genius about certain things, but he wasn’t a genius like some people are. Like you would say Stravinsky or someone like that.
EE: I will tell you very frankly, and I will tell it to you in his own words. Maybe he would be criticized in the papers about some film or Silly Symphony or something. He would say, “I don’t care. I’m not making films for the guys who read The New Yorker, like you. I’m making it for America. He had a feeling, he had an unerring feeling what will go, what will not go, and most of the time he was right. You see, he was one of them.
DJ: He was one of the people, you mean.
EE: Exactly. And he had his finger on it. But he was a great visionary. I will never forget when he took us someplace way out of nowhere, in Valencia, and we stood up on a hill—just a few of his favorite “white-haired boys.” My husband would say, “I’m losing all my hair and he’s still calling me a ‘white-haired boy!’” We would go there and he would tell us how it’s going to be built, this CalArts [school], where they would teach: animation, where they would do this. And he would just go into ecstasy. We looked around. I saw nothing but fields. I mean the man was incredibly visionary. And sure enough, where we were standing is a fantastic school. It’s a fantastic thing and I will never forget that and I said to my husband, “You know, I’m sure he’s going to do it.” Because he does everything [he says he’s going to]. He could see it. It’s a pity. He killed himself with the smoking. Three, four packs a day.
DJ: I know. Well, I think he was a driven man.
EE: He was.
DJ: He was really a country bumpkin at heart.
EE: He was a hick, we know that. Otto had that letter from him to the counsel and from different senators and everything, to speed up my visa. When he first met me, when I came, I didn’t speak English. Fortunately, for him! I didn’t know what he said then. Later on, my husband told me [that Walt had] said [about me], “You had to go for that to Yugoslavia? You could have found this here!” And he smiled. My husband was a gentleman and he didn’t tell me till years later! I said, “You thought that I didn’t speak English. I know what you said!” He said, “Oh, boy!” He was like that, you know Disney! He was charming. He could charm a snake.
Continued in "Snow White's People: Volume 1"!