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 a dozen more of Snow White's people tell their tales, for the first time anywhere: Adriana Caselotti, Adrienne Tytla, Berny Wolf, Don Brodie, Joe Grant, Ken Anderson, Lucy and Isabelle Wheaton, Marc Davis, Marceil Clark Ferguson, Marge Champion, Maurice Noble, Ruthie Tompson, Thor Putnam, Volus Jones, and Ward Kimball.
You know the story of Snow White. Now enjoy the stories of Snow White's People!
Lucy and Isabelle Wheaton
Marceil Clark Ferguson
It took me a little longer than planned to edit the interviews for this second and final volume of Snow White’s People. You will probably agree with me that the wait was worth it. Through the testimonies of many of the artists who worked on Walt’s first feature-length cartoon we get a fascinating glimpse at the Disney studio in the mid-1930s and at life during the Great Depression in the US. A time of hardships and excitement. A time of struggles and of great achievements.
Sadly, as I mentioned in the first volume of this short series, 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.
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, as 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 more of “Snow White’s people.”
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 Tytla's wife Adrienne is outspoken about her regret over pressuring her husband to take part in the Disney Strike, a selfish and politically motivated action on her part that cost Bill his career at Disney, and her surprising dislike for strike organizer and agitator Art Babbitt, her husband's best friend.
DAVID JOHNSON: [Art Babbitt] started the strike, you know.
ADRIENNE TYTLA: That I know.
DJ Because he believed in unions and he felt that the people were worked without being…
AT: He was right. He was right in that sense. I have always been pro-union and I totally agreed. [But] I regret to say this and I will regret it as long as I live: I’m afraid that I was as much of a motivator in getting Will to go out on strike as Art Babbitt was, because of my own political background.
DJ: In other words, he didn’t want to do it, you’re saying.
AT: I think that he emotionally felt that it was the right thing to do, but I’m sure that it’s not something that he would have done on his own, either without Art’s influence or my influence. Because I think that he was the kind of person who was cautious. He was a Catholic.
DJ: Was he religious?
AT: No. He had been, I guess as a child, and as an altar boy…and god knows he was an altar boy forever.
DJ: Do you think that he believed in a spiritual form other than people?
AT: That there is some greater force out there?
AT: Oh, I think anybody with a brain in his head has to believe that.
His favorite music was Gregorian Chant, and those wonderful, wonderful chorale things. And he loved Russian music. He just absolutely wallowed in it. There again, the stuff is so tragic, it’s so somber, it’s so sad, it’s so glorious. That was really his favorite and it is incredibly moving to hear. He was a spiritual man. His mother was a Roman Catholic and his father was a Greek Uniate Catholic although he was a Ukrainian; I guess that was the church in his village. Will’s father’s family had hoped that he [Will’s father] would be a priest. What he really wanted to be was a dancer. And that was absolutely out of the question.
DJ: Do you mean a classical dancer, like ballet dancer, or do you mean a traditional dancer?
AT: I imagine a traditional dancer. I imagine [the Russian style of dancing]. But how do I know.
[Changing the subject]
AT: Will was the world’s worst driver. His mind was always somewhere else.
He had trouble with his eyes because of the constant drawing over the light board.
He went through life sitting and staring and brooding. He was volatile, too, and emotional. We used to have outrageous fights. I mean, screaming and yelling! There was a door here and a door there, and I’d go through and I’d bang the doors. Then I decided what are we doing with all these doors? So I took all the doors off, and then we had a fight and I got mad and I went through the house and reached for the door and there was no door and he burst out laughing.
Continued in "Snow White's People: Volume 2"!
Ward Kimball talks about dwarf kissing, long tongues, and Snow White's infamous soup sequence.
DAVID JOHNSON: Did you ever meet Lucille La Verne who was the voice of the Witch and the Queen?
WARD KIMBALL: Oh yeah.
DJ: What was she like?
WK: Like all these actors: they’re nice people; they listen to you, say, “It’s nice weather we’re having, but…”
DJ: Was she eccentric like a lot of the actresses?
WK: Clara Cluck was sort of “on” all the time and she played the role, but some of the other professional actresses had to experiment with the tone of their voice.
DJ: Marge Champion said you were one of the dwarfs that she kissed. She remembered that. You would pretend to be Dopey, I think she said. Because you were quite a character at the time.
WK: My wife did a few things. Once they hadn’t shot everything they wanted, Betty [Ward’s wife] would come in and walk under a bridge or something. And one afternoon Ham Luske asked her to do these rough, crude things. She had to open a door and duck under for the dwarfs’ house.
And Bill Cottrell wrote a song. He was great at writing little things and he had a lot of input on some of the songs. He was ambidextrous; he could write his name with both hands, in unison or backwards, one backwards and one forwards.
I was the one who discovered Eddie Collins. I got him over there for the soup sequence.
DJ: Everyone says they discovered Eddie Collins. Art Babbitt says that he and Les Clark filmed Eddie Collins at that burlesque show in Los Angeles.
WK: Well, look, a group of us would go down quite often on Friday nights, and see Eddie and the strip show. I was the one that got him out to the studio because this gag… He was an old guy, which is a pre-requisite for a funny comedian, with baggy pants, and he is this wide and it was almost like he had no teeth in his face. He had this wide mouth that when he did this it’d go from ear to ear. But his main attraction was: if a girl would walk by, he’d drop his tongue out, and god, it must have been 12 inches long and it would do this [waggling] at the end and come back in. I said, “Hey, this guy’s great for the soup sequence.” So I got him out to the studio. I first took Ben Sharpsteen down there.
So anyway, he came out and he did some funny stuff with his tongue.
DJ: This must have been very early on in the production of Snow White, a year before it was finished.
WK: Oh yes, right.
DJ: So the soup-eating sequence was already in the works very early on.
WK: It was all part of the story outline. There was the dream sequence and the soup sequence. After they washed up, they eat and they have bad table manners. Walt talked about that. And Snow White had to show them how to hold their spoons. Then they liked Snow White and so they decided to give her a present, and of course, it’s very obvious that she has no bed in that house. She was stretched out across quite a few beds.
DJ: Three beds.
WK: And so that was the obvious thing to give her as a present. Sleepy thought of that, of course. I was working on that sequence also.
DJ: The reason why I asked you that about Eddie Collins is because I read that they had trouble with the character of Dopey; they couldn’t make him come to life until they got this man.
WK: Part of it was in choosing voices. Walt would listen in and then would criticize. And as you saw the list of other dwarfs, they had other…
DJ: Oh yeah, a long list. It went on for miles.
WK: And so, if the guy is Dopey, we were thinking, well, maybe we’d ought to use Pinto Colvig. He was the old “a-heulk, a-heulk” [Goofy’s voice] guy. Then, because we couldn’t decide on it, it was Walt’s idea: why not have him say nothing. He does it all in gestures and Doc explains or Happy: “He don’t talk none, ma’am.” That was a great stroke of genius. And he had these big ears. The crazy thing was that because of those tests on the soup sequence of Eddie Collins… He was discovered by Hollywood and he played with Raymond Massey in Abe Lincoln in Illinois, sort of a sidekick. He’d steal the show. He’d walk on… The same thing happened at the burlesque house: he’d just walk on and you’d start laughing. He would steal the scenes without even trying. And then he died right at the… He would have been a great comedian in the movies, and his life was cut short, that’s the tragedy of it.
DJ: You would say that he inspired Walt’s thinking about Dopey.
WK: Right! It was that tongue. I was dealing with the old guys on the pencil tests which they’d run quite often on the soup sequence and there would be those things with his tongue. Walt would see one thing happen with one animator’s work, and say, “Hey, let’s develop that characteristic!” He would tell ’em, “Let’s add that to some of the other.” That went on all the time. That was his way of building a picture. It wasn’t cut and dried that you picked up a sequence and “that’s the way it was.” Then he’d say, “Why don’t you look at the way so and so is handling Grumpy.” He was always doing that. So all the sequences done by different directors in different music rooms and different animators would have the same characteristics.
Continued in "Snow White's People: Volume 2"!